Cinéma Vérité allows documentary filmmakers to capture life as it happens. Unlike fiction filmmaking, which is planned shot by shot, life is not. Shooting Vérité, filmmakers must adapt to whatever happens in the life of the subject without interfering. A great deal of story preparation is required between the Director and the Cinematographer to allow for this improvisation at any given time.
Having shot a lot of Vérité scenes as a Cinematographer, I’ve learned the most essential skills are the ability to truly listen to your subjects and to have an awareness of your surroundings. Sometimes listening to your subject isn’t just about words but also about body language. It is like a strategy game, as the Cinematographer is responsible for where to place the camera as well as choosing the most powerful frame size to convey a particular moment. During one of my recent shoots in Southeastern Russia in the island of Sakhalin, I was shooting a Vérité scene surrounded by Russian fishermen, unable to understand the dialogue, I was forced to read the manner in which they communicated to anticipate what would happen next.
Responding to the unpredictable is often a matter of understanding the ways in which your subject moves or feeling a change in the tone of their voice. In a way, as a cinematographer you are obliged to improvise and trust your gut instinct to capture what is most important to the story. The most consistent mistake novices make is to hesitate when making a choice about where to point the camera and therefore not holding long enough on any particular frame. The best advice I can give is to prepare yourself as best as you can before a shoot and always remember to listen, trust your gut and hold your shots.
Eliana Alvarez Martinez is an award-winning, accomplished and truly versatile Director / Cinematographer. Her enthusiastic “Have-Camera-Will-Travel” outlook has won her a steady stream of documentary, commercial, fiction and television engagements around the world.