‘Pans on scenery are bunk’: John Grierson’s notes on shooting documentary from 1932

On the website of The Grierson Trust, there is a great section about John Grierson, the “father of documentary.”

In one of the articles you can see Grierson’s notes on using a camera. He gave these to Edgar Ansty in 1932, just before he set off for a year shooting aboard HMS Challenger, a Royal Navy survey ship charting the Labrador Coast in north-east Canada.

Even after 80 or so years, the basic points Grierson makes still apply to shooting documentaries today.

A scene from Drifters (1929) directed by John Grierson. (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive, New York)

A scene from Drifters (1929) directed by John Grierson. (MoMA Film Stills Archive, New York)

Anstey had been given less than 24 hours training behind a movie camera. Grierson drove to Portsmouth by car to see Anstey off. Anstey recalls him manhandling two crates of film stock on board the Challenger, and then handing him a hastily written set of instructions on how to use the camera: “Take this with you,” he said, “this is how we shot Drifters.”

My favourite of the list: “Pans on scenery are bunk”. Still very true.

A close second is: “It has to be a damned important moving object to be worth a pan.”

With digital cameras, it’s easy to shoot in a very unplanned way, but you really shouldn’t. The costs in time and money will rapidly stack up in the edit. Much better to plan out what you will film way before pressing the red button. “Get people accustomed to the notion that you have to get everything as you want it before you can shoot film,” notes Grierson.

Other timeless advice is to shoot with the sun over your shoulder so it can give good exposure on your subject’s face, and remembering to focus.

Unfortunately, the film from Edgar Anstey’s voyage to Labrador, Uncharted Waters (1933) for the Empire Marketing Board, is currently ‘missing believed lost’.

John Grierson

  1. Keep steady. Never from hand or hip.
  2. To get true movement of a ship you have to keep the horizon horizontal, therefore lashing to the ship will not get the effect (where horizon is dominant). My own method is to lash to the ship and miss the horizon by shooting down or shoot low and get the sky background. i.e., miss the swinging horizon. Alternatively, and if important enough, say in a big gale, you must practice getting the camera related to the horizon. Screw the camera on a stick and be your own compensating balance. The spirit level should help you. Naturally not too much of this, steadiness takes priority.
  3. Do not do any panning at all except on a moving object. It has to be a damned important moving object to be worth a pan. i.e. one the audience are really interested to follow. Then keep the pan as steady as possible even if it means letting the object beat the pan.
  4. Pans on scenery are bunk.
  5. Get into the habit of remembering to focus. It is not so easy to remember in the urgency of action.
  6. The gate should be frequently cleaned. I shot a whole day once with a hair waggling half across the frame.
  7. Do not be afraid to ask people to do things again rather than go on shooting raggedly on something that has flopped. This nerve will bore people but is half the job.
  8. ‘By guess and by God’ is the dirtiest thing you can say about a producer.
  9. Do not be afraid of setting up effects where it is difficult to get them on the run.
  10. Get people accustomed to the notion that you have to get everything as you want it before you can shoot film at 41/2d. a foot.
  11. Shoot with the light behind you, over your right or left shoulder preferably, according to the better illumination on faces. Flaherty shoots with a late afternoon light (he calls it ‘down the sink’) so long as it is strong for exposure, its lowness on the horizon allows a better light on faces. It is also more pleasantly soft on faces.
  12. Do not shoot without direct sunlight unless the skies are falling. If you must, remember the Black Country* principles of getting your greys to keyed to extremes of black and white. Snow is white – a solid silhouette in the foreground is black.
  13. Exposure at sea is greater than on land because the sea catches and throws up a vast amount of light. Remember this and make your exposure tests accordingly.

John Grierson’s notes to Edgar Ansty (1932)

*The reference to ‘the Black Country’ is most likely connected with the filming for Industrial Britain by Robert Flaherty in the regions around Birmingham.

It’s dangerous…

Part of an old sign near pools in the Thames at Sutton Courtney, Oxfordshire. I love the old handwritten font and the grey paint for shadowing. I wonder how old it is?

The best way to share multimedia presentation slides online

Sharing slides and presentations online is surprisingly difficult and requires the use of multiple online services to recreate the experience of the live presentation


At a recent STFC Public Engagement Symposium, I gave a presentation to around 120 researchers and science communication specialists introducing the world of social media. In my talk I explained how social media and social networks can be used to blend science into the mainstream cultural discussions.

I used many slides with graphs, maps and diagrams to illustrate my points, and many people have since asked me to share the slides with them. To share these slides effectively turns out to be not as easy as I hoped.

In any public talk making use of supporting materials on slides, having the slides alone without a commentary is  in large part useless, so a voice narration and subtitles can be used to recreate the live experience that the audience experienced.

Narration/Voice-over & Subtitles

I used PowerPoint 2007 to prepare the slides. Recording voice narration is extremely simple. A good microphone is needed, but once you have that, select ‘Voice Narration’  in the Slide Show ribbon and off you go; it will even record the timings for you to synchronise the slide changes and animations.

This was my first voice narration and it worked well. Next time I will be careful to reduce odd background noises, shuffle less, and not click the mouse.

I also added brief subtitles to the slides in case sound isn’t available. This will at least fill in some of the gaps. Surprisingly there is no easy way to accomplish this in PowerPoint 2007. It would be useful if the Notes section could be animated in some way. The only workable option is to use text boxes and animate them.  

