Documentary Tips for Filming Undercover and Undetected
From hidden action cameras to improvised espionage tips, use this run-and-gun guide to filming documentary projects on the sly.
Just as in great investigative journalism, documentary filmmaking is about filming the very things that powerful people and subjects want to have filmed the least. That means, for those interested in careers as documentarians, that you’ll need to get used to filming undercover and undetected.
But, how do these filmmakers pull off such a sneaky filmmaking style and, more importantly, how do they do it without getting caught? From DIY gear to hidden cameras to inconspicuous techniques, let’s explore the world of undercover documentary filmmaking.
Research and Have a Plan
From my own experience working in documentary filmmaking—usually as a one man “Shreditor” (shooter, producer, editor)—you’ll often find yourself in situations that can be best described as “gray areas” in regards to whether you should be filming or not. These come about for a variety of reasons, all mostly having to do with communication. Often, you’ve been granted permission to film by one person in charge of an event or company, but that has either not been passed along or not yet approved by the manager or person on the ground.
Regardless of how you find yourself in one of these incognito or gray areas, your best bet is simply to do your research and have a plan. Unless you’re working with a large team and on a super official project, I assume that you’re going to have to work without much help or hand-holding. This makes doing your research and having a plan that much more important. Here are the three biggest factors to consider:
- Location: Where do you need to shoot? What’s the space like for lighting, sound, and other elements?
- Subjects: Who do you need to film? What type of interaction and footage do you need—interviews, B-roll, both?
- Time: How long do you have to shoot? How long do you have with the subject? How will the environment change over time?
Ideally, your best option would be to schedule out an entire shoot. But, as documentary filmmaking goes, you’ll often have to work without an exact schedule. However, if you can do your research and make sure you can confirm those three elements, you should be off to a good start.
The Right Tools for the Job
Honestly, in documentary and film/video circles in general, there’s a lot of debate for the “best camera” for this purpose or that. And, while we can definitely recommend a “best” camera for documentary filmmaking (here’s a great article supporting the Canon C500 Mk II), for our purposes of undetected filmmaking, you really have to find the right tools for the job.
So, while the C500 might be one of the more powerful cinema cameras out there, it might be a bit too large and cumbersome for filming on the sly. Instead, when looking to film documentary projects without being noticed, you really want to go as small as possible with your camera and gear.
Take this interview with the filmmaker behind the documentary Hurdle, who had to sneak cameras and equipment into heavily contested conflict zones. Documentarian Michael Rowley chose to work with a minimal setup, which only included “a Sony a7S II with lapel mics attached to the cage, a rail system on the camera, a 4-channel audio recorder to receive those lapels, and a RØDE NTG2 shotgun mic” for his entire kit.
The trick is to find a camera, gear, and setup that will allow you the most flexibility to record with as little impact as possible, while still striving for quality footage, solid recording time, and enough dynamic range to work in a variety of lighting situations.
Inconspicuous Filming Techniques
Similarly, another popular technique for many documentary filmmakers looking to remain undercover is to shoot with many of the popular DSLR or mirrorless cameras that can often pass as simple photography cameras. As you can see in this interview with the cinematographer of the recent Sundance documentary Assassins, while DP John Benam shot with a Canon C300 Mk II for the majority of their interviews, he would also employ using a smaller camera—like a Sony a7S II—so he “could look like a tourist, but still shoot decent video with what can be portrayed as a ‘stills’ camera.”
The Oscar-winning documentary The Cove also employed this technique. In order to capture a critical scene where the filmmakers were clearly not allowed to film, the team camouflaged prosumer hybrid cameras in a similar fashion. They even went as far as to leave the cameras recording while walking around with them dangling from their necks, as any tourist would do with a photo camera.
DIY Equipment and Hidden Cameras
Another approach you can take for your documentary espionage is to use hidden cameras or other DIY spy equipment. The video above includes a nice step-by-step walkthrough for creating your own spy cameras out of old mobile phones. But, you can also use any variety of new and incognito cameras and gear like these:
I wouldn’t recommend using any of these cameras or methods as your primary means of documentary filmmaking. But, if you’re ever in a pinch and want to really stretch just how undercover you can go, these will certainly help you remain undetected.
Be Ready to Record and Improvise
Finally, as it is with any documentary project, you’ll need to be ready to record and improvise on a moment’s notice. Take, for example, the documentary filmmaking team behind the Sundance 2019 documentary Tigerland, who were tasked with the ultimate “don’t get noticed” challenge of filming dangerous tigers and other wildlife. They had to work undercover while relying on camouflage and long lenses to stay undetected and safe.
However, if you can stay patient and flexible, the right moments will most likely find their way to you. This is a common theme when talking with many documentary filmmakers who, often, have to record thousands of hours of footage to complete ambitious projects. For example, interdisciplinary documentary director Hervé Cohen shot countless hours of undetected footage of unsuspecting subway riders across the globe for his SXSW interactive documentary exhibit Life Underground.
I’ve personally found that the best shots come from spontaneous situations and from simply being quick on-the-draw, so to speak. Working on projects where you need to remain out of sight will stretch you even further to really push what your focus, gear, and expertise can handle.
For more documentary filmmaking tips, tricks, and insights, check out these articles :
Cover image by Nicole Glass Photography.
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