I recently worked on a reality show and my shooting was criticized for lack of quality coverage (however the director was not very helpful in telling me exactly how I need to improve). I already understand the concepts of getting masters, wide mediums and tights, but apparently I'm not putting it together right when shooting on the fly.
The vast majority of the time it was 2 cameras shooting and I shot by coordinating with the other op to get coverage from different angles for conversations, however often we had 3-4 people to be covered by 2 cams, so sticking to one person each was not feasible. I've been taught in the past to be careful when breaking up a shot and not to jump around too much, but I'm doubting my sense of when and where to reframe and when to switch to another person.
If their are any reality shooters on here that could give some advice on how and when you decide to reframe or how long to hold on one person/thing, I would appreciate it greatly. I could also use advice on when having to cover a 2-3 person interaction as a single camera. Again, this is all for docu shooting when I don't know much about what will happen and getting the talent to repeat themselves is not possible.
I'm a british DoP who lights and shoots all of my work, varying between Drama, Documentary, Commercials, MusicVids, etc etc. I remember having to figure all those things out that you mention, and all I would say is that you are distracting yourself whilst shooting, by overthinking it. Our job is to get coverage, but more importantly get coverage that comes from human interest and curiosity, not clinical observation.
A bit like a SWAT team entering a room (bare with me..
you must figure out who's covering which way before you roll tape, so you can cover the behaviour/actions ike a viewer when it all suddenly happens. If you are calculating wideshot to close-up ratios whilst rolling, you are not shooting as a viewer anymore, and stilt your coverage. From my personal experience, when I look through that viewfinder, I JUST WATCH and use the camera to pick up details im curious about, and maybe get peoples faces sharing this experience with 'me'.
As a classic 'establisher', you can play safe and go into it shooting wide, just to establish where you are, who's there, and whats going down. Then when someone initates speaking, or begins moving, you hone in on that, either crash in roughly and cut out later, crash in smoothly and use the whole take (and sync sound), or slowly creep-zoom into the detail you want to explore, depending on the pace and energy of the people you are filming. You must try to match that pace and energy, because if you deviate from that, you will dis-join from your subject, and lose the audiences interest. A handheld shot can be amazing when locked onto a subjects movements/bodylanguage, like a hunter almost syncronising his/her breath with the animal. I realise I am using some slightly weird analogies, but following a person through a lens is very similar in a primitive way;).
What im getting at, is that KEEP YOUR STRATEGY SIMPLE, AND SHOOT FROM THE HEART.
If you try to shoot coverage of reality, whilst ticking boxes in your head regarding shot sizes, you end up with coverage that is all over the place in terms of timeline, so the editor and director sit in the edit pulling their hair out, cause the workable options they have are minimal. If your strategy is to cover every 'event' in wide-mids-CUs, you end up missing half the action, and in the edit they will hear some great dialogue, whilst watching the shaky coverage of the floor, while you were 're-positioning for the variety'.
In my opinion, one of the things to avoid when shooting reality, is to identify the camera-ops footsteps when moving around. I find it pops the bubble, and reminds the audience of your presence in a bad way. So if your subject walks across the room, just follow them from where you are stationary(maybe on a long lens) as far as you feel relevant, then maybe pan back to see reactions etc. So like the swat analogy, when you enter a room and have a rough idea of the amount of people there, and their likely movements towards exits/furniture etc, you learn to quickly position yourself for any event. If the person likely to exit has a car outside, then look for a shot through a window or doorway from the same position. Then you can cover the whole movement nicely and smoothly.
ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS TO LEARN AND APPLY, IS TO BE ABLE TO SHOOT CONSTANT USABLE FOOTAGE. It is a documentary director's wet dream, to be able to use every second of footage caught on camera. It becomes the perfect cure for those lost 'story' or 'money-shot' moments that were missed on camera, whilst the camera op was shifting or cramping in some bodypart. When positioning yourself and your kit, make sure it is aligned perfectly for long term use. If you set your tripod too front heavy, or raise your shoulders too high, or crouch awkwardly in a corner, then you wont last and neither will your nice shots.
When shooting outside, or on a long lens, just lean against lamp posts and walls to stabilize your shot.
If you cover actions as a viewer, you will find that you 'naturally' know when to zoom into hands, or pan back to faces/reactions, because you are feeling and tuning into the events unfolding. If you are tuned into the actions, and cover it as a viewer, the director won't feel they missed anything, cause it was all there. Sometimes to be able to pre-empt human behaviour, you have to observe it carefully and understand the subjects ways of behaving. Apart from stating the obvious, what I mean is that if two people are having a heated discussion, you can usually tell a couple seconds before someone blows up, or puffs and storms out. So when you see/hear the signs, you hone into it as it unfolds. Then you get those powerful moments perfectly timed, almost as if you had set it up
Also, when you start wide and just cover the events 'naturally', you will know when to zoom out to a wide shot, or zoom into a two shot of a personal conversation, because THE EVENTS AND ACTIONS WILL TELL YOU WHAT SHOT SIZE IS NEEDED. In a group dynamic you will constantly have to judge the mood and direction of a conversation, because then you know who are the key players in the moment, and you capture all their telling facial expressions and reactions. This is what creates REAL drama and interest, not having the 'correct' proportions of shots. If you tune into the energy of the people involved, you will find your place, and feel part of it all. When you adopt this 'role' that is when you get good stuff that really matters. So for example if you are filming kids, you get down on the floor and share the world with them on their level, or if you are filming some hyped up breakdancers, you stay fluid on your feet, and float around the group with them, and so on, to capture the apropiate energy and make the shots much stronger in their meaning/feeling.
