The Documentary Cinematographer

6 minute read

by Jon

February 7, 2016

I was hired to work as second unit cinematographer on “At the Fork,” a feature-length documentary film from executive producer Dave Matthews. The film follows people and animals throughout the farming process. My focus was on the junior swine competition at the 2015 Wisconsin State Fair.

Producer Lisa Versaci meets with a father of one of the junior competitors.

Producer Lisa Versaci meets with a father of one of the junior competitors.

By the time I was brought on board, production was already underway. I was actually hired less than 12 hours before my first call time! For any documentary cinematographer, it’s a good idea to keep your batteries charged and your camera kit ready to go. The DP Matt Porwoll settled on the Sony FS7 as an A camera. We acquired UHD in XAVC-I with the S-log2 LUT. While XAVC-L would be a more logical choice for documentary shooting, XAVC-I gave the editors an easier workflow. The XAVC-I looks absolutely great, but it does burn through data very rapidly. We ended up with about 400 GB each day.

The first unit team had a DIT to handle data and logs. As a second unit cinematographer, I wasn’t so lucky. I spent a lot of time transferring cards! I used my own solid state drives for the first copies, so I didn’t have to stay up all night. From there, I made two copies for the client with just a few clicks, giving me some time to sleep!

Anyone who has shot documentary on the FS7 has figured out Lexar XQD cards are the way to go for media. We recorded more than four hours each day, so we needed 10 64GB XQD cards. That much media from Sony would be $3000! I found my 64 GB Lexar cards for under $100 each, so a full day of media was about $1000. In my experience, the Lexar 1333x cards are equally compatible in the camera, and read speeds are about 90% as fast as the Sony cards. I see no advantage to paying three times as much for the Sony XQD cards.

The Sony FS7 is perfect for a documentary cinematographer.

Since the shoot was 90% handheld, I would have preferred to shoot without the extension unit. Timecode was required for most of the shoot.

The XDCA-FS7 extension unit adds functionality to the camera. We used it for timecode sync to the sound mixer. I typically get 2-3 hours of record time from one 97 Wh V-mount battery. I haven’t had a chance to try some of the other aftermarket V-mount battery options, but if I didn’t need timecode, I would definitely consider one. Sony’s unit is quite bulky. On jibs and drones, the XDCA-FS7 is invariably too big, and we end up running the camera without timecode and using a stock BP-U battery.

FS7, Moze Gear Tig Q28

We used a Moze Gear timecode generator and the XDCA-FS7 extension unit to sync TC with the sound mixer.

Zoom lenses are practically mandatory for a documentary cinematographer. I shot about 60% on the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS. I don’t usually like that lens on its own. When paired with the Metabones speedbooster, it is a useful 17-74mm f/2.8 lens, with stabilization. The Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS was my lens for interviews and covering things at a distance. For a lot of the action, I was restricted to shooting from the audience, and the stabilization on the 70-200 was very helpful. Nobody likes it when you set up a tripod in the front row! I also packed a Rokinon 14mm prime lens for a few ultrawide establishing shots. I had Canon’s 35mm f/2 IS in case I needed extra speed, but the native ISO of 2000 made shooting with available light pretty easy.

The trailer is now online!

The film is screening in select cities. Have questions about documentary cinematography? Hit me up in the comments below!