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3 Documentary Filmmakers on their Shooting Styles

From filming short docs for the National Geographic to producing feature length documentaries, these filmmakers have each developed a…
3 Documentary Filmmakers on their Shooting Styles
Nehemiah Stark on assignment.

From filming short docs for the National Geographic to producing feature length documentaries, these filmmakers have each developed a distinctive shooting style that brings their videos to life. Nehemiah Stark, Jessica Sherry, and Allison Otto all have very different ways of working, but their films are all strikingly shot, full of fascinating characters, and bring new stories to light. We spoke to them to see how they got to where they are today in their documentary filmmaking careers.

Storyhunter: What drew you to documentary filmmaking?

Nehemiah Stark: I was at college in Chicago, where I was doing cinematography for fiction film. I was getting bored with sets and hierarchies, and fell in with the documentary community. It was the antidote to all I didn’t like about fiction filmmaking. When I was at school getting into documentary, I dreamed up a project for senior year, where I went to Israel and Palestine to work on a documentary project.

Nehemiah’s documentary-in-progress is called “Neighbors on a Hill.” He says that as they move forward with the film, it might become “an experimental documentary project where the family collaborates on writing a poem that would coincide with the footage and would be what they want to say about their life.”

Jessica Sherry: I went to film school at Northwestern, did a bunch of internships, and didn’t really know what I wanted to do in the industry. My first real job was at a small documentary company that did TV documentaries — one hour nature and science pieces for National Geographic and PBS Nature. I really liked the subjects and learning about the world. The thing that has really drawn me to documentary filmmaking in particular, is that to film something that’s awesome, you have to go somewhere and see something that’s awesome. I love to bring different parts of the world to someone’s TV screen, and to film it, I had to go and see it.

“The first day they were preparing the hive, the bees get agitated. I’m filming these people in bee suits and it didn’t cross my mind that I should wear one, too. I filmed that with a half swollen face.” — Jessica Sherry, film commissioned through Storyhunter for National Geographic

Allison Otto: I started my career as a print journalist. I transitioned from print to documentary film because of the more visceral impact, wider reach, and the powerful resonance of documentary storytelling. I also believe deeply in the power of documentary storytelling as a means to share glimpses into lives vastly different from the viewer’s, to foster empathy, to engage, and to bridge cultural, socioeconomic, racial, and political divides.

S: What inspires you and your aesthetics?

NS: Kartemquin Films and the filmmakers there like Steve James and Gordon Quinn, who co-founded Kartemquin. They have that ethos of buckling into a story, not feeling like you have to turn something around quickly, but being patient, ready to listen, ready to acknowledge that you’re forming relationships with people. There’s no way to be a complete fly on the wall. I don’t believe that’s possible. Really what I learned at Kartemquin was how it’s a responsibility of a documentarian to form an authentic relationship with the subject — I try to avoid that word because I see it as a collaboration. It’s a collaboration with the subject, not one directional. It’s been inspiring for me. From an aesthetic perspective, having a lot of verité footage rather than talking head commentary. I’m inspired by getting inside daily life, embedding yourself.

AO: Dorothea Lange was my biggest early inspiration. I fell in love with her images in my early teens. I especially loved her Depression-era photojournalism and how profoundly it humanized the consequences of the Great Depression. I had never seen photography that moving. I still use her style as a reference point. Although she was a still photographer, her aesthetic, framing, and ability to convey the essence of a moment still influences me on almost every project I undertake.

S: What documentaries have you worked on?

JS: I made Waiting for John before getting into short-form documentary filming. I hadn’t had the experience working on shorts yet. Something I love about making a feature film is that you’re immersed in the subject. I learned so much that I couldn’t put in the film, spent so much time, and lived it, too. So all that, it was an immersive and life-changing experience. It’s been great to talk to people about it. What I do love about short-form pieces is that there are so many small things, or people’s stories that might not carry a 60 to 90 minute doc or you might not just have time to devote to it. With this new format, you can tell a story or get glimpse into a world in just five minutes. You can bring these stories to audiences without having to commit to a feature film. I did a short about infant mortality in Mississippi. I think there is a feature film there, but I didn’t have the time or financial backing to devote to that, so the fact that I was able to spend a few days there and get a look into the history and film it, I appreciate that about short-form docs.

