Thursday, May 6, 2010

Albert Maysles on Documentary Filmmaking

With his late brother David, Albert Maysles is a giant among documentary filmmakers. Over the past half century, he has produced behind-the-scenes chronicles of cultural icons (the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Vladmir Horowitz, Christo, Jessye Norman), and is best known for "cinema verite" documentaries such as "Grey Gardens," in which the camera captures natural conversations and activities without the intrusion of interviews or narration.

This approach is often referred to as "fly on the wall," a term Maysles abhors, for reasons he cites below. He is currently producing "Handheld and from the Heart," a self-portrait film celebrating his 50th anniversary in filmmaking, in his own words and images.

On his recently redesigned Website, Maysles shares his thoughts on documentary filmmaking:


As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences -- all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.


1. Distance oneself from a point of view.
2. Love your subjects.
3. Film events, scenes, sequences; avoid interviews, narration, a host.
4. Work with the best talent.
5. Make it experiential, film experience directly, unstaged, uncontrolled.
6.There is a connection between reality and truth. Remain faithful to both.

Some Do's and Dont's

• Hold it steady.
• Use manual zoom, not the electronic.
• Read as much of the PD 170 manual as you can.
• Read book or chapter in a photography book on how to compose shots.
• Use the steady device that’s in the camera.
• Never use a tripod (exception: filming photographs, for example).
• You’ll get a steadier picture the more wide-angle the shot. In a walking shot go very wide angle.
• Hold the beginning and end of each shot. The editor will need that.
• Use no lights. The available light is more authentic.
• Learn the technique but equally important keep your eye open to watch the significant moment. Orson Welles: “The cameraman’s camera should have behind its lens the eye of a poet.”
• Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.
• Don’t worry that your presence with the camera will change things. Not if you’re confident you belong there and understand that in your favor is that of the two instincts, to disclose or to keep a secret, the stronger is to disclose.
• It’s not “fly-on-the-wall.” That would be mindless. You need to establish rapport even without saying so but through eye contact and empathy.
Maysles also explains why he feels the Sony PD170 is "the greatest technical innovation":

1. focuses down to inches.
2. has a magnificent manual zoom.
3. is supersensitive to light.
4. an excellent zoom range especially with the addition of the Century wide-angle adapter.
5. only 3 dollars per tape.
6. extremely useful automatic focus, also manual.
7. manual and automatic exposure control.
8. single system picture and sound plus two sound inputs.
9. as you shoot, you control exposure simultaneously while observing recorded images.
10. steady device in the lens makes for a steadier picture.
11. unlike the 10minutes 16mm film camera magazine, each tape runs 40 or 60 minutes, virtually no run-outs.
12. with tape you needn’t change stock.
13. camera can be held in many positions with viewer still visible.
14. holding camera below chin, a camera person can see much more than is in the eyepiece.
15. holding camera below chin, camera person's gaze is available to subjects to assure rapport.
16. camera much lighter (only 3 or 4 pounds vs.20).
17. can vary shutter speed.
18. camera costs only around $3500; a 16mm film camera with lenses and magazines around $100,000.
19. the zoom lens is so good you need no other lenses.
20. easy to film in tight quarters; for example, in cars.
21. totally silent.
22. less intrusive.
23. batteries are tiny (3"x 1 1/2"x 1"), weigh little, run for as much as 8 hours.
24. quality satisfactory for TV and can be blown up to 35mm.
25. all you need to shoot goes into a normal camera bag.
26. when necessary can shoot all alone.
27. no waiting a day for rushes. Results are immediately available.
28. fewer or no problems with hot or humid conditions.
29. can go straight to edit; no processing negative, workprint, or transfer to tape.
30. is a near perfect one-up on the 16mm film camera.
You can find news of upcoming lectures and screenings, along with info on purchasing Albert Maysles Eyewear for Barneys (!), here.

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