Published on: 08 October 2015 in Longform

Shooting in self-defence

Reading time: 24 minutes and 31 seconds

A couple of weeks ago two members shared their provocative views on the rise of self-shooting in documentary and factual filmmaking. We had a number of responses to the original article, and a couple of directors got in touch to offer a personal defence of the practice.

Who do you agree with? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

John Holdsworth

John Holdsworth is a freelance producer and director whose self-shot work includes series such as Inside the Commons, current affairs strand This World and a range of single documentaries for BBC2 and BBC4 including Derek Jacobi on Richard II, A303 Highway to The Sun, and Edwardian Insects on Film.

“I crossed back to where I’d started, and then sprinted back to the camera. It was still there. And so was the American tourist. And I had my shot”

I think it was ’96 or ’97. I was on a street in Paris. I studied the passers-by closely. Who could I trust? There was a middle-aged woman - an American tourist I guessed. She smiled at me and I sensed she might just do it. One minute later I had given her my bags, positioned my video camera on the pavement next to her and zoomed in on the end of the lens. Then, after hitting the record button, I ran away.

I sprinted as far as I dared - maybe fifty or sixty yards - checked the traffic, and then with one hand in my linen suit pocket, I slowly, even lazily, crossed the road. Just to make sure I crossed back to where I’d started, and then sprinted back to the camera. It was still there. And so was the American tourist.

And I had my shot. Me on a long lens crossing the Champs-Élysées with the Arc de Triomphe rising majestically behind me.

In those days I worked for a BBC1 travel series. My job title was Self-Shooting Director/Presenter. I travelled and worked alone, though I sometimes had a local driver to ferry me around. Piece to cameras (PTCs) were easier with a driver: I’d have him stand in to compose and focus the shot, then we’d swap places to record the link. Using this method I travelled across Europe producing scores of 3 minute films for prime time.

I shot on the Sony VX1000. By today’s standards it was awful: it shot 4:3 standard definition, it had no decent sound input and a tiny viewfinder. It was a pimped up domestic camera invented for rich video geeks with a few thousand pounds to spare. But on the other hand the camera was “3 chip” or 3CCD and it was digital (yes, that magic word) shooting on tiny Mini DV cassettes. This meant that when played up against analogue Beta SP (which was still being used a lot in those days) it actually didn’t look too bad. It wasn’t long before production accountants got their Excel spreadsheets out and started doing their sums. And so the self-shooting revolution began.

Not everyone in the business was happy about self-shooting, then as now. But for me personally? I was having the time of my life. I once did a PTC in Vienna sitting on the back of a horse and trap with my feet gripping the closed tripod to the floor and the driver holding the top of the camera with one hand behind his back (incidentally the horse was producing).

“If I was in the car I might go for the deluxe kit: maybe throw in a second panel light, a single Dedo, a shrunk down portable dolly, a couple more primes”

As I got more experienced I tried everything. If it was difficult or prohibitively expensive I tried it anyway. I once spent a weekend in my attic with a miniature cardboard theatre and a cast of cut-out actors shooting stop frame animation on a Canon XF 305. Another time I stood on a clifftop and tracked my presenter on the end of the lens doubler as he walked onto a beach half a mile away, before executing a 30 second slow pull back to reveal the glory of the Aegean Sea.

As I write this I’m on a train on the way to reshoot exteriors at a location I filmed a couple of months ago. The light on my first visit was awful, so I want to do it again. But I know that if I didn’t self-shoot there’d be no money to do it, so I’ve condensed a C300, three lenses, a panel light and stand plus two radio mikes into one small wheelie bag. I have a lightweight tripod in another bag and my laptop and some clothes in a backpack. If I was in the car I might go for the deluxe kit: maybe throw in a second panel light, a single Dedo, a shrunk down portable dolly, a couple more primes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things I hate about self-shooting. I hate lugging the gear in and out of my cellar late at night and early in the morning. I hate that ever since day one, no one’s paid me extra for the fact that I’m self-shooting, despite the many thousands of pounds which one suspects have been saved off the budget each time (interestingly, in those early days I was paid extra for presenting). I hate the occasional debate with production managers who would really rather prefer you to shoot it on an old Hi 8 they’ve got kicking round the office, in order to avoid an equipment hire charge. And I especially hate the fact that otherwise brilliant PDs with long successful careers, who - for whatever reason - don’t have an aptitude for self-shooting, have been sometimes marginalised and excluded.

