Published on: 08 October 2015 in Opinion

Shooting in self-defence

Reading time: 10 minutes and 4 seconds

A couple of weeks ago two members shared their provocative views on the rise of self-shooting in documentary and factual filmmaking. We had a number of responses to the original article, and a couple of directors got in touch to offer a personal defence of the practice.

Who do you agree with? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Max Barber

Max Barber is a producer-director in independent film and broadcast, having made authored, self-shot work such as Drugs Uncovered, Adult Lives and Peter Tatchell: Just Who Does He Think He Is?, as well as fully crewed, flagship shows like Geordie Shore and Make Me a Super Model.

There is no doubt, the bones in my back are starting to creak. Self-shooting for pretty much most of my 17 years in broadcast is starting to take its toll – and who knows the long-term effects that might develop in my later years? I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues’ frustration - and sometimes outrage - at how, at times, exploitative the practice has become. However…for all its demands, expectations, controversy and hard-core example of extreme multi-tasking, there is no doubt: being able and willing to self-shoot has kept me gainfully employed over the last two decades – pretty much full-time.

“There is no doubt: being able and willing to self-shoot has kept me gainfully employed over the last two decades”

I have enjoyed both directorial disciplines, from having the luxury of a full crew on big budget shows, to being able to immerse myself in the otherwise inaccessible and dark underbelly of society as a solo, self-shooter. Then surely there are some positives to highlight? There are, although I don’t by any means expect to tip the scales away from the negatives!

As digital TV exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thinly spreading the advertising revenue across the budgeting landscape, executives were quick to plonk the little PD150 into the hands of many wannabe directors who were still at researcher and AP level. Directors were fast-tracked into existence overnight! Whoopee!

I was very lucky in that I’d been to film school to practice what constitutes coverage, framing, sequences and general filming requirements, and those of us that did have some training under our belt were given a hefty queue-jump into the world of telly. We were promptly given our own shows to direct, albeit for lesser known and barely watched channels. Fact: these circumstances launched the careers of many of us, so let us not forget that.

In fact if it hadn’t been for the advent of digital TV and compact cameras designed for the self-shooting filmmaker, I would have probably walked away from a career in broadcast. In the early 1990s, and in my early twenties, I was a keen Unit Assistant at CBBC, eager to work my way up and ultimately get to shoot ‘grown up’ telly. I distinctly remember my executive producer asking where I wanted to end up in my career with ‘Auntie’.

“Be a director”, I answered willingly. 

To which he expelled a gasp of air and responded with something along the lines of: “Forget it. You need to be a NFTS graduate, or work for decades through the system before you’d ever get a show of your own, young man!” Imagine how deflated I felt. 

“To succeed as a self-shooting PD one does get the feeling you need to train your mind in the art of playing Tri-dimensional Chess”

But less than a year later I escaped the dinosaur that the BBC was at the time, got a job at a forward-thinking indie, and sent the same executive a TX card with my name on it, credited as ‘director’. It was for a silly music and comedy caper called Bob Downe All Over Britain, made for the new UKTV and commissioned by the then unknown Stuart Murphy (in fact, it was his first commission too!).

Ironically, the series was actually shot using a full crew, but my exec at the time, Gavin Hay at Brighter Pictures, had the faith to put me in charge having seen the stories and films I’d self-shot and self-produced. You will always be judged primarily by what you can put on screen, and if you can deliver something that works, to budget, on-time and within the constraints given to you, then the phone calls will keep on coming. 

On the flipside, to succeed as a self-shooting PD one does get the feeling you need to train your mind in the art of playing Tri-dimensional Chess (if you’re a Trekie you’ll know what that is). And even though I’ve managed to stay working in a very demanding, frustrating, exhausting but rewarding industry, I do fear that as I get further into my forties my eyesight will start to fail before its time, that the neurons in my brain will lose connections and bring on early dementia, and my crumbling spine will put me in wheelchair long before I get my bus pass.

“Spock: we face the Klingons without our shields and no photon torpedoes or you take a self-shooting contract for six months. Either way it’s damn near suicide!”

Will the long-hours, bad karma from the edit, impossible physical and mental demands and melee of frustrating ‘no-win’ situations be worth it all in the long run? Hmm…ask my nurse in a decade or so.

