Cinematography and Storytelling Course Review

By Patricia Boiko, past president of SeaDoc

You may dislike Alex Buono for his mockumentary series, Documentary Now! — where he satirizes our sacrosanct groundbreaking documentaries. You may also know Buono for his run and gun creative cinematography on Saturday Night Live. I know him because I got to experience his passion for cinematography and visual storytelling in a class he gave in Seattle this summer. As the then president of SeaDoc, I was invited to attend his Visual Storytelling 2 workshop.

Buono and his crew turned a downtown hotel ballroom into a studio with us students sitting before screens like producers. We saw the cameras, lenses, lights and set constructed before our eyes. He is a gear head who preaches not to be stuck on or purchase gear. He shows how we can determine the best gear for the story and ways to get that gear at the lowest cost or rental.

Buono taught with such an urgency that the knowledge imparted seemed so precious that he had to pass it on before we had a chance to make unnecessary mistakes. He taught with an awe for his mentors (famous cinematographers) and a responsibility to pay it forward. I was enjoying the show and soaking up the knowledge.

As a documentary filmmaker, I learned that he experienced documentary filmmakers as the most “inclusive, dedicated and collaborative group” of filmmakers. I learned that the use of different lenses is what effects the look of documentaries now that cameras are so comparable in filming quality. He showed how using lenses from the 1970’s produced some flares and imperfections that mirrored that era. There are times in our documentaries when we need to show a time in the past, for instance a building that still stands. If that building is filmed in the present with a lens from the past, the image can mimic the past. Or, an interview with a person describing the past can be filmed the same way.

As documentary filmmakers we want integrity and authenticity when produce. Yet, we are held to higher and higher standards for cinematography and overall “production value.” We film what we can as fast and as events unfold. Then we ask the impossible of our post production team (often me, myself and I) to color correct, sound correct and make bad shots into “special” effects. Buono was keen to teach us about cinematography and set-ups that take little planning and adapt for challenging situations. He has found creative solutions that we don’t have to reinvent. He doesn’t want us to have to reinvent them and tell all. For a price, yes. However, you get to ask him all the questions you want. He is not only accessible inside and out of the class time — he gives you his contact information.

I would recommend this class but I want to see one more specific to documentary filmmakers. I want Buono to come to DocForest or SeaDoc because his passion for excellence and creativity and his technical advice in cinematography and storytelling would benefit our community. Besides, I want to discuss further how to produce with subtext and the “colors of life” in planning a documentary.

Would you like to have him teach?

Are there instructors or professionals you would like to see at DocForest and our events?