A dozen strangers volunteered to be part of a team that would leave behind the comforts of home to fly all the way to the Dominican Republic and embrace some of the most beautifully poor people they would ever meet. I was with them. My job was to tell the story of these two cultures meeting and the aftermath of this God ordained collision. My armor? Lenses of course!
After many meetings, discussions, and planning sessions, I felt prepared. In my mind I had the premise in the foreground like beads on a rifle drawing down my targets for the next week. My SD cards were loaded.
The primary target was to tell the story as it unfolded before me. So right away, when the team assembled at the airport at 5AM, I began filming “establishing shots.” These are the kinds of shots that tell the viewer where you are in relation to everything else. Without establishing shots, your viewer will be confused as to where the action is taking place. It is essential to develop the habit of shooting establishing shots as you capture a story.
A good rule of thumb is that establishing shots are generally wide shots. Think about Seinfeld episodes in which the setting jumps from Jerry’s apartment to the deli — there is always a quick wide shot outside of the deli (punctuated by the catchy bass riff). It’s actually really obvious in every TV show when you start to look for it. In my video, a good example is the opening shot of the escalators.
Escalators represent movement, often associated with travel, so they are suitable as a “meta” establishing shot. I also shot the obligatory gate directions, arrival/ departure boards, taxiing airplanes, and the group huddling together.
To the viewer, we are obviously in an airport.
In later situations, as the team arrives at various destinations, I filmed a wide-angle shot of the destination. Sometimes I would be the first stepping off the bus to catch everyone exiting or I might run ahead at a specific location to film the team approaching a landmark or greeting someone. This doesn’t just apply at locations, it is hugely important for activities. When my team started to wash the hands of the children, I needed to get shots establishing the specific activity.
A wide-angle shot is not always necessary. Here, using a close up of the water swirling in the bucket and then cutting to a wider shot of the team cleaning hands worked well. After you have the establishing shot, you’re free grab a ton of close-ups and artistic shots.
Once finished with my establishing shots, I tried to tell the story with an array of close-ups and medium angles. I looked at each situation with a viewer’s prospective and asked, What would be interesting, engaging and thought provoking? Following the film’s premise, I sought after shots to honor the Dominican/Haitian people. When filming children, shooting at their eye level, or even lower, gives them a visual sense of dignity. Prioritizing all film exposure for darker skin, over the lighter-skinned Americans, lets our viewers understand who the documentary is highlighting and who to really focus on.
My eye constantly hunts for visual metaphors to bolster the premise. Here are a few with short explanations:
This child pierces directly into our soul while almost suspicious of our motives and actions. I hope the viewer feels slightly uncomfortable with our team’s initial motives for helping.
Instead of us coming and “saving” them, this frame demonstrates the exact opposite. It is a beautiful symbol of equality and dignity.
This picture is startling. The child is dumping brackish water into his bottle to drink from. This metaphor should incite horror, for this child could easily be one of our own. We need to do something. Now.
This frame represents the great need of these kids who are so jammed together, excited and eagerly waiting to get something small to eat.
In this frame we see a powerful metaphor representing our undeniable kinship. There really is no difference between us.
For me, these “trick shots” are the most fun. They allow me to stretch creativity and tell the story in a way that is subtle, yet very powerful.
In documentary, interview, or scripted story, one must try to pay attention to what kind of shots are needed for each activity. In the end, the editor (even if that’s also you) will need a myriad of clips to effectively tell the story. Use the premise you have established early on in the process to help you target the kinds of shots you will need; it’ll make shooting from the hip completely natural.
Spend intentional time watching films that impress you and look for their establishing shots, trick shots, and visual metaphors. You will be surprised with the work filmmakers put into these subtle storytelling devices and how it pays huge dividends for their art.
What are your favorite visual metaphors you have found in a film? Why not post them here and explain what they represent to you? I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Sloan Inns is a filmmaker for Keystone Community Church and for Boy Meets Girl Visuals. In addition to filmmaking, Sloan leads worship and is constantly explaining that his accent comes from South Africa, not Australia. You can find more of his work on his Vimeo Channel.