DOP Patrick Smith on why Canon is his principal choice of camera for documentary filmmaking.
When it comes to documentary filmmaking, DOP Patrick Smith is your port of call. With over 50 projects under his belt, Smith has established himself as an efficient and discreet shooter – and is always in demand. Unsurprisingly, when we spoke to him, he was readying himself for a night shoot. Being constantly on the move requires not only a certain sense of preparedness, but a fast, versatile and reliable kit that’s ready to go when he is.
“I try to be as quick and efficient as possible, avoiding unnecessarily large crews and equipment that requires a lot of time to set up,” he explains. “I have a preference, especially when shooting a documentary, to go with Ronin RS 2 gimbals and Canon cameras. I use the C500 Mark II as my ‘A’ camera, and either the C300 Mark II or C70 as my ‘B’ camera.”
He adds: “The three are well-matched and make good partners, with two being Super 35 and the other full-frame. For interviews, which are a prerequisite of documentaries, one camera captures the wide shot and the other the tight.”
Years ago, interviews were conducted on a single camera. TVs were a lot smaller back then, so dynamic shots would have been quite jarring and illogical. Now, it’s rare to find a household without a TV screen that’s less than 30 inches wide. The visual variety brought by using two cameras is mandatory if you want to abstain from boring your audience to tears.
“It enables viewers to explore the different themes and elements – and gives editors freedom to direct their attention on the subject or the environment,” explains Smith. “Also, newer full-frame cameras can create wide shots with beautiful, shallow depth-of-field. This gives us the ability to expose the subject’s environment, but keep it out of focus enough, so that the attention is still on them. It helps tell their story better, and that’s what documentary filmmaking is all about.”
Smith recently helped tell the traumatic childhood story of ex-footballer Ian Wright in the eponymous doc, Ian Wright: Home Truths. Fronted by the Arsenal striker turned pundit, the film examines the lasting effect domestic violence has on children who grow up in abusive households. Wright details his own experience and the abuse he endured at the hands of his stepfather.
“We went back to his childhood home, 50 years on, and shot him walking in through the doorway and into the rooms where the abuse happened. It was an incredibly emotional experience – and we were able to share this with viewers through intercut drama reconstructions of Ian as a child,” says Smith. “These can be cheesy, but when you hit the right note with what those images represent, you can create something that’s extremely moving. I went for high-contrast visuals, with lots of smoke and backlight – and I cropped it to 4:3, which gave the scene a very old look.”
The C70 and Ronin RS 2 were both quite new at the time of filming, but Smith was able to get hold of them through CVP.
He explains: “I’ve used CVP as my kit supplier for a long time, so it was incredibly useful that I had them – not only to deliver the camera and gimbal, but also facilitate the assembly. That was the most important thing, because I discovered very quickly that I needed different types of rail supports and mounting plates in order to get the kit to function together.”
GIVING PEOPLE A VOICE
After his work on Home Truths, Smith went on to film another documentary, about the survivors of 9/11. The film brings together 13 ordinary people caught up in an event they couldn’t fully comprehend at the time – and are still working through today.
“Again, this was another delicate subject that we had to tread around carefully. It was decided by the director, very bravely, to shoot all the interviewees in a studio against a green screen, with warehouse imagery for the backgrounds. I filmed the plates for 19 interviews in one day! It’s amazing, because when you watch the film, you wouldn’t know,” asserts Smith. Studios are incredibly expensive to occupy, and shooting interviews in this way isn’t conventional. But, with documentaries continuing to land on big-budget streamers – like Netflix – we can expect more of it in the future. “It’s an interesting method of shooting interviews, because it helps direct the story,” Smith says.
The DOP was also tasked with the title sequence, for which he is very proud. It starts on a beach, although you don’t know this at the beginning. There’s a puddle of water on the sand and, as the camera pans upwards, you notice a woman running in its reflection. The camera then moves laterally, as if running alongside her – that’s when you notice the shoreline.
“This shot wasn’t planned,” explains Smith. “We hired a very large 50-1000mm Canon lens, but then found that it was too windy to get the shot the director wanted. So, rather than working against the elements, we decided to use them. With my C70 and Ronin RS 2 gimbal, I hung outside the boot of the car and got as close to the ground as I possibly could. This allowed me to capture a perfectly stabilised, high-speed shot on a prime lens. I then assumed the same position outside the passenger seat to get the lateral shot. It’s incredibly lo-fi, but looks amazing – it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”