Shoot + Direct: Documentary

Part 2: Shoot

The UK’s top directors, producers, camera operators and editors share practical advice and insider tips to help you stand out from the crowd

"Directing is about having a steely idea of what you want, combined with the flexibility to adapt"

Annabel Gillings Producer/ Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Annabel Gillings Producer/ Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)


You have your script and a production plan. The shoot is where your ideas become real. As a director you must continue to scrutinize your story every step of the way.

Award winning BBC Specialist Factual producer/director Annabel Gillings feels that texture or ‘flavour’ is an important part of the picture.


Annabel Gillings, Producer/ Director Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

"Stand back and think of each scene as a separate postcard, what would they look like laid out in a row? If they’re all one colour, all beach or all car park, its not going to be very interesting"

Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)


The journey
Think about where the scene physically begins and ends. This can be as obvious as starting a sequence at the bottom of a mountain and ending it at the top, but it’s an important clue to help the audience understand what’s going on.

Consider texture and how scenes work together as a whole. If you have enough variety and relief throughout the film. You can even see how the film would work with no sound, if it would still flow and make sense.

Try not to be totally immersed in what you’re shooting, take the time to notice details like shot sizes, colours and patterns in your footage. Be alive to useful themes or motifs that can emerge. For example, if it serves your story, you could alternate between scenes with different predominant colours.

Variety of pacing can be a useful tool. Try following a fast paced scene with a more gentle scene. If things are getting a bit intense you may need to follow up with a lighter scene.

Cheat the journey
Manipulate elements like lighting or the shot size to keep the visual journey working without breaking the logical flow. For example if your presenter says a great line at the top of the mountain, but you need her to be saying it at the bottom, shoot a close up so that you can cut the line into the sequence wherever you want it.

An image can encapsulate your idea for a scene and effectively convey that flavour to your presenter and crew, or act as a reminder if you’re self-shooting. It’s quick and easy to flick through magazines or movies and take snapshots with your phone. Also laying out different pictures for different scenes could help you see how the film will progress and balance.

"I try and make interviews look as 'cinematic' as they possibly can. What I mean by that is for the interview style to tell the story"

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three),
Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Shooting interviews

There are numerous options available when filming an interview, from a vox pop of the subject doing a relevant activity like driving a car to a walk and talk conversation with a presenter. Whatever style you choose it’s possible to load each shot with meaning.

Director Bruce Goodison works across both documentary and drama and many of his best-known films contain elements of both. Bruce feels a duty of care to his subjects and their families. He wants them to be involved in and faithfully represented in the films. Bruce has a bold take on ‘producing’ an interviewee.


Bruce Goodison, Writer/Director - Our War, My Murder (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

"I don’t have a problem with putting words into people’s mouths. As long as you’re not getting them to say something they don’t actually support then it’s the same as editing their words afterwards".

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Director Bruce Goodison on pushing the boundaries of familiar interview set ups

Interview locations can evoke emotions, both for the viewer and for the contributors. For the BBC documentary SAS: Iranian Embassy Siege Bruce used interview locations that had the appropriate look and atmosphere, they were filmed on a track and a long lens. The SAS veterans all met up to film in a ‘disused asylum’ in Hereford with peeling walls, old beds piled up and a palpable sense of history. For the interviews of the people who were inside the embassy, the interview location was a school building directly next door to where the siege took place.

“When you’re interviewing people you want to remember things, try bringing them back to the location where they experienced that moment. It really works to create a sense of memory”

Bruce Goodison, Writer/Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery)

How your subject is framed speaks volumes. Emotional interviews are often filmed in an intimate close-up and a more animated subject might be framed in a wide shot. It’s common to use both tight and a wider shots during a typical interview, perhaps alternating in-between answers. Having other material to cut to, for example archive footage, can negate the need for this.

United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked as part of the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11th 2001. An attempt by some of the passengers to regain control prevented further injuries on the ground but ended when the plane crashed in a field killing all 44 people on board. Flight 93: The Flight That Fought Back (Discovery US), features drama reconstructions as well as interviews with the families who were left behind. Bruce chose to film the contributors in their homes with a lot of space around them in the frame to reveal something about their character, beliefs and lifestyle.

