Documentary

There are only a few ways to safely capture high-quality video during this period of social distancing. The most popular method for collecting cinematic interviews (A-roll) is a drop kit.

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Shooting video with crew off-set is possible, but it comes with some limitations and caveats.

Update – Because this post has been quite popular, I’ve also created a Drop Kit FAQ.

Drop kits are a zero-touch way to record high quality video interviews remotely. If you’re using a drop kit to record the A-roll for your video, it’s important to know what you can (and can’t) expect from your rig. A drop kit in the right hands can give amazing results, so much so that your audience doesn’t ever need to know that your talent was alone in the room.

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If you’re a director of photography for documentary, reality, or even corporate video,  someone has probably hired you to shoot local landmarks. Here are some of my favorite Milwaukee standards, and where to shoot them, to set your scene in Brew City, USA.

Milwaukee Downtown

Grab a parking spot, most of these shots are within reasonable walking distance.

  • The Calling, a one-of-a-kind, 40-foot-tall orange star sculpture where Wisconsin Avenue bends to meet the lake. I usually shoot when pedestrians are around, for a sense of scale. It has no bad angles, but my favorite is from the top of the parking structure just to the northeast.
  • The Milwaukee Art Museum, is actually three separate buildings, but the one you’ll recognize is the Quadracci Pavillion. Milwaukee locals call it “The Calatrava” for the architect who designed it. This all-white building usually looks more like a sailboat than a museum. It’s been the setting for a Transformers movie and many commercials. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch it when the “wings” are open, depending on the time of day and weather conditions. Be sure to get shots from the pedestrian walkway crossing Lincoln Memorial Drive.
  • The newest skyscraper is the glass Northwestern Mutual Building, across from The Calling on Wisconsin Avenue. The tallest is the US Bank Center, at just over 600 feet. It’s not as sleek, but probably more recognizable as classic Milwaukee. If you’re lucky enough to get inside the NM building, there are terraces are a few hundred feet up. You have a bouquet of Brew City B-roll options to the west. With a long lens you can grab shots of the Fiserv Forum, most of the East Side, and the rest of the skyscrapers worth mentioning (mostly in Westown).
  • Discovery World / The Pilot House isn’t quite as famous, but is quite beautiful. If you’re in Milwaukee between May and October, try to catch the Denis Sullivan, a large sailing ship that docks at Discovery World.
  • Lake Michigan is core to Milwaukee, and quite beautiful. My favorite time to shoot it is right before dawn. If you’re shooting from near Discovery World or the Art Museum, you can see a lighthouse or two. If you decide to move south into Lakeshore State Park, be aware:  Wisconsin State Parks require a $50 permit for video or photo shoots. It’s an easy permit to get, but they will always kick you out without one.  Technically a peninsula, it feels more like an island, and there are some very pretty paths and footbridges that can lead your eye to the downtown skyline on the west. This is the only place you can shoot over the water toward downtown without getting a boat.

Nightlife

Milwaukee isn’t a huge city, so if you want active nightlife shots, you probably want to be out on a weekend. Here’s where you’re liable to find people socializing and having fun.

  • The Third Ward is a classy neighborhood just south of downtown. During the day it’s all boutiques and pop up shops, at night the bars and theater get busy.  Most of the Third Ward is in bed by 10pm, though.
  • Old World 3rd Street has a classic old Milwaukee look, and plenty of classic beers to go with it. When the weather’s nice, you can catch people dining outside on the sidewalk, or waiting in line to get into clubs. If the Milwaukee Bucks are playing, you’ll probably see a lot of spillover from the Fiserv Forum crowd nearby.
  • Brady Street is the trendy destination of the Lower East Side. Plenty of bars and lots of lighting make it a great place to catch some candid moments on the street. Your biggest challenge will be parking. In the summer, you can catch some street festivals and concerts here.
  • Water Street runs along the river’s east bank, and has a smattering of bars along the north end of downtown. While you’re there, it makes sense to grab a shot of the courthouse, too.
  • Kinkinnickinnic Avenue (or just call it KK) is the main drag through the Bay View neighborhood. It has a much more hipster vibe than anything downtown, with cafes, bakeries, and great local eats.

South of Downtown

Milwaukee remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. To explore the city deeper than the surface level, spend some time on the north and south side. Here, the history of redlining, and discrimination have shaped the communities.

