Published on: 17 September 2015 in Longform
Self-shooting ourselves in the foot?
Reading time: 23 minutes and 38 seconds
As self-shooting becomes an increasingly common - if not ubiquitous - part of documentary and factual filmmaking, we asked two directors to write about the effect it’s had on the industry.
Do you have a different view of self-shooting? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org - two members have written a piece in support of self-shooting which you can read here.
Stephen Lennhoff is a London based, American born film and television director and writer. His TV directing credits include numerous programmes for the Without Walls and OUT series, over 20 episodes of the adventure travel series Globetrekker, Confessions of An IRA Informer, Death Duties, Come Fly With Me: The Real Story of Pan Am, Graham Norton’s Unzipped, Dom Joly’s Happy Hour and Paul O’Grady’s America:
There are many problems facing the British television industry but the overuse of the self-shooting PD is one of the most insidious. As a producer director of factual TV shows for nearly 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but this one is particularly worrisome.
Self-shooting directors are nothing new. They have been around since the beginning of motion pictures, but in the past they were a rare breed, limited to special subject matter that required extraordinary levels of discretion and intimacy, where low visibility was essential, or where a contributor might be intimidated by a large crew. These days, outside a narrow margin of high end documentaries and factual entertainment series, it’s become the norm.
Just look at the jobs being offered on websites like Talent Manager or Production Base: the majority of them are for self-shooting PDs – often required to research, occasionally edit their own material and sometimes even record sound. I’m waiting for lunch preparation and toilet cleaning to be added to the list of the self-shooting PD’s responsibilities. To top it all off, most of these jobs pay nothing more for the added skills, enabling a production company to draw a line through one or two previously necessary crew members and pay nothing more for their absence.
Why is this happening? The rise in self-shooting PDs was kick-started by the economic crisis several years ago and seemed to parallel the rise in smaller, lighter, user-friendly digital cameras. So at first glance this may seem a reasonable evolution, in step with the changing technology of the time; suddenly, it looked like you could send almost anyone out to cover a story and they’d come back with useable footage. In earlier times then, before the ‘economic crisis’ and the recent fleet of digital cameras arrived, the practice was mostly restricted to less crucial ‘b-roll’ shooting; anything important was still the domain of full crews. There are still some production companies that try to stick to that formula today, but more often than not the rule is being flouted.
The economic benefits of the new policy seem obvious, so the practice spread like wildfire. That’s when the problems began, because - just as this new self-shooting orthodoxy was taking shape - a new range of much more sophisticated digital cameras hit the market. They were lighter than the tape cameras dinosaurs of yore and so it was assumed these new cameras would be easier to operate. Production companies began to invest in these new models big time, with Canon’s C300 leading the pack.
“Suddenly, it looked like you could send almost anyone out to cover a story and they’d come back with useable footage”
Nowadays the C300 is the ubiquitous, standard kit for the self-shooter. Its popularity arose largely from the quality of its image and its narrow depth of field lenses that produce those creamy, blurry, candy-coated backgrounds that accompany just about every talking head interview you see on TV these days. I understand the joy of turning up at a hideously drab location and discovering how the grim reality of an interviewee’s kitchen can be transformed into a blurry pastel background worthy of exhibition at the Tate, but – as one cameraman I worked with remarked – when did pretty blurry backgrounds become the most important element of TV documentary camerawork?
I think most cameramen would agree that the C300 can get some wonderful images. And yet it’s not the best choice when it comes to shooting handheld or observational footage, where spontaneity and the ability to follow your subject (crashing into a big CU when they’re about to cry etc.) is needed. It’s not always convenient to stop and change lenses every five minutes, or to have to position the camera within an inch of a subject’s face. People who use the C300 regularly will know exactly what I’m getting at…
In fact, outside of fixed interview situations or carefully framed set-up shots, I’d argue that the C300 is a terrible camera for factual TV. Its awkward shape makes hand holding difficult – even with those ridiculously elaborate and restrictive shoulder braces – and its interchangeable lenses destroy spontaneous coverage. The camera is far better designed for the demands of drama shoots, where just about every shot is meticulously planned and rehearsed.
