There has been something special about learning filmmaking a non-traditional way. Traditional meaning, going to film school, or going through the steps from PA to Director of Photography, or whatever position you desire. It all started with self produced short films in high school, followed by wedding films, then to documentary shorts. Would I have changed the way I got to become a Cinematographer? No... I learned great things doing wedding films. I would say, I acquired a certain skill that is very difficult to achieve unless you shoot guerrilla style. It is a skill that I obtained through trail and error. Through great patience studying how people behave. it was understanding how people react to others during conversations, through understanding body language. Basically, when shooting weddings it was imperative to capture moments. The luxury of working in commercials and productions with intense planning is that you can plan and polish the spot to look a very spectacular way, however there are always happy moments that happen that aren't planned. It is between camera and performance. The weddings did teach me how to foresee moments happening. It may sound very odd to some, but maybe you relate.
I heard Roger Deakins say this very similar thing. He used to shoot documentary work, he loved it because it helped him acquire this ability to foresee things happening. This has helped him work with actors and have a feeling for their reactions and motions. It was something I starting picking up because of the moments I had to capture at weddings. I got really good at capturing moments after having shot near 200 weddings. I took an opportunity to do a documentary project in Guatemala, filming about my humanitarian movement down in the village of Seamay. Because of my experience with weddings, it made it much easier for me to capture the right moments from such a different style of film, even with a different culture.
Early December, I took a trip back to Guatemala to take on a strict photojournalism trip. I was only going to take photos. My intentions were to better the "sixth sense of filmmaking."
While there I had ideas planned of what I would like to capture. I thought a lot about using just a 24mm lens to capture the 10-day trip. I brought a 24-70mm lens just for the rare occasions of using it more telephoto. The majority of all the shots I loved were from the 24mm. Because, in my mind that is all I could think of visually that I wanted to tell. In fact some of my portraits were shot at 24mm.
When shooting photography, I love to pretend that I have a single roll of film loaded into my camera. I like to limit myself to a certain number of shots that I can take for the day. This is one tool that has helped me treat each frame as a canvas and masterpiece to work on. Now, this is really hard when shooting for the moment. It takes a lot of patience and a sharp trigger figure. More importantly, it takes one to dial in the exposure ahead of time. Setting your exposure beforehand will help you capture those right shots. The brief window of foreseeing something is mere seconds. To adjust your settings and take the shot is just too risky, and will most likely end in failure.
These images are from my recent trip, I chose the wide lens to challenge me to focus on adding depth and dimension into the images. Just below, the image with the five kids is one of my favorites from the trip. What does this image tell you? What story do you think it has? I find that taking still images helps benefit my cinematography by taking your time with a frame, you break down the essentials in the image. You direct the eye right where you want it to go. I like to have the eyes linger in the images longer, having them wander finding clues and subtle details that make the images feel balanced and or even better.
Though not all my goals weren't met at the trip, I feel like I took home a greater sense of foreseeing moments to capture. I took home many great memories from this specific trip.
If I were to share ways to achieve or improve your sixth sense I would suggest the following:
1.) plan the image ahead of time. Seems impossible to plan an unknown shot ahead of time. Allow me to explain. Let's say you are downtown, you are going for an image of a biker going through a harsh alley of light that is from the sun peaking in between 2 buildings. First you find a location where you seeing the lighting behave the way you envision. Second, make sure that there is biking traffic. Third, wait... wait... In the image of the kids playing soccer with the mountains in the background, I knew I wanted a kid hitting the ball in the foreground, I wanted it to happen where I was located because I liked the background and the sun beaming through. In my part I had to set myself up to where I wanted the action to happen. I knew that the kids would have to come back and try to score. I then just waited, my exposure was already set and now all I had to do is just press the shutter release.
2.) street photography, get out and look for opportunities. If you need samples of fantastic moments captured look at Magnum photography. They have some outstanding photographs from legendary street photographers. My personal favorite is Alex Webb. Don't be discouraged when looking at their stuff. If you know how many shots it takes for their finest it will be more encouraging. They however are ahead because they are always looking, and hunting for those moments. If you research their photography, I believe you'll be inspired to get out and hunt for those moments too.
You may still wonder "Why does this even matter, everything I shoot is planned anyway?" The best way I can answer this is to share personal experience with directors I have worked with on planned shoots. While the director is focusing on the performances, I am controlling the relationship between the camera and the performance. If I found something that I feel will benefit the shot or overall story, I am responsible to bring that up to the director and explain my reasons why. He does have the ultimate say, but this is a collaborative effort to tell the story the best way. He will listen to your thoughts, I mean, he hired you for a reason. Don't be afraid to bring up an option. In addition, an actor might bring something new to the table. To have a feeling of what they will do by reading their body language puts you at a huge advantage.