Documentary filmmaking, like great investigative journalism, is all about shooting the things that powerful people and subjects don't want to be watched. That implies that for anyone interested in pursuing a career as a documentary filmmaker, such a person would need to become accustomed to filming undercover and undetected.
But, more importantly, how do these filmmakers pull off such a deceptive filmmaking style without being discovered?
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Let's take a look at the realm of undercover documentary filming, from DIY gear to concealed cameras to inconspicuous approaches.
1. Research and Have a Plan
You'll frequently come across scenarios that are best defined as "gray areas" in terms of whether or not you should be shooting. These occur for a variety of reasons, the majority of them have to do with communication. Often, one person in control of an event or company has given you permission to record, but it hasn't been passed along or accepted by the management or person on the ground.
Regardless of how you ended up in one of these incognito or gray zones, your best bet is to do your homework and have a strategy in place. Unless you're working with a huge team on a very official project, I'm guessing you'll have to work without much assistance or hand-holding.
Presented below are the three most important aspects to consider:
- What is the location where you need to shoot?
- What are the lighting, sound, and other components like in the space?
- Subjects: What are the people you need to film?
- Do you require interviews, B-roll, or both types of interaction and footage?
- How much time do you have to shoot?
- How much time do you have with the topic?
- What will happen to the ecosystem over time?
The best strategy is to plan a full shoot ahead of time. However, in documentary filmmaking, you'll frequently have to work without a set timeline. However, if you can conduct a study and ensure that you can verify those three factors, you should be in excellent shape.
2. Get the Right Tools for the Job
To be honest, there's a lot of argument in documentary and film/video circles about the "best camera" for this or that. And, while we can certainly propose a "best" camera for documentary filming, you really need to select the correct tools for the task when it comes to undetected filmmaking.
The trick is to select a camera, gear, and setup that will provide you the most flexibility in terms of recording with the least amount of effect while yet delivering high-quality footage, long recording times, and enough dynamic range to function in a number of lighting scenarios.
3. Undetectable Filming Techniques
Similarly, many documentary filmmakers who want to keep their identities hidden use a variety of popular DSLR or mirrorless cameras that might be mistaken for simple photography equipment. Although DP John Benam shot a majority of their interviews with a Canon C300 Mk II, he would also use a smaller camera—like a Sony a7S II—so he could blend in like a tourist, but still shoot decent video with what can be portrayed as a ‘stills' camera, as you could observe in his interview with the cinematographer of the recent Sundance documentary Assassins.
This method was also used in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. The crew used prosumer hybrid cameras hidden in a similar method to catch a crucial shot where the filmmakers were plainly not allowed to film. They even went so far as to stroll around with the cameras dangling from their necks, as any tourist would do with a camera.
4. DIY Equipment and Hidden Cameras
Using concealed cameras or other DIY spy equipment as part of your documentary espionage is another option. A fantastic step-by-step walkthrough for making your own spy cameras out of outdated mobile phones can be found in the video above. However, you can employ a range of new and unseen cameras and equipment, such as these:
Waterproof Action Camera Glasses Insta360 Go Fredi Mini Hidden Camera Insta360 Go Fredi Mini Hidden Camera Insta360 Go Fredi Mini Hidden Camera Insta360 Go, Fred,
I wouldn't recommend any of these cameras or approaches for documentary filming as a primary method. However, if you're ever in a pinch and want to see how far you can go incognito, these can undoubtedly assist you in remaining undiscovered.
5. Be Ready to Record and Improvise
Finally, like with any documentary effort, you'll have to be prepared to film and improvise on the fly. Take, for example, the documentary filmmaking team behind Tigerland, which was charged with the ultimate "don't get noticed" challenge of capturing dangerous tigers and other wildlife for the Sundance 2019 film festival. To be undiscovered and secure, they had to work secretly, relying on concealment and long lenses.
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