But the industry had made its decision; as soon as most production companies rushed out and bought these cameras the debate was over before it had even begun. Someone somewhere must’ve envisaged a brave new world where fleets of inexperienced self-shooting PDs would turn in amazingly beautiful work for pennies, and so they decided to make that dream a reality.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the C300 per se. It’s a great camera when used correctly (I too can be seduced by those luscious out-of-focus backgrounds), but if a production company wants to use it, I would argue they need to hire a dedicated camera operator. Instead, the wholesale adoption of cameras like the C300 has created a very specific problem: they are far too complex for the average self-shooting PD to use well.
“I would joke about the pointlessness of my role: ‘we all know what a camera operator does, what a sound recordist does, but what tangible skill does a director or producer offer? I suppose I can carry a tripod…’”
Loss of focus
In the past, sophisticated cameras like these would’ve demanded a fully-skilled camera operator. You know, a professional; someone dedicated to camera operating, who knew their camera inside out and had hundreds of hours of practice under their belt. Someone who could consistently deliver quality images with speed and precision, leaving the director or PD free to concentrate on what they’re meant to concentrate on: content and creative ways to communicate it. This is sadly no longer the case, and has become an expected part of the self-shooting PD’s remit.
Chat to editors who have to cut the majority of the stuff shot by self-shooters and you’ll hear horror stories about out-of-focus images and shaky over- or underexposed footage, with no coherent coverage of sequences. One editor told me that on average he has to throw out some 50% of self-shot footage. The editor and edit director (another recent invention) are left to pick up the pieces and turn the substandard into something watchable.
Shooters with insufficient experience of a camera keep turning in bad footage but then never get into the edit to learn what is wrong with their footage, what to watch out for, or how to make it better. If the bad footage is not weeded out in the offline, onlines and grades are taken up trying to ‘fix’ footage.
One production manager I know told me that she won’t hire self-shooting PDs anymore because the footage is so unreliable. She now hires experienced camera operators and DOPs to do the job and asks them to take on the extra responsibilities of the PD. To her it seemed the best option, the better of two evils; direction and production might be compromised but at least you’d have useable footage. I fear this is the inevitable future of it all, so camera operators: start sharpening up your directing and producing skills. Directors and producers? Become a camera operator or learn to make tea.
Of course the drop in broadcasting standards must bear some culpability. I remember when perfectly decent shows were returned by technical spec departments because of their perceived poor quality - usually due to some dodgy focus, a little overexposure or a bit of drop out. Nowadays it takes a hell of a lot more to get your show returned for technical reasons, in fact it’s practically unheard of.
Death of a camera operator…or director…or producer
But my beef is not with the lack of self-shooting experience amongst many PDs. That would be unfair. Why should they be expected to master the skills of award-winning photographers? My issue is with an industry that requires self-shooting PDs to be all things to all people. This one-man band approach to shooting is doomed to fail. The skills required to direct or produce are very different to those needed to shoot. In most cases, when these three jobs are rolled into one, something inevitably suffers.
In the past, I remember directing shoots where I would joke about the pointlessness of my role: ‘we all know what a camera operator does, what a sound recordist does, but what tangible skill does a director or producer offer? I suppose I can carry a tripod…’, I’d quip. I was being rhetorical of course, but unfortunately what was once regarded as a joke has now become an accepted logic. I suppose to a production accountant this might seem reasonable: you can’t really quantify leadership, creative vision, programme coherence or good interaction with contributors, so why pay for it? Strike those delusional self-important PDs off the crew list.
But we are where we are. People need to work, so they agree to take on the roles they’re offered. They have no choice. Needless to say, the rise in self-shooting PDs has led to a decimation of jobs. In many cases, where there were two or even three people to cover these roles there is now only one. That’s great for the budget, but is it in the best interest of programme-making or a healthy productive industry?
