Sam Price-Waldman, a camera as a vehicle for reality
During the past few years we have experienced a comeback of the documentary genre thanks to the boost provided by the main video-on-demand platforms. At least as far as popular acceptance is concerned, because the truth is that the works have always been there. Throughout history, they have transformed our vision of reality and have managed to find corageous ways, even getting into narrative fields at times. It is an exciting area for lovers of this genre and, increasingly, for a mainstream audience that finds in these stories a gateway to a present reality, yet unknown to them.
As our today’s main protagonist, photography director Sam Price-Waldman told us, he himself finds real life ‘fascinating’ indeed. This drive has led him to dedicate himself body and soul to such interesting documentaries as ‘The Vow’ (HBO), a gripping nine-part account of the NXIVM movement in which he has worked for more than three years. We spoke with him to decipher his style and learn the keys to his work.
From your first steps in the industry, you’ve been closely related to documentaries. What do you find fascinating about this world?
I love documentaries because I find real life fascinating. The more I’m able to dig into the truth of a person or a subject, the more amazed I find myself. There’s so much complexity hidden within everything, and being able to explore that in a fluid, artistic way is the reason I do what I do.
In your first projects, you have worked as co-director, producer, editor… We don’t know if we’re facing a follower of a DIY ethic or it is simply the way the documentary world flows! Do you like to get fully involved in your projects?
Yes, I love to get fully involved, and have found all the skillsets within documentary to be very complimentary. I’m a much better shooter because I can edit in my brain as I’m going, just as I’m a much better DP because I know what it takes to direct subjects and when to ask questions in the field. On the whole, I’ve found documentary crews to be much smaller and more intimate than fiction productions. And while these days when I’m a cinematographer I stick mostly in my lane, there are times where I’ll be needed to monitor sound and ask on-the-fly questions, etc.
In 2017, you start a journey in which, with increasing frequency, you begin to play the role of Cinematographer, either as main or “additional”. Is the way the camera can transform or communicate a story something that caught your eye?
Absolutely. I’ve always been a very visual person and my favourite part of the filmmaking process is being in the field. So it felt natural for me to pursue cinematography on a more regular basis. And I also found myself learning from a lot of veteran verité directors (Tracy Droz Tragos, Jehane Noujaim, and others) — which was eye-opening as both a director and cinematographer. I began to find that so much of the real emotion is created in the dance of the moment, that my physical distance to subjects, and relationship with them, person-to-person, was showing up on camera.
Do you think there should be a kind of “ethic rulebook” that defines how a DP should shoot documentaries? In your opinion, is there room for creativity in documentary photography?
To be honest I don’t believe there should be any rules at all. I’m all for experimentation and blending the rules of the form into fiction and trying new things wherever possible. So yes, there is so much room for creativity in documentary photography.
How would you define yourself as a Cinematographer? What’s your signature?
It’s a funny question, actually. And one that’s changing and changing the older I get. Right now, particularly after diving deep into the verité world the past four years, that’s what I love: shooting high production value, and emotionally-driven verité scenes. My signature, right now, falls in the two things I most love shooting. The natural world, and intimate verité. I’ve shot nature for the past decade, but learning how to really cover and follow the emotion of intimate scenes is a new love of mine, and something that I hope to do more of in the future.
Would you consider ‘The Vow’ as your biggest project to date?
Yes, definitely. It’s been more than three years on the production side and seeing the viewership and reception to the series has been really rewarding. I’ve had so many people reach out to say they were affected by the series, which is all I can ask for.
As you said, you’ve worked on this documentary for three years at it seems that, as a second season has been requested, you’ll be involved for the next few years. What is the biggest challenge when working on a project like this?
Biggest challenge, frankly, is staying balanced during production. Working on such an intense subject matter with people who are processing trauma, combined with long and unpredictable hours of shooting, can be tough. It’s one area I’ve grown a lot in, actually, over the years, and have built myself a pretty decent toolkit for staying centered and present when I shoot.
On ‘The Vow’ you’ve worked alongside DPs such as Ian Moubayed, Bowie Alexander y Omar Mullick. How did you coordinate? Did you all together, with the directors, define a visual style for the show? Was each one of you responsible for different sets or areas?
They are amazing. All of them. I was the first on board, starting Oct 2017, when the first New York Times article about NXIVM dropped. Once the project started to achieve more scope and budget, we brought on the other DPs and we worked together with the directors to coordinate visual style.
What was the camera + lenses you chose for this project?
We shot primarily on Sony FS7 and Canon CN-E primes.
In ‘The Vow’ you can see these standard shoots in which the protagonist speaks to the camera recalling his experience, but you can also see different shots, we would say more dramatic or, at least, narrative. How did you work on these scenes?
Absolutely. Yes, these were a big part of production. We shot a fair amount of these scenes during principal production and then had a separate crew and post house putting together the final elements as everything came together.
Could you tell us a bit about the post-production process? How you were involved? What was it like to put together that massive amount of shots + archive footage and give everything a unified look?
We were lucky to have some great editors from the start, who began editing while we were shooting. As the post-production team grew, it was a real challenge to coordinate the story, which was still unfolding in real time, with the edit, which had deadlines. At one point I went to New York and sat in an edit bay and just marked highlight moments in footage I’d shot. It’s a daunting (truly daunting) amount of footage we shoot. At this point, I would guess well over 2000 hours (not including the massive trove of archival.) We took a pretty big break from production as the edit really took full-swing, and then from February to July of 2020, we really hammered home all the episodes and visual cohesion of the series.
Finally, let’s talk about your future! Are you moving towards a narrative formula or will you continue to be devoted to documentary features?
At this point I’m feeling pretty devoted to documentary. It’s something I love and still have so much more room to grow into. Once I feel I’ve fully mastered the nonfiction game, I’ll be ready to move into fiction. But for the moment, I’m just excited to be where I am and looking forward to next projects.