Looking through the Camera’s Eye

On Monday evening, the iCreate documentary team met for our second weekly session at Cape Breton University. Michael McDonald began our evening with an introduction to various filming techniques, as he showed us the names and purposes of a multitude of camera angles. We learned how to frame moments of dialogue (it turns out that subtle, blurry shoulders are often pictured for a reason!) and discussed methods of establishing initial, contextual scenes. We talked about the aesthetics of composing a shot, and learned the importance of keeping a human subject well-lit (apparently, unlit eyes may appear “shark-like” and vacant through the mediation of a camera’s frame.) Every principle was demonstrated through useful examples. We even caught a glimpse of our noble mentor, Michael, in his other life as a psychotic forest ranger.

In many films and documentaries, camera angles and shots float by, unnoticed, and usually unannounced. Sometimes the more artistic shots call attention to themselves, but for the most part, cinematography doesn’t tend to demand urgent and sustained attention from the viewer. The judgement of the filmmaker can become concealed, as the camera assumes a subtle gaze of objectivity. Through Michael’s examples, however, I began to sense how camera shots are often guided by a very specific strategic impulse. With the camera as an eye, what do we choose to see? What do we leave out? And how do our choices effect the stories we hope to tell?

Later in the evening, Patricia blended together her writing and photography to create the following video, “What is Beauty?”


Patricia says,

I often think, what is beauty? To me, I like the grunge type of look. Maybe it’s my Cape Breton heart talking, but perfectly paved roads, perfectly trimmed hedges, and weedless grass just doesn’t sound beautiful to me. It sounds fake.

Realism is beauty to me. Cape Breton is definitely real. It has a past, and as much as some people think we should clean up, we don’t hide it. And I love that about Cape Breton.

As a newcomer to Sydney, I’ve been appreciating exactly this. I find it especially compelling to observe the way that industry and nature are often juxtaposed here in Sydney. When I visit Open Hearth park, I can examine steelworking machinery in an expansive, (almost) green space by the ocean. When I bike home from school, if I am very quiet, I might spot a deer running softly through the woods, or catch an earful of a chorus of spring peepers. And as I visited Dominion Beach last week, I felt awed by the masses of pack ice, and the beauty of the sunlit ocean- but the sight became more striking, still, with the presence of the mining stacks and the wind turbines, spinning, across the setting bay.

Pack ice at Dominion beach.
Pack ice at Dominion beach.

I do not wish to fully romanticize the industrial relics of Sydney. I’ve learned a little about the hardships endured by the miners and steelworkers here, and I can imagine that for many people, this machinery may stand as a painful reminder of what used to be. My perception is certainly that of the outsider, and my frame is not firmly rooted in the history of this place. But I still have a way of seeing, and I could use a camera to capture my view.

This brings me back to the questions of documentation. What do we choose to see, and what do we leave out? Who is guiding the narrative? Do our frames feel true to reality? And ultimately, what are the stories of Sydney that we hope to tell?