Defining Visual Language for a Travel Documentary

Cinematography case study on The Flying Dutchmen

Last August I had the opportunity to DP a 3-week documentary feature film called The Flying Dutchmen. In this article I want to talk about our visual language choices, and how those choices drove the gear and tools used to accomplish the look of the film. You may also be interested in a podcast discussion on how we used the DJI Ronin on this project (linked below).

Pre-Production

This documentary film is essentially a character study, following and exploring the relationship of two men as they traveled across the United States to the Oregon coast. While our two lead characters were not related by blood, there was a unique father/son type relationship to explore. There also was an element of uncertainty, given the mode of travel they would be using…a unique vintage motorcycle and custom sidecar. Dutchmen was directed by my close friend Kendal Miller, who I have shot a number of projects with. In pre-production for the film we spent weeks talking through visual language and tone, and of course the equipment that would make it all possible.

Equipment choices should always be driven by the script or creative for a project, but budget constraints are also a consideration. I've worked on a number of projects with Kendal, and one of the first conversations we always have is to establish the sandbox of each project…what are our limitations. Once you understand the sandbox you have to play in, you can start digging into specific ways to accomplish your creative goals within those constraints. Finding the balance of executing the creative to its fullest potential while also working within your monetary constraints is a difficult task. And it's something that I have to do on every project I work on, no matter the production level.

Early on in pre-production we determined that this would not be another motorcycle travelogue. The real story is the conflict and growth arc of our two characters. They had amazing back stories, and really are unique characters. To make just another travel show out of their story would be to miss the point entirely. The motorcycle and sidecar, while an amazing visual, were ultimately just a vehicle to move our story forward (no pun intended). So in planning this shoot, it became about finding ways to get our characters off the bike as much as possible, and into interesting situations along the way. And as they explored the country, we would explore their unique relationship.

Another interesting part of the project were some rules that our characters imposed on themselves from the very beginning. They decided that they would make the entire trip on country roads, avoiding divided highways and only visiting "local" mom-n-pop stores & eateries along the way. Chain brands were to be avoided, in hopes that this would put them in contact with interesting local people that had their own unique stories.

Visual Language – Camera Movement

We realized early on that the film's characters were bigger than life. We could impose a style on them, or we could let the characters breathe a little. So one of the first visual language choices made was to use a handheld camera for much of our documentary coverage. This would help us not to impose a stiffness on the characters. We also had a modest budget, a small crew, and knew we were going to be in a lot of uncontrolled situations. Kendal and I both have a mutual appreciation for clean, motivated handheld work. Not shaky-cam, but handheld work that moves with a purpose, and in response to character motivations. Done well, a handheld camera can inject the audience into the scene in a very intimate way, and that was a good thing for our story. Handheld is also sometimes easier to react to unknowns in a scene…a good handheld operator can anticipate in realtime when key story moments happen, and be ready and framed up for those critical shots. It's a convention that works well for the limitations of documentary filming, and a good fit for our project.

The camera choice was a tough one. We needed something light, sharp, and gradeable. A 4K master would have been a good fit, to help stabilize certain shots. And a RAW format of some kind would have been nice, given our uncontrolled lighting scenarios. But the hit on media and disk space, coupled with the fact that we had no budget for a DIT meant that we couldn't use something like a Red Epic. And unfortunately, Alexa or Amira were not a possibility due to budget limitations. After going back and forth on this for some time, we landed on the Canon C300. Kendal and I are both very comfortable working with that camera, and know where the image breaks. Shot with care, it can look very good. Lenses are lightweight and affordable, and we're accustomed to using them for run-n-gun work. It's a sharp image, great in low-light (which is a huge factor for documentary work), and reasonably easy to shoot handheld. Battery life and media usage were a good match for our shoot, so ultimately the C300 is what we went with. We kitted it out with L-series zooms and I also brought along some of my fast Contax primes for low-light work.

