Jesse Witt serves as a Story Team Resident at The Austin Stone Community Church, with an emphasis on filmmaking. As an aspiring filmmaker, he seeks to tell stories about how God is moving all across the world. Austin, Texas is serving as a wonderful place to sharpen his skills as a gospel storyteller.
Story Team: What was different about shooting this film, given that Roger has cerebral palsy?
Jesse: The difference between shooting Roger’s story compared to others is that Roger is physically limited to what he is able to do. Anything outside of Roger’s normal routine is a difficult adjustment for him, because it requires much more thought, planning, and help than most of us can probably understand. Whereas most story subjects are independent and flexible to change, Roger relies on others to help him with everything. Because of this, filming Roger meant shooting him in his normal rhythm of life. Sometimes this meant sacrificing the “good light” or the perfect shooting location. While Roger is capable of doing so much, we felt that it was important to show exactly what it is like for Roger every day—focusing on what Roger isn’t able to do on his own.
Story Team: What was different about the interview process?
Jesse: During an interview, every subject is going to respond differently. It’s our job as storytellers to help our subjects feel comfortable, as well as visually depict them in a way that reflects the messaging of the film and who they are.
We interviewed Roger two times. The first interview didn’t go as well as we had hoped. Lights, audio, two cameras, and three strangers in your living room asking intimate questions can make anyone feel uncomfortable. This was noticeable in his responses both visually and verbally, and we were not getting the authentic responses that we needed from Roger.
The interview featured in the film was our second attempt. We used natural lighting, one camera with a telephoto lens, and only a shotgun mic for audio. With less gear in his face, we created a set more conducive to his natural environment. The biggest difference was that our second set was limited to only two people, both of whom knew Roger well enough to be comfortably vulnerable.
A minimized set, along with a crew who Roger knew and could trust, made all the difference.
Story Team: How would you describe your cinematography process?
Jesse: We tried to be as intentional as we could with the cinematography while documenting Roger’s story. Our goal was to match the stabilization technique with the tone of the environment as much as possible. This changed several times throughout the film. I broke the shooting styles into three types of shoot: cinéma vérité, interview, and b-roll.
The context of the opening sequence was what I would call “raw and intimate.” In order to match the content that we were capturing, a cinéma vérité approach was required. Shooting handheld gave the viewer the feeling of being right there in the room with Roger, e.g. squatting down next to him, sitting eye level with him on the floor, following him across the room. We wanted the viewer to feel the tension of what every day looks like for Roger. The story not only begins in this style, but also comes full circle at the end in this style—re-establishing the fact that this is Roger’s physical reality.
At home, Roger does most things at floor level. For our interview, we chose to film him in the same way. In an effort to get the best angle, we took a risk and swapped out our tripods for apple boxes. This required more attention, due to the fact that the camera wasn’t locked down, but it gave us the look we wanted—a view from Roger’s perspective.
Lastly, we used b-roll of Roger commuting, serving at church, and hanging with friends. Because the primary use for these shots was not cinéma vérité, we locked-off and stabilized as much as we could. To match the smoothness of Roger rolling in his wheelchair, we tracked in front of him in a golf cart. This helped us to see his face clearly while he drove around. The shots of the high school and serving were also simple shots intended to be more dynamic and clean.
While many of these shots were done intentionally from the beginning, some came as afterthoughts when we realized what didn’t work and what the story needed. My best advice to other filmmakers is to plan for specific types of stabilization based on the content and tone of the shoot. Your angles, light, and stabilization are all tools in helping to craft the story that you want to tell.
Cinematography = Intentionality