Wow, look at that!
We were driving in a small convoy from Calcutta airport heading to the Sunderbunds where our story takes place. “Wow look at that!” Screeching and honking and careening along the two lane roads was edge-of-seat dangerous. And yet around every turn was something more amazing to see than the last. Women in colorful dresses carrying water jugs on their heads next to buffalos hauling carts filled to the top with grass and wood. Then being passed by a family of four comfortably crammed onto what riding space there was left on a motorcycle, its horn permanently blaring. Rich, my close friend and assistant of many adventures turns to me and says, “This is going to be one of those shoots where we’ll never stop saying ‘Wow! Look at that!’”
A few weeks later, I’m in a Land Rover driving slowly thru a tiger reserve looking for, well, tigers. They’d managed to avoid our cameras when we were in the Sunderbands. Riding along with me is the driver who is also a park guide, my camera assistant who kept saying “Wow!” as predicted and a producer from National Geographic. We’d gotten up with the sun for the third day in a row, hoping to see and, importantly, film a tiger. But by late in the afternoon we hadn’t seen a thing except a few pug marks from the previous day. This slow pace would be nothing extraordinary at all if this were a typical natural history documentary, but for the kinds of people-oriented films I usually work on – as was this project – this was way more time than we’d typically devote to this kind of thing.
But then this was a film about tigers. So, we had to try to get something. We’d already consumed the coffee and sandwiches prepared for us from the morning and we were all getting hungry and more than a little bit anxious that we might not see anything filmable the whole trip.
“Don’t worry a bit,” our overly enthusiastic driver told us with a wonderfully strong Indian accent. Something he kept repeating regularly every twenty minutes. “Surely I will find you something today!” His over-the-top energy inspired little confidence. He seemed to be taking it personally as if he were delivering us the tiger himself. I imagine there must be something of a competition between these guide/drivers on some level: the one who has the most sightings rules the roost?
Non-fiction film is supposed to be about truth. About things that actually happen in the real world. But, truth – not unlike those illusive tigers – can be a difficult thing to capture on film. The process requires first figuring out just what it is that is the truth and then managing to film it somehow. Even if you manage to work yourself far enough into the process wherein you find yourself face to face with some deep “truth,” and even if you manage to shoot some scenes accordingly, it can easily happen later when you play it back to watch that the moment on film can have a pesky way of missing the mark, not look “right.” Once discovered – often in an editing room far from the location where the “truth” was supposedly captured on film – one must begin all sorts of creative efforts to fix what’s there and try to represent the moment so it feels “real.”
When and if we ever get a chance to see and film this theoretical tiger, the viewers of this film will never be let in on the fact that finding it was such a difficult and time consuming effort.
Let’s say we gave up and got shots of a tiger in a zoo. We’d, of course disguise the fact that it’s a captured beast behind high walls and bars because, well, that just wouldn’t look good. There’s a built in expectation here. So, what if we did find a captured tiger to film that we managed to shoot in a way that it appeared to be wild? By fooling the audience, we are committing a no-no for many documentary filmmakers. It’s a white lie I guess, a sin of ommission. Natural history filmmakers lower the bar for truthfulness all the time. Wolves, for example, famous for their skittishness, have been raised by humans from birth to get them used to being around us so that they can be filmed when they grow up.
The majority of this particular project was shot, as explained, in the eastern part of India in the Sunderbunds where we were trying to document an interesting local story about man eating tigers. Because of the thick shrubbery and winding rivers in that part of India, tigers had an easy way of attacking and killing the wood gatherers and fishermen of this area. Some villages were called ‘widow villages’ because the majority of the men had been killed off by these tigers.
Finding Tigers Where You Can
Those tigers were, indeed, hard to spot. And while we may have technically gotten close to one a couple of times, we never actually saw one. And much less, never filmed one. They blended in so perfectly with the mangrove swamps that made up their home, you could be staring directly at one from 20 yards away and not see it. When the viewers of National Geographic watch a show like this they expect to see tigers. The fact that they are hard to see is irrelevant. Hence our trip to the reserve in the north where we were promised we’d see them.
(Suddenly, a note in the middle of the documentary appears on screen: “Right here in this film we’d be showing you great shots of the tigers who live in the wild in this part of the world but they were too hard to spot. So, just use your imagination.”)
So here we are, motoring slowly along in our Land Rover, stomach’s growling and eyes peeled. And, if we never see one the whole time? There is already talk between us about the ethics of filming tigers in an enclosed habitat back in the States. “But wouldn’t that be cheating?” The argument seems to be that, after all, you can’t make a film about tigers and not manage to show tigers on screen be they real or fake. Some calls have already gone out.
The natural history crews filming for the BBC Series Planet Earth, famously shot over a period of three years with a huge crew when looking for the extremely illusive Snow Leopards on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Three years!
