Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Documentary Depth: Composition Tips from Cinematographer Shana Hagan


Shot composition layered with thematic meaning is often associated closely with fiction films, but it’s not exclusive to them. Documentaries are just as capable of offering images that are rich with thematic meaning and intent. Take the recent documentary Generation Wealth, part of a multi-media project by photographer and director Lauren Greenfield that explores the subject of excessive wealth and privilege in today’s world.

The artist worked together with director of photography Shana Hagan on several notable sequences that demonstrate the power of documentary footage infused with deeper meaning. We spoke with Hagan about building story-rich shots and put together a few tips on how to follow her lead.


Create Shots with Layers

Hagan’s intent in Generation Wealth of infusing shots with meaning was drawn in good part from a core tenet of Greenfield’s photography. “What I appreciate about her still photography is that even a single still image will tell such an incredibly deep story,” she says.

Specifically, she admired that Greenfield’s images tend to have layers of storytelling embedded in them. “We tried to emulate that with our cinematography,” Hagan says of the segments she worked on in the film. “We would have these standalone images that give you a lot of information up front, but then the more you sit with them, the more details you see.”

One example is an interview infamous hedge-fund manager Florian Homm. At first glimpse, it might seem like a classic talking head setup, but it’s not just a static medium shot. Look closely at the interview, and eye-catching details will pop out in the frame — details that don’t just reflect the subject thematically, but the film overall.

Director and photographer Lauren Greenfield
Director and photographer Lauren Greenfield, © Lauren Greenfield

Always Be Ready to React

Creating multi-layered shots means needing to be ready when they appear. The first step to accomplishing that, according to Hagan, is being present and prepared. “I do a lot of prep. All the gear stuff is taken care of. Crew is worked out. The technical stuff is done. Then you can really focus and be really present,” Hagan says. From there, it’s a matter of being generous in trusting your filmmaking instincts. “Anything that interests my eye, if it’s in context, I’ll shoot it.”

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There are, however, recognizable moments when you can get shot-enhancing details. One is waiting for subjects to get comfortable and produce more natural moments. “I take advantage and get somebody staring off into space, or get them fidgeting when they’re not really noticing,” she cites as examples. In the case of Homm, the subject would often fiddle with a cigar or play with a necklace, and he talked as he relaxed. Those struck Hagan as “character defining details” and she was sure to capture them.

Another recognizable moment can come at the end of the interviews, Hagan finds. “When somebody says, ‘Cut,’ I usually keep rolling on interview,” she says. “Nine times out of ten, a subject will say something, or reflect on something that they may not have before then.”

Florian Homm in 'Generation Wealth'
Florian Homm in Generation Wealth, © Lauren Greenfield

Go Wide and Get Close

On a technical level, Hagan and Greenfield like to capture moments by shooting with a two- or three-camera setup, often with the Canon C300 Mark II, which offers the dexterity and flexibility to capture the different points of view they wanted for interviews. “One would be dedicated to a wide shot, the other a side angle, maybe mostly tighter, and also tasked with getting those close-ups,” explains Hagan.

With wide shots, Hagan believes that the more you give audiences to see in a frame, the better. The Homm interview is, for example, shot in an ostentatious Frankfurt Hotel. Using a wide shot to allow viewers to take in the details of the luxurious room works so well because it allows the elements in the frame to enhance the film’s greater themes around excess. At the same time, it allows environment to reflect on the subject’s personality and character. As Hagan puts it, “Without him saying a word, you can really get a sense of who he is.”

As for close-ups, they provide the proximity Hagan needed to capture those cigar and necklace moments, although capturing a meaningful close-up does require a bit of experience. “My mastery of the camera is at a level of proficiency where I can just dive for close-ups, and dive for those little details when the opportunity presents itself,” she says. “And then I can come right back out and be ready for the next question when it’s time.”

Of course, documentarians are free to go with an either/or scenario, but Generation Wealth makes a compelling case for how a wide shot and close-up setup can generate a lot of opportunity for richer cinematography.

More Footage Means More Options

Hagan’s quest to capture shots with layers of storytelling isn’t just for the benefit of a director, but for her editors as well. “I think there’s a sense of always wanting to give the editor enough so he or she can cut the interview up if need be, but also help define character,” she says. “Sometimes, you end up shooting things that you don’t really know where they’re going to go, or something that you think might not be useful, but then it turns around. An editor can combine it with interview bites or another sequence, and it becomes something entirely unique and moving.”

But what about when a shot is missing? What if an editor is putting together footage and finding that something extra would help bring a sequence to a higher level of storytelling? Re-shoots aren’t always possible, especially for documentaries. Hagan recently experienced this while she was working on a documentary project with director Michael Apted. They were shooting an interview on the State Island Ferry, and while they wanted a shot of the Statue of Liberty, they didn’t want to interrupt the interview to get the shot. In cases like that, she’s found comfort in knowing high-quality stock footage would be on hand to help. “I’ve been really impressed with the variety of what I’ve seen recently,” she says. (Sure enough, Generation Wealth also features stock footage, including images of of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas from Pond5).

Shana Hagan (lft), Lauren Greenfield, Sandra Keats

Shana Hagan, Lauren Greenfield, and producer Sandra Keats at the Russian State Library, Moscow, 2014, © Evergreen Pictures

Ultimately, what guides so much of Hagan’s process, especially in collaborating with Greenfield, is the ambition to create images that aren’t superficial — the importance of creating shots that on their own, and together, can offer a rich viewing experience like Generation Wealth.

The Generation Wealth documentary is available for preorder via Amazon. For more information on the companion monograph and exhibition, visit the project’s official site.

Top image from Generation Wealth © Lauren Greenfield