Treating Docuseries as Narrative Films with Cinematographer, Alan Jacobsen

WITH Cinematographer, Alan Jacobsen

Alan Jacobsen

Treating Docuseries as Narrative Films with Cinematographer, Alan Jacobsen

Episode 20 – Kino Society – Cinematographer

Docuseries are gaining more popularity due to the initiative of some filmmakers to use the storytelling format. Alan Jacobsen is a cinematographer who works on narrative and documentary projects with an authentic, natural eye and sensitive curiosity. His camera work is masterful, intuitive and intimate, capturing the sensory story in each powerful frame. He studied film at New York University and minored in architecture and urban studies, which gives him a full spectrum of how to think of a frame in a scene. After school, he worked for several years as a technician in the electrical department until he found documentary cinematography as a place to develop his full potential. Alan gained recognition in 2018 for Strong Island, which was nominated for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary and won the 2018 Emmy Award for Outstanding Merit in Documentary Film.

Here is what you’ll learn:

  • What made Alan Jacobsen want to break into the film industry.
  • A summer camp where he did TV production and fell in love with cameras and photography.
  • His pivot towards documentary cinematography after working for several years as a technician in electrical departments.
  • How his knowledge of architecture helps him appreciate forms, shapes, balances and symmetry.
  • Differences between lighting in documentaries and narrative films.
  • Marshall Curry’s technique of thinking of a documentary scene as if it were a narrative scene.
  • Alan’s favorite movies; Nashville by Robert Altman, Medium Cool by Haskell Wexler, and Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio.
  • Why working with your idols is not the best idea.
  • Alan’s preference for movies that trust audiences enough to give them a role in storytelling, where they not only receive, but contribute. 

To learn more about Alan, follow him on Instagram, or visit his website.

Interested in knowing more about the show?


Instagram: @kino_society

Facebook: @KinoSociety

Website: https://kinosociety.com/

Treating Docuseries as Narrative Films with Cinematographer, Alan Jacobsen


Owen Shapiro  00:04

Welcome to Kino Society with Owen Shapiro. In today’s episode, we have Alan Jacobsen, Director of Photography who photographs narrative and documentary projects with an authentic natural eye, and sensitive curiosity. He’s also lens Worn Stories for Netflix docu series of fascinating and quirky stories of real people. And the stories behind their most meaningful pieces of clothing. Welcome to Kino Society Alan.


Alan Jacobsen  00:36

Yeah, thanks. So I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.


Owen Shapiro  00:40

So what made you want to break into the film industry?


