Angry Robot

DIY Documentary Part 1: The Shoot


I’ve shot the entire thing myself on a Panasonic GH1. I have the 14-140mm kit lens, the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens, plus a 50mm FD lens (that I didn’t use).


The GH1, importantly with the GH13 firmware hack, has acquitted itself admirably. The optics are good in this thing. The sore points are the low bit rate recording and the interlaced wrapper, so the firmware hack has been a godsend.

I honestly way prefer the footage from the GH1 and other video SLRs to that of prosumer-level dedicated video cameras. It’s way more film-like (if I can drop that bomb without unpacking it at all). So I think using this camera was the right choice. It was also, as they say, the camera I had – prosumer vidcams are considerably more expensive.

When I began, I was using the kit lens near-exclusively, thinking that the long zoom would give me some versatility, and its decent autofocus would help me out. Its downside is that it is slow, and thus has a broad, unfilmic depth of field.

As it turned out, I did not find the autofocus good at all. Perhaps it is for some purposes, but my early footage has unusable parts when the lens is hunting for focus, or choosing the wrong plane. So I went manual focus, and as I got used to the focus ring on the 20mm pancake, I started using that a lot more. That lens be pretty yo.

I’m not a pro cinematographer or cameraman by a long shot. Photography has been a hobby for a while, but motion footage in a doc context has its own challenges, mostly that you have to be timely with your shutter, aperture and focus adjustments, and you have to be stable. I love handheld footage. But handheld on a shoulder-mounted TV camera is one thing, handheld in an SLR body another; the tiny body means your wrists’ natural movements can manifest as footage-wrecking jitter. My goal was to stabilize that shit enough to look like regular handheld film or TV camera footage.

To that end, I used simply a Gorillapod. Again, it was the thing I already had, and I wasn’t looking to shell out a stack of hunnys for some steadicam-alike rig. (I also considered a Spider Brace as it looks like a good option.)

Did it work? Most of the time. If I was standing still, it worked great – you can rest two of the legs of the gorillapod on your person, forming them to the right fit. When I was on the move, however, the shakes got bad. Sometimes they are manageable, but other times, less so. There definitely could be better solutions, I’d say.

One last note: the tiny size of VSLRs is a huge advantage for documentary. People seem to get less self-conscious around a smaller camera, and indeed a lot of people will just think you’re taking stills. And of course you can always have it on you in case something happens. That’s reason enough not to trick it out too hard with steadicam rigs and matte boxes and all that jazz.


Nothing beats having a sound guy. He’ll roll on in and clip lavs on everyone while holding a boom and making sure the levels are tight. Unfortunately, he costs $500 / day.

So I essentially copied the sound recording techniques of my employer, or at least the old CHUM part. They never had a sound guy; the cameraman would clip a lav onto the interview subject and wire the transmitter into the camera, with auto-gain enabled.


You can do this exact thing with video SLRs, but their audio hardware is less developed and the auto-gain is not as good. So I record from lavs into a separate field recorder (the Zoom H4N), whose auto-gain has yet to let me down. The downside is of course syncing in post, but I didn’t find that to be so bad. I’m using the lavs mostly for interviews, which tend to be long clips. In Final Cut, you can sync up in a sequence and then use that sequence exactly like you would a clip (YMMV in Avid or other NLEs). Anyway, the results are great with minimal headaches. The lavs are expensive, but I considered it a worthwhile expense. Never underestimate the production value that crisp sound supplies.

I also used the Panasonic shotgun mic on the camera, for when I was shooting verité stuff and didn’t have people miked up. It’s decent.

In Summation

I was quite happy with the results. You can certainly get away with shooting a doc on these cameras.1

1 One issue that presents itself is TV broadcasters’ technical requirements, which may specify a bitrate higher than these cameras produce. The tech standards papers are pie-in-the-sky bullshit cooked up by fussy engineers, but they can still cause a problem. I’m not concerned about it for this project – and the GH13 hack can up the bitrate to something pretty crazy – but it’s worth looking into before you start your project, if you’re hoping to get on TV.

Detroit’s Broken City Sister — The Pop-Up City

Profile of my homies Broken City Lab in a Dutch design blog.

