Observational filming: adapting body and camera to each other

Observational filming: adapting body and camera to each other

Cameraman Brian Tufano was a constant innovator at the BBC from the late 1950s onwards. Here he meets the various 16mm film cameras he worked with, each providing improved mobility over previous models. His aim was to make observational documentaries, where the camera could enter into the action rather than observe it from a tripod.

He says the Eclair NPR made him feel “complete”. He became a fusion of human and camera which could move as one unit. To achieve this required changes to the camera… and to his own body.

Tufano describes how he modified both the camera and his own body to achieve the aim of working as a “subtle” and an unobtrusive “filmer” of observational documentaries. He “thought of his body as a Steadicam” and went to the gym to improve his upper body strength. He shows how this enabled him to balance the camera on his shoulder, and how he reduced the transmission of body movement to the camera, producing a steady shot.

Tufano trained himself to “use his left eye as well as his right eye”, a technique that allowed him both to see both what the camera was filming through the viewfinder and what was happening in the space surrounding the camera’s frame. This was a crucial skill in fast-developing or dangerous situations.

As well as adapting his own body and perceptions, he also adapted the camera itself. He added accessories like an exposure meter. He helped design a battery belt to replace the previous shoulder-slung box, so that the weight no longer threw him off balance.

The Eclair NPR was specifically designed to reduce the noise that previous designs of camera had generated as film traveled through the gate. Tufano first shows how he had previously tried to deal with this problem with his Arriflex camera by working closely with his sound recordist to take advantage of the characteristics of a new directional microphone. He then demonstrates the difference in camera noise between the Arriflex and Eclair NPR.

Learn more

Click here to explore a collection a videos of Brian Tufano and his colleagues using and discussing 16mm film cameras (link opens in new tab).