Hereward – Notes Of A Camera Operator

The Beginning

My tutor recommended me to get a paid job at Christmas, but unfortunately I couldn’t seem to find any. Hoping to quell any spare time I had free, I quickly latched onto this project a week or two after it had started. The ‘Hereward Documentary’ was a project based around Hereward College – an educational institute located on the outskirts of Coventry that helped and aided aspiring students with disabilities. This documentary wanted to specifically relate to students with Asperges Syndrome.

Luckily, I hadn’t missed much, but I initially had mixed feelings as to my involvement in this project – they seemed purely egoistic, which would not benefit the project as a whole. I was also in the full knowledge that I had not chosen to do the documentary module, and most of the other students taking on this project had, putting me at a strategic disadvantage in terms of understanding the content and approach to the production.

I decided from an early point that I was going to stick to my role as camera operator for this project – as with Prague, as long as I did my job well, a crucial part of the production of this artefact was sorted. I just had to make sure I was darn well ready for the heat when it inevitably came. This meant that I made the active decision to leave the running of this project in the firm hands of my ‘documentary-literate’ colleagues. However, the project started off rather confused – no one seemed to know what the overall style of the piece was. Neither the producer nor the director seemed to have a clear approach to this project, which I knew would lead to problems further down the line.

The first time I met the students was at the college itself. The students I met at this first meeting have become the ones I most associate with this project – there’s Robert, who is very loud and confident; Frankie, who is rather shy but wears wonderful and colourful attire; Charlie, who has a big heart and managed to find love in his life recently; Marco, who has problems with his confidence; and Charlotte, who is also quiet and shy a lot of the time. We knew that we needed to approach the students in a very gentle way – I’d recently taken notes from Paul Watson at his Coventry Conversation, about setting up your own space in the surrounding environment, and never intruding into the personal spaces of those you’re documenting. I started as I meant to go on – purely as a camera operator, ultimately the just guy who would do the filming to the best of his ability.

At this first meeting, we also decided to split the on-site group in half – ‘minglers’ and ‘producers’. The minglers would do just that – befriend and gain the trust of the students, so that when the time came to interviewing them, or asking them more challenging questions or subject topics, there would be a certain level of trust established. The production team members (such as myself) would stay in the background, serving only to operate equipment, and socialize on a secondary basis. This was soon found to be a flawed concept however – when the interviews took place, the ‘producers’ would inevitably be around to film it, which would put the students on edge as we would not have gained their trust. Thus, this initial idea disappeared into the vista – if this project was to come together, I for one was certainly going to have to get to befriend these students to a level that they felt they could trust me as a person and open up in front of the camera.

The man I simply know as ‘Paul’ is one of our main contacts at Hereward College. He has supported this project since the very beginning, and has sorted out various social events, meetings and travel arrangements. He is a pivotal member in the production of this documentary.

The Approach

I knew absolutely nothing about Asperges, Hereward, or any of the students. This made me rather hesitant at approaching a lot of the students, as quite a few other teammates just got stuck in with the socializing. We took a few video shots of the initial meeting, and a few subsequent shots at local bars – once at a social event, and the other at a Christmas meal. For the social event, a small group of us went to the pub beforehand to find a suitable place to film. We ended up stranded at the pub and had to walk over three miles back to our homes in Coventry city centre, which took over an hour. I felt it did, however, bring us together more as a single operating unit.

At the location scouting trip.

Whilst at these pub events, I was recommended to become friends with the students and socialize more. My distant disposition had been challenged only once during the initial meeting – that with the ultra-confident Robert, who identified me by my ‘bush haircut’. For each of the one-liners he fired at me, I fired one right back at him. He warned us he did Judo – I said that was fine, because I did Kung Fu. Things like that made Robert the first student to stand out to me. I figured he’d make for interesting footage – he liked attention, sure, but he was also my first open window into the group, for if I could befriend him, perhaps it would make the others relax more in my company.

Robert was the first of several students who showed lots of confidence. More appeared at the social events later on – their up-front antics providing ample ways for me to spend my time constructively, leaving the more sensitive students in the capable hands of my female co-workers. During the Christmas meal, I was advised to make conversation with the students whilst they ate. I respectfully declined, telling my director that if a stranger tried to make friends with me whilst I was eating my Christmas meal, I’d tell them as politely as possible to ‘f*ck off‘.

Shooting at these pub events was unfortunately largely haphazard however – there was still no clear ideas of shots or styles, leaving me as a cameraman free to experiment and do what I liked. This was a bad thing for me, as I was definitely not going to experiment with shots in front of these students – I simply deemed that as unprofessional. I felt I was doing my job, but my mentors were rather slipping in their responsibilities. We had been advised by a member of staff at Coventry University to look back at our initial footage half way through the first term, and by Christmas this still hadn’t been done. It was a great shame, but ultimately the burden was not on me. I was not going to commit any form of mutiny or argument – besides, I  had worked with most of the team on other projects beforehand, in which each and every one of them had excelled in some way or another. I kept the faith that this project would get it’s feet on the ground… and after Christmas, the faith paid off.

At the Christmas meal with my awesome hat.

The College

We came back after the Christmas holidays and a meeting was called in earnest. At this meeting, we swapped CRB check information, and cemented trips to the college on Friday afternoons. These frequent visits would provide the turning point in this project – now we had interviews, locations, and frequent communication with the staff who were arranging the documentary at the Hereward College end. From this point, the questions and subject matter was probably going to go to more personal areas – up until this point, emphasis had been on making friends with the students. Now, the time was fast approaching to see if our chatter had paid off. The documentary was not to focus on the restrictions of Asperges, but rather how the students were overcoming their disability. I also found myself thinking that the staff members who were helping us would be good subjects for the documentary, as they had many stories to tell – some comedic, some tragic – in all their years of experience.

The first of these excursions was last Friday, and the documentary has really kicked off. With our CRB checks in order, we are now able to fully interact with the students on their home turf. Now we have the relevant locations, things have slotted into place more or less overnight. I may not have become strictly friends with any of them – but it cannot be argued that I’m now a familiar face in the team. The ‘bushy haired’ one from Coventry University who knows about cameras. Some small-scale interviews took place on the first Friday, and the second Friday we shot full-scale interviews lasting between five to ten minutes each. These interviews would be the basis for the overall artefact, and we can now start viewing footage and editing a piece together.

Upcoming events are based around us showing the students around Coventry University – most of them have an interest in media, and studying at the university in our faculty. Social events such as a visit to a theatre are also in the works – I’m just happy that the project has now taken off and things have fallen into place. With a little more work, I have every confidence that this will become a solid documentary piece that we can all be proud of.

Robert

Prankster, joker, and all-round comic who has provided a quirky humour to the proceedings of this rather serious project. His confident nature has made him one student I’m often first to look for at the college.

Frankie

One of the quieter students, but a student I have always been able to spot from a mile off due to her unique and vibrant dress wear. Both her and Robert share an active interest in the media industry, and Frankie may well be helping with the development of this documentary in the later stages of production.

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