Given that much of the film was to be shot handheld, we wanted to give the audience an ocassional respite from the moving handheld frame. So we pre-defined a structure for the documentary that allowed for some driving shots, montages, and scene-setters. We wanted to shoot these fairly clean and glossy, to add some production value and set these moments apart from the rest of the narrative. The idea was that this would inject a breath of fresh air into the constant handheld coverage, and to set the scene in a way that is larger-than-life. Our film follows two characters who are very unique and somewhat larger-than-life in their own right, so this convention was a natural fit to support that story thread. It also gave us a handy structure of traveling shots where we could use VO from pre & post-interviews with our characters, thus helping to fill in any gaps we might have in the story.

In addition to the scene-setter moments, we also determined that we would film a few "oners" over the course of the shoot. These would be key moments that were set up and carefully blocked to convey several key story themes within the space of a one-take scene. This was to again bring out the larger-than-life aspect of the characters, and also to tie them more closely to the context of key locations and moments. We went into the shoot knowing we wanted some of these oner moments, but not exactly sure where they would emerge. So we needed a tool with us at all times so that we could respond to the story and find these specific moments. We didn't have the space in our transport or the crew size to do these on a dolly, so going with a Movi or small Steadicam package became our only option…more on that in a moment.

Visual Language – Lighting

From a lighting standpoint, we talked about how we could use existing environments to shape the scene and embrace each location's unique character. We also knew that we didn't have the budget or space for a large kit. Everything had to pack down into small cases. So early on we decided that we would work as much with existing light as possible…in many situations we'd be working with whatever ambient light was available at these uncontrolled locations. Kendal and I both have a lot of experience in the doc world, and are pretty quick about arriving at a location and quickly determining where the "good" light is (good meaning = available light that best bolsters the story thread at hand). Sometimes it was just a matter of turning off tungsten interior lights and opening window blinds to allow a soft wash of side-light into the space, and then moving our camera to establish contrast. And as all cinematographers know, sometimes the best way to properly light a scene is to simply choose the best time of day. So early on we made some travel scheduling decisions that allowed us the best possible lighting when we were in uncontrolled scenarios.

The route of our journey was to take us East to West, so we set up a few scheduling guidelines that helped us make the best use of our sun. These were not hard and fast rules, they were simply a framework to work towards. For early mornings, we would generally get out ahead of the bike and sidecar, putting us on the backside of the light, and the rising sun behind our talent. This edged them out and created beautiful contrast. For the midday when the sun was high and lighting was flat, we planned to use that time to visit interesting locations and characters along the way, which often would put us indoors.

For the late afternoon and early evening, we tried as much as possible to get behind our talent, so that they were driving into the setting sun. Finally, we brought along a number of lightweight bounce options to work with natural sunlight, and also a small Kino Flo interview lighting kit. And of course plenty of modifiers, stands, and clamps. If we had time to setup lighting for interiors, we would light the space with a clean one-light natural look, and then let the full scene play out within that space, without starting and stopping. If we didn't have setup time, we would try to do a quick walk-through of the space and establish the best spots in the space where the action should take place. That allowed us to work with a small kit and move quickly.

Stabilized gear choices

Given our crew and vehicle size constraints, it was important to select tools that were multipurpose and easy to work with. One of the tools we chose for these moving shots was a DJI Ronin brushless gimbal system. The gimbal was a good choice for some of the afore-mentioned driving shots, and also for the one-shot sequences and scene setters. We also used a Ken Labs 4×4 gyro to shoot longer lens traveling shots when not using the Ronin, primarily working the gyro shots handheld with a 70-200 zoom. Our camera car was a Dodge Caravan minivan with sliding side doors and a rear hatch that could be left open for low-speed driving. Ken Labs gyros are an amazing tool for stabilizing handheld/moving footage, and they are fairly easy to use as well.

