Pros and Cons

How will the world of non-fiction filmmaking be impacted by the amazing new array of prosumer tools to hit the market? I’m talking about iPhones that can shoot at1080P and a tiny HD camera like the GoPro® that can fit literally anywhere. There’s even a new support rig (the Smoothee) made by the same people who brought us the legendary Steadicam. There are also new mini (and mighty) camera systems from Sony, Panasonic and others some, of which, are 3D capable!

My sense is that all of these sophisticated (and micro-sized) new tools will be embraced by the documentary world. But the people who really understand how to use these products will be the ones to see the most benefit. Virtual platforms (like the Web) will highlight the many non-professionals who have embraced these systems. But so many films dubious quality and production values will only serve to highlight the skills of Local 600 members even more.

The lesson is an obvious one: in a time of limited distribution pipelines, when money for independent and non-studio/network shows is never more scarce, the more production value a documentary has the more likely it is to get seen, let alone hit the mainstream. Sure, projects like Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary (George Harrison: Living in the Material World – Pg. 52) will always get a lot of attention. But so will non-fiction work done in the cinema vérité style pioneered decades ago, or those like the many award-winning shows created by Ken Burns (and shot by Local 600 member Buddy Squires). Of course all that has come before has set the table for what, undoubtedly, has become the most successful approach to the documentary form in recent years: reality television.

The term is a loose one: many reality shows are scripted, rehearsed, and painstakingly laid out to impact their audiences. But the way these stories are covered include the same techniques pioneered by the purest of cinema vérité shooters. The biggest reality shows go out with multiple crews and cameras systems, but the smallest are executed with a single shooter, making the best of all this fabulous new technology.

Thankfully, more of them are being covered under IATSE contracts; and like iPhones or GoPros® being put in the right hands to maximize their potentials, it’s good for the entire industry when non-fiction is produced with skilled Union labor. Real-life may be filled with amateurs doing their best (and sometimes worst) in front of the camera. But there should be nothing messy or unprofessional about the people putting those stories in front of an audience, especially when considering the tools at hand.


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

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