This morning’s drive followed two thinly visible tire ruts thru some really beautiful, hilly, dense jungle. Dawn in the jungle is like nowhere else, alive with the sounds of hundreds of extraordinary species of birds and mammals and reptiles all hooting and whistling and snorting away. In our zeal for tigers, we drove right past these other animals like tourists at the Louvre in Paris zipping past masterpieces left and right without as much as a glance as they race hell-bent on seeing that really famous painting called Mona Lisa.
I have the camera by my side in my perch in the back seat of the vehicle, ready at any moment’s notice. But, alas, we see nothing followed by more nothing. We decide to head back to our lodge. We ride back in silence for a while just taking in the sights and sounds and feeling disheartened. Out of nowhere, I find myself proposing something fun to do: I’d come up with a little exercise as a way of passing the hour or so it will take to get back to our lodge. Without a whole lot else to do or say at this point, I thought it okay to indulge Amy and Rich in my little quiz.
A Mini Quiz Gets Invented
“Okay, so, how would you shoot the following scene, Amy,” I said. “A young couple is riding in a Land Rover, like us, driving thru the jungle, also like us. Something’s wrong with their vehicle and it sputters and rolls to a stop…hopefully not like us. The driver hops out and pops the hood of the vehicle to see what might be wrong. The woman stays in the passenger seat,” I continue, making it up a I go. “She’s looking around at the jungle hesitantly as it seems to be kind of reaching out to her menacingly. While the guy is busy, focusing on what might be wrong with the engine, a tiger very quietly slides out of the bush, pounces on him, and drags him off into the jungle.”
Amy just continues to look straight ahead. She appears to be thinking. We ride on for a bit. I’m not sure if she’s working on an answer or just is ignoring me. I can feel Rich eager to give us his series of shots.
“So, how would you shoot that scene?” I ask her.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
Now, of course Amy is the producer of this project. Technically my boss. She is also a pretty good friend who does her job really well. But when it comes to piecing together the way a certain scene might be shot, many producers like her leave that part largely up to the cinematographers like me. Lots of times, it’s because they’ve never had to think out how to shoot a particular scene. Guys like me just kind of do it.
“Just that.” I say, “How would you shoot it?”
After another pause. “Well, like you said, we see them driving along and the car comes to a stop and the guy gets out and, um, the tiger jumps him.”
“I know. But that’s what literally happens. I’m asking you to describe what the individual shots might be. As if you were the cameraman. Tell me where to put the camera, what’s the lens, does the camera pan or move somehow? All that.”
Many producers at National Geographic like Amy worked their way up the production ladder with an entry rung doing research. So the training builds from a content and story point of view, not so much from a nuts and bolts field experience point of view. They tend to consider it less important to think about how to shoot something as they are typically more focused on what to shoot. Like I said, they oftrn let the cinematographers and later the editors sort out the shot building: the visual part of the storytelling.
“Well,” she began hesitantly, “You see them in the car…”
“Okay…Where’s the camera?”
She hesitates again. “It’s okay: no pressure: we have a oodles of time before we’re back at camp.” Our Land Rover bumps up and down. “In the back seat?” she asks, with a glance back at me as if to ask a question as much as make a statement.
“I don’t know, where else will it fit?”
“Makes sense,” I say. “Do go on.”
“Let’s see. The two of them are in the front. Maybe the camera is on the road and films as the car passes them?”
“Now you’re talking. Keep going.”
Amy is great at finding ways to get close to the main characters in her films. She is passionate about the stories and this communicates to the people in front of the camera. I don’t think – up to this point after working together on several films — she has ever suggested that I make a specific shot or suggested where to place the camera or what lens to use. This is something that I love to do anyway and I enjoy allowing her not to have to worry about that side of the filmmaking process. She normally has enough on her plate already. I at once enjoy the freedom and at the same time miss the potential collaboration that would come from just this kind of theoretical conversation that we were having on the drive.
There is a long pause as we drive along in silence again. I guessed she was out of ideas.
Then I ask the same question to Rich. He has been with me for several years and has watched what I do like a hawk and has already started shooting on his own and always has lots of ideas. I think it’s out of respect for me that he doesn’t impose his suggestions very often.
He was all ready to go.
“Well, I’d dig a hole in the ground and bury the camera in there with the lens sticking out and let the Land Rover come sputtering towards it. Then it would come to a stop right over the camera. We’d be looking up, seeing the bottom of the vehicle.”
“Interesting. Then what?”
“We’d cut to a jib shot that starts behind the vehicle and follows the guy as he gets out and goes to the front to raise the hood.”
“Wow!” Two delightful shots, I thought.
After that, though, his shots weren’t very thought out and I could tell he was just winging it. But he knew what he was doing.