"There was a businesslike Republican lady and I put her in an oak panelled room with US flags and history books. Then there was a west coast lady who was hippyish and I framed her with wind chimes in the background. It was a subtle way of juxtaposing different politics within the frame"

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Bruce helped to create the style of Our War (BBC Three), this BAFTA winning series is renowned for incredible helmet cam footage but also for sensitive and moving portraits of soldiers.


Bruce Goodison, Writer/Director - Our War, My Murder (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

The mirror box developed by Bruce’s team featured a two-way piece of glass placed in front of the lens displaying either the interviewer’s face or head-cam archive footage. This aided a natural gaze and delivery directly to camera.


Our War (BBC One), Series 1, Episode 1 - Ambushed

The mirror box worked in a similar way to a teleprompter and devices that do the same job are now available for hire.

"Sometimes filming someone’s face remembering is more important than what they say. I think that one of the successes of that series was to humanise, dignify and understand the soldiers"

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Bruce has also applied his unique take on visual storytelling to commercials including the Virgin Pitch to Rich ad which features Richard Branson as you have never seen him before.


Bruce Goodison, Writer/ Director - Our War, My Murder (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Virgin Pitch to Rich commercial, Sundog Pictures

"Pieces to camera should be a special moment where the audience look up and really listen. Let presenters have their space, do their thing and own the screen"

Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Work with a presenter

Lee Phillips has recently gained a reputation for capturing explosive footage at the sharp end of law and order but first came to notice with offbeat presenter led documentaries including How to Start Your Own Country (BBC Two) and My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1). Lee works hard to get funny or emotional responses from presenters.


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/ Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

Lee developed a close working relationship with Dawn O’Porter over a number of films and they produced moving and memorable scenes in programmes such as My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky One).


My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky One)

Cameraman POV

With Paul O'Callaghan, Director of Photography
Human Universe (BBC Two)

Shooting Human Universe
On a documentary series like Human Universe you don’t have an assistant, there's a small team and you need a diverse skill. You may be called on to shoot, light and also take over directing the presenter when director busy setting up the next sequence.

We shot human universe on Sony F55 camera with prime lenses. We like the look, directors know me for shooting that way but I’m quite quick with it. With a zoom lens you end up hosing stuff down, with a prime you become more considered when you get a lens out for a particular shot.

On Human Universe I wanted to get away from the ragged handheld you get in a lot of docs, we used a Steadicam to break up the style and show off the amazing locations in a gentler wider angle.

At the BBC I’m known for my human portrait stuff, we found a style showing people up close and personal, the series has been described as a love letter to humanity. When I spot a potential character I like to sit and spend time, speak to people and get comfortable, it helps me capture intimate human moments.

Capturing intimate portraits
I don’t tend to use filters and spend lots of time fiddling with a matt box until people are bored, I’d rather spend my time moving around and finding shots or talking to a subject and taking 4-5 shots to put them at ease.

There is a fascination in photography where you get excited about the kit, you might take a shot then try to improve it with a filter or something but when you look back the first shot captures the moment best.

I film or take photos all of the time, the more you get used to a camera the better you get, the aim is to let the shot dictate things not the kit dictate things.

How to shoot a piece to camera into the sun
As a camera operator you look for nice light to play with, the most boring thing is completely flat day. If shooting with a presenter somewhere nice in the golden hour you can shoot into the light. You need to decide how much of face you want to see and how much colour in the sky you want to hold onto.

The first thing I do is use a white reflector, I get it as close to presenter as I can to raise the exposure of the presenter by 2 to 3 stops. I will shoot with sun at 45 degrees so it’s not a white out, shooting a piece to camera into sun can look really cool, but look out for insane flare as that can be odd after flatter scenes. Most cameras now have a good dynamic range and allow for shots like this to be tweaked in post. I will only use ND filter or polarizer if there is lots of reflection.

Collaborate with presenters
Often people don’t talk to big celebs but one obvious piece of advice is get to know your presenter and how they like to work, for example some want to be on a long lens, other want to be up close and to guide the camera. Let them know what you want to achieve and it becomes a collaboration.

Try to be consistent with what you do. Me and Brian Cox got to know each other and got into a rhythm. I chose a 35 or 28 mm lens to work with Brian, I would get this lens out and we’d know we were going to shoot a close intimate piece.

