On a commercial, corporate, or studio shoot, your job is to plan and execute a series of distinct shots. You have the opportunity to plan those shots in a way that maximizes visual interest and quality, and you can give yourself the time necessary to execute those shots with precision.
But on a documentary, even on a well organized production, the name of the game is speed, accruing a lot of shots (that may or may not make it into the edit), and authenticity. So is there a place on a documentary shoot for a very specialized tool like a jib?
A camera jib, or crane, can take a long time to set up, and it can only give you a couple shots before you have to move it to set up a different shot, or put it away entirely. In addition, a jib shot attracts so much attention to itself, both during production and in the edit, that the authentic feel of the video can get sidetracked in service of getting that cool jib shot.
Lastly, a jib can be a heavy tool to carry around, and even the most portable, travel jibs can add a lot of bulk to your gear. You have to consider not only the weight of the jib, but also the necessary counterweights, and a tripod and head combination that can safely hold all that weight. By even the lightest standards, you’re adding 15-25 pounds to your documentary kit.
But there are some documentary shoots where a jib makes sense, and can add a lot of production value and visual interest. The challenge is knowing when to bring your jib, and when to leave it at home.
Efficient Jib Setup
The key to making a jib work on a documentary shoot is to getting efficient with setup, teardown, and transportation. That begins with choosing a jib that is designed towards maximazing portability, which usually means they’re under 5-6 pounds, they are quick to rig up, and when put away they can fold down to 2-3 feet in length. This enables them to be carried on the side of backpacks, inside standard luggage, or inside a tripod or light case along with your other gear.
One way to make rigging a jib even faster is to invest in a quick release system across all your gear. A quick release system has two parts, the bottom plate and the top plate. You attach the top plate to your camera body’s underside, and you place the bottom plate on every piece of equipment you might want your camera on, including a monopod, slider, gimbal, jib, and the tripod head. So even though your tripod head comes with a proprietary quick release plate already, you would still attach your chosen QR plate on top of the tripod’s plate.
Depending on how much equipment you want to bring on your documentary, you may end up needing to buy 5-6 bottom quick release plates for all your support gear. Typically the quick release systems come with both top and bottom plates, so you’ll have leftover top plates for future camera bodies, but also for anything that goes between the tripod head and the camera, like a jib.
So on the far end of the jib is your bottom plate, where your camera attaches to, and at underside of the jib base is the top plate, attached via 1/4-20” or 3/8th” screws. Keep in mind that because the jib has so much weight and torque, it’s really easy for the quick release plates to become loose at the point where the tripod and jib meet. It’s smart to invest in a system that has a locking screw to hold the plate in place. Sometimes a simple rubber washer between the plate and the jib can also help keep everything snug.
Once you can click in your jib and have it setup in a manner of minutes, the next step is to add counterweights to the back of the jib. Your goal is for the counterweights to provide enough balance on the other end of the jib so that the camera can remain in position even if you let go of the jib.
There are mathematical equations that can help determine the precise counterweight required for the weight of the camera plus the length of the jib arm, but realistically you can simply add the weights a little at a time and adjust their position until they balance the camera. For quicker set up on the shoot, you can mark the weight positions for your desired camera/lens combo in advance of the production, so that you can be ready to go as quickly as possible.
How much counterweights do you need? It depends on your camera weight and length of the jib arm, but as a starting point, you’ll want the counterweight to weigh 2-3 times the weight of your camera and lens. In addition to sand bags, there are preset weights you can get, such as 2.5lb and 5lb weights that are similar to what you see at the gym, and those are handy because their weight stays consistent which makes set up quick and simple.
If you don’t want to carry around 10-15lbs of dead weight around on a documentary shoot, you can also fill up an empty bag with water or heavy objects—such as rocks—which you can find nearby most places where you’re shooting. This approach also allows you to place the bag on the jib with the camera already in place, and start to fill up the bag with water, sand, or rocks until the weight is balanced.
A note on using a jib: with a large crane or jib, most operators will hold on to the counterweight side of the jib, and which allows them to be far from the camera and achieve wide, sweeping shots with a slight turn of their hand. But with a portable, travel jib, it’s often better to stand on the camera side of the jib, holding on to the jib arm or camera as you move slowly through the jib’s limited range of motion.
When to Use a Jib
Now that you have your jib in place and ready to shoot, when does it make sense for your documentary production? Jib shots are really great at sweeping vertical shots that you don’t typically see in a documentary. The camera stays locked on the subject as the jib moves up from a few feet off the ground, to a few feet above a standard adult height.
Every jib has a different total length of travel, but even the portable, travel-friendly jibs can create slow, establishing shots that make a really great introduction for a documentary or a sequence within your video. Imagine a shot where the jib starts at door level and moves up to the first floor window, where we cut to the interior of a subject’s studio.
In addition to the vertical motion, you can also move the camera side to side as it’s going up or down the jib. This allows you to create even more visually interesting shots that take the viewer diagonally from corner to corner across a wide space. If you’re shooting a documentary where place is important, jibs allow you to emphasize the architecture, natural landscape, and overall feel of a space with more energy than a simple pan or tilt of the tripod.
A great time to bring your jib is when you know your entire shoot is limited to one space. If you’re shooting a subject in a static workplace, both inside or outdoors, there’s only so much shot variety you can get, so arming yourself with three or four jib shots can give you a lot more to work with in your edit.
As a bonus, a viewer can comfortably watch a jib shot for longer than a pan or slider shot. Editing style is very subjective, but for me I can expect to watch a reasonable pan or slider shot for four or five seconds before I’m ready to move on to another shot. But a slow, sweeping jib shot could go for eight to ten seconds, revealing more and more of the scene as it moves across the space. When you combine a couple jib shots, with a few pans, slides, and the very important locked down static shots, you can put together a beautiful one to two-minute sequence at one small shooting location.
And as a rule of thumb, any time you go to the effort to setup a camera on any support platform, such as a tripod, slider, gimbal, or a jib, double or triple your miles by looking around you and see if there are more shots you can "steal" without changing your setup. It can be as easy as turning around, or switching lenses to a different focal length, or picking up the rig and moving it a few steps for a completely different angle. As always, think about your edit and how you can combine multiple shots in a row, and don’t forget the importance of foreground in emphasizing motion. If your shot doesn’t have any foreground in it, your viewer will hardly notice the camera moving, no matter how far your jib travels.
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