“A shot over the shoulder of the guy looking at the motor. A shot back up at him with a mystified expression. A cut away of the woman waiting in the car reading her tour guide.”
He was clearly on something of a roll. And continued to come up with new angles and shots to tell this simple story.
This was turning into a really interesting exercize. Even if this theoretical scene was dreamed up and even if it went outside our normal approach to shooting “real” documentaries of events that supposedly play out in real time, it was a fun thing to do.
We don’t usually tell people what to do and how to act. We just don’t manipulate the action so precisely. “Okay now, wait a few minutes while we bury the camera here in the engine so we can get a reverse of your face looking down. We’ll need to reflect some light onto him as well.” That kind of thing.
And equally as interesting is the fact that between the three of us we would certainly have shot the scene differently.
As we got closer to the bungalows, and as we continued to dream up more shots in this theoretical scenario, it became obvious to us just how many options there were for us to shoot such a seemingly straightforward scene like this.
Just as the opening shot alone evolved quickly in Amy’s head from the back seat of the Land Rover to a second, different camera angle from the road, likewise she could have come up with a dozen different shots as had Rich.
Is one way better than the other?
I had thought about these kinds of things a lot before but had never shared any of them with anyone else. It was just something I did in my head. I’d kind of pre-visualize a given scene in my head as if it were already edited together and then I’d try to film the individual shots that would make it come together in the editing room.
It was then that I realized that something was missing.
“One thing neither of you asked or discussed was what is the point of this scene?” I said. “Without knowing what the point is, you can’t make informed decisions about what kinds of shots to pick. Especially when there are so many options in a scene like this.”
I elaborated a little. “Is this supposed to be a scary scene? Or maybe it’s friendly and safe to begin with and then gets scary? Maybe the shots are languorous at first and then get hand held and fast when the tiger attacks? Is it from the point of view of the driver or maybe of the tiger?”
We got back to the bungalows and continued the conversation a bit more, adding shots that seemed to get more and more focused on telling a story that we hadn’t yet quite outlined.
I was only back in my room for a few minutes before the phone rang. It was Amy.
“What about a shot from a high angle like in the trees making the couple appear small and vulnerable in the frame?” Now she thinking.
“Or maybe another shot made as if from the tiger’s point of view; a handheld shot peering thru the foliage to the road as if the still unseen tiger were watching the two of them?”
“Why not both of them?”
Why not indeed.
Telling A Story Shot by Shot
Each shot has a way of telling the story slightly differently. The essential skill of a filmmaker can be seen in the kinds of choices that are made, shot by shot. Each shot is like a sentence that, when combined with the other “sentences” in the story/film, goes to make up a “paragraph” or several of them. Or what filmakers like to call: the scene.
Still, there is something missing from this discussion we were having about how to frame the individual shots. And every now and then over next couple of days, one of us would come up with a new shot idea. There had been a lot of focus placed on each individual camera angle. But how is the camera treated? Is the camera placed inside the forest? Is it low to the ground (like a tiger)? Is it moving slowly on a dolly? Is it hand held and anticipatory? Some of the possibilities that we discussed seem in hindsight to be a bit self-conscious, too much like a student film, calling attention to the shots themselves and distracting from the possible overall fluidity of the scene. And yet, the whole search for valid shots only got more interesting. Rich’s idea to use a jib to come from the back of the jeep, up and over, to the front was a brilliant use of camera and equipment. But what was the purpose of using that particular piece of equipment there? Just because we had it? Just to show off we had one in the jungle? If not embedded into the scene’s basic structure, some shots seemed gratuitous and unnecessary. Cute for the sake of being cute possibly including Rich’s sunken shot or the jib shot.
On the next and last day, we were out in the jungle again with the camera — only instead of being in a Land Rover, we were sitting comfortably on padded platforms secured to the top of a couple of elephants. For some reason known only to tigers, they will allow people to waddle right up to them if they are sitting on top of an elephant. They just don’t seem to notice the vulnerable but mostly humans sitting up there. But, alas, we still didn’t see anything.
Taken for granted during our ongoing conversation is a question about the morality and integrity that it is involved when making up the shots like this in the first place. Is it wrong to script a scene like this and present it as a documentary? This was taking place many years ago and the world of documentary films has changed a whole lot. We have what we curiously call “reality” TV all around us.
We make non-fiction films. So then where is the line crossed from telling a story honestly to a place where it is distorting the reality too much and entering into fiction? For example, when music is added to a scene to telegraph that there is danger ahead?
What actually is the responsibility incumbent upon documentary filmmakers with regard to the truth? And how to best and most honestly depict this thing we call truth in a moving image environment? It all comes back to the question, which truth?
The very idea to make a film about a given subject begins to blur the relationship to the truth. The choice to switch on the camera and point it in a certain direction also blurs the relationship to the truth.
We’ll discuss this more at a later date.