With the tight budget for our film, we had to come up with a solution for capturing these dynamic moving shots from our camera car. The obvious options of stabilized Scorpio or Libra heads were not within the realm of possibility for our budget. So based on my experience with a similar setup I had on a travel shoot earlier in the year, we designed (and Kendal hand-built) a hitch-mounted platform that would support a short jib arm. The platform was made from a hitch luggage carrier platform that was reinforced and cross-braced. On that platform Kendal attached a Mitchell Camera Riser, which allowed us to mount a jib arm. We chose a Long Valley Seven folding jib, (rented from Zacuto in Chicago) specifically because it is a very small, lightweight jib that is surprisingly stable…it has zero bounce or play in the arm. Many lightweight jibs have "give" along the length of the arm, but not this one. It also builds very quickly…we could mount or stow the jib in minutes, and simply leave the rear platform and risers attached to the back of the minivan for the duration of the project.

Attaching the Ronin to the jib would have been a lot simpler to accomplish with the Ronin mounting solutions that CineMilled now offers. But they were not shipping in time for our shoot. So we came up with a homebuilt solution of Cardellini clamps and gobo heads to undersling the Ronin gimbal on the end of the jib. This would have been easier to build and probably more stable with the Cinemilled solution! 

Moving shots with the Ronin

With the C300 mounted on the Ronin, we could put the lens inches from the ground, or up to a eye level on a motorcycle. This specific move was helpful, as we had two characters riding at different levels on the bike and sidecar. Not only that, but the bike itself was also a character in our story, so it was important to be able to show all these elements together in linking shots, and the jib gave us one more way to accomplish that. When we needed to set up for one of these sequences, I would ride in the back of the minivan (with the rear door up) and operate the jib. Kendal would monitor via an SDI-attached monitor, and he would operate the pan/tilt of the Ronin with its wireless controller. Basically we used the Ronin as a hot-head on the jib, with the added advantage of the gimbal motors soaking up some bumps and wobbles. This gave us a nice wide arc of coverage behind the camera car, with plenty of flexibility to shoot backwards or even from the side of our subject.

We found we could shoot up to around 30-40mph (depending on road conditions) with this setup and still get usable shots. The only issue we ran into was in filming turns. For some reason, as your camera vehicle makes the turn, the Ronin senses the g-force of the turn and will smoothly "counteract" it, which actually ended up unleveling the camera horizon as the car straightened back out. So you would exit the turn with the camera dutch tilted a few degrees. The solution was to anticipate this, and Kendal would carefully ride the horizon stick on the Ronin handheld controller.

For close-in shots from the side and rear 3/4 of the motorcycle, I simply worked handheld out of the sides of the minivan with the sliding doors open. I would either use the Ronin or Ken Labs 4×4 gyro for these shots, depending on how much setup time we had, and the lens choice. The Ronin seems to work best for driving shots in low-wind on the wider end of the lens, generally under 50mm and wider focal lengths. Oftentimes I would use a wide lens and hang the Ronin out the side of the vehicle with the motorcycle framed from the front-side (leading them) or rear-side (trailing them slightly). This allowed me to work a few feet away from the subject for dynamic low-angle compositions.

Moving shots with a Gyro

For longer focal-length shots where I needed to react a little more organically to the movement of the motorcycle or subject, I would mount the Ken Labs 4×4 gyro on the tripod mount of a Canon 70-200 IS lens, and work handheld. With some careful operating on a smooth road, I could capture shots sometimes all the way up to 200mm. In general I found that from around 70mm to 135mm it wasn't that hard to capture usable footage with the gyro. The gyro would stabilize out large wobbles and bumps, and the IS lens would soak up the small high-frequency vibrations. It worked quite well, both out of the back of the vehicle and from the sliding side doors.

 

I also occasionally worked on the gyro with the 2x extender mated to the 70-200, though that was quite difficult to frame shots unless the road surface was very smooth. The downside to the gyro is you have to spool it up to full speed before it will dampen movement…this takes about 10-12 minutes. So there were a few shots we missed by not having the gyro spooled up in advance. It's a little loud as well, so you tend to want to spin it down when you aren't actively shooting. You have to think ahead when working with a gyro. Fortunately, the battery pack will give you on and off shooting for most of a day, and the rental package we had came with a 12v adapter as well. We probably shot on the gyro 90% of the time, since it was the simplest setup to quickly grab moving shots, and the least difficult to rig and balance. Bang for buck, gyros are the best tool for moving vehicle work. 

