Things I learned making a documentary with a camera backpack in Hanoi
I recently spent four weeks in Hanoi while my wife was working there doing doctory stuff.
I wanted to explore what was possible making a film out of a backpack, so I spent the weeks wandering the streets with my 5D and a pack full of lenses, mics and gear.
It was a really interesting experience, so I thought I'd share a few things I learned about filmmaking.
The documentary is 'Vietnam Moto Beep Beep', you can watch it here:
Things Rob Learned:
- You can do quite a bit with a DSLR and a pack of gear.
- Being so mobile allows you to combine scouting/research and shooting into one. Ordinarily you would seek out locations and characters ahead and then return with a vanload of kit. With this setup, you can simply start filming.
- Filming itself introduced me to many of these characters. I would be filming their motos, and they would generally be nearby and interested in why I was interested in their moto.
- People behave differently in front of a DSLR than a video camera. Generally, people pay far less attention to it. This is especially true if you're not staring down the viewfinder. A number of the shots in the film are the camera setup on a tripod and left to run for 5-10 mins. That means you don't always have to be on the end of a telephoto to capture natural moments. This is especially true in the final scene in the park at night.
- For all the advantages of being solo, the biggest disadvantage is just that - you're on your own. Film is a collaborative process for a good reason.
- From a practical perspective, it's almost impossible to keep track of everything - balance, compose, focus, expose, audio, interview. You can't give someone an eyeline if you're staring in a viewfinder. The audio is the weakest element of the film. It's extremely noisy in Hanoi. Although the constant symphony of horns and vehicles adds an authentic backdrop, a lot of the bad audio was simply badly done. I was working with a Senheisser MKE400 on board the camera, and a lav mic feeding into a Tascam recorder. Unless it was a sit down interview, I had no way to monitor the output of either, so I had to set it and hope. Not being an audio guy, I'd frequently forget to switch the Tascam on (you have to press that record button twice!) and it tears through batteries. On one occasion, I even plugged the MKE400 into the 5D and forgot to switch that on - so no audio at all (the old boy with the violin plays a mean banjo, a sort of Asian bluegrass - I didn't catch the mic being off until he'd switched over to his not-nearly-as-good violin) Fortunately everything is subtitled, so the interview audio is less of an issue in this film. But sound is so critical - this is certainly an area I'll be paying closer attention to in the future.
- But the biggest problem isn't technical, it's creative. If you're staring down a lens, you are entirely focused on what you have framed. There's a whole world outside that frame that you can't see. You need a second set of eyes to say "Look over there - a monkey dancing like Michael Jackson."
- Even more importantly, you need someone to bounce ideas off - "That's great, but what if we instead/then/also did this?"
- Shooting documentaries with prime lenses is a real challenge. It's much harder to capture a moment that's unfolding right in front of you. I should either get a zoom lens or a second body so that I can quickly change the frame.
- The slider can create super shots. They're very cinematic, and superb for revealing elements that can move the story forward. But I found myself shooting a fair bit with the slider just because I had it. Those shots are a lot of work to create, and in many cases, could be achieved better anyway with a static shot or pan. I found myself throwing away quite a few of the slider shots in the edit because they didn't effectively tell the story. Next time I'm reaching for that slider, I'll be asking myself 'Does this shot really need to move like this, or am I just doing it because I can?'
- There are also a bunch of technical issue with the 5D that we're all familiar with. You can see a little jellycam in the mounted moto shot, and almost half of the shots had 2 dead pixels from the camera overheating (thankyou DH reincarnation for fixing that!). The dynamic range isn't fabulous, and there's a fair bit of compression being thrown in there.
I'm an editor by trade, and in the last 4 years the docs I've cut have been shot on an astonishing array of cameras and formats: from RED to HDCAM, from P2 to h264.
I've spent a fair bit of time wondering what the ideal documentary camera combo is. I think it's horses for courses. The 5D wouldn't be my first choice from a technical point of view, but I think for a certain kind of project it's a great fit. If I hadn't shot it on a DSLR, Vietnam Moto Beep Beep would have been a very different film.
Here's a gear list of what was in that backpack for any techheads.
kata hb205 camera backpack
Canon glass - 24/1.4, 50/1.4, 100macro/2.8, 200/2.8
Cinevate Pegasus slider. I left the rails in Boston, so I bought two 1-metre long steel pipes in Hanoi. They gave me a new appreciation for carbon fibre.
superclamp and ball head
audio technica Pro70 lav mic
singhray vari-nd filter
Excellent post, thanks for the insight!
Rob, thank you for sharing your experience! Much appreciated!
"Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot." - Buster Keaton
Congratulations on the doco, I loved it.
This post also contains so most useful information for others that comes directly from your own experience.
Thank you for sharing.
Cinematographer, Steadicam Operator, Final Cut Pro Post Production.
Great documentary Rob, I really liked the way you put the subtitles all over the screen. It makes it more of an integral part of the movie. Really liked that and thanks for sharing your experience!
Audio Engineer, Sound Designer
Video- and Photographer
I didn't get a chance to check out your doc yet but I too shot one for about 10 days in LA a few months back using the 5D. I did have a sound man with me, a producer and correspondent and those extra hands did help. It sure made quick lens changes easier.
Everyone we talked to prior to the shoot kept telling us that what we were trying to do couldn't be done... a real run and gun shoot following people around the city to make a 24hour city profile of LA from various perspectives.
As it turns out... I was able to do it and the camera was a blast to shoot with. Most of my shooting these last few years, except for stills, has been with full size Sony, Panasonic or Ikegami cameras so this was a wonderful change.
When I get a chance I can share some of my perspectives on shooting long form with the Canon 5D but for now have to run.
Thanks for sharing,
ARD German TV-Washington, DC