“I’ve shot films where, as long as I don’t put myself in a five star country club spa, no one minds me disappearing for a few days and waiting for the right light and the right sky”

But there are positives too. I’ve worked for production companies who spend years getting a film commissioned for BBC4, purely because they love a particular ridiculously niche subject (one of mine was called Edwardian Insects on Film!). They then make the film pretty much at a loss and with little expectation of big foreign sales, all so people gets the chance to be involved in the kind of film everyone wants to make – not a returning “bread and butter” formatted pop doc series that keeps the parent company happy, not a film that involves cooking or house hunting or the inevitable black comedy of personal humiliation when everything goes wrong; just a weird and wonderful single documentary. And if self-shooting makes that possible then I think that can only be a good thing.

The flexibility of self-shooting is amazing. I’ve shot films where, as long as I don’t put myself in a five star country club spa, no one minds me disappearing for a few days and waiting for the right light and the right sky to shoot a beautiful landscape. And if the contributor doesn’t feel well today I can say, “OK, come back tomorrow. I’ll still be here”.

And often it’s fun too. As a self-shooting PD I was the first ever camera op allowed onto the floor of the House of Commons Debating Chamber. Watching Cameron and Miliband perform whilst crouching inches away from baying MPs was an experience I’ll never forget. Honestly, I would have been jealous if I’d had to wait outside and send another op in.

On your own you can guerrilla shoot in places you’re not allowed to shoot. You can arrive on the train or a taxi without needing to find a place to park. You can set up in ten minutes and leave in another ten. You can skip lunch because you’re so into it you just want to keep going. But best of all you can come back with the material and amaze people when it looks good. Because no one ever really expects it to look good. Not for that money. Not on that camera. Surely?

“As an editor recently said to me: no one ever sat on their sofa and slagged off the way a film looked, but they often shout ‘rubbish!’ at the content”

I pride myself on shooting high quality material. Well, as much as possible, though it doesn’t always work. Lighting remains a problem; I’ve become pretty good at shooting available light but when an interview needs to be lit I know I can’t compete with an experienced lighting cameraman for a high-end look. But self-shooting is about cutting your cloth as you find it, and as an editor recently said to me: no one ever sat on their sofa and slagged off the way a film looked, but they often shout “rubbish!” at the content.

There are a number of camera ops I love to work with, and collaboration is an amazing thing when the director and operator are in sympathy. But on some of the docs I work on it’s not always possible to get the guys you know. These guys are good and they’re always busy, so without a long lead time it’s hard to get them. So you end up with somebody else’s favourite or just someone pulled out of an agency list. They’re always friendly and professional, but it’s hard as a director when you’re not sure what you’ll get on a first time outing with a camera op. And however professional they are, there’s always the odd occasion where you can tell that making the shoot as amazing as possible isn’t high on their priority list. Even then it’s hard to blame them – sometimes operators have never worked with the sound recordist booked for the day, so it takes them all the time they have just to get that relationship going. It’s not really anyone’s fault, but yes, it can often slow things down.

Compare that with the instant joy of knowing you’ve got the shot or soundbite you want and can then move on. Or even the joy of knowing you haven’t got it, but can stay an extra hour to get it. Compare that to pulling out an ND grad and holding it on the lens for ten seconds and not needing to get the Matte Box out (and no I’ve never once been billed for scratching a lens or filter). Or the joy of sliding the pistol grips and rear bars along a table top or floor and discovering in the edit that yes, it is smooth.

I once set up a small Hollywood mini jib on a traffic island in downtown Tokyo to film the busiest public intersection in the world. The jib move became the opening shot of a BBC2 hour-long. I travelled to the location by public transport, and whilst I spent 20 minutes setting up and shooting it – camera bag in one hand, mini jib bag in the other – the local traffic cops left me alone. That just wouldn’t have happened if I’d showed up with more bodies and bigger kit. They would have thought we were shooting a movie and we would have been getting the cheque book out quicker than you can say, “I’ll have a tenner on Japan to beat the Springboks”.

