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Tuesday, 18 December 2012 19:20

Documentary Filmmaking Around the World

Written by  Nathan Hoturoa Gray
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docfilmmaking_pre_greatwallofchinaMaking documentaries is one of the most challenging art forms. Filmmakers deeply experience the reality of the subject being documented, and the accumulation of raw footage can be incredibly challenging and dangerous. Afterwards, it takes a delicate hand to edit all the images to tell a story that will speak to millions. P3 Update gets up close and personal with a host of documentary filmmakers currently making waves in the industry as they tackle this all-consuming visual craft.


When it comes to taking on big challenges in postproduction, look no further than Filmmaker Eliot Rausch’s latest documentary Limbo, which condensed 250 hours of footage into an 18-minute piece. For the project, Rausch chose three Latino students from lower economic families in East L.A. and encouraged them to shoot their lives for three months. The filmmaker paid them each a stipend out of the $25,000 Vimeo Festival + Awards grant he was awarded to resource the project. None of the three students had ever used a camera before, so with a half-day of training session and periodic guidance the students recorded their personal stories, focusing on what it’s like for them to follow their dreams while being restricted by the challenges of poverty and U.S. immigration laws.

The result was a collection of extraordinary footage that was turned over to Rausch and Producer Mark Schwartz, who passed the project back and forth as they edited the stories. “It was really intimidating because looking at it, it was like ‘Gosh, I’m going to have to look through all this footage and live through all this,’” recalls Rausch. “Initially I wasn’t excited at all, so it was really a labor of love getting through it.” Fortunately, the final product is simply awe-inspiring as it captures the lives of three first-time camera users and their challenges while living life in America. “We can actually empower people that have never touched a camera before and assist them to facilitate filmmaking in this way,” says Rausch. The filmmaker encourages aspiring storytellers to always speak from a true place while focusing on telling a unique tale that can be shared with the world.
To see the finished video for Limbo, click


After producing an aviation spectacular event at the New Zealand Air Games, German Producer/Documentarian Alex Behse was invited to film the annual Everest Skydive shoot for Zeitgeist Productions and Monsoon Pictures. Filming behind the scenes, Behse captured the logistics of the unique skydiving mission where participating clients are charged 20,000 pounds to fund the excursion. Setting out from Kathmandu via a flight to Lukla, the gateway to the Everest region, the landing strip is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous — the short runway has an uphill approach that heads straight towards a rock wall, leaving no room for error.

Behse used a Sony PMW-EX3 camera and later Sony’s NEX-FS100 while filming several days of the mission group trekking to the jump site. He found it physically exhausting to run back and forth while organizing shots and cutaways of the expedition team disappearing in the distance. “I rigged up a shoulder harness to help carry the camera but it wasn’t enough to appease the strain, so we offloaded my backpack with the tripod to one of the legendary Sherpas,” states Behse. Working at such high altitudes also led to headaches, dehydration and sunstroke, but the shoot still proved worthwhile.

Behse used the EX3 while serving as a test dummy on a tandem skydive, where it takes about 50 minutes for the jump plane to reach altitude. “[With the] door wide open, [I was] strapped to the plane with oxygen mask on and a parachute on my back,” he recalls. “We flew about 500 meters past Mount Everest at the same height as its summit. Temperatures up there are well into freezing, and so were my fingers. But on the wide angle, the footage turned out to be amazing and very steady.” When clients jump from that altitude, they’re approximately 1.5 minutes in freefall followed by an 8-to-10-minute “scenic time” under canopy to enjoy views of the world’s tallest peaks. “I film before the take-off, the flight under canopy, their landing and their reactions,” says Behse. “Each client also has two aerial cameramen with them.” The last element involved numerous HD Contour and GoPro cameras mounted inside and outside the plane from various angles. “I needed to work out how to keep the plane vibration low and stop the cameras from fogging up,” Behse adds.

