Interview: Patrick Reis

I found Patrick Reis offering a workshop on HDSLR filmmaking at StudentFilmmakers in New York. Unfortunately, I’m in Denver and NYC trips are hard to fit in, but the workshop sounded interesting, so I contacted Patrick to see if he would participate in an online interview.

Patrick’s career can be traced back to the mid ’90s independent film scene in New York City. He was lucky enough to secure a solid background in film before the digital video revolution exploded and began to dominate the indie market. The majority of his work is commercial but his love of storytelling has drawn him to more narrative projects. Patrick’s clients include ESPN, Nickelodeon, Fox Sports, Canon USA, BETJ, and various independent production companies such as Wonder Wheel Media and Masterlink Films where he is a founding member. A few samples of Patrick’s work can be seen here: Road to Roubaix (shot with Panasonic video cameras); Empire Crush (music video shot with a Panasonic video camera); New York Bartending School (promotional video, shot with a Canon DSLR).

Patrick has shot with 16mm and 35mm cameras as well as myriad video cameras including Canon HDSLRs. Although Patrick has spent the majority of his time behind the camera, he teaches video production workshops at IFP, DCTV, Student Filmmakers and master classes at Frank Sinatra High School.

Q1. How did you get started shooting documentaries?

Reis: My introduction to shooting documentaries was a bit of a surprise. I went to film school and the focus was almost completely on narrative storytelling which is where my interests were (and still are to a large degree). I worked on narrative shorts and features for years with a few TV shows in between. Then in 2006 I was working at the SilverDocs film festival and became friends with the graphic designer, Dave Cooper. He proposed a concept for a movie about a French bike race and we discussed it casually while we were working together. One day he asked me if I had any thoughts or opinions about this project. He liked my ideas so later that week he introduced me to his partner, David Deal, and I was officially on the team. We shot two movies, a short and feature length documentary the following year.

Q2. Apart from exotic destinations, what are your keys to crafting a good documentary?

Reis: My feeling is that most good documentaries are part education and also part entertainment. I often find myself asking the question would anyone pay to watch this for one or two hours? There are many stories that should be told and need to be told but in order to reach an audience you need to have an element of entertainment in them. Two hours of talking heads and stats on the screen aren’t memorable. Intriguing subplots and interesting b-roll help keep the audience invested.

In recent years I’ve noticed a growing interest in voyeuristic style movies. Reality television has tapped into this audience preference to great success. If you look at documentaries from thirty and forty years ago, they were always trying to give the audience the feeling of discrete observation but a 16mm camera with a clap slate and boom operator didn’t allow the subject to relax and actions felt staged (and they probably sometimes were). If you can give your audience an unbiased look into someone’s life, career or tragedy then you’ve got yourself a compelling documentary that will hold the audiences’ attention and stay with them.

Q3. You say you’re going to use DSLRs to shoot these films. Are DSLRs well-suited to that type of work? (This is something I struggle with personally: the DSLR has great capabilities, but it’s a bit finicky. Not as easy to work with as some videocams, for example. If you’ve got just one chance to capture activity – as in documentaries or event coverage – you can miss your chance by using finicky gear. Why are you opting for DSLRs?)

Reis: My opinion is that if you are comfortable shooting with DSLRs then they are well-suited to any type of work. If you want to use a remarkable piece of equipment then you have to know it’s limitations, what it can do and how to use it. The bottom line is DSLRs are real movie cameras. They should be treated with respect and used properly.

I often compare shooting with DSLRs to using film whether it be 16mm or 35mm. Shooting film requires the shooter to be more aware of the camera and therefore it’s more difficult to just “point and shoot”. You are absolutely correct in saying that DSLRs are not as easy to use as some video cameras and if your comfort level isn’t very good with DSLRs and you feel that it could jeopardize your movie by missing shots, etc. then I would suggest using a video camera that you are more comfortable with. I’m not sure that finicky is the right word to use when describing DSLRs but I understand why you use that word. I think formidable could be the word I’m looking for?
I’m very comfortable using DSLRs to record video partly because of my background with film. I’m not the only one choosing to use DSLRs for these documentaries, the producer and director are requesting them.

Regarding these documentaries, my first reason for choosing the DSLR is image quality. They look more cinematic than any other camera that our budget can afford. Second is price and size. I can now bring five or six cameras with me instead of one or two. This will allow me to use multiple camera operators and cover events from many different POVs. I’m also covered if a camera is lost or broken. Third is the footprint. Often these cameras are ignored and by that I mean people don’t see them as video cameras so you’re able to get some uninterrupted, real action. Video cameras tend to attract attention and once people know they are being recorded they tend to change their behavior. Several of these documentaries will feature young children so having a small camera makes them more comfortable. Fourth has to be the low-light capabilities of the camera. If you take the large sensor and put a really fast lens on the body, you can get some well exposed images without introducing too much noise. I am not an advocate of shooting without lights but I know that there will be times in a documentary where you cannot bring lights into the situation.

Q4. What other core gear do you use for documentary work? (e.g., audio, lighting, stabilizing systems for the DSLR, etc)

Reis: First and foremost is an external monitor. The LCD screen on the back of the DSLR isn’t very accurate and I’ve run into trouble a few times when I depended on that LCD screen so an external monitor is key. Some people like using a loupe but I still find exposure and focus difficult to judge. I use the SmallHD monitor because of the false colors option and focus assist. The monitor is compact, durable and loaded with other features so I like using them.

If you can’t get a monitor with exposure assistance, then break out the old light meter. I still have my old analog Sekonic and I am so happy to be using it again.

ND filters are going to save your life. If you have any exterior shots you’ll find yourself stopping down to 11 or 16 or more and sometimes that still won’t be enough. Once you’ve lost your beautiful, cinematic shallow depth of field, you’ll wish you had a ND filter. Still photographers don’t have this issue as much because they can adjust shutter speed to compensate for overexposure.

I try to bring some prime lenses along with my zooms. Zooms are easier in documentary work if you have lots of live action that will require you to be adjusting the focal length while shooting. Primes are important to me because they are always much faster and that extra stop or two can be a life saver in low light situations.

Audio is a tricky subject. I like to have camera mounted shotgun microphones for some of my handheld work but I really prefer my microphones closer to the subject. I find that using a separate recording device is best but if you need a quick turnaround then a XLR adapter like the BeachTek or juicedLink models are best. Make sure you are familiar with them because it’s easy to make mistakes with the XLR adapters.

Using fast compact flash cards or fast SD cards is key to getting that extra hour of sleep. I always go for the faster cards even though they cost more. Every documentary filmmaker knows those evenings that turn into late nights because you’re waiting to empty all of the cards onto a hard drive. Fast cards (and a fast card reader) will shave off those minutes that become hours. Just to clarify, when I say fast cards I mean something faster than the minimum. If you use CF cards, you only need 8 MB/s but I get cards that transfer at 90 MB/s and you see the difference when you’re transferring onto your drive at the end of the day.

It’s been said one too many times but you have to have a solid hard drive. This is where your work will live. After you add up all of the money and time spent on it, not to mention events that sometimes can only happen once, the hard drive has to be a rock. My favorite hard drives are the portable OWC drives. Not only are they durable but their customer service is amazing with a real live human being at the other end of their 800 number. You just can’t beat having a live technical person available to you if something goes wrong.

I could go on and on about gear that I like to bring with me. I’m thinking of doing some small POV style movies of my prep days so people can see what I’m bringing. A couple of filmmakers have asked me to do a double-check of their gear so it’s definitely something documentary filmmakers are interested in.

The most important tool that a filmmaker can bring to a set is patience. Filmmaking, whether it’s a documentary or narrative, never goes as planned and a cool head and good sense of humor is the best way to keep things moving forward at the proper speed for maximum efficiency and eventual success.

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