“Some things are very difficult for the self-shooter. Sensitive or emotional interviews are almost impossible to do properly with the camera in your hand”

Most of all it’s the intimacy, the speed and the spontaneity I love about self-shooting. If I see a rainbow whilst driving (usually with the camera wedged in the rear seat footwell), I can stop the hire car and be locked off and turning over within 60 seconds. I might not be shooting 4K 3D but honestly, my dad’s not interested. He just says, “What a beautiful Rainbow”.

Certainly some things are very difficult for the self-shooter. Sensitive or emotional interviews which need to be shot with high production values are almost impossible to do properly with the camera in your hand. And complex or controversial fast-changing content, where there are external forces trying to shoot you down, certainly requires a director to firefight whilst the op quietly gets on with it. Sound can be a pig too. If I had my way I’d hire a recordist a lot of the time. I trained for two years in radio with headphones and portable sound recording machines, so I have a bit of an edge, but I still find it tough to keep my eye on two tracks of sound when I’m also monitoring composition, peaking, exposure, colour balance, shutter speed, ND, gain, battery, card duration, and yes, whether I actually hit the record button or just thought I did (admit it self-shooters: we’ve all done it). Oh and did I mention – all while listening to what the interviewee is actually saying and working out the next question. No one can deny it, content is the most important bit of technical spec there is.

The thing is sound is really hard to get right. Again, as my editor friend wisely put it: it’s amazing what you can do in the grade to fix a dodgy picture, but if there’s no sound then it’s goodbye to the sequence. In the final analysis I think the only guy I know who can simultaneously shoot and record sound to a high standard is an octopus friend of mine who has two of his legs dedicated to boom operating, two on camera, two on the mixer and – importantly – two to read the paper.

And yes, anyone thinking you can send an AP on a three day self-shoot course and then expect them to deliver decent material is being optimistic, to say the least. Although I’ve always thought that people are either born with a good eye for a frame, or they’re not. I’ve met students not long out of college who’ve shot pictures so beautiful you wonder if they’ve sold their souls to the devil in exchange for talent.

“The joy of still being the director, and still being allowed into the edit to make ‘my’ film will never leave me”

Of course I’d be nuts if I said self-shooting worked for everyone and everything. There is a very real danger that the industry in this country has gone too far on self-shooting. I sometimes ask PMs whether the channel has given them a line for ‘crew’ in the budget. “You know”, I say, “10 days at what - £1500 a day?”. I always ask where that fifteen thousand pounds has gone. I mean it certainly ain’t in my pocket, so someone must have it.

However, call me a mug, but part of me doesn’t care. I have a director friend who complains: “I thought by the time I got to my age I wouldn’t have to carry the tripod anymore”. I know how he feels - it’s rubbish having to lug the tripod around when you’re way past hipster beards and lumberjack shirts. But once you slam the thing down on the deck, if you then get to be the person who puts the camera on top of it and choose which way the lens points, then it usually feels like it’s all worth it.

Maybe I should have just been a camera op myself. I envy them because when they finally leave the bar to go to bed you just know that once the batteries are on charge they’ll be lying in the bath with the movie channel on watching a rerun of Pulp Fiction. Unlike me, who’s making late night phone calls or changing the pre-shoot script the “hands on” head of department’s just emailed through.

I try not to, but I’ve even worked on the odd series where the EP or SP have hired in their favourite camera op and unofficially begun directing them remotely from the production office. It’s always obvious that the remote directing switch has been hit when you ask for a shot and the op says, “Yeah…erm…not sure if Marcus would like that”. My heart sinks and it makes me want to bludgeon myself to death with one of those massive batteries that add yet another Peli case and 15kg to the excess baggage charge.

But honestly it’s fine. It’s fine. Because the joy of still being the director, and still being allowed into the edit to make “my” film will never leave me. And if sometimes, - not all the time, but sometimes - I get the pleasure of seeing my own photography on-screen too, that’s a joy as well.

