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Masterclass Series Highlights: Cinematography in Creative Documentary

Masterclass Series Highlights: Cinematography in Creative Documentary

September, 15 - 2021

Wojciech Staroń is a Polish cinematographer and director. He is a Silver Bear winner at the 61st Berlinale for Artistic Contribution for cinematography. He shared some insights on his artistic works as a DOP.

This session was moderated by Mikael Opstrup, Capacity Building and Development Advisor at In-Docs.

How did you start your career as a DOP?

I started everything from still photography when I was 15/16 years old. It was something important for me to get into relation with the world and to communicate with other people. Then I went to film school, where I did both fiction short films and documentaries. My diploma film was my first documentary which was about my journey following my girlfriend to Siberia. This was a unique experience because then I realised that in making a documentary, I am totally free in creation, we can be ourselves, we can cross borders of convention. Also, because I love many fiction films, in my documentary I always tried to combine the fiction storytelling in my documentary film language. After this first film, I returned to Poland and worked as a DOP for other directors. From time to time, I am also making my own film, both fiction and documentary.

As a director who also shoots, how would you suggest preparing for the unpredictability of documentary subjects, and locations?

The first point is to find your internal need for storytelling, both as director and photographer. I think the best way to find the stories is to be very close to the stories or even being part of it. So, we are involved emotionally in the filmmaking, and this allows us to create and tell something. Of course, this is one of the ways of being documentary filmmakers.

Another side is related to technical skill. It is very important to be good, to be quick, to have good hands, good eyes because you will be like a hunter, and you need to practice it like a musician practicing with their instruments. You also need to be good in composition with the lighting and camera movements. I always try to understand how to work with each camera because each camera has different shapes and characteristics. So, it’s always a process.

As a DOP, how do you approach characters that you do not have a relationship with beforehand? 

I think the most important step in every documentary film is the moment when we convince our characters to agree to be the characters in the film, and to convince them that it is good to make a film about them. So, choose the characters who are not against you, or maybe those who like being filmed, because being a protagonist in a film is hard work both psychologically and physically. Also a director needs to introduce how we will work with the protagonist, how much time we will spend together, and in which situation that we need to be, especially if we want to film some intimate and emotional situations. From my DOP side, I am always inspired by people. To me everything can be beautiful and amazing as long as there is a strong story in it. I always try to understand the point of the story, the scene, the particular take which I am taking. That is why it is very important to have good communication with the director to agree on what we really need from this particular situation, why we are going here today, and what the essence of the shooting is.

As a DOP you have to make a lot of concrete decisions all the time, such as choosing a camera, lighting, shots, etc. How do you prepare yourself before going on a shoot?

I think in documentary filmmaking we can have some plans, but they shouldn’t be too concrete. It’s better to have a general plan, like you will film a meeting, in which you don’t exactly know what conflict or drama might occur there. Let’s say we go hunting, and we want to find a good animal. We are not sure exactly what to find, but as a cameraman, I’m trying to discover “What is the best in this particular moment?”, “What is the strongest topic?”, “What is the best animal in this forest?” I’m just watching and observing what I have from this situation, and I think this is the only way to be honest with the reality and with life we are observing.

Of course, sometimes it can be problematic with the director because the director was thinking that this scene leads him somewhere. But at the end of the day, if the director is clever, he will understand that it was by force. In documentary, it is very difficult to achieve a good result, so we just take what we have. And maybe the film turns out to be better because we give it a chance to be led by life, by something real in front of the camera. So, the first step is to just discover the most fascinating thing, because the most important thing in documentary filmmaking is to be fascinated with what we are watching, and be in relation with what we see and what we observe.

Is there an ideal lens for documentary shooting? 

The lens is like your relation with people. It’s like asking what is a good distance to observe people? In some situations, we need to observe from 1-2 meters, while in some situations, we need to observe from 10 meters or 50-100 meters. I would divide three different lenses. The wide lens allows us to be very close to our characters, to be in the distance from half to one meter, and to capture the emotions of all people around. The standard lens allows us to observe the same situation but with a little bit of distance. We can be more cool in our observation, and we can observe some context also. The long lense means that we are not in direct relation with our subjects, and we are not visible to our subjects. It’s more like commenting on something and giving more distance and author-driven point of view.

Do you make a storyboard or do you shoot and then make the script based on the shooting?

I never make a storyboard before shooting, but after a few days of shooting, I would sit with my director and we are writing what scenes we have now and what possible scenes we can still take. After a few days of shooting, we already know more about the life of our characters, so we can be better prepared. I try to make a shooting list or wish list that tells us what our characters will do and go somewhere. But, of course this list can change.

What kinds of scenes are you looking for during shooting?

I group the scenes I am looking for in three kinds of shootings. The first one is the once in a lifetime situation in a person’s life, which makes the core of film actually. And the second one are the routines of a person’s life, which is more or less the opposite of the once in a lifetime. And then the third one is gathering impressions with persons and situations around your characters that would characterise your characters. As a DOP, I need to be able to imagine and calculate in my mind what scenes we would need in the editing room later on. I realised after years doing films, that our film is created in our mind, not in the camera. It’s the process  in our mind, and then we press the button, and then we know where to go and what to do.