“When you’re concentrating on focus and getting the exposure correct you’re not able to exhibit much control or artistic freedom over anything but the camera work”
The illusion of authorship
Some self-shooting PDs will argue that they prefer it this way. That having to communicate with camera operators is tedious and unnecessary when all they want to do is wrench the camera from them and shoot it themselves anyway. They argue that being able to shoot the shows they direct and produce gives them more artistic freedom and control. But does it really?
There are some very capable and talented self-shooting PDs out there. I don’t want to denigrate their talents, but I’m always a bit wary of those who insist they’d rather shoot themselves. I would suggest many of them don’t really know how to direct or produce that well and that is why they find such solace in self-shooting. In a previous era they probably would’ve become camera operators. It’s as if the PDing side of it all has become less important. But don’t be fooled; these roles and job demarcations were created, and lasted for so long, for good reason. They created a structure for consistently producing quality work while allowing for individual vision.
As for self-shooting PDs having more artistic freedom and control (the freedom to become the authors of their work): really? Some documentaries are indeed the product of inspired and talented self-shooting authorship, but not the majority of formatted telly. Authorship and individuality is the enemy of the formatted series and you’re kidding yourself if you think differently.
Besides, when you’re concentrating on focus and getting the exposure correct you’re not able to exhibit much control or artistic freedom over anything but the camera work. You can’t interact or listen to your contributor with the same concentration you’d have if you weren’t doing the camera work. You’re not able to observe what is happening around or outside the frame of your camera: which is crucial when filming spontaneous events or situations where what’s important is not readily visible. To top it all off, if you’re not even involved in the edit that illusion of artistic expression and personal control is completely negated.
Now, there are some true geniuses out there who can simultaneously perform all these roles with aplomb. I am in awe of these people, but they are not the norm and nor should most PDs be expected to match that standard. The truth is, if you try to take on all three roles, something will inevitably suffer. Even the recently deceased filmmaker and self-shooter Albert Maysles worked alongside his brother, adding an extra pair of eyes and ears and point of view to the experience.
The inevitability of change
So, why is this is all happening? The usual reply from production companies is that they don’t have the budgets they used to; more airtime to fill, less money to do it with. They claim everybody’s doing it and it’s the inevitable future of the industry. But is it?
Having worked for European and US TV production companies recently, I learned – to my joy and relief – that elsewhere the use of self-shooting PDs is practically unheard of, and there’s little sign that things will change. So, what is touted in Britain as ‘inevitable’ and ‘everybody’s doing it’ seems to only apply to the UK. Don’t be duped. If other countries haven’t been forced to adopt this practice then why is it happening so comprehensively across the UK? One can only assume that the answer is misplaced sense of frugality.
These days it seems as if every ob doc or reality shoot involving more than one on-screen contributor must have at least two cameras. Why this obsession with multiple cameras? There seems to be a consensus that every conversation has to be captured like a studio talk show or dialogue scene in a soap. Every word or reaction must be seen. But this is a lazy approach. No one seems to have the imagination or knowhow to cover a sequence with only one camera anymore. Multiple camera shooting creates a new set of limitations too: cameras get in each other’s way and they limit a singular editorial vision. And of course they lead us to the inevitable conclusion that in order to afford the extra cameras we have to consolidate roles and keep costs down: get the PD to shoot, or a PA, or the bin man – whoever’s around really. It doesn’t have to be this way.
A losing business
Feeding the self-shooting habit is certainly one way to control budgets, but I would suggest there is something bigger at stake. For decades the British TV industry has traded off its ability to produce high quality factual programmes. No other country in the world has had the same kind of production output in factual television as the UK. In the US for example, British production has been synonymous with high-end documentaries for decades, that’s why they buy and commission so many of them from UK production companies. I was born and grew up in the US and I can tell you that, until recently, the States made nothing like the quantity, quality and variety of factual output as the UK.
But things are changing. The US is making more and more home-grown factual output. In New York, TV production is booming like never before, much of it thriving on the demand for more factual based series. Is Britain losing out? If it settles for substandard cheap programming it probably will and the overuse of self-shooters certainly contributes to the quality vacuum.
