The practical reality of documentary video shooting is often much different from other video shoots, such as narrative fiction shorts, music videos, and corporate promos. In a documentary you’re subject to unpredictability, and you have to do your best to simply keep up and remain flexible. This is because you’re depending on telling real people’s stories, in the real world, where re-takes are usually not an option.
But if you want your documentary to look cinematic and visually engaging, it’s not enough to simply point your camera at your subjects. You have to consider your overall visual style, pacing, and camera motion. And with the rise of portable sliders, jibs, and brushless gimbals, you now have more options than ever for variety in camera motion.
So how do you decide when to keep your camera locked down to ensure you get a stable shot, versus when you should pick your camera up and go handheld to stay fast on your feet and capture dynamic action? For scenarios where you have a little more prep time, how do you choose between shooting a slider shot versus setting up a jib? And the question on everyone’s mind: where do brushless gimbals fit into documentary shoots?
Lock It Down
The interview isn’t the only time you’ll lock your tripod’s pan and tilt knobs. In B-roll, the best way to plan a locked down shot is to think of your ultimate edit. Typically you’ll want to edit motion shots together into a sequence, such as pans and slides all moving in the same direction, and locked down shots are wonderful ways to book-end those motion sequences, giving your edit a greater control over pacing.
Aside from the stylistic decision, it’s also necessary to lock your tripod for shots where you plan to allow your subject to enter and exit the frame, whether it’s a wide shot of a person, close up on their hands, or any kind of object apart from a person. The camera stays still, and the subject enters and exits on its own accord.
You might also need to use a locked down shot when shooting extreme closeups or using macro lenses. There are times when even having your hand on the camera would introduce shake or jitters. And finally, you’ll need to keep your camera locked when you record time lapses, whether you’re taking photos or recording a long video clip.
Add a Pan or a Tilt
As soon as you’re finished shooting your locked down shot, of say, an establishing shot, or a close up on a subject, it’s easy to unlock the pan, tilt, or both knobs and shoot the same scene with slight camera movement. Why? Just like locked down shots give you a greater degree of pacing control in the edit, giving yourself moving versions of the same scenes also gives you more to work with when you edit sequences together.
So the next time you shoot a locked down shot, take a moment to shoot the same scene with a pan or a tilt. This will also give you an edit point, a way to move into a scene when a subject or object doesn’t enter the frame itself. For example, if your subject is an artist working at a table, a panning or tilting shot will serve as a nice way to establish the scene in your edit.
Panning vs Tilting
Between panning and tilting, I probably only tilt about 1/20th the time I pan. Perhaps it’s a stylistic thing, but to me tilt shots tend to attract attention to themselves in the edit. That's probably why you hardly ever see two or three tilting shots back to back to back. And unless you’re shooting something particularly tall that you want to reveal, often a tilt will start or end either at ground level or in the ceiling, neither of which are particularly interesting visually, at least in the general sense.
The other barrier to getting great tilt shots is you have to use a really durable, heavy tripod that has a good fluid head and counter balance to your camera, in order to take a decent tilt shot with consistent speed. On the other hand, you can achieve a great pan even if your camera and tripod setup isn’t perfectly balanced.
But of course, there are those times when nothing but a tilt could achieve the right kind of shot. Think of the introduction or conclusion to your documentary, where you might start or end the scene in the sky, with a dissolve to white. Another thing to consider is combining a pan and a tilt for a diagonal kind of shot, which is particularly useful to showcase a beautiful interior scene, or to add visual interest to a mundane conference room establishing shot. This kind of diagonal move can be really challenging to achieve, however, since you have to pan and tilt at the same speed and at a constant angle.
Slider, Jib, and Gimbal Movements
Advanced camera motion can add even more visual interest to your documentary, in a way that will help your video feel a lot more polished and professional. And if the motion helps tell the story, that’s an even bigger incentive. But if a tripod can slow down a fast paced documentary shoot, imagine how much more effort it would take to setup for one slide, jib, or gimbal shot. Is it worth it?
There’s a fine line between how complex advanced camera motion equipment can be, and how much they really add to your documentary. I find that the ease of use, portability, and quality of the gear is essentially what enables these kinds of shots on a rigorous documentary shoot where you’re often working alone, carrying all your gear, and have no time for setup or breakdown.
So if your slider can be ready to go in a couple minutes, it could be worth bringing one along. There are many scenarios where a slider can increase a documentary’s production value, but one of my favorite ways to use it is shooting static objects and framed photos that tell a subject’s back story. A jib has a lot more limited use, and it’s a lot more difficult to setup, but it can add a rarely utilized shot type to a documentary.
Finally, when does a brushless gimbal make sense on a documentary shoot? If you hone your gimbal skills—perhaps after watching a few "How To Use a Gimbal" tutorial videos—you can use a gimbal to effectively replace your pans, tilts, slides, and jib shots. But where it really comes in handy is shooting your subject in action—walking, driving, biking, you name it. If you already have to move from one location to another location during your documentary shoot, grab the gimbal and shoot your subject as they are in motion. You’ll get a freebie sequence in your edit that perhaps you wouldn’t have otherwise, and the steady footage will make even a casual stroll look stunning.