Robert Gould

Robert Gould is a producer-director and series producer who has made TV series and films in more than 95 countries over 16 years, including self-shot programmes for BBC World such as One Square Mile and Working Lives, and he has worked with DoPs on specialist factual series such as African Masters.

Television directors, particularly those working in factual, are increasingly expected to be able and willing to self-shoot all or at least part of their own programmes. The self-shooting director has since become ubiquitous across factual TV, no longer restricted to the low budget end of the industry.

As budgets are spread ever more thinly, self-shooting is not a panacea. But as someone who shoots a lot of my own material, I often consider the pros and cons, and know there are more reasons for self-shooting than mere budgetary ones.

“There are situations in which a competent self-shooting director can more quickly and directly cut to the humanity of a situation than would be possible with a full crew”

I believe our craft has room for as many different approaches as there are directors and that there are few rights or wrongs in the processes we each have for telling stories.

I have been conscious of the shift since I began working in the mid-90s, when DV cameras brought down the cost of “broadcast quality”. Back then, there had to be an editorial reason for using DV (or before that Hi8) and there were percentage rules for the amount that could be incorporated into a programme. But as formats such as DVCAM and DVCPro evolved, the line was soon blurred. In many ways, these formats showed that you needed the right hands to produce what was (for the time) a great picture, as a researcher would produce unusable footage using the same technology. 

My impression was that as technology was changing and budgets were being forced down by a proliferation of channels, there was also a change in the expectations and appetites of commissioners. All this led to actuality becoming dominant as a documentary style.

My own background and route into programme-making is relevant here because it has coloured my view. I worked as a freelance photographer before training and working as a newspaper journalist. In 1997, as part of an experiment in video journalism, a DV camera was thrust into my hands and I was given some basic training. I then became a video journalist for a local cable news channel, shooting up to four news packages every day, and crucially taking them through the edit with understanding but outspoken VT editors.

The experiment was ultimately a failure; cable didn’t take off in the UK for another 10 years, lots of reporters weren’t interested in self-shooting (one even forgetting to take their camera to a shoot), the channel closed down.

Yet for me it was a defining experience.

I went on to work in factual TV, and as a researcher and AP who was already into the story and capable of shooting, directors were often keen to have me work with them. My first work as an actual director was self-shot, as indeed have been most of my jobs since. I have also worked with gifted DoPs and recognise their vital role in successfully telling a story.

There are different styles of directing and not all lend themselves to self-shooting. A director only has a certain bandwidth of attention and, for me, the only films in which self-shooting really works are those that solely rely on direction of the camera rather than direction of contributors or actors.

I believe there are situations in which a competent self-shooting director can more quickly and directly cut to the humanity of a situation than would be possible with a full crew.

I think that any film comes to life when the barriers go down and you catch a glimpse of the real person behind the subject. As a director I take that as one of my prime challenges and I find it works well for me when I’m shooting my own material.

“The way we tell stories can be as diverse as the stories themselves”

The intimacy that’s demanded by audiences and commissioners is part of the zeitgeist. In the age of social media, intimacy is everywhere (for better or worse) and as programme-makers we are competing for attention in a crowded media landscape. A landscape that includes professional “YouTubers” who think nothing of being the presenter, camera op, director, and exec all at once.

Intimacy doesn’t spring automatically from the act of self-shooting, and of course if material can’t make the cut because it’s out of focus or badly exposed then it’s gone forever. But having done it for 16 years, I’m confident that you can reach a point where the camera doesn’t get in the way and it becomes second nature. And at that point I find the intimacy comes more easily. Of course it’s partly because when I have a camera in my hands I’m in my comfort zone and that helps too.

Self-shooting should never be a purely budgetary decision, as it’s fundamentally a stylistic choice that has implications for the way a story is told. As directors, our role is that of a storyteller and our ultimate goal to tell an engaging human story – regardless of whether we decide to self-shoot that story or not. The way we tell stories can be as diverse as the stories themselves.

The industry is constantly changing and to an extent we do have to adapt to the demands of the market, but I believe there will always be a place for shooting as well as non-shooting directors. Our ways of working surely differ – and that’s healthy. Self-shooting has allowed me to tell stories that could never have been made with a crew in tow, and ultimately telling stories like that is the reason we do what we do.