Alan Jacobsen  00:43

Oh, boy, um, you know, I Oh, I think if I’m honest about it, I, I was first kind of enraptured with the magic of light, I was always, I now realize that as a kid, I was always kind of fascinated by light. And I really enjoyed, I really enjoyed playing with light, and I had all the kind of every flashlight I could get my hand on in the darkened garage as a kid, and there was something just kind of about the magic of the way, the magic of light and color and shapes and forms. And so that was kind of my first hook. And, you know, that led into some photography, I had a, we had an early VHS video camera in the house, and I would, you know, mess around with that and play with feedback and, and kind of more abstract stuff, just always kind of exploring color and light like that. So that was kind of my hook. And so, and then I got to then I was in high school, and I thought, well, you know, you got to, you got to kind of think of something to study and something to do with your life. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll be an engineer or an architect or something. So I was kind of thinking on that, on that mode in terms of design. And, you know, I always kind of liked, you know, form and shape and things like that. So I, I guess I went through most of the high school thing, and that would be my jam. And so I was taking a lot of science classes and math and stuff like that. And then kind of at the last minute, when I when it’s time to pick colleges, I had this real epiphany. Well, actually, I’m skipping a bit, one of the most magic things that happened is I, when I was still in junior high, I think I went to a summer camp, and it was a summer camp at the local university. And it was basically it was a summer camp. But as part of the camp, you could take classes, and they had a catalog of classes. And they were kind of like college II classes, things that we didn’t have in high school, or in junior high at the time. They had like pottery and painting and things like that. And I had filled up my schedule, but I had one, I had one class slot left that I needed to fill. And I was looking through the catalog with my mom. And she was like, oh, here’s something that you might like, it’s called television production. And I was like, what’s television production? She’s like, Well, I think that’s where you learn how to make TV. And I was like, wait, make TV, like people, people make TV, I just hadn’t really considered it before. But you know, I’ve been I’ve made movies with my friends on the video camera. And, and I’ve always been interested in it. And so, so I put that class on and then showed up at the camp. And sure enough, it was a it was a class a production class in like the, the University television studio. And there were the cameras and the boom microphones and the lights and the sets and all that stuff. I just thought oh my god, this is that this is great. It was super, I was just into all of that stuff. So so I kind of did an about face at the last minute in high school. And I thought, Well, you know what, I’m going to try to see if I could do this film thing as a as a thing. So I applied to film school and got into a couple schools and went out to NYU in New York. And yeah, just started as soon as I got there, I felt like okay, these are my people, you know, this is my, these are my stories, this is what I couldn’t really do. And although I did take a minor in architecture and urban studies, which I’m which I’m grateful for, but it quickly, it became pretty apparent that I had the film bugs. So that’s kind of how it got me in there. And then and then my interest in lighting was always very, very valuable in film, and I and that kind of helped push me into the cinematography track. And, and then after I got out of school, you know, kind of to get to start paying my loans back right away, I started working as a gaffer in the electrical in the, in the lighting department. And so I did that for a number of years working for some of the, you know, best DPS in New York at the time, do a lot of indie Sundance kind of movies in the 90s. And so that was a great education and just really being able to craft light and you know, see how other people crafted light and really kind of learn, you know, learn how the how how light can affect storytelling and character and all of that. So that’s kind of the that’s kind of the weird, circuitous way that I got here and it kind of leads where I’m at now because I, you know, I was in New York and I was doing these, these indie movies, and they were getting bigger and bigger and bigger crews and bigger productions. And I was, you know, and I was really good at lighting, and I really enjoyed it. But I thought, well, I, you know, I want to be, I want to make sure I’m shooting. So I had to make a pretty conscious pivot to stop doing lighting and try to get back into, to shooting and I wanted to get away from I gotten to the point with in my lighting work that I was on, you know, pretty big productions where, you know, you’d have big trucks full of equipment and big crews, and I was doing a lot of management rather than actual lighting, you know, running a crew and ordering equipment and logistics. So I thought I’m gonna make a pivot into documentary to get back in touch with my like, spontaneity and instinct and you know, just really kind of get back to a pure sense of like, what, what does it mean to, to frame an image and to move the camera. So that’s, that kind of pivoted me in the docks. And it’s just been a wonderful ride since then, because I get to get to bring all of my lighting knowledge into documentary, which sounds kind of odd because oftentimes, there’s not a lot of lighting being done in documentary, but the awareness of light and the placement of light is really important in documentary, but just by way, you’re often lighting just by positioning, where you’re going to stand in the room, and where you know, where you’re going to frame people, what kind of background against and that kind of crafting the lighting and the shape of the image that way, it’s been really valuable to me in the dock work. So yeah, it’s a it’s an interesting kind of Route, I think, but one I’m really grateful for.


Owen Shapiro  06:42

So how much do you think that your experience in architecture help your cinematography,


Alan Jacobsen  06:49

it helps me appreciate, you know, form and shape and balance and symmetry, I really do tend to have an affinity for symmetry, and, you know, and balance in the frame, it’s something that a lot of my, a lot of my scenic work will, you know, or B roll stuff I try to, even in other scenes, there’s a lot of power in framing the architecture of a space. So yeah, I think a lot of that study is kind of just innate in, in the kind of visual, the visual alphabet that I have. And I’m always surprised when it kind of pops up. And, and I’ve worked with a couple directors that have a bit of architecture, background or appreciation. And sometimes it’s really fun, when you can refer to shots by you know, this is a, this is a nice vendor row set up right here. This is, this is a brutalist kind of composition, it’s kind of fun to use those, I think there’s a lot of crossover between architecture in terms of built space, you know, I think a lot of great architecture is very cinematic in the way of the way architects think about how you move through a space and how how, you know, a hallway will open up into a larger room, it’s kind of like editing in a way where you’re, it’s, you’re creating a sequences, a sequence of views throughout a space. And I think really, interestingly, you know, filming architecture is a really, really wonderful thing. And I’ve been lucky to do some of that. I mean, I could just, I could film architecture all day long with a camera, because I just feel like it’s a beautiful dance between the frame and the built room. And, you know, a great location is just a wonderful, it’s just a wonderful gift for a cinematographer, because you’re always going to be finding, you know, wonderful ways to, to add to the context of the story through through the, through the built environment. So yeah, I think they’re really closely linked. And I’ve run into a number of cinematographers that have a kind of a similar background of the built world, it’s, there was a conversation recently, and one of my groups where people were saying, I think, because of the pandemic, like, Oh, you know, what would you be doing? If you if this film thing doesn’t work out? What would you do? And there was a, I was shocked that there was a really high number of DPS said, Oh, I, you know, if I couldn’t do this, I’ll, I’ll be an architect or I’ll be a, I’ll be an engineer, you know, and I thought that was that made a lot of sense to me. There’s also a very Curiously, there’s also a very, very high correlation between cinematography and drumming. People who played the drums, I’ve noticed that for some reason, ask if you meet a cinematographer, ask them if they’ve ever played the drums, and, you know, it’s probably pretty good chance they have it’s at least 80% at least in my research.


