Errol Webber uses narrative shooting techniques on documentary sets. Photo by Earl Neikirk for the Bristol Herald Courier.
Errol Webber caught our attention at Sundance in January 2013 when he attended as one of the cinematographers on American Promise, which won the US documentary special jury award for achievement in filmmaking. Webber currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. He moved to the US in high school when he came with his family in 2002.
American Promise, directed by husband and wife team Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, provides a 13-year window into the lives of two middle class African American families. Webber was brought on to finish the shoot from January 2010 through the end of 2012. At age 26, Webber already has a lot of experience. He also worked as one of the cinematographers on Remote Area Medical, a doc directed by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman, about a pop-up clinic of freelance doctors and dentists for those without health insurance, which played Hot Docs in Toronto. Add to that list 12 O’Clock Boys, a documentary by Lofty Nathan about West Baltimore dirt-bike riders, which played at SXSW, Hot Docs, and Full Frame. Webber shot the short documentary Music by Prudence and it won the 2010 Academy Award for best documentary short subject.
Aside from shooting in Brooklyn and Baltimore, Webber has shot in Benin, West Africa, Liberia, and Zambia. He is also a photographer and editor. The Independent’s Stacey Main talked with Errol Webber about his work, new technology, and what inspires him.
Stacey Main: How did you get into filmmaking?
Errol Webber: Originally I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. Then, one day, in high school, I picked up a camera, and never looked back. The more I enjoyed it, the more I wanted to keep doing it. So being a pilot got put on the back burner.
I got in to filmmaking, in high school, at the recommendation of my art teacher. He was a MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] student and he recommended that I go check out MICA, so I did. As soon as I saw the campus I fell in love with it, so I applied to one college and I got into one college.
A fun new development is that I just started flight school in April [of 2013], so every week I do one flight lesson. In due time, I will have my pilot’s license and then I will move on to doing other things with that pilot’s license, like opening a charter airline company, fun stuff like that.
SM: Who inspires you in your work?
Webber: I think, as a filmmaker, work ethic is something that is incredibly important to have. My mom brought me up on the saying “whatever is worth doing is worth doing well,” so if you’re going to spend the time to do something, anything, pour your heart and soul into it and do it right the first time.
The next thing is when it comes to my inspiration for filmmaking is a photographer who’s work I admire – Monte Zucker. He is no longer with us on this planet, but one of the principles he enjoyed in his photography is removing as many unnecessary and extraneous details from the frame, so that the viewer can focus on the main subject. So one of the things I like to do with my filmmaking is finding that sense of the scene and get rid of all the other details that are not absolutely necessary.
One of the things I like to try to do is to apply cinematography techniques that normally take many minutes to sometimes hours to set up a shot and somehow efficiently set up a shot like that in the documentary world. It’s really hard to do because documentary is very run-and-gun and you have to develop shots really quickly. In the narrative world you have time to set up lighting you have time to set up these very elaborate shots. My challenge is to try to develop some of these elaborate shots in a very time-efficient way.
When I work on technique, I look at everything except documentaries. So, I will watch everything from very well put together shows, like Mad Men, to shows that other people talk about. I’ve seen every episode of Gossip Girl, for instance — not because of the gossip — but because of the cinematography. I find my cinematography ideas from the weirdest places.
SM: What subject matter inspires you that you carry on into your cinematography?
Webber: I particularly enjoy people-driven documentaries because I enjoy the kinetic motion of [the subject] doing something. People-driven documentaries sometimes are a lot more active, than an issue-driven documentary, but that’s just more personal preference. I like to immerse the viewer in the action. One of the ways I do that is to immerse myself in the action. So while some filmmakers may stand back and use a telephoto lens to shoot, I will be up in the action and my camera will sometimes be in danger. I like it that way. Anything that gives me an excuse to get in the action.
SM: How did you come on board with American Promise?
Webber: All of the work I’ve done in the past eight or so years, has been solely from referrals. So when I got recommended for my first documentary shoot, Music by Prudence, the editor on that was also the editor of American Promise at the time and when they needed a new cinematographer, she recommended me.
A couple of the other documentaries I’ve worked on since then have been as a result of getting recommendations from Michele and Joe [the directors of American Promise and all the people on the crew who have worked with me.
SM: How often did you shoot on American Promise when you worked on it?
Webber: Maybe four times a month. They flew me in from Baltimore and I would stay at their house and just film them at any time of day or night. A great thing about staying at their house was you weren’t tied to a production schedule where you start shooting at a set hour. They set me up downstairs in the basement of their house, and if there was a homework temper tantrum at one o’clock in the morning, I’d roll out of my pull out couch there and run upstairs and then turn on the camera to capture what’s going on. I was never more than 30 seconds away from the action any time, which made things very convenient. Of course, the erratic shooting schedules did nothing for bloodshot red eyes or anything like that, but we got the footage we needed and that was a good thing.
Whenever you’re in a documentary moment and you’re around a documentary subject you’re always half asleep half awake. You have one ear with a beacon going out ready to pick up some signal, “So… what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?”
SM: What do you think of the changing landscape of making indie films?
Webber: It’s both positive and not so positive at the same time. I’m going to sound like an old man when I say this… back in the days of film, making a film cost a whole lot more and when people wanted to make a film they had to actually be serious about it because you’re actually making a huge investment in doing a film. The story has to be on point you can’t just shoot any old thing.
One of the blessings in the film industry has been the transition to digital. It has allowed greater flexibility when it comes to capturing stories on various mediums. But the downside is that it, yes, it allows more people to be creative, but it also allows for more not-as-polished work to be created.
Now if you want to create a specific look for a film there’s a camera that can help you achieve that look. Or there’s a post-production process that can help you achieve it. Or a cinematic technique that can help you achieve that look or feel or tell that story the way you want to tell it and I’m really happy that I’m living in the generation that gets to enjoy all this new technology that is being developed.
Check out some photos from Webber’s first flying lesson, his other passion, on our Facebook page.