Docu Drama around the globe!

The last 3 months have been a very interesting & exciting time.
I got asked by a good friend Director Nat Sharman to come onboard and shoot a Docu Drama on ‘Unexplained’ Mysteries.   Nat and I have a long history of shooting Docu Dramas together so I jumped at the chance to collaborate with him.
For me Docu Dramas are a great genre of programme as you get the best of both worlds.  Firstly, to shoot off the cuff, relatively unplanned footage in new locations all whilst meeting world experts and sometimes eccentric characters .  Then with the drama getting to step properly into being a DP, collaborating with other departments and having the resources to really push the craft of Cinematography.

The documentary part of the shoot took us to Lithuania, Siberia, all over the US and finally Sicily.  In Siberia it was so cold -24.  So cold that some dripping water froze the moment it landed on my camera…

I shot most of the drama elements for the whole series in Cape Town, South Africa with 3 Directors across the series Nat Sharman, Sean Smith and Stan Griffin.


The whole crew in Cape Town were exceptional!  Such a perfect place to film, amazing locations, beautiful light and working with such professional positive talented people was a joy!

When each department is putting their all into a project my job Photographing their work becomes that much easier and more pleasurable.  I would highly recommend shooting in Cape Town, not least because of the amazing food and wine…  lol

There was a few very weird stories that featured, mutated cows, Aliens, weird dogs, Monks, lost aircraft pilots and Mexican Gauchos…  to name a few…

I shot the documentary on XDCam Sony PDW F800 an odd and ‘Old School’ choice I sure you’re thinking especially in this day and age.  Yes, I agree!  We could have shot it on anything.   The reason we chose that camera was we knew that 90% of the documentary would be hand held actuality and shot very quickly.  Having grown up shooting on that style of camera I knew I could follow anyone just about anywhere pulling iris and focus and still deliver quality material.   Often the stories told in the doco could be deemed a little far fetched so we wanted to help the doco feel as real and genuine as possible.  Using the XDCam format really helped with this.  The ergonomics of a ‘broadcast’ camera cannot be doubted either.  Another benefit was it shoots to a disk so with so much travel there would be no downloading for A cam.

To keep up with the times we did shoot all the sat down interviews on a 5DMKIII often using a 5DMKII with a Canon 45mm Tilt Shift lens as a second camera.    This allowed for the much loved shallow depth of field and also to give the actuality and interviews a different look and feel.

The 800 actually got a disk stuck (a common problem when loading) so for 2 days I shot everything on 5DMKIII.  As I have shot so much on DSLR’s I wasn’t fazed by this at all, although you do shoot a lot less, purely due to lens length limitations and constant swapping of lenses.  The other disadvantage is the Nat the Director didn’t always have a picture.  When you plug a HDMI cable into the 5D you loose the viewfinder image.  Therefore, having to shoot via an external monitor which isn’t always the best option when you are following someone in actuality mode.  Luckily, having worked together so much Nat left me to my trusty Z-Finder.

In Lithuania, I shot the drama on the Alexa, my favorite camera ‘oh lady Alexa’.  I just love having a decent viewfinder (yes call me old school again – I have been shooting since I was 18 in 1998).  The rest of the drama in Cape Town was on the C300 aka ‘Captain 300’ as a good friend and incredibly talented DP Jamie Cairney describes it.

We shot the C300 in CLOG for best grading results.  It produces a decent image, but again I am not that keen shooting from an LCD screen.  The benefit of a viewfinder for me is I become in-grossed in the world which I’m filming.  You can see everything so clearly.  I am also a big fan of leaving my left eye open so I can see what is happening outside the frame, a skill easily built up and something Dermot O’Leary coined back in Ibiza 2000 as ‘evil eel’… lol!

I’m looking forward to grading the drama and seeing how the 800 footage holds up against 5D.  Should be good!

The whole experience was Amazing and I’m incredibly glad Nat asked me to do it!

5 Top Tips for shooting Docu Dramas

1) Listen to the contributor tell their story in documentary as that is what you will be dramatizing.  Often you can learn about the emotion which wil help you stylise the drama.
2) Find a different visual style from Documentary to Drama.  Use a different camera format, lenses and lighting will help enable this.
3) Try and make the doco feel as real as possible.  The sincerity  from the doco will help make the drama as believable as possible.
4) Collaborate closely with the Director and be flexible, no two Directors will necessarily want to shoot the same way.
5) The style of one drama story or element doesn’t have to match the next.  Let the story dictate the style as opposed to one set style.



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