Owen Shapiro  09:30

So why do you think that the drugs are important?


Alan Jacobsen  09:33

I don’t know if they are, but it’s, you know, maybe something about rhythm and, and structure. And I don’t know, it’s probably just a coincidence, but I like to think it’s like a grand. It’s a grand design, somehow.


Owen Shapiro  09:46

Yeah. And you also mentioned how lighting works and documentaries, but how does that differ from narrative films?


Alan Jacobsen  09:53

Well, you know, I think ideally, it doesn’t differ all that much because you’re you’re still you’re trying to do the Same thing with light, in terms of, you know, creating a mood or a feeling that supports the story, it’s just a little easier to do that in a narrative or, you know, a produced piece. Because you can control the you can control things, you can control the environment, control the set, you can control the time of day. But in documentary, ideally, you’re still doing all those things, you just have to do it, you have to be a little bit more crafty about it. And you know, a lot of it is you have to take what’s there in the space and, and use that to your advantage or your disadvantage. So yeah, I tried it, I try to think about it in the same way that you know, like, if I was, alright, I have to do a scene in this, you know, you know, do a documentary scene in this house in this kitchen. Like, if I was, if this was a feature film, how would I want this to look, you know, how, what’s going on here in the story. And I worked actually, for a really great director, Marshall, Korea, we did a bunch of a number of feature documentaries together. And he had a great, he had a great technique where, you know, he, he says, think about the scene that you’re going into it think about the documentary scene that you’re going into, as if it were a narrative scene. And as if you could write it, how would you script it, and that was a really great thing we used to we, you know, we, we’d be going on a shoot, and we’d be driving to set and we talked about, okay, you know, we’re going over to the house, and we’re going to film the family having dinner. Now, if this was a scripted film, what would happen, you know, what would what would the scene be about? I mean, say, Well, you know, if this is a script, you know, we’d hope that you know, the dad’s gonna, that, you know, the, the strange father is going to show up, and you know, the sons finally going to get some heart to heart and you know, or maybe realize the dad, you know, cares about him, after all, now, we know that’s not really going to happen, because, you know, maybe Dad’s not even going to be there or whatever. It’s just, you know, you can’t write that stuff. So, but having thought about what we would like to happen, and what didn’t, you know, what dramatically and emotionally, our subjects want to happen, then that gives you this great background to be in the room and respond to that, even if it doesn’t happen that way. You’re, you know, that that’s, that’s the back, that’s the underlying kind of backstory, and that’s the tension in the room. So then the camera can respond to that. So I tried to do the same thing with lighting. And I think like, Okay, well, what would this what would this scene want to look like? If we were, you know, if we were scripting it? Well, it’s, you know, there’s, this is a bit of a prodigal son scene, and, you know, you know, will dad come back or, you know, will they really get to the truth. So, you know, there’s going to be a little bit of, you know, there’s going to be some, there’s some shadows in the room, there’s some ghosts in the room, or something that we’re going to be trying to show subtly. So, you know, I might say, well, this is a good scene that, you know, we’re going to keep it dark and Moody, you know, we’re going to leave their cooking in the dining room, but they never turn that, for some reason, they never turn the dining room white on and all the light is coming from the kitchen. And it’s kind of shadowy and Moody, and it’s a little darker than it normally would be, it’s not just going to be a bright dining room scene. So you know, I might think about something like that, in conjunction with this, this bigger story that we hope and then you know, when you show up at the location, with that awareness, or that thought process having happened, you know, it might just be a simple thing of like, oh, I’ll just, I’ll just turn off that dining room light, or I’ll turn on the one in the kitchen, or I’ll close the blinds in the living room, so there’s not so much coming in, or I’ll open them or whatever, whatever they’re, whatever the pieces there that the world presents to you, you can use those to kind of support the the emotional lighting plan that you’ve that you’ve thought about. So, in that way, I think they’re similar. But of course, it’s just, there’s just much less control you have on on documentary. So I find it really exciting. I think it’s really great. It’s very seat of your pants, you know, when I was when I was getting big movies, you know, we could do, you could do whatever you want, you can shoot a you can shoot a daytime scene in the middle of the night, you know, you can take a, you can make a sunset, you could make a sunset scene that never ends, you know, you block out the real sun, and you put a big, big, bright light coming in the window and its sunset for nine hours. You can’t do that in documentary, but you can still embrace those ideas and try to capture them as they happen. So I think it’s really exciting.


Owen Shapiro  14:22

So what’s an average workday like for you?


