“Real-ly Dedicated”

Some of the most difficult, demanding and personally dangerous work our camera crews ever do is in the area of nonfiction filmmaking. This includes some areas of reality television (think Deadliest Catch not Real Housewives of Orange County). But mostly I’m talking about the kinds of documentaries and live-event news coverage that have become so necessary in our world today.

My early career consisted of shooting many documentaries, industrials, and medical and educational films, some of which put my crew and me in harm’s way. Although the results may not always have been the most satisfying on screen, they were usually the most intriguing and challenging projects. We always did (and still do) describe nonfiction filmmaking as a “labor of love” because of the small budgets and crews. But that phrase is misleading: a labor of love is still labor. And, as often as possible, it should be covered by a Union contract.

One of the most difficult areas of nonfiction is shooting live news, which has become more demanding, even as the equipment has become so light and easier to work with. On a daily basis, Guild members in this arena put themselves in harm’s way because they are dedicated journalists who always want to get the story right. Not only must our members contend with the dangers of the story itself – fire, flood, earthquake or civil unrest – for the last few years in the San Francisco Bay Area, news gatherers have become the target of armed robberies and brutal assaults. Law enforcement has tracked more than 60 such cases since 2014. We are working with the other unions, management and law enforcement to counter this depressing trend with enhanced security measures.

At the opposite end of the nonfiction spectrum are the kinds of documentaries that are a pure joy to create. Sometimes they can be very personal. Last year, I was fortunate to be involved with two such projects – Tap World, about the delightful, international art of tap dancing, and Virtuosity, which was an intimate look at several competitors in the Van Cliburn piano competition.

On the latter film, I worked very closely with Director of Photography and legendary Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, who did the majority of the photography after I had designed the concept. The other film, Tap World, originated more than 10 years ago as a narrative short with a man – Emmy-winning Producer/Director Dean Hargrove – who was head-over-heels in love with tap dancing. After many years of filming tap workshops around the world, Dean got the idea to crowd-source footage from the best tappers in the world and create a documentary from the results. What a joy it was, after more than a decade, to finally oversee the digital intermediate for Tap World and see it shown on the big screen.

The common denominators in these seemingly polar opposites of nonfiction filmmaking – hard-core news and conflict cinematography filled with danger, and entertaining stories about subcultures like tap dancers – are simple: passion, dedication and total commitment. Neither format would make it to viewers without those attributes.

A great recent example is a recently completed documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, about a running contest on the Appalachian Trail done by Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane. After years of self-funding and sacrifice, these two Guild camera assistants were finally able to bring their film to the festival and commercial markets. Commitment, dedication, and passion in copious amounts (along with the high-quality filmmaking skills that are a given in producing saleable work) are what brought Annika and Timothy’s project over the finish line.

I believe that there is more opportunity these days to do significant work in nonfiction with the currently voracious market for media. But when you are wearing a camera, it is sometimes very easy to lose track of where you are and what you are doing. Safety in these situations is sometimes even harder to find, especially when you might not know what’s around that corner you are about to turn.

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600