DOC NYC 2012 cinematography masterclass with Tom Roston, Alan Jacobsen and Tom Hurwitz. (Photo: DOC NYC)

Tom Roston moderates a DOC NYC 2012 masterclass with documentary directors of photograph Alan Jacobsen and Tom Hurwitz on November 12, 2012. (Photo: DOC NYC)

Yesterday, I saw the light. I was moderating a panel on cinematography at the DOC NYC festival, which runs through Thursday. It was part of the fest’s awesomely comprehensive master class series, in which aspiring documentary filmmakers learn the ins and outs of the nonfiction process, from directing to producing to financing from some of the top doc filmmakers in the biz. I was psyched to be talking with camera wizards Alan Jacobsen (Racing Dreams, The Trials of Darryl Hunt) and Tom Hurwitz (a 30-plus year career that spans from Harlan County, USA to last year’s The Queen of Versailles).

Between thinking about what documentary DPs (“directors of photography”) do and talking to Tom and Alan, I realized how incredibly important, and yet neglected, they are. We so often talk about the directors of docs, sometimes we talk about producers, and even less so editors, but cinematographers just don’t get their due.

Tom and Alan showed clips that demonstrated what a shame that is. In Valentino, Tom discussed an amazing moment when he was in a press conference and he was panning his camera between his subjects—designer Valentino and his partner Giancarlo—and how he was able to capture this deeply intimate moment between two men who were in a vast room separated by a gaggle of press.

And I loved to hear how Alan set a camera up in front of an open door in (POV’s own) Yance Ford’s upcoming Strong Island. He left it there, hoping that someone would come to close it and, sure enough, someone did. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s a poetic moment that only a great DP can capture. Alan revealed other gems, like the best time to get people talking is while they’re eating—so you better suppress your own hunger to get the shot (fill your pockets with nuts, Tom advises)—and that he counts 90 seconds before changing a shot. Tom added that anything less than five seconds isn’t worth filming. (For more of Tom’s wisdom on the art of documentary cinematography, I recommend checking out the article he wrote for Indiewire.

It may have been a little inside baseball, but that’s what we were there for. Three-quarters of the audience were filmmakers.

In preparation for the panel, I spoke to a couple of directors about these guys, and director Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams) said of Alan: “He’s a great cinematographer—strong technically, but also really sensitive to the way that shooting affects subjects, and sensitive to the story that is unfolding in front of him.”

Marshall went on to describe a moment in Racing Dreams in which a boy was wrestling with his grandfather in the living room while his mostly absent father receded from the action to get something to eat.  Alan focused on the father, rather than the wrestling, which puts in stark relief the father’s relationship with his son.

Valentino director Matt Tyrnauer had similar praise for Tom, indicating that he hired him because he himself was a first-time filmmaker and he needed “the surest hand possible.”

We certainly saw that hand in action in the Valentino clip Tom showed at DOC NYC. It’s one of those perfect moments that takes your breath away, and must be quite a thrill to capture.

For more about DOC NYC’s panels this week, visit

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen