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Thoughts on documentary cinematography from Don Lenzer.

Documentary filmmaker Don Lenzer.
On a vérité documentary, the director of photography is often the de facto director. Aside from lighting responsibilities, the d.p. is the one capturing the image: framing the compositions, choosing the length of the shot and deciding which element within the frame to emphasize — all in a series of split-second decisions.

For more than 30 years, the appropriately named Don Lenzer has proved a master of such doc decision making. Lenzer is a documentary director/cinematographer whose cinematographer or director of photography credits can be found on five Academy Award–winning feature documentaries, including Woodstock (1970), He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1983), Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994), Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000) and Thoth (2002).

Lenzer’s directing credits include the 1969 Public Broadcast Lab feature-length documentary Fathers and Sons and the 1970 short film A Wonderful Construction, which featured images of the then soon-to-be-completed World Trade Center. More recently he co-directed and shot the Emmy Award–winning PBS Great Performances documentary Itzhak Perlman: In The Fiddler’s House (1996). And he just completed Among the Stars, an hour-long documentary shot on Mini DV about a unique theatrical troupe of learning-challenged adults.

The following comments were culled from his recent postings to the IFP Virtual Doc Conference, an online documentary forum funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and moderated by filmmaker Doug Block. The full transcript of Lenzer’s replies to questions submitted through the forum are archived at The D-Word (


1. On the relationship between intuition and technique in documentary lensing.

Whenever I think about developing my skills as a cameraman/filmmaker, I veer between feeling that it’s largely a mystery, an intuitive thing on the one hand and that it’s a completely learnable thing on the other. Lately I’ve begun increasingly to believe in what we might call “educated intuition.” I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I really do believe it’s possible to educate one’s intuitive powers, to take practical steps to make a sometimes encumbering technology second nature and to get to that cherished place where we’re shooting “in the zone.”

First of all, let’s assume that we all have an indispensable passion without which no mastery could possibly be achieved. And the particular nature of the passion we have is different in each of us and can dictate the individual path we take to gain mastery of our crafts. For me, making documentary films, whether shooting or directing, is simply a way of learning about the world. But I think of it in a more tangible or physical way; the terms “appropriating” or “grasping” the world come to mind. It seems a little paradoxical for someone whose profession is based largely on perception, but I sometimes imagine myself a sightless person when I’m working, reading a scene as though it were a book written in Braille.

I think it’s tremendously important to train yourself to find the meaning of a scene, to learn how to “read” a scene, to define point of view and perspective. That’s what training and education in the broadest sense should be all about. And the more that education (both practical and theoretical) progresses, the more intuitive your work will become.


2. On his approach to shooting a particular film or scene.

I think generally my predilection is to be “inside” a scene, to film close to my subject using the short (wide) end of the lens, going in for the rare close-up depending on the emotional intensity of the scene. Generally, I’m inclined to cover a conversation over the shoulder, with the person who is talking or listening looking as directly into the lens as possible. That’s usually the most dramatic option, and I try to make the transition to a new angle so the move can be used, but of course it often isn’t.

Let’s say you’re shooting a scene of a doctor breaking some particularly bad news about test results of a family member to the rest of the family. Where does the dramatic emphasis of the scene lie? Is it in the interaction between the doctor and the family members? Is it in the reaction of the family members, or is it in the difficulty the doctor has in conveying the information? These are all important questions. Of course an editor needs coverage to cut a scene. But simply to “cover” a scene to give an editor all the options might not be the strongest way to film it. To choose the most meaningful approach might require taking risks and a willingness to push the envelope. And it demands a real understanding of what the scene means. It also doesn’t necessarily mean choosing the most virtuoso approach either. In the case of the doctor scene, the most powerful choice could demand a virtually static camera over the shoulder of the doctor, pushing in maybe just a little, waiting for the possibly silent response of the family members. These aren’t easy questions, and I think that’s why you can’t discern very many individual styles among documentary d.p.’s. We’re so preoccupied with just covering the action.