Sharing the  presentation: requirements

The most straightforward option to share is to create a PDF and email it around. This is quite primitive, destroys the audio track and does not handle the transitions well.

A second option, is to host the presentation file on our website, circulate the web page link and allow people to download the file. That assumes they have PowerPoint 2007 on Windows, or some way of reading .pptx files on Mac or Unix systems. A straight link doesn’t allow the content to be easily shared.

A third option is to record the screen, whilst making a separate voice recording, mix the two together in video editing software, and upload to YouTube. I like the idea of sharing on YouTube, but I want to do it easily by converting the PowerPoint file.

My ideal scenario for sharing a presentation includes:

  • playing the slides in order and preserving the animation
  • playing the narration soundtrack in synchronisation
  • produce a transcript of the slide text
  • produce a video of the presentation including the animation and narration
  • not be overwhelmed with advertising and other screen clutter
  • be easy to find and share links on social networks
  • have a version that works on mobile devices
  • cope with large files
  • original slides can be downloaded

For this exercise, I recorded the audio at high quality, but I could probably reduce the quality next time to shrink the file size. Adding audio to the original presentation took the file size from 3.7 MB to 177 MB.

Sharing the presentation: practice

There are 4 online sevices that offer a good route for sharing presentations in a social way:

  • slideshare.net
  • slideboom.com
  • authorStream.com
  • myBrainShark.com

Each service has its strengths and weaknesses. Visual communication company m62 have made a comprehensive study of each of them which is a good starting point for deciding which to use. Since their study in January 2010, no further serious contenders have joined the list.

slideshare.net is the most popular of the sites, and is ranked 251 in global traffic, so the presentation has to be listed there to ensure it is widely seen. However, animations are stripped out and audio is thrown away. There is an option to add an audiotrack on the site, but that is too tedious even to think about. But the presentation works and on mobile too, and the transcript is excellent. This is the only service that allow the original slides to be downloaded.

slideboom.com can handle the audio and animations, but is restricted to 100 MB maximum file size.

authorStream.com will handle the file size, audio and animations, but makes a charge if the presentation exceeds 5 minutes, and is incredibly slow to upload and convert files.

my.brainshark.com produces the best slideshow online with narration and animation, makes a video version and uploads to YouTube with a minimum of fuss. Unfortunately, brainshark.com doesn’t produce a transcript. Also, in this example, my presentation is 28 minutes long, and the YouTube limit is 15 minutes, so the video gets chopped in half. Either you are forced to work with 15 minute chunks, or just use the my.brainshark.com site. Downloading of the original presentation isn’t an option on this site.

In conclusion, sharing presentations online effectively is surprisingly difficult. I have had to use two separate services – slideshare and mybrainshark – to create all the components on my wish list. But now, I can share those links widely, and offer my audience a range of methods to get at the information again.

Appendix: detailed observations


Function: kills all the animations and voice track, shapes cover each other up. File limit of 100MB. Original slides can be downloaded.

Audience: massive – number 1 site for sharing slides. Global traffic rank: 251 from http://www.alexa.com

Advertising: everywhere and very distracting. Also has tendency to have broken links and blank boxes.

Transcript: excellent. All text, even from animated text boxes

Pro:  $190 per year, ad free,  more control

Video: no conversion options

Mobile: works nicely on mobile iOS with no advertising


Function: keeps all animations and voice track

Audience: global traffic rank: 30,698 from http://www.alexa.com

Advertising: more discreet than slideshare

Transcript: excellent representation of all the text, even from animated text boxes

Pro: $195 per year, ad free, more control

Video: no

Mobile:  very poor, does not even scale


Function: keeps all animations and voice track

Audience: global traffic rank: 5840 from http://www.alexa.com

Advertising: yes, a lot making it quite cluttered

Transcript: good representation of all the text

Pro: $30 per year

Video: video can be made – very slow conversion. Charge for length greater than 5 minutes. no simple connection to YouTube.

Mobile: no mobile version of site, but slide shows do play in browser pages.


Function: really easy to use. Fast and sleek. The most satisfying experience to upload and convert to video.

Audience: global traffic rank: 29,561 from http://www.alexa.com

Advertising: none

Transcript: no transcript. Just slide titles.

Pro:  $120 per year to remove branding, extra to add training features

Video: very fast video conversion with option to share onto YouTube, but beware YouTube 15 minute limit.

Mobile: free app from app store, plays slides as video, but in app searching is very poor.

Japanese objects #1: Dried cuttlefish

Dried cuttlefish by martynjbull
Dried cuttlefish, a photo by martynjbull on Flickr.

At the Japanese supermarket, I found this freeze dried cuttle fish. It looks unappetising so I’m wondering what else it might be used for. Beating off intruders? Planting bulbs?

Japanese signs #3

Japanese signs #3 by martynjbull
Japanese signs #3, a photo by martynjbull on Flickr.

Fortunately, the deer were in a good mood when I visited Nara, and I saw none of this antisocial behaviour by the locals.

Japanese signs #2

Careful deer! by martynjbull
Careful deer!, a photo by martynjbull on Flickr.

Deer leaping out!

These signs are all around Nara, Japan where the population of deer living in the town seems to outnumber humans.

Japanese signs #1

Careful of rear end collisions!


This road sign is above the expressway in Tokyo near Wako. I can’t decide if the eyeball belongs to the driver of the green car or the blue car. UK road signs are so dull in comparison!