Max Barber

Max Barber is a producer-director in independent film and broadcast, having made authored, self-shot work such as Drugs Uncovered, Adult Lives and Peter Tatchell: Just Who Does He Think He Is?, as well as fully crewed, flagship shows like Geordie Shore and Make Me a Super Model.

There is no doubt, the bones in my back are starting to creak. Self-shooting for pretty much most of my 17 years in broadcast is starting to take its toll – and who knows the long-term effects that might develop in my later years? I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues’ frustration - and sometimes outrage - at how, at times, exploitative the practice has become. However…for all its demands, expectations, controversy and hard-core example of extreme multi-tasking, there is no doubt: being able and willing to self-shoot has kept me gainfully employed over the last two decades – pretty much full-time.

“There is no doubt: being able and willing to self-shoot has kept me gainfully employed over the last two decades”

I have enjoyed both directorial disciplines, from having the luxury of a full crew on big budget shows, to being able to immerse myself in the otherwise inaccessible and dark underbelly of society as a solo, self-shooter. Then surely there are some positives to highlight? There are, although I don’t by any means expect to tip the scales away from the negatives!

As digital TV exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thinly spreading the advertising revenue across the budgeting landscape, executives were quick to plonk the little PD150 into the hands of many wannabe directors who were still at researcher and AP level. Directors were fast-tracked into existence overnight! Whoopee!

I was very lucky in that I’d been to film school to practice what constitutes coverage, framing, sequences and general filming requirements, and those of us that did have some training under our belt were given a hefty queue-jump into the world of telly. We were promptly given our own shows to direct, albeit for lesser known and barely watched channels. Fact: these circumstances launched the careers of many of us, so let us not forget that.

In fact if it hadn’t been for the advent of digital TV and compact cameras designed for the self-shooting filmmaker, I would have probably walked away from a career in broadcast. In the early 1990s, and in my early twenties, I was a keen Unit Assistant at CBBC, eager to work my way up and ultimately get to shoot ‘grown up’ telly. I distinctly remember my executive producer asking where I wanted to end up in my career with ‘Auntie’.

“Be a director”, I answered willingly. 

To which he expelled a gasp of air and responded with something along the lines of: “Forget it. You need to be a NFTS graduate, or work for decades through the system before you’d ever get a show of your own, young man!” Imagine how deflated I felt. 

“To succeed as a self-shooting PD one does get the feeling you need to train your mind in the art of playing Tri-dimensional Chess”

But less than a year later I escaped the dinosaur that the BBC was at the time, got a job at a forward-thinking indie, and sent the same executive a TX card with my name on it, credited as ‘director’. It was for a silly music and comedy caper called Bob Downe All Over Britain, made for the new UKTV and commissioned by the then unknown Stuart Murphy (in fact, it was his first commission too!).

Ironically, the series was actually shot using a full crew, but my exec at the time, Gavin Hay at Brighter Pictures, had the faith to put me in charge having seen the stories and films I’d self-shot and self-produced. You will always be judged primarily by what you can put on screen, and if you can deliver something that works, to budget, on-time and within the constraints given to you, then the phone calls will keep on coming. 

On the flipside, to succeed as a self-shooting PD one does get the feeling you need to train your mind in the art of playing Tri-dimensional Chess (if you’re a Trekie you’ll know what that is). And even though I’ve managed to stay working in a very demanding, frustrating, exhausting but rewarding industry, I do fear that as I get further into my forties my eyesight will start to fail before its time, that the neurons in my brain will lose connections and bring on early dementia, and my crumbling spine will put me in wheelchair long before I get my bus pass.

“Spock: we face the Klingons without our shields and no photon torpedoes or you take a self-shooting contract for six months. Either way it’s damn near suicide!”

Will the long-hours, bad karma from the edit, impossible physical and mental demands and melee of frustrating ‘no-win’ situations be worth it all in the long run? Hmm…ask my nurse in a decade or so.