PS3 Pushes Blu-ray Into Nearly 20% of U.S. Homes

just above the percentage that have Netflix. I read somewhere else that owners of Blu-Ray hardware are only buying 1.5 discs per machine, though, which is sad but reflects how obviously overpriced the discs are.

A Portrait of Hunger

Devastating journalism about hunger in one of Philly’s poorest neighbourhoods

Interview with Waiting For Superman director Davis Guggenheim

This doc was at the fest but I had a feeling it would get a wide release so I skipped it. Sounds interesting. Not sure how I feel about charter schools though.

A Steadicam for Your iPhone

Wonder if DSLRs are too heavy for this?

Smarter Than You Think – Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic

Nice, Windsorite used one of my photos for this article

of the Ford plant

Canada king of the rink again

“hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.” I like that. Moves watching the game with some buds upscale a few notches. “We are contemplating the dance of life.”

The New Halo Game Is a Hit — So What’s the Status of the Halo Movie?

Details of the development hell the Halo flick has been through to date, which are fascinating, and rumors of it’s current status, which is that Spielberg is trying to take it over.

The spermine facial: do the benefits outweigh the 'ick factor'?

The two meanings of facial finally collide. This article reads like an understated parody.


Icelandic Ultra Blue

pilot made by David Cross for Adult Swim that was never picked up. Was supposed to air during infomercial time.

Bridge Projector Reminds Suicide Jumpers “You Are Not Alone”

TIFF 2010

As a result, my TIFF experience compared to last year, when I saw 22 films over the same time period, was much less intense. There were no films I thought were “best of the year” category, but also no stinkers. No big hustle to get across town in ten minutes to catch the next flick. It was actually fairly pleasant and relaxed. I also realized if you’re going solo, you can just embrace the fact that you’re going to be wedged in next to other people and avoid the lineup altogether by going 15 minutes early. Usually the lineup crowd has already been seated, and you find what you can. I never had a bad seat. The only lineup I had was for the Winterbottom film, a ‘gala’ (booooo) at Ryerson (boooooo).

Trip – Michael Winterbottom comedy road movie with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Entertaining, uneven, better than I feared.

Armadillo – Danish doc about Afghanistan – embedded with platoon. Very good, well-shot and visceral, but I hear it’s not as good as Restrepo? (Which I haven’t seen, but would very much like to.)

Microphone – Egyptian film about a recently returned, grieving fella who tries to put together a concert of Alexandria’s underground music scene. Rough, sometimes amateurish, but great music and ultimately cleverer than it initially appears to be.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame – a Tsui Hark film billed as the asian Sherlock Holmes. They had me from the moment a magic deer appears and gives orders. Just as much kicking as crime-solving, as one expects from TH.

Sound of Mumbai: A Musical – One of my favourites. Doc about a concert being put together in Mumbai (surprise) featuring slum kids singing The Sound of Music. As fiction this would be contrived and saccharine. As documentary the story is simple and powerful. Scenes of kids roaming around their neighbourhood with Sound of Music score playing feel like real life mashup.

Stake Land – a vampire film that’s really a zombie film at heart. The vampires are brainless bloodthirsty savages, and it’s set a few years after Life As We Know It has ended. But a loose road trip plot goes in more interesting directions than you might expect, focusing on how humans react to the apocalypse rather than the monsters. Although there is that, too. This was people’s choice for best of Midnight Madness.

Outside the Law – epic Algerian / French gangster / revolutionary story in which a trio of brothers becomes involved in the Algerian revolution. Suffers from the usual epic film problems like time compression, condensed dialogue – but actually fairly badass nonetheless.

Sleeping Beauty – Breillat fairy tale about childhood emerging into sexuality. I think. One of my least favourite, but still probably a decent film that I was too tired to get into.

Attenberg – Was attracted to this because of the post-industrial setting. Had I known a major part of this was a father’s illness and death, I probably would have skipped it, which would have been a shame. It’s quite good, although it compares unfavourably to the much more rigorous Dogtooth, another Greek film with which it shares crew members. But I really liked this, and it handled grief in a completely unsentimental and true-to-life way, while also being quite funny and thought-provoking. I have a pet theory that it was a metaphor for Greece’s financial collapse, perhaps.