IN MY OPINION, IF YOU APPROACH THINGS IN THAT WAY, YOU WILL GET THE MOST ENGAGING AND INTIMATE FOOTAGE POSSIBLE, ESPECIALLY WHEN SHOOTING BY YOURSELF. I have worked on loads of documentaries and factual events, where we had up to 4 cameras rolling simultaniously, yet they used only my footage for large chunks of it, because I happened to catch the right moments, and you could watch it almost without cutting. This obviously depends on the circumstances, but if you prepair for anything, you can usually get loads to work with.
Dirctors also like to see sequences, sections that lead in and lead out nicely. This can be hard to get by yourself, and again requires a bit of planning. When you need to get General Views or Establisher shots, and cover live action, all in one short space of time, it requires planning. I even check out my locations on google earth, the figure out according to my rough schedule, where the sun will be at certain times of day, so if I need a shot of a buliding that is west facing, well then I shoot it backlit in the morning, toplit at midday in my lunch-break, or lit by the sunset at the end of the day. I plan it, so then its sorted, so I can focus on live events around me, instead of realising later I needed lots of cutaways, or end up shooting the building in terrible lighting.
When you need to shoot a conversation with one camera, one of the hardest things to learn, is to be able to time your camera moves. If timed well, it feels seemless and the audience forget they are watching it through 'your eyes', if timed badly, well then you lose the end or beginning of each sentence, and it becomes unwatchable. One thing you can try, is a sustained hold. So if one person makes a statement, you can either pan around to someone reacting, or you can hold on them listening to the reaction. Often you will find that holding works out, because they often counter-respond anyway. Likewise you can pan around during silences aswell, and not always wait for someone to speak. If you 'feel' like one of the group, your pans should feel 'natural', so that you look at the right people at the right time.
When shooting reality, there are also moments where nothing happens, and you must cease your chance to change shotsize or position. Don't decide to change positions when it happens, cause then you miss it, or break the tension. These can also be good moments to capture generic cut-aways like hands, footsteps, smiles, laughter, bodylanguage like happyness or thoughtful-ness, empty rooms etc.
When you are shooting a group of people, with 2 cameras, the easiest rule to follow is the 'crossing the line' that normally applies to an interview for example. If you and your fellow camera op make sure that you always keep your same shoulders towards eachother, you can move around without crossing the line.
Here's an experiment you can try:
If you and another camera op are covering a group from opposite sides of a table, stick a white piece of tape on your left shoulder, and stick a white piece of tape on his/her right shoulder. Then you can both move around either sides of the table, as long as you dont cross around the other way too far, and end up with the non-taped should towards eachother. What this means, is that you don't have a physical line in the room that you are scared to cross, but you retain your formation even on the move. So for example your second camera op sees the opertunity for a nice wide shot from the doorway, then you move around and follow him from the same side of him, so the coverage remains cut-able, without mismatching eyelines etc.
IF YOU GET ANY CHANCE TO POSITION PEOPLE, TAKE IT. When shooting reality we are often afraid of asking, or we feel it isn't natuaral anymore. Believe me, it is a lot more natural, if that moment of real emmotion was captured in some amazing soft light, or captured in a doorway that makes the subject look 'lonely' or 'excited' or similar. When shooting a group having dinner, or in a meeting, position their chairs beforehand or shuffle them before you roll camera. That way they will look better, you can create gaps around the table for nice coverage, and you could for example angle chairs slightly, so you can pan from a front close-up to a nice tight profile really smoothly, and capture an whole conversation from one angle. This VOIYER TECHNIQUE works a treat sometimes, as it doesn't cut your attention either, so you feel you are witnessing something for real. So a little bit of cheated positioning, amplified the reality of the behaviour, and therfore made it 'more real'.
When shooting a group with two cameras, I find the best way is to allocate people to each camera. Sometimes you can predict their positions, and devide by name, other times the group moves around and mixes up, then you have to allocate halvs of the room. So if camera A is in the right corner shooting the left side of the room, then camera B is in the left corner, covering the right side of the room.
Another formation you can use with two cameras, is both of you almost next to eachother, one shoots in wides and mids, the other shoots a floating close-up that moves between people depending on who's talking, laughing, reacting etc. Then you are guaranteed to have coverage of every second, at least on one camera.
Finally another tip you can use, is to create a sign language of symbols between the camera ops. As you often dont have any hands free, it could just be the movement of a finger, or the wink of an eye. For example, you are cross shooting a dialogue between two people, using two cameras. You are operating camera A and you are shooting a close-up of PERSON A. In your frame, person A is looking to the left of screen (so on the monitor, stood on the right of frame looking to the left of frame). To tell you other operator on camera B that they must frame the other PERSON B the opposite direction, you could for example wink your right eye, or lift your right finger. Then camera B op can frame their PERSON B in the left of their frame, looking off to screen right. Allthough impossible to explain in text
once you arrange simple cues to eachother, you can go with the flow, and follow your subjects like a shadow, without mixing up your eyelines in conversations, which just becomes a headache in the edit. You can also have signals to show what shotsize you currently have etc, so pich your fingers for a CU, and spread your fingers for a wide shot and so on. Sounds obvious, but really works and is rarely used.
Sorry about rambling on
, I obviously love my work, and thought it would be better to say to much, than too little, if it can give you any useful ideas.
Good luck with shooting, and if you are curious, here is examples of my work:
Louie Blystad-Collins DoP