Prepping for Time Travel

Shooting dramatic recreations for the first time can be intimidating for historical doc-makers
August 1, 2005

Shooting dramatic recreations for the first time can be intimidating for historical doc-makers accustomed to shooting interviews and animated still images – or for the cinema verité director used to following the action as it unfolds and distilling the story in the edit room. But non-fiction filmmakers undertaking recreations need not reinvent the wheel. Making a docudrama is like making a dramatic feature – many of the same rules apply. Learning and then sticking to the most elemental of these will ensure the only drama that happens is in front of the camera – not behind it.

What to show: Perhaps the most exciting part of the process is figuring out what scenes and images convey the emotion and breadth of your story. Rely on historical artwork or archival photographs to suggest ideas. Many images will come from the location scout when you find some fantastic prop or setting that is emblematic of a moment in the story. Don’t be afraid to be abstract; often the shadow of an object is more powerful than seeing it in its entirety.

How to show it: Once you have a script, draw up a shot list complete with shot type and content information. Is it a master or a close-up, and which characters appear in the shot? Is it a dolly shot or on the sticks? What’s the location, and what’s the ideal time of day to shoot? (That’s best determined after your location scout.) Are there any particular requirements, such as special effects like smoke or a wind machine?

Draw sketches. Storyboard as much as possible. Use programs like Movie Magic Scheduling to create a production strip board to maximize efficiency in the field. The ideas are in your head, but you have to be able to share your vision with your team. Your strip board and its various breakouts (for costume, art dept., etc.) become more vital to your crew than the script once pre-production is underway. Get as much variety into your schedule as possible, shooting during both day and night, in different kinds of weather, and in different seasons.

Casting: Local folk festivals, drama societies, churches and re-enactor groups are great places to locate talent. Hiring an experienced actor for your leading role is always advised. In general, the safest way to work with non-professional actors in secondary roles is in ‘silent’ mode, where no lines are required, and where the narration or expert interviews will carry the storytelling. When working with newbies, or with people who have stage experience, less is more; overacting is the most common sin. If you can’t tone down a performance, cheat the melodramatic actor away from the camera.

Art direction and costuming: Second only to the choice of cinematographer, this is the most important element to achieving good-looking recreations. If a prop looks cheesy to you it will look cheesy to the camera. However, certain unavoidable art directing problems (too-bright colors in a costume, fake jewels in crown, etc.) can be hidden with subtle lighting. (Again, less is more when it comes to lighting.)

In general, your art director should try to make lump sum deals to avoid being nickel-and-dimed to death. A good art director will also bring more props to the set than you requested so you have some choices at the last minute. A creative ad can save the day with a sheepskin that wasn’t on your wish list thrown over something to hide an unexpected offending detail, or by placing an interesting prop in the deep foreground, thus affording you several planes of interest.

Camera: Lastly, keep your camera as dynamic as possible, but in a way appropriate to your time period. Wherever possible, shoot film, not tape. Film helps you ‘sell’ the idea that you are showing the audience something that happened in the past.

Pamela Mason Wagner is an Emmy Award-winning producer/director in New York. She has been involved in several award-winning Faith & Values Media docudramas, including Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc: Child of War, Soldier of God and Patrick.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.