Behse ran Apple Final Cut Pro on his MacBook Pro as well as a couple of radio microphones, and all the footage needed to be edited together into a DVD. At the end of each jump day, he spent hours not only charging the batteries with reduced electricity, but also converting, ingesting and backing up the shots. However, the key issue involved the formats.  “Because our team came from all around the world, their own helmet-mounted cameras, [like the] Sony CX520E [and] HDR-CX100, were a mix of PAL and NTSC,” Behse explains. “The odd one was tape-based HDV, but most of them recorded on solid-state media, such as SD cards or memory sticks, as in freefall sometimes the recording on hard drives fails. As opposed to the editing-friendly MPEG-2 long GOP codec used by my main Sony PMW-EX3 camera, the compression codec of the others was mainly H.264, [which is] a nightmare [when] cutting in the field on a laptop, as it’s very processor heavy. But we survived and I produced a 30-minute video.”
To see the promo for Everest Skydive, click
California Forever, the latest documentary from Backcountry Pictures’ Oscar-nominated Director David Vassar and Cinematographer Christopher Tufty, tells the story of California’s magnificent state parks. Attuned to the planet’s current environment woes, the production team was motivated to create a show that would remind people of the parks’ legacy, what it took for individuals to set these parks aside, and how important it is for us to honor this promise for generations to come. “We shot in over 40 state parks, initially scouting through 100,” reports Producer Sally Kaplan. Shooting for two to three days in each locale created a huge logistical challenge. “We needed to interface with staff at more than 60 parks across the state at a time of shrinking budgets, but the greatest challenge was getting 150 years of history into two, one-hour programs.” Kaplan managed to raise money through traditional channels used for funding documentaries, adhering to the strict programming guidelines at PBS. “In the end, three underwriting organizations stepped up to the plate,” she explains, “the Hoefer Family Foundation, Active Network and Destination Cinema, Inc.”

Since filming in remote locations is expensive and dangerous, a primary goal for Backcountry Pictures was to bring back the fattest master, and return with material that can be repurposed for future productions and sold as stock footage. Shooting with a RED camera package provided by Keslow Camera, the Backcountry team traveled more than 20,000 miles for over two years to shoot the show’s incredible images. Filming among Redwood trees, Tufty went as high up as possible above a tree to tilt down and reveal its size, scope and location. On a windy day in the desert, he would shoot in slow motion in order to slow down the blowing sensation and flower petals wiggling. In Ocotillo Wells, where off-roaders nearly hang their vehicles over a cliff, the DP would hang his camera close over the ledge to achieve a dizzying effect. And on a ride-along with a law enforcement ranger, the jumpiness of a handheld camera only added to the sense of urgency.

“Given we were traveling extensively to produce California Forever, we often needed additional production assistant help,” says Kaplan. Being on a limited budget necessitated finding local hires in many places. “I always began by calling the local university or college with a film/television program, and asking the professor to recommend their best student,” Kaplan explains. “One of the P.A.s we found was so good we ended up hiring her for the entire shoot, and when production was complete, she moved to Los Angeles and worked for us in our office for a year as an office P.A. as well.” Additional crewmembers, outside the core team of Editor Christian White and Composer Tony Humecke, were hired through recommendations from the camera house where the production rented gear. “Josh Helling, who served as one of the assistant camera operators, came to us on his own [by] emailing many times [and] lobbying us to hire him,” recalls Kaplan. His persistence paid off, especially when the core team learned that he was skilled in teaching people how to climb Half Dome in Yosemite, and thus could rig anything, if needed.
Check out the trailer for California Forever at


The documentary film Holy Rollers follows the rise of arguably the largest and most well-funded blackjack team in America — and it is entirely made up of churchgoing card-counting Christians. And while the team succeeds in taking millions from casinos, the doc explores how they still manage to find a place for faith and God in a high-stakes gambling arena.

For most documentary projects, the greatest challenge is the issue of overall funding, and this proved true for Director Bryan Storkel. On a whim, Storkel sent a rough cut of Holy Rollers to the Seattle International Film Festival, but when the film got accepted it was still months away from completion. Up to this point, Storkel had spent four years working on the doc while spending $13,000 out of his own pocket (with private investors covering the remaining budget) and he was in no place financially to contribute more. This led him to Kickstarter in order to raise the funds to finish the film. With 81 backers contributing just over $11,000 within a month, Storkel completed his doc in time with funds covering the film’s composer, color correction, audio mixing and marketing to festivals throughout the U.S. “We were very thankful that there were so many people out there that wanted to help us complete this film, especially family, friends and the Kickstarter community,” says Storkel. “One complete stranger contributed $5000!” The director’s Kickstarter rewards incentive included DVDs and tickets to his doc’s world premiere in Seattle.
To learn more about Holy Rollers, visit

