How to use Cinema Verite techniques to make compelling documentaries
When you get involved and direct powerful interviews and shoot compelling video, you have the makings of a great Cinéma Vérité style documentary.
In the late 1950s, documentary filmmakers began to take advantage of the new, very portable 16mm film equipment and took their filmmaking to the streets, alleys, jungles and polar caps of the world. The camera became an active participant in society, recording events, phenomena and the world's people in their own backyard. They called this new type of film Cinéma Vérité or Direct Cinema for its penchant for directly observing and, in the case of Vérité, becoming part of the lives it was observing. With today's small, high-quality cameras and their built-in stabilizers, we are able to take this technique to new heights of quality and access.
The one thing that you do not do in a Cinéma Vérité style production is use a "voice from above" off-camera narrator. Let your subjects tell their story in their own words. As a director, you have to hone your on-camera interviewing skills, so that the result sounds very natural and true to the life you are recording.
Before conducting the interview, gently prepare your subjects by telling them the general focus of the documentary you are shooting. Unless it is the President of the United States, do not give your subject your questions in advance. Cinéma Vérité depends on the reality of true unrehearsed answers. Work with your camera operator to establish some different possibilities in framing the shot. During the interview, the camera operator listens intently to the questions and answers and adjusts the shots to emphasize the emotions of the moment. If possible, establish some kind of signal, so that the camera operator knows when you are moving to a new subject and can compose a new shot.
Always try to interview your subjects in their natural environment. Do not shoot all of the interviews in the same location. Vary it. Let the audience see a little bit about the subject. If possible, take the subject to the site of the event you are covering. This will often evoke powerful feelings and memories of the actual event.
When setting up for an interview, choose a place with little ambient noise, so you can use the interview for either an on-camera or voice-over interview. If there is too much noise in the background, you will want to see the subject of that noise, so you can identify the sounds you are hearing in the background. Set your camera up so that the lens is level with the midpoint of the shot you are composing. If shooting a typical medium close-up or "bust" shot, set your camera up so that the lens is level with the subject's neck. From there, you can zoom in or out and the shot will maintain a straight-on neutral angle.
As you and your crew set up your equipment, talk to your subjects to engage them and make them comfortable with talking to you. When you are set up, position yourself right beside the lens, so that your eye is level with the center of the lens. This will give a great just-off-camera shot for the interview. You may be uncomfortable, but your shot will look great! When ready for the interview, your subject can look you in the eye and, together, you just have a conversation.
The first thing you need to do at the beginning of your conversation is coach your subjects so that they become comfortable with providing complete statements that will stand alone in the editing process without an interviewer's questions to prompt them. To do this, ask your subjects to repeat in their own words the question that you ask. For example, if you ask them, "What went through your mind when the winds and water of Katrina came roaring through your neighborhood?" they will answer, "When Katrina came, I thought the wind was going to blow us away!" When you get back to the editing suite, you will be able to use that sound bite anywhere, because it is a complete statement.
Ask the most benign and simple questions first. Eventually, the subjects will forget that the camera is even there. When you feel they have reached a certain comfort level, ask them questions that get to the heart of the subject. If you build a rapport with your subjects, they will become very willing to dig deep and talk about how they felt during trying times. Memories will bubble to the surface and the subjects will begin to examine their role in the event or with the subject of your documentary. Be willing to follow whatever path they walk. Don't become so enamored with your list of questions that you don't let yourself delve into these very personal and usually immensely powerful moments.
Always keep in mind that it is all right to interrupt if the subject moves too far from the subject. However, don't be afraid to let the camera roll. Tape is cheap; the power of what you record will be worth it.
When finishing your interview, ask your subject if there is anything you didn't ask them. This will sometimes provide a very powerful and personal story or response that perhaps you didn't think of or felt would be too hard to get on camera. Don't be afraid to let the camera roll.
The Cinéma Vérité Camera
Cinéma Vérité is a style of documentary production that got it's birth with the advent of lightweight, smaller cameras. With today's in-camera optical stabilizers, it is very easy to get good solid high quality images without feeling the need to take Dramamine before watching the end result. A major part of this technique is the on-location fly-on-the-wall shots you need to support whatever your subjects are talking about in the interview. Get a variety of shot sizes, angles and movements. If you are shooting a training documentary, get into the action. Show the audience things they might not be able to see as a casual observer. Focus on those shots that illustrate the subject of the training, a subject that you have broken down into its primary parts prior to shooting.
When doing event video, don't be afraid to get into the action. Also try to get on the level with your subjects. Shoot close, tight shots that evoke powerful emotion and tell a very personal story. Shoot everything. When taping events in the Cinéma Vérité style, you will shoot a lot of tape. Yes, this is a lot of footage to go through later, but you will be happy when you look at the labeled, logged tape and find everything you need to tell a compelling story about the event. You will be able to present the event in a complete and personal way that will give the audience the feeling of being there.
Cinéma Vérité is a very personal documentary style that is not for the weak at heart. If directed well, your subjects may cry, scream or laugh hysterically. You will get bumps and bruises from the strange and sometimes very uncomfortable positions you put your body in as you attempt to get the shot that shows the action at its most provocative and real. But the end result will be a personal, compelling and powerful piece that will evoke a wonderful response from your audience.
Robert G. Nulph is an independent video/film producer and director, and teaches college broadcast and video production courses.
Sidebar: The Cinéma Vérité Primer
Below is a short list of "must haves" for every good Cinéma Vérité style production:
1. Solid, steady camera shots that are part of the action of the piece. We should feel like we are traveling as a "fly-on-the-wall," or a silent observer, following the subject of the production around.
2. Clean, concise audio that creates a very real soundscape for the "experience" of the production. No canned music here!
3. Edits that follow the story and are unobtrusive. The audience should not feel that they are being manipulated. It should feel like we are watching a natural event unfold.
4. The interviews and supporting video build a story with a beginning, middle and end. The production gives the feeling that someone or something has gone through a change and there is some meaningful outcome.
5. There should be a feeling of a breadth of knowledge and a heightened passion for the subject.