3. On the collaboration between documentary director and d.p.

Getting off to a good start in a collaboration between director and d.p. of a documentary is one of the most important elements of the filmmaking process, and that collaboration can take many forms. Since the d.p.’s task is to help realize the director’s vision, it’s of utmost importance that the director be as clear as possible about what he or she wants. That doesn’t mean the director has to do all the work — that’s partly what you hire other talented people for. But throughout the process, there has to be an ongoing refinement of what the film is about. It’s also important that the initial choice of d.p. be an informed one based on the director’s understanding of the d.p.’s particular skills and style. You’ve got to know the person’s work or have confidence based on some initial understanding.

Different directors have different strengths and weaknesses, and I think it’s important to be clear about that and eliminate as much defensiveness or ego from the process as possible. You orchestrate different creative talents to help realize your vision, and presumably you choose them because you have confidence that they can do just that. There has to be the right mix of conveying what you want (and finding the right time to convey it) and providing the space, the freedom for the d.p. to exercise his or her craft. Personal chemistry is another critical element. It’s so important to make sure you have the right personal mix as you embark on a project.


4. On the relationship with the director during shooting.

When doing more formal, controlled work, tripoded urban or nature shots and formal interviews, I almost always like the director to look in the viewfinder or work with a monitor. We discuss framing, moves and style — I think it’s important to know we’re on the same page. In some rare instances, though, that’s not the part of the process that a director is most interested in, and he or she leaves things entirely up to me. That’s okay, but I do like to be reassured that I’m really comprehending the director’s vision even though most of the big questions have been discussed earlier.

Shooting vérité material, however, raises other issues. Directing a vérité camera while the shooting is in progress is always a delicate matter, and that’s why it’s so important that the choice of collaborator be right from the very beginning. The d.p. can be “in the zone” when the shoot is going well, but that can be broken all too easily. I know that a director can have greater peripheral vision sometimes than the cameraperson while shooting, and by the same token, it’s possible for the cameraperson to be more engaged in the drama of a scene. It is necessary sometimes for the camera’s attention to be redirected, but how that’s done is tremendously important. Believe it or not, I’ve experienced a director physically turning me like a tripod. Not much breaks concentration more than that. Personally, I like it best when the director just whispers information in my ear rather than tapping or moving me. Sometimes, when the collaboration is really strong, a simple glance or subtle gesture from the director will do the trick.


5. On the differences between shooting film and video.

When I’m shooting film, which is increasingly rare, I always work with an assistant. I used to have the a.c. help a lot with focus, even when I was doing handheld work, and it freed me to do more complicated moves. But I almost never do that anymore. It’s just too intrusive. On a rare occasion, when I’m on a tripod and I need to zoom, focus and follow exposure at the same time, I’ll ask my a.c. to help with focus.

I find focusing when I’m shooting Mini DV to be a nightmare, not only because of the low-res CCD viewfinder but also because of the non-dented focus ring — no markings, no stops at near and infinity focus. I keep the setting on manual focus but use the automatic push focus to get my gross focus, which is more important for wide angle where it’s harder to see focus. But I’m always too conscious about focus when I’m shooting Mini DV. I also think you have to develop a different shooting style [with Mini DV]. With a broadcast lens, though, you can use a technique that an old-timer taught me a few years ago when I was one of the cameramen on the opening show of the series ER. It was a special “live” show that used five video cameras. It’s a simple technique you can use on any broadcast video or cine lens. You just put little markings (roll up a little gaffer tape or glue something like pieces of coaxial cable shielding) at intervals on the focus barrel, say at 5", 10" and 15". Something like that to give you an actual physical reference.


6. Stylized camerawork in documentary film.

I have been asked from time to time (almost exclusively in those rare instances that I’ve worked on commercials) to “jazz things up” with skewed angles and “shakycam.” And I’m usually pretty frustrated when I’m asked to do that. Skewed angles for an architectural or graphic montage, that’s one thing and a fairly traditional one at that. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying to develop the skills to tell stories with as little intrusion of technology as possible. For me storytelling is the preeminent issue. And I feel that a lot of gimmicks (but not necessarily electronic manipulation of the image) are an excuse to mask the lack of good storytelling. I may be wrong about this, of course, and it may really be true that the MTV generation has a minuscule attention span that can only be held by some formalistic techniques. I don’t think so, though. I think great stories that touch our lives, captured with engaged energy and grace, will hold our interest whether we’re 16 or 60.


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