‘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.

Gaming casinos to provide for your flock

You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 8:18

So here’s a thing: Your church needs money. Casinos are evil. Why not play casinos at their own game to further the work of God?

From 2006-2009, a highly organised Christian blackjack team made up from pastors, church workers and worshippers made $3.6 million dollars from casinos across the United States with a %35 investment return. Using card counting, maths and carefully planned strategy the team regularly turned over hundreds of thousands of dollars at the casinos with the wins going towards the running of churches and discipleship programmes on the American west coast.

“As a pastor of a church, I can play for three days and earn more money than I would ever get in three months,” says one pastor. “You can spend the other time shepherding the people of your church.”

The strange double life of The Church Team is explored in Holy Rollers, a thought-provoking documentary film following the highs and lows of gambling life and presenting the moral dilemmas faced by the players, their families and the Christian churches they belong to.

Team managers Ben and Colin train players, men and women, to count cards and learn bidding strategies. Players are paid an hourly wage no matter what they win or lose. Card counting is classed as cheating in casinos and the film shows the players frequently being thrown out leaving all their winnings behind.

A shared faith in God holds together the team and provides the focus for all of their activity outside church. They thank God that he gives them a good way to provide for their families.

“I love working with them and hanging out. I was looking for a way to find a job and start a church and then my friend talked to me about this blackjack thing,” one player says.

“I’ve usually got $80,000 cash in the house. I used to keep it behind the Bibles and study books, but now my church has bought me a safe.”

Players make investments into the team to provide the capital to play. Typical sums can be a few thousand dollars, but many invest more. One took out a $53,000 dollar loan on a 0% credit card in order to buy into the team. The parents of another player mortgaged their house in order to invest $200,000.

So how can a pastor and a Christian justify playing blackjack?

“People have their ideas about blackjack and we can talk for months explaining and discussing their questions, so we prefer not to talk about it,” say pastors Eddie and Mike. “Our motivation is to do work that will move the Kingdom forward.”

“I feel sure that God is OK with it, but if I felt that were to change then I’d stop. Christians have widely varying reactions when they talk to me about my work, and many say it is evil and immoral. But then they also see that casinos are advertised as places of fun and liberation yet that is a lie too since they are not like that at all.”

When faced with prospects that one of the team was cheating and stealing money from the winnings, other members were reluctant to bring up their suspicions, but they confided in a third team member.

After praying about it, the Holy Spirit told him that their suspicions were true, and on the strength of that testimony he raised the issue with team leader Ben.

“They challenge me in my faith,” says Ben. “I don’t get that Christian fundamentalist weirdo stuff. I don’t hear from God that way.” In fact, this collection of white male and females from middle America includes just about every variation of Christian belief.

Doubt and questioning enters the player’s minds from time to time about whether their work can really sit comfortably within the moral expectations of Christian belief.

“It’s starting to prey on me the differences between my two worlds,” says one. “I baptise someone and then go gambling. I stand by the value of what I do, but really I aim to do something that leaves the community in a better way than when I found it. Blackjack doesn’t do that.” After playing blackjack he turns to training kids in the neighbourhood how to game school entry tests in order to get to a better place in life.

But most find that there is no conflict. “Every hand is determined by God, and he knows the card counting and made it possible by bringing order to the universe. One night after a bad run, I found a verse in Deuteronomy ‘He gives you the power to make wealth and seals his covenant with mankind’. He has proved this for me and there’s no conflict in my mind or conscience. This is my calling.”

Director Bryan Storkel decided to make the film after seeing a friend of his who helped to start the team always having his pockets full of cash.

“It was really strange so I knew I had to do something with the story,” he said following the London screening  at the 19th Raindance Film Festival. “I invested in the team, initially a few thousand dollars,  and I got a good return, so invested some more which helped to pay for the film. I leant to count cards and took part too from time-to-time.”

“I don’t set out to judge their activity but to outline hypocrisy whether amongst members of the church or that of the casino. I don’t like casinos. Casinos advertise a thing they are not prepared to tolerate and that’s wrong. For me, there’s a game and there are people who can beat it, so why should they be penalised? In the film you see that often the parents of the players are the worst hypocrites. They would say they should go to hell and would rather they sold cocaine, but then they would see the profits and how the money was used would come around and became some of the biggest investors.”

Holy Rollers is playing film festivals and will be released to DVD shortly. Watch the film and then run a discussion session with your own church. Would you gamble to further the work of God?


Holy Rollers: The true story of card counting  Christians played Raindance Film Festival, London on 7 October 2011.

Christopher Nolan talks physics and film

I was delighted to find Christopher Nolan casually talking physics in the middle of a discussion at the Hero Complex Film Festival Hollywood in June, and reported in the Los Angeles Times. It emphasises how intrinsic physics is to cinematography, and to the director creating his vision.

When asked about the current craze for 3-D cinema, Nolan said he resented the suggestion that cinema was somehow flat without those special glasses for 3-D viewing, and said that he was not a huge fan.

“The truth is, I think it’s a misnomer to call it 3-D versus 2-D. The whole point of cinematic imagery is it’s three-dimensional. … You know, 95% of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution,

color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2-D movie a ‘2-D movie’ is a little misleading,” he said.

The Los Angeles times recounts that he nodded to the movie screen behind him, and told the audience that he, literally, had a dim view of the 3-D releases he’d watched: “The truth of it is when you watch a film in here, you’re looking at 16 foot-lamberts, When you watch through any of the conventional 3-D processes you’re giving up three foot-lamberts. A massive difference. You’re not that aware of it because once you’re ‘in that world,’ your eye compensates, but having struggled for years to get theaters get up to the proper brightness, we’re not sticking polarized filters in everything.”

So, that’s physics of illumination, depth perception and human vision. Not bad for a film talk.