docfilmmaking_pro_maxquinn_-huntingtheicewhales_1HUNTING THE ICE WHALES

Working for Natural History New Zealand, Filmmaker Max Quinn has been in the documentary business for 44 years. His latest project Hunting the Ice Whales follows a group of whale researchers as they venture into the wild Southern Ocean to undertake nonlethal whale research in Antarctica. Until now, virtually all of the whaling “research” in Antarctica has been claimed by Japan as they kill up to 900 whales each year in the name of science.  “[My] documentary shows how this unique set of whale researchers attempt to attach satellite tracking devices onto the backs of whales in stormy seas and horrendously icy conditions,” Quinn reports.

Quinn is very passionate about the whales’ welfare, having filmed a documentary on southern right whales and a project for Discovery on bowhead whale hunting in the Arctic. “Because of the logistics of these types of documentaries, I like to work with small crews ... usually with a sound man and myself as camera/director,” he explains. “However, on [Hunting the Ice Whales] I was on my own, so I had to shoot, direct, capture the sound as well as conduct interviews [as] a true one-man band. I find this style quite liberating. You are your own boss who’s responsible for all decision making, which ultimately means that you have a lot more control over the film. [This is] something that is becoming harder with commissions driving the way films are produced these days for competing networks.”

Working as a solo operator on ship-based shoots in Antarctic waters is incredibly challenging because one is at sea for no less than 40 to 50 days in freezing conditions. “I chose to use a Panasonic AJ-HDX900 2/3-inch chip camera off a tripod when filming scenics or whale/research action from the deck of the boat,” Quinn states. “My second camera was the excellent HVX202, which is a 1/3-inch chip camera that uses P2 cards to record on. I’ve found this camera really robust when working from inflatables and when chasing researchers around decks and for getting unobtrusive footage. On more than one occasion the camera was drenched in freezing salt water and even dropped, but I was able to pick it up, wipe it down and get on with the job.”

To learn more about Hunting the Ice Whales, visit

Natural History New Zealand also delivers ground-breaking 3D documentary programs for 3net. For the 3D series “China Revealed: The Great Wall of China,” Executive Producer Craig Meade used two Canon XF305 cameras on side-by-side rigs with mirror rigs for the shoot. “The ten shows featured longer-than-usual shots, so the audience could fully study the scene in 3D, especially given China’s epic vistas,” Meade explains. “Each one-hour show was made up of approximately 50 shots so they weren’t too optically challenging for new 3D viewers.” “China Revealed: The Great Wall of China” will utilize the 3D production skills of Park Road Post, the New Zealand-based company hired for Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Such technology is a far cry from 2000, when I personally took my Hi-8 Sony camera along the Great Wall’s 4,000 kilometers to shoot. Completely self-funded and with no outside support crew, it was vital for me to go in as light as possible while filming this documentary. This was especially true when I was forced to cross the sand dunes of the Gobi desert for over three months and trek the steep inclines of Chinese peaks for six months. Power supply was rare in these remote parts, as I would find a city only once every two or three weeks, but my trekking team generally got very lucky at random peasant villages where we could recharge my 4-hour and 1-hour battery packs whenever a socket was available.

During the shoot, my team bravely endured thirst, starvation, food poisoning, disease, sand storms, snakes, 20-degree temperatures, lightning strikes and even military detention. In the end, we captured approximately 50 hours of raw footage that I edited down to an hour-long documentary of the experience. It was amazing to see the sheer architectural genius behind the 2,000-year -old ancient wonders at a time when no westerners had been able to shoot there, making it a rare privilege to capture such incredible scenery within the remote yet generous culture.
To learn more about my adventure visit for the DVD promo.

It takes great heart to shoot a documentary on location to share a vivid experience or highlight a specific cause, and many documentarians tackle highly charged emotional subject matter with little or no funding. Completing a documentary project requires determination, courage, patience, technological savvy and enormous mental fortitude, but this all seems more manageable when the chosen subject involves a compelling story. The world’s most dedicated documentary filmmakers will always be compelled to properly serve good material.
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