Documentary Shooting


Two Rules for Run and Gun Documentary Film Shoot

I don't make big budget documentary films. I hope to someday, but in the mean time I have gained a good bit of seasoning and experience in what is known as run and gun videography. A run and gun videographer is some one who wears many hats on the preproduction, production and post production. They may have a crew of 1-4 people including themselves. The style of shooting consist of go somewhere, shoot, move on, shoot, and do it without tearing down the equipment. Often times is shooting on the go like a journalistic approach. It's one person or a small dedicated crew carrying out the task of a large crew. It's small and intimate and very family oriented. It's a lot of work on a few people but the reward is abundant in satisfaction. The raw edgy look is exactly what your views want and crave. 

My experience in run and gun videography started with a documentary I did on my grandpa. My grandfather had so many great stories that I wanted to get them down on film, but I wanted to make a movie about it and not just a collection of stories. I rented the equipment, and did all the work myself. For my first film it was a nice piece that even got the attention of a local neighborhood cable network. It landed me my first filming paying job. I was hired to make an educational documentary on corn. Say what you want about that but it was a great experience working with a producer and delivering a product. Recently my church has sent me to several different countries film footage of their mission trips and projects. I've been to Chicago, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Thailand, Cambodia and Hong Kong shooting footage. In this article I hope to pass along some rules or tips to you as you venture into run and gun documentary shooting.   

  1. Bring the Right Equipment.
  2. Be Focused but Flexible

Could there be more rules than that? Yes, but I feel a lot of them can be summed up in these two. It is important that you know your equipment and that you have gear that you can trust to get the job done right. If you are shooting with a super expensive camera but you don't know how to use it to the best of its ability then your waiting your time. Your equipment should serve your shooting needs. I suggest one of two different styles of shooting.

  • Professional Camcorder
  • DSLR Videogrpahy

Professional Camcorder

Pro Camcorder
Credit: pixabay

Choosing the Right Professional Camcorder

There are so many professional camcorders out there, what is the right one to choose? Start with your budget or rental access and go from there. You can get a really decent camcorder these days for $2000-$5000. But for run and gun videography there are some specific elements that I would look for in a professional camcorder. For starters how easy is it to get to and change the settings? Some of the less expensive models are nice cameras but they lack in manual control flexibility. To speak bluntly do not get a camera with out the three ring manual control options. When on the go shooting it is a bear to to try and change settings when you have to go into the menu options and fiddle around to get the right aperture, color temperature and so forth. Are there preset options on the camera and if so are they also readily available? I think you're getting the picture here?

Other things to consider are audio capabilities. Does it come with a built in boom mic or will you have to buy one and bring it? Will you want to to shoot some interviews with a lavaliere mic? Then if so make sure you buy a camera with XLR inputs. Depending 0n your time, and crew size go with the built in boom mic if you really are running and gunning. It should be noted that a lavaliere will be more desirable to get better sound, it's just not as convenient. For long standing events, sermons, speeches or what not, do and I repeat, do get a tripod. Your tripod should be sturdy and bulky enough to hold your professional camcorder and it should have a fluid head so that it will easy and smooth to pan the camera. The thing to remember and one of the reasons that I like a camcorder for run and gun videography is that it is a wholly contained unit. What I mean is that a professional camcorder is the camera, the lens, the lens hood, the mic, (including plug ins) and rigging. A camcorder is the most convenient way to film hard and fast on the go.   

Sony HXR-NX100 Professional Compact Camcorder
Amazon Price: $1,699.00 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 25, 2016)

DSLR Camera

DSLR Camera

DSLR Videography

DSLR brings a whole new animal to the run and gun seen. First let's talk about the drawback of using a DSLR to shoot documentary footage. The equipment is going to cost quite a bit more. The camera itself is going to cost $1000-$2000 not to mention the lenses, external mic's, and rigging. That is a lot more pieces to buy, bring, assemble and then shoot with. It can be a bear to have to stop and change lenses in the middle of shooting vrs simply zooming in on the subject like you could with a professional camcorder. 

But once you get past the drawbacks there are some positive elements to film shooting with a DSLR. The image is going to be beautiful!  You can get that desired artistic bokeh and the colors are going to be super. The manual controls are all present and available to you which is one of my rules when choosing a camcorder. It might be hard to follow a moving subject with the manual ring but a skilled videographer can do it. If you have an assistant then they can pull focus for you while you shoot.

It's not always desirable to have a external boom mic on your camera. It can be in the way. One solution to having to have a external boom mic on top of your camera all day is to have a pocket zoom recorder and a lav mic. Have the subject place the zoom in their pocket or on their person and so then you're always getting great audio as you run and gun. As mentioned this gets the inhibiting external boom mic out of the way. That being said I do like to shoot with my boom mic because it is part of the whole contained unit that I described earlier and not an extra bit of equipment off floating around that you have to watch out for.

For rigging the sky is the limit but might I suggest that you find a simple $20-$40 hand held rigging piece. The camera attaches right on and you can hold it with one hand, instead of a big over bearing two handed piece that can be uncomfortable on the shoulder. DSLR can be a little more complicated but I think that with a little practice you can get even better footage. 

Might I also make a quick mention that with DSLR you can shoot still images which is not always a capability of a camcorder. If you need some great stills for your project then a DSLR should be the way to go. 

Canon EOS 70D Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
Amazon Price: $1,199.00 $999.00 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 25, 2016)

Example of My Work

Be Focused But Flexible

Once you have your equipment of choice you have to learn to be focused but flexible. Focus on how best to make that equipment work for you. As a run and gun videographer you wear many hats and you have to think about many things. When setting up your shot, you think about framing, lighting, color temperature, white balance, focus and many other things. It helps to have a list written down of all the things you have to check before, during and after the shot. Shooting run and gun videography requires you to be focused on what you need to do to get that perfect shot.

But you must be flexible. The nature of run and gun filming requires it. Do not be so wrapped up in your preconceived notions and ideas that you miss a golden opportunity. It is imperative that the filmmaker be flexible, willing and able to change the shot, story or direction to follow the real story and action unfolding. Flexibility is also needed if a better opportunity or idea arises. Don't be glued to a concept that may not work once you get in the field and start filming. Adapt and change on the go is the essence of run and gun videography. You will never be a good run and gun documentary filmmaker if you can't learn to be focused but flexible. 

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