Change is inevitable. I accept that old structures don’t always fulfil contemporary needs, but the UK TV industry’s enthusiasm for self-shooting PDs is short-sighted. What might save a few budget pounds in the short term could have dire long-term consequences. The eventual loss of production structures and specialised disciplines erodes our talent base. It’s a slippery slope that not only costs jobs but ultimately compromises programme quality, consistency and eventually commissions.
When content is driven by economic factors alone the results are rarely good. Channels are already flooded with an endless variety of reality shows where not a lot happens. If we follow the current logic, where are we headed? A slew of fixed-rig shows are removing the human element to shooting altogether, reducing coverage of real life events to the cold analytic distance of CCTV. It won’t be long before selfie TV will prevail (I suppose on the internet it already has). But is this what we really want to watch? And where does it end?
Everyone’s a camera operator on their iPhone. No more cumbersome and costly crews soaking up budgets. Just shoot the thing yourself and put it out there. If viewers have no other choice it’s bound to catch on. What may seem to some as progress with a few minor drawbacks could come back to bite them on the proverbial backside. One-man band programme-making means just that. Say goodbye to directors and producers today, but who’s next? Execs? Commissioning editors?
I keep hearing people say the backlash to all of this is on its way. I’m still waiting and in the meantime I find myself watching less and less factual TV. I suspect I’m not the only one.
Self-shooting: and then there was one
I can vividly remember the beginning of the vogue for self-shooting. Back in the late, late 90s, the Sony PD150 camera had just arrived. Like a lot of other documentary directors I was quite taken with this latest gizmo; here was a camera we could actually work (well, sort of), it didn’t seem too complicated, you could always stick it on autofocus and auto-sound if you were uncertain, and if the gods favoured you and the light was right the results were sometimes passable. At around £2000 it seemed a steal so I actually bought one. It was fun to mess around with a small camera, and it all seemed so doable. I’d take it out on shoots and use it to augment the main camera – usually a different angle on the main interview or a straightforward GV. I even got so bold as to actually agree to use it to shoot a 2-part series about rogue traders. I drove up and down the M5 for weeks on end with my trusted camera and a set of lightweight lights and tripod, and I was quite chuffed with the results; most of it was in focus and my attempts at following the action were steady if a little amateurish. We weren’t talking Barry Ackroyd here! But hey, I did it!
However, the sudden fascination with this latest toy soon passed and it was something of a relief to retreat back into the familiar world of “the crew”.
“Exhausting? Yes. Lonely? Certainly. Very soon I had had my fill of eating alone in cheap American diners late at night, having a conversation with myself about the shoot and all the niggling little problems that had occurred”
Ah, the crew. That was my world. Me and my little gang, compromising my DOP, soundman, and a highly organized PA to organise our travel and schedule, manage the budget and take notes. This was the same gang you worked with regularly because you bonded together and knew how each other ticked. You were brothers and sisters in arms and you shared the load on the road. It was always hard work, but fun. At the end of the day you could relax over a glass of wine and regale each other with stories about previous shoots, discuss the filming so far, and ideas to make it work better.
Then bit by bit it all started to erode. First the PA on the road disappeared, a victim of cost-cutting. Your merry band of four was now three, with your own good self-inheriting the organisational role. You would bumble through the ever-changing schedule, do your best to placate contributors as the best laid plans changed again, and try to keep on top of “the money” as the schedule fell to pot.
Then three became two. In an era of ever-tightening budgets, one of the growing legions of Time and Motions bods decreed that soundman were surplus to requirements. “No money” for sound you were told. The popular misconception back in the office seemed to be that sound was easy to muster. You were told that on top of the schedule and oh, directing (your primary task) you could do the sound, or else the cameraman could take it on board. Well, that usually meant me. An intensive morning session at a facilities house was arranged, where you were to learn everything there was to know about sound in one tutorial, delivered at break neck speed to get through all the basics. So it came to be that a morning waving a boom mike around and fiddling with knobs on a mixer was deemed sufficient to mug you up for the big noisy world outside.
