Book Review: Shut and Shoot Documentary Guide

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My Video Angst

So here's my ongoing video dilemma - one I think shared by a lot of instructors and some instructional designers who are not video professionals share. While I think video is a powerful communication tool, and one that could be useful for students to have experience with, the fact is that my video skills are quite undeveloped.

When I was getting my degree, video was a tool that was so expensive that only a relatively few communication majors or labs with huge budgets had any experience with it. I did learn something about audio tech in my phonetics course, but back in 1990, the lab was still recording on reel to reel magnetic tape because they felt that the quality of digital audio was very inferior. Video/film was a total non-issue even though it would have been valuable.

But once I left phonetics, it was all text (with maybe some maps thrown in), and I'm pretty sure that's how it is for most liberal arts folks of my generation. I think even the sciences have a similar experience in that most folks may be working with images and text...but maybe not video. So it's no surprise that faculty identified lack of experience with video as an impediment to using it in classroom assignments. How can they teach a tool they have no experience with?

This is where a quick and dirty introduction to the craft of video shooting would be really handy, and this is where the book Shut up an Shoot Documentary Guide by Anthony Q. Artis comes in.

Learning to "Shut Up and Shoot"

The book addresses two important issues faced by instructors using video. One is learning what all those cables, cameras settings, lighting doo-dads and other other videography tools actually do. The other is figuring out the logistics of a video project, particularly a documentary shoot which we hope has some research and narrative teeth behind it.

A positive feature of the book is that it's set up like a cookbook. You can read it one shot (and it's written well enough to do that), but I would actually recommend reading it in bits and pieces. Start with the pre-production phase and gradually work your way through the different technical elements. Need to figure what camera works best on your budget? Read that section. Want to figure out how to light up a room where you are interviewing a subject? Read the lighting section and figure out which "recipe" works for you.

The technical sections are genuinely written as if you know nothing at all. There are lots of definitions and illustrations of equipment along side photographic representations of what different tools do (e.g. normal vs telephoto vs wide angle lens). Very helpful. Artis is also good at giving options for different budget levels including some clever budgeting tips.

I will have to say that Artis is probably assuming a larger budget than a university will have (I personally haven't seen any colored gels, but maybe they're in a safety deposit somewhere). But I do think you would be able to make the most of what you can get...and you can always dream. Or at least the really stupid blunders.

Non-Technological Aspects

Equally important are the non-technological aspects of a video project, such as planning a storyboard, scouting locations, doing your background research and crafting your narrative ethically. For instance, Artis recommends planning your shoot to film everything possible at a remote location in one visit, including as many "cutaways" (short shots used to add atmosphere to a piece) as possible (apparently there is no such thing as too many cutaways).

And then there are the interview tips - which are the heart of most academic video projects. From lighting and timing your zoom to asking open-ended questions and letting speakers hold a restless pet, you can tell that Artis and colleagues have been there and done that.

Artis also has a great section for how to shoot in seedy locations (aka "Da Hood"). Tips include finding an 'ambassador' (which many sociology/anthropology instructors may know) and shooting between 6-11 AM in neighborhoods known for violence. I would say that some of the neighborhood relation tips would work with any community including a rural community or an isolated community somewhere beyond the normal Western world.

FYI - If you are shooting a video as part of a formal research study, you will have to clear procedures with the IRB Board, and if you can do that...you will be in a great position to create a great documentary because the process will address many of these community relation issues, not to mention getting the right kind of consent from interview subjects.

Summary

To sum it up, I would recommend this book to any instructor, instructional designer or student interested in learning more about the video craft. It's a very informative and also very entertaining read. I may just go out and shoot a documentary this weekend.

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