Outer Mongolia is a place I often heard my Dad talk about when I was a kid. I don’t think he had been there, it just one of names of places that sounds cool ‘Outer Mongolia’, it’s a little like ‘The Wild Man of Borneo’ both seem distant, wild and out of reach. Although, I just found out the latter is a film made in 1941 and also something to do with two dwarf brothers… Not what I imagined…
When Director Robert Wilkins contacted me about shooting a documentary following a Buddhist Lama in search of lost teachings in yep Outer Mongolia – how could I refuse..?
I received the email when I was still in Delhi completing the Bollywood feature film. Rob outlined the doco and explained that the Lama is the 11th reincarnation of another important Lama. He was appointed when he was just six years old by the Dali Lama. Both the Lama which we called Rimpashay (meaning precious learned one) and Rob believed the lost teachings could be in Mongolia and Rob was hoping that the search would make up the final 20mins of the 1 hour programme he and Simon Wheeler were producing for the BBC.
Mongolia, was a Buddhist country, then the Communist Soviet government literally stamped Buddhism out. By the 1930’s most of the monasteries were destroyed and the vast majority of the Monks brutally murdered! It only became legal to practise again around 1994. Now Buddhism is thriving once again and is the main religion in Mongolia. Insane history, I know and I haven’t even mentioned the ‘forefather’ of Mongolia Genghis Khan…
When shooting a fly on the wall doco or Observational Documentary/ Ob Doc (as more commonly known) the crew is generally small. This time it was super small. Rob would be Directing and also Recording Sound a skill he learned a couple of years ago on a doco to Antarctica. Simon Wheeler Producing (Simon amongst many things wrote and produced a drama series called Kingdom shot in my home county of Norfolk featuring Steven Fry) and myself as Cameraman. I never feel comfortable describing myself as DOP for this type of project, as I was not lighting or constructing big shots, I was more just following the action and ensuring there would be enough coverage. It was actually a welcomed change as for the past 2 years I have been mainly shooting Promos, Commercials and recently a feature so for action not to be setup and unfold in-front of camera was fun!
As I knew we would be doing lots of hiking up mountains to film in monasteries and ruins so the kit had to be small and light. My initial choice of camera was the new Sony F3 but sadly due to budget constraints and the hire price of Prime Lenses it wasn’t an option.
The production had already been using an EX1 (a camera I had never used before) so I decided to combine that with my 5D MKII. I used the EX1 as the main camera for all the fly on the wall coverage and then picked up the 5D for all beauty shots and additional coverage where sound wasn’t needed. Ideally, I would have shot everything on the 5D, but I didn’t want to give Rob the extra headache of syncing the sound. I know there are new software programmes that can make this easy, but sadly there wasn’t time for the production to fully test them, sometimes it’s most sensible to go with what you know works.
About five years ago I shot an episode of Jimmy’s Farm also for BBC directed by long term collaborator Producer/ Director Nat Sharman. We decided right from the get go that we would never ask Jimmy (farmings answer to Jamie Oliver) to do anything twice abiding by the true hardcore rules of documentary and we stuck to that! It was a great way to work. So much documentary is staged and acted out, with Jimmy’s Farm we wanted to avoid that, if we got it, great we got it, if we missed it, we missed it! I decided it would be the best idea to take the same Dogma approach with the filming in Mongolia. The Lama had his own mission and I felt it was my duty to document that. I can proudly say I didn’t ask him to do anything twice.
I had to completely change my mind set from the Bollywood film. I didn’t light anything in Mongolia, but just relied on natural light which sometimes worked beautifully and sometimes required a different way of thinking and working. Mongolia has amazing natural light and without a doubt the clearest skies in the countryside I have ever seen. There was stars upon stars – it was so amazing it honestly didn’t look real!
When I film documentaries I like to move around as seamlessly as possible (until I bump into something) so the contributors are not intimidated by, me the camera or rest of the crew. From experience I know it’s best when the crew literally become part of the environment and as much as humanly possible and don’t get in the way. When you are holding a camera in front of your face and waving a ‘guessing stick’ aka Boom around it’s hard to be invisible, but by just getting on with filming and following the action you can achieve as close to it as possible.
I shot the project 85% hand held and only used the tripod to pick up GV’s (General Views or as someone once called it Geographical Vistas). It allowed us to get what we needed quickly. Rimpashay, didn’t like to hang around especially if he thought what he was doing wasn’t advancing the search.
Now to address the Director doing sound. It’s not a common thing except if your Nick Broomfield (Legend). But for this project, where the budget was beyond tight, the locations often very similar it allowed Rob to be in the correct eye line for the questions and practically for all of us to travel in the same vehicle, as we drove deep into Mongolia. Luckily, Rob had enough experience to be able to do it (and not get in the way, or dip the boom into shot – too much), but I know for a fact on his next project where he has more sensible budget the Soundman is already booked!
Working with Rob, Simon, Rimpashay and the Monks was a fantastic experience, there was always constant banter. Although, the content was fairly serious on these type of programmes you need to have a good time. I truly haven’t laughed so much in such a long time!
My 11 Tips to shooting Dogma Style Documentary:
1) Have your kit 100% prepped and ready ahead of the call time. Once your contributor knows that they can go about their business you have to be ready to capture what they are doing. They will not wait.
2) Having all you need on you. Spare batteries, stock, white paper for White Balance is essential/ or the knowledge how to scroll through degrees Kelvin to select the best colour temperature.
3) Being able to quickly, change your cameras settings. Allowing for the lighting conditions you are moving from and two.
4) The ability to follow focus and exposure on the fly is essential (and something you can only learn with experience/ practice – So practice!
5) Having a steady hand. With small cameras like EX1 or Canon 5D MKII (without shoulder rig) you have to adapt your body position so you can fluidly operate and remain rock steady during long off the cuff questions from the Director.
6) Making mental notes of Cut Aways as your filming, then picking them up asap. It’s so easy to forget to pick up a close up of something that was talked about. I avoid moving on until I have grabbed all those relevant CA’s, even if that means missing something else. It’s much better to have one complete sequence than several bitty ones…
7) Knowing exactly what shots will cut with what and making very quick decisive decisions. How to frame the next shot, from which angle to shoot. With this style there is no time for discussion with the Director.
8) Preempting action. Having a good idea where the contributor will turn, move, walk.
9) Being nimble, fit and quick on your feet. So you can physically get ahead of the contributor to pick up shots of them i.e. entering or exiting buildings/ frame. If you are unfit and shooting hand held the camera will move if you have heavy breathing.
10) Ensuring the sound is correctly calibrated to the camera and you have a good solid working relationship with your Sound Recordist. You are a team. The Sound Recordist can be your eyes and save you from potential dangers.
11) Knowing when to cut. You don’t have to film everything, over shooting is never a good thing. You just need to know what is valuable to the production.
I guarantee you will learn so much that it will put you leaps ahead in your filming career – IF NOT YOUR MONEY BACK – SIMPLE!