You’d sometimes arrive back in the edit with dodgy sound on the rushes, to world-weary cries of “what am I supposed to do with that?” from your editor, but hey, at least you had beautiful pictures, and your friends in the dubbing theatre would do their best to disguise your dreadful handiwork.
Then the inevitable happened: two became one. Suddenly you were expected to direct, do your own sound, and film as well. Not that there was much time to think about how you were going to direct the shoot when you spent 99% of your time worrying about your framing and that crackling noise on the radio mike. Not only that, but the idiot-proof camera of old had suddenly become much more complicated. The Canon XF305 was the new kid on the block; great images, but with all the controls and dials in strange places that you could never quite reach or locate in the heat of the moment. I’m not blaming the camera, but for directors never trained in cinematography it was quite a challenge. The opportunity to screw up was multiplied. Jumbled sequences – badly lit, in and out of focus, lagging behind the action – and, of course, dodgy sound to boot.
“We shouldn’t be writing off future talent and forcing everyone into a self-shooting straightjacket”
Here you were, battling with a strange camera, sometimes in far-flung places, all on your own. The group of 4 you’d come to rely on to do their job while you worried about yours, and all the creative sparring and support that came with that, had gone. Now it was you, on your own, lugging bags of equipment on and off planes, constantly jetlagged. Exhausting? Yes. Lonely? Certainly. Very soon I had had my fill of eating alone in cheap American diners late at night, having a conversation with myself about the shoot and all the niggling little problems that had occurred.
And so it’s gone on. Now every production company seems to have their own C300 camera. There’s no doubt that camera takes beautiful filmic images if the operator knows what she or he is doing. But again, the misconception seems to be that any old idiot can master it. Now we’re all expected to self-shoot, whether it’s for a reality series or a prime-time observational documentary.
The conversation about the job is always the same. It’s a feature-length doc, yes; primetime, yes; we want it to be cinematic, dramatic, a sure-fire BAFTA candidate. So far all mention of the “budget” has been studiously avoided. Then it comes – always at the end of the chat, just when you’re thinking it’s safe to relax and say, ‘yes I will take on this amazing, difficult subject that is going to take over my life for the next 6 months even if my family never speak to me again, etc. etc…’ Then comes the inevitable question: “can you shoot it yourself?” Always a tricky one this. Do you reply:
- “Yes, I can but it will look like shit and you will never employ me again!”
- “No” – running the risk of coming across like a total Luddite (“and guess what, you will never employ me again!”)
- Or the cop out (and my usual answer): “Yes, I don’t mind doing a bit – the interviews for example - but would prefer to use a crew for the bulk. I’m sure we can do a deal”. Then work out the figures and madly play with the budget to keep the self-shooting part down to an absolute bare minimum.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against self-shooting per se, if it’s what you genuinely want to do and you have the skills and the eye for it. There’s a whole new generation of self-shooting directors out there who’re simply brilliant and have been justly rewarded for their efforts: James Newton, Dan Reed, and Nick Holt are at the forefront of this genre – but you can count them on two hands. It’s the worst kept secret in the industry that self-shooting just isn’t working for the majority. I hear it from production managers all the time: “do you know of any good self-shooting directors who can fly out to the Far East and shoot a 6-part series because everyone we’ve tried out so far is rubbish?” Or DOPs have to be brought in at the end of the shoot to retake the self-shot material.
I may feel confident saying it’s not for me, but too many young directors feel pressurised into self-shooting, just as they’re still finding their feet, and when they’ve had little training or have yet to show any aptitude for it. Inevitably, when they come back with rushes that are not up to scratch, they suddenly find the phone stops ringing with all those future jobs they were promised. And that’s wrong. We shouldn’t be writing off future talent and forcing everyone into a self-shooting straightjacket. Our industry deserves better. We deserve better.
In reponse to this piece we had a number of members contacting us in support of self-shooting, a couple of them have published their responses in an article you can read here.