The romantic (and at least somewhat historical) myth of the documentary filmmaker is an inspiring visage. A lone cameraman, the golden rods of a sinking sunset stabbing out behind him, treks deep into the jungle of the unknown; he risks himself so that he might bring back to us radiant images of a world previously distant and unknown. Like no one else possibly can the filmmaker brings back truth; verifiable and accessible to all at 24 frames per second.

For good or for ill, that world is changing. Primarily for two parallel reasons.

The lesser of these has to do with distribution and network production budgets. In a world of ever shrinking margins it is not always be feasible to spend the money to send someone halfway around the world and have them camp out for months waiting to get the right shot. Exploration is expensive. And risky.

The inheant risk in doing exploration is escalated by the reality of uncertain returns even should your expedition prove successful. A fragmented media landscape means more channels and outlets (and possibly a diversity in terms of content) but also a smaller concentration of resources and no guarantee that the final product will find an audience. The most romantic aspect of documentary filmmaking is also the most risky and expensive; it is unlikely to indefinitely resist encroaching armies of bean counters.

The second (and greater) development that will alter the importance of the cameraman is the democratization of camera technology. Consumer electronics have advanced to the point where they can (virtually) match standard broadcast equipment, and in the last few years these consumer technologies have penetrated almost the entire globe. High quality video, once purely the domain of a specialized and highly invested professional, can now be casually generated by nearly everyone.

It’s true that the professional documentary operator has many qualities that the amateur/native does not. The professional can operate the camera to consistently deliver a stunning and interesting image under trying conditions. The professional is persistent, highly adaptable, willing to face danger and intuitive to where the best shots will be and what will best serve the project as a whole.

But most of these advantages can be neutralized by sample size. It doesn’t matter how poorly native  operators perform; armed with enough bodies and cards the shrewd producer is bound to come up with something usable. Natives also tend to know the area and subject matter better than a foreign camera operator and are sometimes better situated to cover the action. Most importantly, natives are local and can thus afford to casually dedicate a much larger amount of time than a camera man who can operate only in a budgetarily constrained temporal window. Half of all success being in the right place at the right time, and that’s a lot easier when you live ‘on location’.

The challenge of the future documentary filmmaker may not lie so much in capturing incredible content as in finding, acquiring and organizing it. Much like modern anthropologists, filmmakers may find themselves relying more and more on the resources of subjects that operate on an an equivalent technological playing field.

Even so, there is an aspect of the documentary cameraman that can never be outsourced, and that is the perspective of an outsider. There are shots and bites that will forever be beyond the grasp of the insider, precisely because of their proximity. The voice of a film is honed in the writing and editing (and this is what makes the use of amature and other acquired video feasible), but there are projects and subjects that demand a literally present outside observer to aid the voice of the film.

For these certain shows the camera isn’t just a technical necessity but a character itself. Somewhat like the narrator in a printed tale, the camera guides the viewer through the world of the film; where it looks and how it looks sometimes demands a subtle degree of intention that cannot be manufactured through editing. Sometimes this guide simply must be directed by a (thinking) contracted figure of the flesh and blood.

Although the operator of the future may be forced to share the spotlight (and spoils) with other sources, the role will continue to be vital, less so for the purpose of documenting a phenomena, but for probing (content wise) beyond what lesser cameras already see. As never before, the documentary cameraman will need to see the unseen (in the unique spirit of the project) to bring hidden worlds to light.

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