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The future of documentary filmmaking - is it basically just an iPhone?

David Gelb's 'Poached' - shot on iPhone 13 Pro (and we left the caption in deliberately)
3 minute read
David Gelb's 'Poached' - shot on iPhone 13 Pro (and we left the caption in deliberately)

Roland Denning concludes his triptych on documentary filmmaking with a look at how it will be done in the future.

I started this series with a clip from the Lumière’s ‘Workers Leaving A Factory’. If the Lumières were the founders of documentary, George Méliès  - magician, showman, pioneer of special effects – is often regarded as the founder of film drama. The late Jean-Luc Godard, characteristically perverse, reversed that accepted notion: Méliès, who also recreated in the studio the coronation of Edward VII when he could not film it for real, was making the first documentaries, while the Lumières were turning reality into art.

Documentaries are popular fare at the moment, but increasingly they are competing with drama in terms of production values. Typically, documentaries today investigate an vital topic or event using carefully composed interviews along with archive material and sometimes  re-enacted drama sequences. Some great docs have been made that way, but, to me, this excludes the most exciting thing about the documentary process: capturing events as they happen in real time. 

Perhaps because we now can film everything everywhere all at once as it happens, documentary filmmakers don’t feel they need to. In fact, many filmmakers want to distance themselves from the ubiquitous iPhone, TikTok and YouTube imagery, hence all the beautifully lit interviews in luxurious spaces.

Does technology lead style, or style lead technology?

Current technology emphasises ‘the look’ – large sensors, shallow depth of field, prime lenses, drones and gimbals. Is this shift in technology a response to demand, or has the technology imposed a way of making films on us?

Shallow DoF is great for interviews where the background is often a distraction, but it can be a nightmare for observational documentary (too many times I’ve seen autofocus on a wide open FF camera desperately hunting around for the subject).  Your mirrorless camera may produce beautiful pictures, but if needs an elaborate rig with bolted-on devices, that can really get in the way of the documentary process. Gimbals can be great if you want your camera to float through space, but in observational documentary they can distance you from your subject, and the fact they tend to be used with wider lenses limits the sort of classic doc camerawork I was discussing in the previous part of this series.  

Docs that look like features, features that look like docs

As documentaries, particularly those commissioned by the streaming channels, get glossier I can see an opposite trend: drama features  that are based on documentary techniques. Typical of this style is the work of American cinematographer Sean Price Williams, famous for his work with the Safdie brothers as well as many others; he worked extensively with direct cinema documentary pioneer Albert Maysles. 

Recent movies like Aftersun (below, DoP Gregory Oke) and Nomadland (DoP Joshua James Richards) owe a huge debt to documentary camerawork.  Filming certain styles of drama, particularly when there is a strong element of improvisation, can be very close to documentary shooting. Whether there are actors or ‘real people’ in front of the lens, you are responding to the action and finding that frame that tells the story.


Is the future documentary camera simply a phone?

The first piece I ever wrote for RedShark, around seven years ago, was lamenting how documentary cameras have evolved. I’ve probably made my arguments far too many times: the Super16 size frame, still perhaps optimal for observational documentary work, is now unfashionable small. Traditional ENG-form cameras, still used by TV, tend to be overpriced and cumbersome. For a compact, reasonably priced, long-range zoom lens on a 4K camera the only options are the handheld, camcorder form, like the Sony Z90, but these are a disappointment in terms of ergonomics, sensitivity and the inability to change lenses. Increasingly cameras are versatile, neutral square boxes designed to be used with rigs or gimbals – which is great for many uses, but works against the sort of low-key, responsive physical relationship between camera operator, camera and subject I have been talking about in these pieces. 

But I’m going to stop my moaning now and look to the positives; there is a real danger of romanticising the heyday of the 16mm camera. We have a vast range of cameras available today, from action cameras to incredibly versatile cinema cameras, all at low running costs that classic documentarians could not have dreamt of. Cameras are developed in response to market demand – hence, for example, the rise of the vlogging camera, a concept that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Large sensor cameras sell well because people want that look. 

The future documentary camera may not be a camera at all.  There are those who would say if you want to shoot fast and discreetly you can do it on an iPhone – why bother with a video camera? This is an increasingly persuasive argument and is too easily dismissed by those who grew up with traditional film and video cameras. Of course, manufacturers want to emphasise the glitzy potential of phones,  so we don’t see many promos where the emphasis is on content rather than image.

Poached    Not really an observational doc, but shot on iPhone 13 Pro

There are reasons why a smart phone would be resisted by documentary filmmakers, but picture quality today is the last of those reasons – and the pictures are just going to get better. Sound issues are easily overcome by the use of low cost, separate audio recorders (we don’t want a sound recordist tied to the camera) – multiple recorders if necessary. The ergonomics aren’t yet right, zooming is mostly a digital rather than optical function, but all these drawbacks are insignificant compared to the discreet size, convenience and versatility of the miraculous phone camera.  

We need to adapt phone cameras to our needs, just as in the 1960s documentary makers created sync systems so they could detach camera from recorder. If the aim of the observational documentary filmmaker is to record the world as it happens, spontaneously, with the minimum of intervention, the technology is there and in our hands. 

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