- Many of my first films, including a feature length documentary, were very different. For my feature length documentary, I remember shooting for three years and ending up with over 400 hours of footage without a clear idea what the story was about. That project was tricky and was a painful lesson during the edit. The film was a success and received many accolades around the world but it was a scary process. Intuitively I knew I had a good film, the subject matter was compelling and I had wonderful characters, but the story took three years to reveal itself.
- In contrast, this film was much different. From the moment I met Michael and witnessed his struggle to the water, it was clear to me what the film should be about. The film is five and half minutes long. I shot roughly three hours of footage to get there.
- Even though I had a clear idea of what I felt the story was early on, I didn't hold onto it tightly as to strangle it. I believe one must leave room for something new to happen in the process. And if the room is full of one idea... well, sometimes that can make for a very bad film. The magic, almost always lives and breathes in the unplanned moments. During the filming of BIRTHRIGHT, there were many shots that were unplanned which often were the smallest, most quiet moments in the film. I believe it is the nature of documentary that most of it is unplanned. You have a notion of how you want it to go and it rarely happens that way. Often it's replaced by something much more special.
If I would have been filming that while on a tripod, standing over him... the intimacy would have been lost. It would have created distance instead of empathy.
Qualities of a documentary photographer
- As a documentary photographer or film maker, I feel the most important quality is to be present, to be in the moment, aware of the story and environment as it is evolving. It's only in doing this that you can witness the moments that are important. It's also very important to trust your feelings or intuition...to work from your first instinct without thought. When shooting the sequence in BIRTHRIGHT where Michael is struggling to put on his wetsuit, my instinct was to be close, the camera hand held and myself filming from low on the ground with him.
- Looking back, if I would have been filming that while on a tripod, standing over him... the intimacy would have been lost. The shot would have felt more distant, more as though we were watching a helpless victim writhing on the floor. It would have created distance instead of empathy. Instead we are right there with him, the camera is not present and we feel what he feels. Thus identifying our own life struggle with his.
- Technically, film making is in may ways more forgiving than photography. Maybe I feel this because, you have 24 or 60 or more still images happening per second that are telling your story rather than one image. As powerful as that one image can be, it is one image that becomes the focus of the viewer instead of several that are telling a story. The medium of film is more forgiving in this way. So, the technical aspect of the framing, lighting, exposure etc. becomes less important than the story. Often a single photo is scrutinized with more fervor than the many photos that make a film.
- Having said this, in my opinion, more often than not in this age of video, many lazy film makers believe what they are filming is more important than how it is filmed. I believe great film making is a balance.
I believe it is the nature of documentary that most of it is unplanned
In the edit
- It's often said that the film is made in the edit. I believe this is true. I am titled a director. But as a film maker I am a student of the great editors. My storytelling has become much stronger as a result of studying the work and words of Walter Murch, Verna Fields and many many others.
- The editing of this film was about compressing time and finding moments to expand the viewers sense of time. The film is roughly five and a half minutes long. The time it takes Michael to go from his garden to catching a wave is fortyfive minutes to an hour. As compelling as all of that footage is, it is overwhelming to watch. An hour of watching a man struggle can be too much and would create an imbalance regarding the climax of the film.
Even though it is only five minutes long, the film still has three acts. The introduction of the character, the struggle and the resolution or pay off for the struggle. Each act has to be balanced with the others in order to tell the most compelling story.
I used many jump cuts to compress time and expand time. Sometimes it's more powerful to allow the mind to fill in the gaps from A to Z
- I used many jump cuts to compress time and expand time. Sometimes it's more powerful to allow the mind to fill in the gaps from A to Z. Certain moments in the film - like when Michael was waiting for the tide to lift his kayak from the sand - were fairly fast in reality. But by editing this moment in the same way I edited his struggle with the wetsuit one assumes that he was waiting longer than he actually was. The same is true throughout the film. When editing this way, long periods of time are compressed on the timeline but in the mind's eye and since of time they can actually feel longer. It is simply gestaltism.
Production problems and taking them on
- Michael and I had decided to film his journey to the water. There were no rehearsals and I had never traveled with him on this journey before. So it was difficult to plan ahead. I grabbed my camera, a long lens, a wide zoom lens and a macro lens and we were off. It all happened very quickly and spontaneously. I stopped by his house to say hello and he suggested we go shoot right then.
- There are always unexpected problems when filming. As I was riding in the back of Michael's jeep on the way to the beach my camera actually came apart. I shot with a Panasonic HVX-200 using a Redrock M2 system. The Redrock system was not completely fixed to the camera and literally came apart. It was a quick and panicked fix. Usually, there is a calibration protocol for this system to achieve focus length and so on. I had to forgo that protocol as I was on the move in the back of an undulating jeep, and just crossed my fingers and pulled the trigger. As you can see there are focus issues but I was hopefully able to use those shots to the advantage of the storytelling.
Sean Mullens is a commercial film director. He has been working around the world making commercials, music videos and documentaries for the last ten years. When he is not busy shooting commercially, he likes to make small films like BIRTHRIGHT. He is a comedy director by day, so most of what he shoot outside of that world is different. His documentary work spans from films about Punk Rock Drag Queens to stories like BIRTHRIGHT. His commercial and documentary work have received global honors and accolades which include an Emmy nomination, Cannes Gold Lyons, Gold Clios and festival awards from around the world. Sean loves making films and telling stories. Everyone has a story worth telling.