Paul O'Callaghan, Director of Photography - Human Universe (BBC Two)

There is a tendency for director, camera operator and presenter to turn up and do their own jobs but Brian is really collaborative he likes to feel involved in film making process. Brain will discuss pieces to camera and re-write them, the challenge was often how to show something you cant see, how to find a visual metaphor.

Steadicam style
There is a lot of Steadicam in Human Universe and that was considered beforehand, we worked through what we intended to do, we didn’t just turn up and say ‘how shall we do this?’

We shot in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, we walked round for a day and noticed that when you stop and shoot you lose the feeling of the scale, so myself, Brian Cox and the director, Stephen Cooter, worked together and decided to keep the sequence moving, so the whole of Brian’s piece to camera is moving.

Read and invest in the script and know what’s going on
It’s easy to put the camera on your shoulder and switch off but I would encourage cam ops to engage with the material as it informs how you shoot something and what angle you approach it from. For example it helps to know the script when you set up and shoot a piece to camera.

Working with directors
Directors like those on Human Universe have clear visual style, as a cameraman you want to be guided and be given something to get your teeth into otherwise you would do the same thing in every place and it would be boring, the show would be generic.

Annabel Gillings writes a script and she is really into art and not just science, she has a clear idea of what she wants to do but also she will share things. In India she wanted to shoot a family in the style of family portrait so I had to make it happen, it’s all in the planning. It’s easier to work with someone who knows what they want. Good directors convey an idea that helps inform how you approach something, for example ‘I want be light, I want it to be intimate’.

Moscow we have a problem
I always stress the classic advice to frame up then hold your shot and count to ten. An editor would rather have 4 usable shots than 100 beautiful ones that are 3 seconds long. When things chaotic you can want to get it all but concentrate on the sequence and make sure it’s usable.

Professor Brian Cox and I joined a search-and-rescue mission in winter on the steppes of Kazakhstan to collect cosmonauts and an astronaut as they arrived back on Earth from the International Space Station.

We set off in four jeeps with a crew including a director and second camera but our vehicles couldn’t handle the snowy terrain so Brian and I had to plead with the Russians to take us on their snowmobiles, which followed the main tracked recovery vehicles.

Our best laid plans were scrapped and we left the rest of the film crew behind. Brian and me went off and stayed up for 48 hours and filmed the entire sequence ourselves.

It was too cold to use metal lenses, I had to do whole sequence with 3 lenses, 19, 35, 85mm, my hands were killing me with cold and we didn’t eat. I also did the sound with Brian. We had to do all pieces to camera and worked out how to explain the science without a director. When we got back, the other guys were like ‘How did it go? and I said ‘I don’t know.’ It didn’t go as planned but the piece had different, more immediate, feel to the rest of the series.

(Pictures: Paul O'Callaghan & Annabel Gillings)

"I see a director with their head in their notes, the presenter off learning their lines and the camera op fiddling with kit. And I think ‘wow this is supposed to be a collaboration’. The best work is always done when everyone comes together"

Paul O'Callaghan, Director of Photography - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Paul O'Callaghan, Director of Photography - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Work with a crew

Annabel Gillings has overseen shoots all over the world and managed relationships with numerous contributors and presenters. Some of the most important relationships you form in broadcasting are with your crew.


Annabel Gillings, Producer/ Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Human Universe (BBC One), Why Are We Here? Episode 2


You’re in charge
With a strong idea of what you want before you shoot you’re confident and can guide contributors and crew when things get hectic or plans change. This will foster trust.

Trust works both ways
You need to have faith in your team, they’re talented people. Brief them properly, then give the sound people, camera operators, presenters the freedom to do their job.

Always listen to crews
They shoot every day and will see the world differently which is a great asset. Ultimately however production decisions are yours to take.

"With self-shooting I discovered a whole new dynamic that took the intimacy to a new level. The relationship between me and the subject through the lens was extraordinary"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

If you self-shoot...

Camera technology is constantly evolving as manufacturers including Sony, Panasonic, and ARRI race to provide higher resolution, larger sensors and greaterfunctionality at lower prices and audiences have come to expect a cinematic look.

Filmmakers are faced with a range of options, a common trade-off is between the usabilityof fixed-lens camcorders and the cinematic depth of field of modular DSLR-style cameras with interchangeable lenses.


