From “Rotary Projects in the Dominican Republic”
James: This type of look is used a lot more in our documentary. Without getting too technical, a lot of times when shooting with lens apertures wide open, that vignette is created. Also, using neutral density filters is critical when shooting on DSLR cameras. However at their highest settings, they tend to vignette. This effect draws the viewer in toward the middle of the screen. It’s not something I deliberately seek, it just happens as a side product of the way I’m shooting through the lenses. We do it less with commercial stuff because it’s more difficult to shoot that way.
Chloe: What is the first thing you do when you get to a shoot location? How do you set up your shots and know what to capture?
James: Usually when we arrive we know there’s going to be an interview. So we scope the best location for the interview - looking for natural light and a clean area that’s not too cluttered. An important thing is to get a lot of distance behind the subject, because we’re using quite a shallow depth of field on the lenses to make the subject pop out. We do interviews first as a rule so that we can illustrate any points that were made. If the person talks about getting their eyes tested using a specific tool we need to get a shot of them doing that after the interview.
Generally with B-roll we work as a pair. One person will have the A-camera which is handheld with audio to make sure we’re getting the basics and the sound. Then the B-camera is usually a DSLR like a 5D, which is rigged on a slider or jib to complement the basic stuff with more high-production-value shots. The balance in necessary.
Now that’s for live action situations. Next we’ll pull away from that and look for specific pickups, shots that can fill spaces which aren’t dependent on a subject doing a specific thing. They’re more about a space, more detailed shots, more conceptual in nature. With that stuff we’ll use the equipment to achieve high production value. All the while I’m thinking about the editor as well. In order to make their job easier you have to use a combination of wide shots and close shots so that they have enough to make a very dynamic-looking video.
Chloe: How do you balance being behind the camera and also engaging with the subjects of your video? The people in front of the lens?
James: My history as a stills photographer taught me the huge importance of engaging with the person you’re shooting. As storytellers we all have different styles that are personal to us. As a photographer, I would spend a lot of time talking to people and hanging with them and getting to know them before shooting. We often don’t have that luxury now on video shoots because it’s go-go-go. But people being comfortable in front of the camera is everything. If people feel awkward or shy it absolutely is read by the viewer. Sometimes I’ll stop shooting and chat with people and goof around a bit, then we’ll start up again. You know, we’re not doing hard news generally, and although our responsibility to the clients is very important, I try not to make it all too serious. People are intimidated when the video guys come in, especially with a multi-person crew. So we just try to put people at ease by recognizing the fact that it’s a bit uncomfortable.
As far as engaging with the subject while I’m focusing on the shots...you kind of just get used to multitasking as you shoot. It becomes second nature, like how you can have a conversation and make a sandwich at the same time. You’ve made a lot of sandwiches, so you can do it. That’s where organization comes into it too, because when you know what points you have to hit coming in, you can move very freely within them, you don’t have to think too much. It becomes easier to find the right exposure and angles. Between shooting moments you can re-engage with the subject. If there’s action going on between two people, I’m not going to say anything, I just let it play out.
Chloe: Because we do impact reporting and uncover serious issues, there must be times where being behind the camera is difficult. What is the most difficult shoot you’ve been on? And what advice do you have for filmmakers in those situations?
James: The worst situation I’ve seen people surviving in is a community that lives around the landfill sites in Manila. There is a site we shot at specifically in Vitas, Tondo. The people there are surviving off two things - one is sorting through the landfill where all the trash is getting dropped off to find recyclables to sell. The other is producing charcoal .They are pulling scrap wood from wherever and cooking it down to produce charcoal. So this whole area is full of black smoke, and it’s just unbreathable. For shooting, I could duck in for 20 seconds at a time, breathing through a handkerchief, and then run out. Not only are people working in there all day, but there are communities living right next to it. There are kids with no clothes and bare feet just running around the trash. Not only was that tough on a physical level, but emotionally it’s just hard seeing people live that way. It’s always the kids that hit you emotionally. What future do they have?
My advice to other filmmakers that may put themselves in the same situations -- Be compassionate, be sensitive, work sensitively. Always put the subjects first. I’m not going to upset anyone to get a better shot. If they don’t want me there I’m just going to smile and wave and say ‘see you later.’ You have the responsibility of representing a whole field and that I take incredibly seriously. You also have a responsibility to represent your subjects honestly. If you’re in a situation where they are consenting to being recorded, with that comes a huge responsibility to tell their story correctly, truthfully. What are you doing if you’re providing misinformation? What’s the point? It doesn’t serve.
Chloe: What do you believe video and documentaries do for the people on the other end of the camera? The people and lives you’re featuring?
James: You hope that the window into other people’s lives promotes change in society as a whole. I try really hard not to be the bleeding heart. When I was 18 I thought I could save the world, but as you grow older you just realize all you can do is use your skills to help as much as possible. There are organizations that are far better set up to deal with the massive challenges.
Honestly, you do it selfishly and you do it for other people, it’s fifty-fifty. I can make a difference and I am satisfied by the work. I have a skillset, and I would rather offer my skill-set toward social change because it’s important.
Chloe: To end on a light note, what are the most inspiring types of shoots for you to go on? What do you enjoy capturing the most?
James: I like shoots where I can take my time. Time is the most valuable asset. It promotes creativity. It’s not so much subject matter that excites me the most, there’s a scale obviously, but it’s more about having the time to approach any subject as creatively as possible rather than having one morning in one situation to hit all the marks. We’re good at that now, but it’s not as satisfying because there’s not time to be as creative. It takes time to ingest a situation, wait for things to happen organically. There could be something twice as interesting an hour later but you just have to go with what you’ve got because you’re on the clock.
To answer the obvious side, I always enjoy working with people, telling their stories. It’s the personal stories that I like. It’s an honor to represent people, it’s a responsibility that I love. Some people open up about incredibly personal things and it’s not easy to do.