Front-mounting the Ronin

To capture footage from behind the motorcycle, we built a front-mount for the Ronin on one of our vehicles, a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Jeep had tow hooks on the front that allowed use to tie into the frame with Cardellini clamps. From there we used c-stand arms to triangulate a support arm hanging out in front of the vehicle. From the top side we used another arm tied into a large suction cup on the hood. The Ronin was hung from this, which placed the lens just above bumper height. We ran an SDI cable back into the cab, and operated the pan-tilt head wirelessly from the passenger seat. By coordinating movement of the vehicle with the pan/tilt movements, we were able to get some really beautiful driving shots from behind the moving motorcycle. However, since this was a hard mount, the road surface needed to be quite smooth to capture usable footage. I've embedded footage examples below, and you will notice some jitter on the hard-mount setups. It's worth noting that the shots I'm showing were filmed on an uncommonly rough road, and we got better results on smoother surfaces. 

The Ronin smoothes out a lot, but brushless gimbals can't fix hard mount jitter…they need to be isolated from that type of vibration. Our mounting solution could have been improved with some kind of dampening mount…something short like the Flowcine Serene would be really slick, if you could find a way to hard mount that. That is something I intend to explore the next time I have a shoot like this. The first time we built the hood mount, it took a couple hours to figure everything out. But once it had been figured out, tested, adjusted, and everything carefully marked, we were able to break it down and re-build it in about 15 minutes as needed. This was a nice option to have at various points in the journey. Small side-note…you will want to put a filter in front of your lens, to protect from dust and rock pecks. And bring spares…we destroyed a few polarizers on this shoot.

Throughout the shoot we used radios in every vehicle, with in-ear headsets and throat mics for the talent on the bike. That allowed us all to communicate two-way at all times. It was simple to ask them to slow down or speed up slightly as needed. It was also very useful for coordinating safety concerns on driving shots. With clear communication between the bike, camera car, and spotters ahead/behind, we were able to get beautiful dynamic moving shots within a few feet of the bike in some gorgeous locations.

Footage Examples

Here are some footage examples from the film. These are raw shots with no post-stabilization applied.

 

Conclusions

Using these simple and affordable camera configurations throughout the length of our documentary shoot enabled us to capture lovely car-to-bike footage that bolstered the film's story and supported our visual language choices. It was an interesting challenge to find ways to solve our creative shot needs within the bounds of budget and time constraints. The Ronin performed quite well in each of these scenarios, and I'm very happy with what it enabled us to capture. And the Kenyon gyros are a must have for any driving shoot…they are rock solid and extremely useful. The KS 4×4 is a great size for a small camera like the C300. I came away from this shoot amazed by what we were able to capture with a small crew and some ingenuity. 

The Flying Dutchmen is currently in post-production at Cultivate Studios. If you're interested in more discussion on this project, I recently recorded a podcast for That Post Show along with Scott Simmons and Brian Hallet. It comes out this week, you can subscribe here. You may also be interested in Brian Hallet's article on car-mounting the Ronin using a suction cup kit and the Cinemilled adapter plate. Finally, you can follow updates on The Flying Dutchmen film release here.


Matt Jeppsen is a working DP with over a decade of experience in commercials, music videos, and documentary films. Editorial ethics statement can be found here, and you will find a cinematography reel and contact info at mattjeppsen.com

 

 

 


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Matthew Jeppsen - DP Notes

Matt Jeppsen is a working DP with over a decade of experience in commercials, music videos, and documentary films. You can view Matt’s cinematography reel and contact info at www.mattjeppsen.com and editorial ethics statement at provideocoalition.com/ethics-statement

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