Every documentarian has a unique approach to filmmaking, but you might not expect that Frederick Wiseman and Gianfranco Rosi often have polar opposite approaches to making their films. Based on two interviews with each documentarian, we break down their many points of difference, and a few similarities, in their approaches.
When I recently interviewed Gianfranco Rosi about the making of Fire at Sea and editing the film, I found myself constantly thinking about how Frederick Wiseman shot and edited In Jackson Heights and National Gallery: in many ways, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Here’s a look at how these masters approach documentary filmmaking, often in opposing ways.
Gianfranco Rosi and Frederick Wiseman on Collecting footage
Although Frederick Wiseman only spends 4-6 weeks shooting his films, he regularly compiles at least as much, if not double, the amount of of footage that Rosi collected over the year and a half he spent making Fire at Sea. Both directors regularly operate the camera on their films. But while Wiseman won’t wrap the edit on his film before rewatching all his footage, Rosi never watches the footage he shoots. Wiseman edits all of his films himself, but Rosi uses an editor, whom he tasks with sorting through and watching his footage.
When I think the film is finished, I go back and look at all the — in the case of National Gallery, all 170 hours — footage all over again to make sure that there’s nothing that I rejected that has become important as a result of the choices that I’ve made. – Frederick Wiseman
When I start editing, I give all the material to my assistant, and he logs the whole film: the doctor, the migrants, the night, the day, the island. I pick out the moments that I remember are important. I don’t look at all the footage.I just take out the scenes that I remember. – Gianfranco Rosi
Wiseman, on the other hand, focusses all of his attention on editing once he starts, and he works alone.
I have to be completely absorbed in it. I literally don’t do much else for months, because you can’t edit, or at least I can’t edit these kinds of movies with the back of my hand. I have to really eat, sleep, and drink the material. Usually, when I’m working on a sequence, I’ll work on it until it’s done. Sometimes, I’ll come back to it. I often will change it, when I look at it a day later or a week later, because I don’t think the rhythm works, or it’s too long or too short. Usually, I get it close to final form in the first, not necessarily the first go, but the first intensive period of concentration on it. The first go may last two days. – Frederick Wiseman
Figuring out where to put the camera: Gianfranco Rosi vs. Frederick Wiseman
While Rosi considers his films to be portraits, Wiseman’s films focus on institutions. This greatly affects how they approach shooting their subjects. For Rosi, figuring out where to put the camera, at what distance to shoot his subjects is crucial for the emotional content of the film. For Wiseman, it’s about capturing everything that’s happening and giving himself enough footage to work with to play with the rhythms of the film in the edit.
Where to put the camera in relation to the subjects is very important. This is a very tricky thing when you do documentaries. The distance you find is where you find the truth of what you’re doing. It’s a very important element for me: the distance between the camera and the subject, the right angle, the right height, the right point of view, the emotional point of view of the character. It’s not a rational thing, but it’s something you have to discover every time. – Gianfranco Rosi
When describing shooting a scene with a group of musicians in the park for In Jackson Heights, Wiseman spoke in very practical terms about capturing all that was going on and getting what he needs for the edit:
If you started doing closeups, it’d be very hard to sync. You can do it sometimes, but it’d be very hard to sync up the hand movements on the instruments with a different song. Sometimes, you can fake it, but it’s very hard to do that. I think it’s a better shot, wide, because you see the whole group, and you see the group in relation to the people that are watching. – Frederick Wiseman
To read the rest of the comparison between how Gianfranco Rosi and Frederick Wiseman approach their work, based on our interviews, purchase a copy of the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here. The book also contains three interviews with Wiseman (on National Gallery, In Jackson Heights, and Ex Libris) and a pair of interviews with Rosi.