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/ Self-Shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)


HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Pre-titles

"Michael Bay movies are sensational as a piece of technical craft, they look a billion dollars. But are they better than small indie films shot on cheap kit? It depends on the story. So when it comes to kit I say use what works for you"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Editor and producer Paul Dosaj has worked with many self-shooters as well as celebrated directors of photography.

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)

"If its not happening in the lens its not happening… just because you saw it that doesn’t mean you got it. As a shooting director you need to think - I am the audience right now, they need to be taken on a journey through that viewfinder"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

Lee Phillips, series producer and shooting director, sees footage from a lot ofinexperienced shooters who say ‘oh there was this amazing scene… but when yousee the footage they’ve not captured it.’ Directors ‘need to learn is theability to know that you're capturing what you think you’re capturing’. Theaudience only one ‘window’ on the story so you need to show them what theplaces and people you see feel like.

When filming action, for example a fight or a romantic reunion, the bestshot is often a few feet closer than you think. Lee adds ‘go towards thataction to capture it, when you’re shooting it if you really know whether you’vegot it and actually you have to be so on top of it that you know if your twelve eighteen feet away you might not be getting what you think your getting. Ithink directors need to kind of get that intuition that just cos I saw thatdoesn’t mean I got that’.

When following a breaking situation, for example a fight, ignoredistractions and cover the main action, stay on a wide angle initially as thiswill help keep a deep area acceptably in focus. Remember to move to the bestpositions get the shots and angles required for a cuttable sequence, keep allof your shots and repositions usable. Get a variety of shot sizes.

When you have enough of the main action get cut-aways to help the edit, for example a reverse angle, onlookers, cars passing with people looking, petsand animals always work. Remember pick-ups and potentially cheating shots andreactions are legitimate options. Try to think strategically and be imaginativeto make the scene work.

To get to the heart of an emotional scene it is vital to be alive to the situation so that you can anticipate and move in the right way. Lee explains:‘It just doesn’t just have to be action, or the kind of visceral stuff that weare talking. It’s also the emotional truth and the psychology of the personyou’re interviewing that needs to be captured in that lens too. That might bebecause its on the wide or might be on the close-up whatever’.

"The most important attributes of a documentary cameraman are his ears"

Paul Dosaj, Video Editor/Producer - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

When you have two or more people in conversation this is more complicated than a single talking head, the challenge is to capture the feel of theconversation and make the whole scene useable without jarring cuts.

An experienced camera operator can follow the flow of a conversation keeping all of the moves usable by listening carefully to the dialogue, anticipating the next speaker and moving the camera in a fluid and measuredway.

The idea is to get good shots of everyone, including listening shots. It’s better to stay on someone listening for a while than make a hurried or stuttering move. Practice using their ears while filming a conversation asthough it’s a live broadcast where every shot is valuable.

No matter how experienced a shooter you are it’s worth remembering the golden rules of filming – hold your shots, avoid any crash zooms or whip pansand resist the temptation to fiddle with settings like iris. Performing these tweaks when characters are talking or action is happening will do more harmthan good and could make good content harder to use.

You still need to think about your content and your storytelling, as well as the basics of getting things in focus and correctly exposed. Planning thoroughly –researching, getting to know contributors and locations, scripting story andvisual elements – will allow you to have some headspace for the big picture when you are on a hectic shoot.

It can be difficult to get the sound right when you’re self shooting. Lee says, ‘On HMP Aylesbury, the sound isn’t great, because it was a noisy environment. Iused a top mic and radio mic always. Although we couldn’t use a radio mic on the inmates, as they were dangerous, so we couldn’t leave it on them.’

"Practice is a crucial part of shooting well. Strive to make the camera like an extension of your body, so familiar you don't have to look to operate it"

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Lee Phillips is used to spending time with prison officers, police officers and criminals on series such as Coppers (Channel 4)


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)


Coppers (Channel 4)

"Decision making, producing your subject and selecting your shots is the difference between someone who is gathering info with a camera and someone who is actually directing"

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Bruce Goodison, Writer, Director - Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Where next?

It’s time to get into the edit and find out what you’ve got in the can (or hard drive).

For more production tips from award winning documentary film makers: