Filed in: Community

Documentary Gigs for Crew

December 1, 2005 12:00 | By

The transitional nature of their work makes it essential for film crew to constantly be on the lookout for opportunities beyond the realm of narrative film. In fact, for editors, cinematographers, line producers and others, the search for the next job is perpetual. In the past few years, documentary films have emerged as fertile ground for finding that next break.
Documentaries were once widely considered unprofitable, but with recent hits like Mad Hot Ballroom, Rize, Super Size Me, Spellbound, Winged Migration, and blockbusters such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins, the documentary genre’s visibility has vastly increased. In 2005 alone, over 2,000 documentaries are said to have been released theatrically and on television, and there are twice as many in production than there were 10 years ago.
Despite recent successes, many documentaries are still not that profitable. However, there are many opportunities to find work. According to Devin Smith, a producer at Robert Greenwald Productions, “It’s definitely a viable field to work in, but chiefly as supplemental income.”
Documentary crews often work multiple jobs (like director/cinematographer Henry Alex Rubin who co-directed and shot Murderball), partly because of the lower wages due to lower budgets. Also, on documentaries, the line between below-the-line and above-the-line is often blurred, usually making for a more unified team.
A documentary shoot is often unconventional, usually taking many months or sometimes years, and can be a time-consuming undertaking. Scheduling is more spread out. For example Rize had over 150 shoot days over the course of three years. Morgan Susser, the cinematographer, was there almost every one of those shoot days, and because of what he describes as the amazing experience of making the film he wishes he had been there every day.
“They would call me up and ask if I could make a certain date, and it was usually convenient,” Susser recalls. “And for the days I couldn’t make it they had two replacement guys, although it’s hard for me to watch the scenes they shot.”
“I like the flexibility of working on documentaries,” says Brian David Cange who has been a producer and director for over 10 years. “The shoot dates are spread out over time and I can take jobs in-between.” He most recently worked on Mad Hot Ballroom as line producer and he has filled several positions on both narrative and documentary films. “[Documentaries] usually pay less but they are always a labor of love that the filmmakers are very passionate about,” Cange adds.
Another positive element of documentary filmmaking is that it can be easier to get in contact with the filmmakers and submit work. For example, in 2003, musician and sound designer Brian Emrich found out a documentary called Moog was being made about the late synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, so he cold-called the production office; just hours later he had a job on the project composing a track for the film’s score and subsequent soundtrack.
Projects are ultimately rewarding for those who have a real enthusiasm for the subject matter, whether it is the mating rituals of penguins or a style of dancing. “Before Rize happened, I was sitting with my wife and I said how much I would love to work on a documentary and be free to create something unique that can make a difference,” says Susser. “I was a clean slate to this world and the dancing grew on me more and more every day I worked on the film.”
Documentaries can also provide educational experiences for those working on them. “I’m about to direct a narrative film called Fantasy Land and, after working on several documentaries, I decided I wanted to shoot my film documentary-style with lots of hand held camera-work,” says Cange. “It’s hard to go back to straight shooting because these techniques are so exciting.”
The ever-growing demand for documentaries, the degree of flexibility they afford members of the community who work on them, plus the fact that they allow the learning of multiple jobs simultaneously, all make documentary work desirable for crew people seeking work. As for making documentaries a full career, “It’s not a bad choice if you can find work on multiple documentaries,” says Susser.