A short excerpt from 'The Human Element' by Marc Isaacs
Digital imagery is replacing the written word, and subject matter that would have previously been written is now filmed. Brands want video content, everyone films on their phones - even my mum has become a ‘filmmaker’. I was lucky enough to have entered filmmaking at the time of Sony’s release of the VX1000 camera, the first to use the DV format. Some filmmakers had previously shot on 8mm tape but the VX1000 revolutionised digital documentary film production and allowed for low-cost desktop editing. Whilst the digital revolution has clearly democratised filmmaking by placing the means of production in the hands of the many, the digital camera does not come packaged with a set of eyes that aid the creation of works of art. In fact, to use a drone you don’t need eyes at all. In my teaching I have noticed a growing fascination amongst film students with digital cameras and the technological paraphernalia of film production. It’s as if the multiple choices available on the market have sent them into a spin. There is now such a strong emphasis on the look of a film that subject matter and substance can often feel like a secondary concern.
I have always shot my own films and whilst I tend to work with one or two researchers during the filming period and have always worked with a film editor, the production of sound and image has fallen upon my shoulders. Those small-scale cameras have changed a little over the years and holding them has become a part of my life. It is the act of holding the camera that has shaped my approach to filmmaking. When the camera zooms in, it is my zoom. When it pans, it is my pan. The small digital camera has enabled a particular style of filming that I’ve deployed since my first film.
It has allowed for a very direct relationship with the characters in my work, and my films often shatter the fourth wall, largely due to the informal nature of the technology. Working simultaneously as cameraman, soundman and director has facilitated the development of a strong subjectivity - my shadow hangs heavily over all my films. I encourage people to address me directly and to interact with the camera, and my voice from behind it is a strong feature of my work. When I started out I was aware of the notion of the ‘fly on the wall’ but found myself naturally dismissing this approach. In Lift (2001) the fly on the wall expires at the end of the film. I realised quickly that pure observation wasn’t for me but, nevertheless, observing people is a strong part of my character. Between the ages of seven and fifteen I spent much of my time standing between football goal posts on various muddy fields in suburbia. Nervously watching the drama unfolding in front of me, I would suddenly be forced into action, cast as hero or villain. This is the way the goalkeeper functions and it has parallels with that of the filmmaker. It forced me into the role of the observer early on and enhanced the ‘outsider’ feeling that, by the age of seven, was already a pronounced feature of my personality.
In my films, I have taken on the role of the provocateur by setting up scenes, intervening and re-arranging - the fly in Lift, for instance, was purchased from a local pet-shop. The informal and independent nature of the process appeals to my character and from the outset I have deployed the conjuror’s ‘smoke and mirrors’. Despite this, my instinct leans towards acknowledging my own presence and revealing the filmmaking process itself.
This short extract is taken from the 80-page book 'The Human Element' which accompanies this release.
(i) This Much is True - an Interview With Marc Isaacs by James Quinn
(ii) Laura Rascaroli: A Discussion on the films of Marc Isaacs
(iii) What is documentary?
(iv) Marc Isaacs: The Production Process
(v) Louis Theroux: The Docs That Made Me