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"#AskCybel" Installment 5 - First Time Shooting a Doc in China and Film Set Politics

Shadow and Act By Cybel Martin | Shadow and Act July 28, 2014 at 12:53PM

Email questions for #AskCybel at AskCybel(at)gmail.com. Indicate if you'd like your name published or kept anonymous.
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Read installment 1 here (on Canon log, waveform monitors & hiring the best documentary DP); installment 2 here (on lighting dark skin, SLRs and recreating 'Sex and the City'); installment 3 here ("#AskCybel" Installment 3 - on "Midnight in Paris" and Getting Paid to Travel Internationally); and installment 4 here (On Intelligently Filming Sex Scenes and Becoming a Key Grip) if you missed them any of them.EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you dive in, here's a reminder of my initial announcement, to remind you what this new series is about, and, for those who may just be joining us...

Her much-anticipated monthly columns on all things cinematography, have contributed much to this blog's success in a myriad of ways, since she started penning them in 2012, much to the appreciation and education of the many who read each and everyone - the two most popular likely being "The Art of Lighting Dark Skin for Film and HD" and "A Cinematographer’s Plea to the Budding Film Auteur: Move Your Camera." Cybel Martin's pieces have been so widely-read, so much that even the late Roger Ebert, before his death last year, shared one of them on Twitter, which we were all incredibly appreciative of, given the many hundreds-of-thousands of followers he has. Needless to say, that specific post was at the top of the most visited S&A articles for that year (2012). Cybel has already covered a lot of ground since her first post, and in order to assist in ensuring that she continues to inform and delight, we both agreed that a bi-monthly column - in which she'll essentially hold court, fielding specific questions from YOU, the reader - was a great idea! So, you're encouraged to email any cinematography-related questions (whether you're a pro filmmaker, or just getting started, or somewhere between) to Cybel at AskCybel@gmail.com. I'm sure she'll really appreciate it if you kept your questions direct and professional. She'll then publish bimonthly posts, answering as many questions posed as she's able to. Obviously, your participation is necessary to maintain this new series; so don't hesitate to use it, otherwise, it'll go away! This is something we've never done before, so we might make adjustments along the way, if necessary, as engagement evolves. In the meantime, "Ask Cybel" at AskCybel@gmail.comYou can also be anonymous, for those who don't want their names published.

Here's installment #5, with 2 questions, from Simone and James.

-- Hi Cybel,

I am a novice in filmmaking, but have the idea to do a documentary during my time living abroad in China (1 year). I have been working as an intern and will be a student in the fall. I have a very simple camera (Nikon 1) and limited budget but feel with extra time spent editing, I can begin my first experiment in filming and have a decent product. Do you have any basic advice you could give me that may make my shooting experience a little less overwhelming?

- Simone

Hello Simone

I shot my first documentary while studying abroad (in Paris) and will base my advice off of that experience. This is what I suggest:

- Focus exclusively on shooting b-roll until you are comfortable with your camera, interacting with your subjects and have developed your personal style. Have fun, be bold and creative. Since you are a beginner, give yourself permission to “over-shoot” until you are clear of the story you want to tell. Which brings us to...

- Don’t even think about audio until you’re ready. Focus on telling your story through visuals and ambient sounds. If you can, postpone shooting interviews until you can do them properly.  If you accidentally mess up the audio, people may not grant you the time to interview them again. When I was in Paris, the most important guidance I wish we had was how to capture clean audio. We learned the hard way how poor audio can ruin an image. Thankfully, our most important interview I couldn’t shoot until days before leaving Paris. By then, I was fast and professional.

I believe you are shooting with the Nikon J1? If so, you won’t be able to input an external microphone. Either determine what types of camera settings and choices in location will get you clean audio or befriend a filmmaker in China who can help with sound.

- Pick an easily accessible subject matter. This is not the time for investigative reporting. Yes, you could shoot a documentary that blows up a big conspiracy. But don’t. My first documentary was on French Hip-Hop. We were friends with some French rappers and were going to their shows. Our first group of interviews and b-roll at concerts was relatively easy to capture. Find a subject that fascinates you (don’t worry about a potential audience), one that you have access to (you can return and film often with ease) and won’t put your studies at risk.

- Research shooting in China before you leave. I want this to be a fun and creative experience for you. No drama. Seek out articles about filming documentaries in China. What censorship concerns should you be aware of? Do you ever need a permit? Here’s one article about shooting a documentary in China. Skip over the technical information and focus on their working challenges.

- Log your footage every night. We shot our documentary on over twenty 60 minute tapes. When we returned to NYC, we spent countless, painful weeks culling our footage, taking notes and selecting our favorite clips. Each night, you can review your footage and delete unusable clips. Then write down a list of your clips for each day, what you liked and why. This simple practice will save you time and energy when it’s time to edit.

If you have the resources, purchase a copy of “The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide”. I frequently recommend this book (and am excited to be a contributor) because it offers no-nonsense and easy to comprehend advice for doc filmmakers.

Good luck and let us know how you do!


-- Hey Cybel,

Long time fan, first time caller…or whatever the written equivalent is LOL. But seriously, Thank You for sharing your knowledge.

My quandary is this. I'm friends with a Caucasian DP and I KNOW I can get a good rate for their work on my next film, but I don't think they have had much experience lighting African Americans, which my film primarily features. We're more than likely going to shoot on a RED and I want the hues to *POP*.

I really have two questions.

What kind of lighting do you recommend for a RED for African American actors?

I know you have published an article about ‘The Art of Lighting Dark Skin’<~Great stuff by the way, but how do I approach them with your article or something like it without insulting their expertise?

That’s it for now Cybel. Keep up the Good Work!

- Anonymous

Hello and thank you for your question

Since you are familiar with my column and how I think, you won’t be surprised by my “non-answer answer”. I’ve said frequently that 90% of my job is politics and diplomacy. That’s what this question is really about. Shooting with a Caucasian, Asian, or Black DP is irrelevant. Red, Alexa, Agfa (RIP) or PD150 is not the issue. What is the issue is that 1. you get what you pay for and 2. don’t hire a DP if you can’t trust them

Let’s revisit my first article for Shadow & Act: “5 Things Cinematographers Look for…”

“5. Technical Flexibility - It’s enjoyable when a Director approaches with the project’s desired mood and trusts me to get us there technically. My directors don’t need to know anything technical, however most are familiar with the hottest cameras. DPs have a blast at events like NAB in Las Vegas and Cinegear in Los Angeles. We read trade magazines, forums and chat with friends in related fields for tips on equipment. My enthusiasm wanes if I am told which camera, grippage, lens package I have to use. It’s thrilling to figure it out and stay within budget...”

DPs / crew know when you are micro-managing them. They’ll grow irritated, do precisely as asked and nothing more. If they see a faster, more cinematic option, they’ll keep their mouth shut. This results either in complacency and a mediocre product or a nasty form of sabotage that eats up time, money and makes the shoot a living hell.

You have to learn to trust your DP. Shift your focus from being their boss to being their collaborator. Provide them with plenty of reference material on how your film should look. Watch films together. Support them in whatever types of camera and lighting tests they want to do. Camera tests are the easiest way to know you and your DP are on the same page. If they are passionate about their career, they will do research on their own. They might even read my column. If you can’t afford a more experienced DP or can’t pay for camera tests, then you have to either hire another inexperienced DP whom you do trust or just have fun and do your best.

Film production is madness. Beautifully rewarding but still. Ultimately, you have to surrender to this madness and hope to come out (somewhat) unscathed. Trusting your team is your best bet.


As always, I encourage readers to offer additional tips in the comment section.

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com. Chat film with me at @cybeldp.

Email questions for #AskCybel at AskCybel(at)gmail.com. Indicate if you'd like your name published or kept anonymous.

This article is related to: Cybel Martin, #AskCybel


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