Historic Third Ward sign over the Milwaukee Public Market

  • The Hoan is the I-794 bridge that connects the Port of Milwaukee with downtown. There are tons of great places to shoot it, but while you’re near Discovery World, you can get a great shot of it to your south southwest if you brought a long lens, and you can get a little closer if you can shoot from inside Lakeshore State Park.
  • The Harry W Maier Festival Park is more commonly called “The Summerfest Grounds,” named for the epic music festival that takes place for the two weeks surrounding July 4 each summer. While there’s a lot of hustle and culture going on during the festival season, you’re not going to find much to shoot inside or around the park when it’s cold out.
  • The Allen Bradley Clocktower is part of the Rockwell Automation headquarters. It’s a large four-sided clock, with minute hands that are 20 feet long. Since it’s four-sided, there are no bad angles, and you may be able to catch it in the background of your other shots, if you compose them carefully.
  • The “Historic Third Ward” sign and Milwaukee Public Market can both be seen as you’re crossing east over the St. Paul Ave bridge.
  • Futher south, General Mitchell Airport isn’t particularly flashy, but you can get shots of planes coming and going. The white “MKE” sign welcomes drivers as they approach the airport from the west.
  • If you’re getting driving shots you’ll want to shoot 794 from the Port of Milwaukee and drive through downtown. To finish your trip, come back through downtown to the south side via Water Street/1st Street.

North of Downtown

Locals call the area north of Downtown and east of the Milwaukee River the “East Side.” The “North Side is everything between the river and Highway 145. While the East Side has lots of students, some neighborhoods have become much pricier and appeal more to urban professionals. The North Side is predominantly African American communities.

  • Bradford Beach is worth visiting any time the weather is nice.
  • The Martin Luther King Statue sits near the south end of MLK Drive.
  • Kadish Park is my favorite place to get sweeping skyline shots. You can watch the sun rise over downtown, and can see most of Milwaukee from the East Side to the Miller Valley.
  • The UW Milwaukee Campus is spread out over multiple blocks. The first UWM building, Mitchell Hall, still stands.

Milwaukee’s Industry and Culture

Much of Milwaukee’s brewing history is north and west of Downtown, where German, Italian, and Polish families settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The south side was dominated by manufacturing and sausage making.

  • Miller Brewing was a major economic driver in Milwaukee for a long time. Today, the facility is still active and open for tours.
  • The Pabst Mansion is a beautiful home turned museum, built entirely with PBR cans. I’m just kidding, aluminum cans weren’t invented until 1959.
  • The Harley Davidson Museum is all new buildings. The only local factory work happens 15 minutes away, in Menomonee Falls.
  • The Charles Allis and Villa Terrace museums are massive mansions with lake views.

Sports and Sports History

  • Miller Park is home to the Brewers and relatively pretty to look at. It stands out, surrounded by surface parking. The site of the previous MLB field, County Stadium, is now called Helfaer Field. While the space is small, there are lots of statues and plaques commemorating Milwaukee’s baseball greats (both Brewers and Braves).
  • Fiserv Forum is the newest sports complex in Milwaukee, and home to the Milwaukee Bucks. Their previous arena, the Bradley Center, was demolished to make room.
  • The Milwaukee Mile is part of State Fair Park. It’s not particularly pretty, but it’s the oldest operating motor speedway in the world.  The inside of the oval hosted the 1939 NFL Championship Game.
  • Pettit National Ice Center is an Olympic training facility for speed skating and hockey.

Let’s shoot something in Milwaukee!

Hopefully, that’s enough B-roll ideas to start your story. If you need a cinematographer to shoot your Milwaukee B-roll, reach out!  If you have other favorite Milwaukee spots to shoot, please leave your suggestions in the comments!

 


I was hired as a documentary cinematographer for “At the Fork,” a feature-length documentary film from executive producer Dave Matthews (yes, that Dave Matthews). My credit was Second Unit Cinematographer. The film follows people and animals throughout the farming process. My focus was the Junior Swine Competition at the 2015 Wisconsin State Fair.

By the time I was brought on board, production was well underway. Emergent Order hired me 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 director of photography Matt Porwoll chose the Sony FS7 as the A camera. We acquired UHD in XAVC-I with the S-log2 LUT. While XAVC-L would be a more natural 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. Read More


I was recently approached by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Southwest Airlines, and Kohl’s, to shoot a mini travel documentary about their Destination Innovation program. We covered the event as it happened in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Milpitas over three days. The most exciting part of the project was documenting the competition on board a Southwest Airlines commercial flight between MKE and SFO. Working at 35,000 feet is something I’d never done before. Needing to be highly mobile, as well as TSA-compliant, meant I spent a lot of time choosing and trimming my camera kit. Read More