Robert Gould

Robert Gould is a producer-director and series producer who has made TV series and films in more than 95 countries over 16 years, including self-shot programmes for BBC World such as One Square Mile and Working Lives, and he has worked with DoPs on specialist factual series such as African Masters. @r_gould

Television directors, particularly those working in factual, are increasingly expected to be able and willing to self-shoot all or at least part of their own programmes. The self-shooting director has since become ubiquitous across factual TV, no longer restricted to the low budget end of the industry.

As budgets are spread ever more thinly, self-shooting is not a panacea. But as someone who shoots a lot of my own material, I often consider the pros and cons, and know there are more reasons for self-shooting than mere budgetary ones.

“There are situations in which a competent self-shooting director can more quickly and directly cut to the humanity of a situation than would be possible with a full crew”

I believe our craft has room for as many different approaches as there are directors and that there are few rights or wrongs in the processes we each have for telling stories.

I have been conscious of the shift since I began working in the mid-90s, when DV cameras brought down the cost of “broadcast quality”. Back then, there had to be an editorial reason for using DV (or before that Hi8) and there were percentage rules for the amount that could be incorporated into a programme. But as formats such as DVCAM and DVCPro evolved, the line was soon blurred. In many ways, these formats showed that you needed the right hands to produce what was (for the time) a great picture, as a researcher would produce unusable footage using the same technology. 

My impression was that as technology was changing and budgets were being forced down by a proliferation of channels, there was also a change in the expectations and appetites of commissioners. All this led to actuality becoming dominant as a documentary style.

My own background and route into programme-making is relevant here because it has coloured my view. I worked as a freelance photographer before training and working as a newspaper journalist. In 1997, as part of an experiment in video journalism, a DV camera was thrust into my hands and I was given some basic training. I then became a video journalist for a local cable news channel, shooting up to four news packages every day, and crucially taking them through the edit with understanding but outspoken VT editors.

The experiment was ultimately a failure; cable didn’t take off in the UK for another 10 years, lots of reporters weren’t interested in self-shooting (one even forgetting to take their camera to a shoot), the channel closed down.

Yet for me it was a defining experience.

I went on to work in factual TV, and as a researcher and AP who was already into the story and capable of shooting, directors were often keen to have me work with them. My first work as an actual director was self-shot, as indeed have been most of my jobs since. I have also worked with gifted DoPs and recognise their vital role in successfully telling a story.

There are different styles of directing and not all lend themselves to self-shooting. A director only has a certain bandwidth of attention and, for me, the only films in which self-shooting really works are those that solely rely on direction of the camera rather than direction of contributors or actors.

I believe there are situations in which a competent self-shooting director can more quickly and directly cut to the humanity of a situation than would be possible with a full crew.

I think that any film comes to life when the barriers go down and you catch a glimpse of the real person behind the subject. As a director I take that as one of my prime challenges and I find it works well for me when I’m shooting my own material.

“The way we tell stories can be as diverse as the stories themselves”

The intimacy that’s demanded by audiences and commissioners is part of the zeitgeist. In the age of social media, intimacy is everywhere (for better or worse) and as programme-makers we are competing for attention in a crowded media landscape. A landscape that includes professional “YouTubers” who think nothing of being the presenter, camera op, director, and exec all at once.

Intimacy doesn’t spring automatically from the act of self-shooting, and of course if material can’t make the cut because it’s out of focus or badly exposed then it’s gone forever. But having done it for 16 years, I’m confident that you can reach a point where the camera doesn’t get in the way and it becomes second nature. And at that point I find the intimacy comes more easily. Of course it’s partly because when I have a camera in my hands I’m in my comfort zone and that helps too.

Self-shooting should never be a purely budgetary decision, as it’s fundamentally a stylistic choice that has implications for the way a story is told. As directors, our role is that of a storyteller and our ultimate goal to tell an engaging human story – regardless of whether we decide to self-shoot that story or not. The way we tell stories can be as diverse as the stories themselves.

The industry is constantly changing and to an extent we do have to adapt to the demands of the market, but I believe there will always be a place for shooting as well as non-shooting directors. Our ways of working surely differ – and that’s healthy. Self-shooting has allowed me to tell stories that could never have been made with a crew in tow, and ultimately telling stories like that is the reason we do what we do.

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