Jessica’s film for MSNBC, “Tackling Infant Mortality in Mississippi,” was commissioned through Storyhunter.

AO: I specialize in doc shorts and documentary visual journalism. My latest documentary short, PROPERTY, is currently touring the festival circuit. It’s about a day in the life at the National Wildlife Property Repository — a little-known 22,000 square-foot warehouse outside of Denver where wildlife items confiscated at US ports of entry are stored. The Repository currently houses more than one million items. The film is told through the eyes of an employee who has worked there for 20 years cataloguing, tagging, bagging and shelving illegal wildlife items on a daily basis.

Allison’s latest documentary short, “PROPERTY.”

S: Do you approach filming for journalism differently than for documentaries?

NS: By virtue of the format, a lot of the work for VJs is a lot more fast-paced and I’m more oriented towards longer term projects. When there is a VJ project, my approach is more about how different and how dynamic we can be within a shorter time frame, how can we get at the questions that need to be asked of an interviewee, how we can get all the b-roll in a given day. Really the heart of it is still the same in the sense of what I’m asking myself is ‘what’s at the heart of the story.’

JS: I approach them the same way because I consider myself a documentary filmmaker, even though a lot of what I do is video journalism. It’s hard not to have some kind of perspective, and show that perspective. Filmmaking is how you present it. I don’t think any of it is totally unbiased.

How would you describe your shooting style?

NS: One thing I’ve tried to do is become more meditative in the way I shoot, really just kind of picking a place to be and waiting for a moment to come, and sometimes it might take an hour or longer before it’s the right time. Ideally, I do have the time to be patient and wait for the shot. I was in Nepal for a month working on a Storyhunter project and I had lot of time to get the b-roll we needed, so I got to wait in particular spots. I got to really experience the place and make shooting decisions after getting to know it. I also like dynamic points of view. I love the shoulder camera look, that handheld look that feels really true to life. To the dismay of my body, I have no problem climbing things or shoving myself up in a tree, or putting myself into situations to get the shot — getting on the ground, in the water. I really love just varying the angle and not just having an eye-to-eye shot all the time. If I have to crab walk in front of someone, I will. My style is dynamic — going where people go and imitating the way people move and how someone might see a particular event unfolding.

Nehemiah filmed this story over the course of four weeks in Nepal for TIME Magazine.

JS: Most of the things I’ve produced and made myself are interview driven. They’re not narrated. They’re based and driven by an interview that I’ve had with the subject. I really like the story to come from the people. Even though I’m editing in all different ways, I like the initial idea and way of framing to come from the subjects themselves.

I’m really attracted to close-ups. I shoot more than anyone would want to include in piece. I like it to feel like you’re sitting at a table with people, are in the moment, and seeing it. I don’t tend to shoot a verité scene, where it’s just wide and I let it happen. This could be something that changes, but I always want to change the angle and get a close-up and make sure there are cuts constantly. I think a lot of filmmakers, and maybe I aspire to this in some ways, are very comfortable just keeping it wide and waiting and I just see so many different frames in the moment that I want to catch them and give myself options in the edit room. I’m an impatient person when it comes to editing, so I just want to get to the next shot.

AO: I often tailor my filmmaking to the media outlet’s needs and style guide. For example, if they want interviews filmed a certain way and definitely want on-camera interviews. But my personal style is to film cinema verité, stick to natural lighting, incorporate the aesthetic and framing of a still photojournalist while on site (I never “punch in” or reframe in post), and use the small details of a moment or a place to reveal the greater story.

Allison shot this film for CNN’s Great Big Story.

S: Do you have any advice you’d give to young filmmakers still trying to figure out their style?

NS: Putting yourself out there to work with other filmmakers that inspire you is huge because we can only learn so much from the work we do alone. I learned the most working in a collective. It’s great to have people to look up to, to get feedback from. Mentors can be people you’ve never met. You can study the style of filmmakers and emulate them. Imitating them is huge and it takes a more discerning eye to see what’s being done technically.

AO: Don’t limit yourself to learning from the work of cinematographers. Check out the work of still photographers and photojournalists. Don’t feel like you have to travel far and wide to tell meaningful stories. Powerful stories can be found in your own community, and with your knowledge of your community and its rhythms, you’re the best one to share them.

By D. Simone Kovacs, Writer at Storyhunter