Alan Jacobsen  14:25

Well, it really depends. But, you know, I joke that I think the film business is the only industry that we’re fighting for a 12 hour day to be the normal. You know, I think it’s in any other industry. If you work 12 hours, you’re you’re you’ve already worked for hours and overtime. But in the film business, it’s only working a 12 hour day is kind of a special thing. It so the hours can be really intense. But you know, when you’re doing a documentary, it’s for a good reason. You’re spending as many hours as it takes To get to help the story come out. And a lot of times, it’s, you’re kind of you’re waiting for those right moments, you’re waiting for people to get comfortable, you know, you’re you’re, you’re spending time connecting with people with with the cameras not even rolling, you know, just to kind of create that sense of trust and intimacy, which is so important and documentary and all that just takes time. So it really takes time. So, but a typical day, you know, if you’re like me, and you want to, and you want to catch that beautiful natural light, you’re, you’re going to want to get up as early as possible before sunrise, so that you can be ready to shoot something for sunrise, and then you’re gonna go straight into something else, and then something else, and then you’re probably in then you’re gonna want to get that good sunset again. And then there’s beautiful stuff to be had, you know, at twilight, and in the evening, you know, when the street lights come on, or the houses warm up with lights inside. So for a cinematographer, the day is, is a really fantastic palette of looks. So I I’m always trying to be ready, I try to pace myself, I’m always ready to, you know, shoot as long as as possible. And sometimes on a documentary, you can take some time off in the middle of the day, when the light is not as great, you know, the middle of the day when the sun is high. It’s not that pleasant for any kind of exterior stuff. So and then sometimes, you know, your subjects need a break. And so sometimes you can have a break in the middle of the day, but generally the the the early morning and the the end of the day, or are some of the nicest times to be working. So yeah, it makes for a long day. But I find that if you’re, you know, if you’re doing something that you love that comes really easy, you know, and it’s easy, it’s easy to get out of bed, if you’re really excited about your day. So yeah, I try to be open to that. It’s it. But it is important to pace yourself and to kind of create some boundaries. But


Owen Shapiro  16:58

What’s your favorite project out of everything you’ve worked on?


Alan Jacobsen  17:02

I don’t know, I’ve been lucky to have so many great moments and projects and especially in documentary, there’s such magic that that you get to be a part of you know, and connecting with connecting with real people who are you know, have real stories and real drama and it’s really great. I don’t know there’s been there’s been a lot of fun a lot of great things I worked for seven years on a film called strong Island we I just the the filmmaker Yancey for it, and I, you know, really just for many, many of those years, it was just the two of us working very closely, very intimately. And so that was just, it was a family story about Nancy’s family. So I got really close with a family and, you know, it just became a really important and intimate process. So that that was probably the most kind of impactful just because it was also seven years when, you know, I was having a family and our families were growing up together. And, and then the film, you know, the film was we put a lot into it. So the film was really, really good and got a lot of, you know, a lot of people were able to see it. So that was very gratifying. So that project has a lot of holds a lot of it’s a very dear project to me, but I worked for I worked for years with Anthony Bourdain, the travel chef and the writer. And we went all over the world with with with Tony and had some great adventures there. So that those trips are very special and bittersweet, since we lost him and yeah, it’s just it’s been a it’s been, it’s a wonderful, it’s a wonderful way to meet people and see the world you know, with a with a camera by your side. So it’s, it’s very, it’s very, very lucky. And some of the new projects I just did this project for Netflix than two projects in a row for Netflix. And you know, it’s just, it’s wonderful. You meet you meet the best, most interesting people and, you know, you hopefully tell their story effectively, and it’s just a lot of fun. It’s really great.


Owen Shapiro  19:05

Now outside of your own work. Do you have any favorites? movies or directors?


Alan Jacobsen  19:10

Sure. Yeah. Boy, it’s a hard one to answer. I’ve really, you know, I guess because of my my work is very much kind of on the, in the border of documentary and narrative. I like a lot of directors that are kind of working at that, in that kind of messy in between place. So I’ve always liked like, I’ve always like Roger, Robert Altman, Nashville’s one of my favorite films, it’s just an amazing kind of, pastiche of characters and situations and, you know, it’s it’s loose in this very kind of haphazard way that I really like. Medium cool is another film that I really, really love. Haskell Wexler is great 1969 film that is that’s very much this very pure documentary narrative hybrid, famously and so that’s very inspiring to me but I don’t know my favorite film might be right now my favorite film might be being there how Ashby’s film with Peter Sellars. It’s just a just an amazingly subtle and restrained gorgeous film. Yeah, those are some those are, those are definitely in my top 10. I’m also a big fan of clay on a Scottie, which I grew up on in college. That’s kind of that’s kind of like, That’s crap for cinematographers. You know, just a purely visual film, no other, you know, just relying so much on imagery and editing and music. That’s, I really love that, like pure cinema to me. So, yeah, those


Owen Shapiro  20:35

are some big influences Koyaanisqatsi lab. So we love that movie, especially the soundtrack is actually one of my favorite soundtracks and movies.


Alan Jacobsen  20:43

Yeah, it’s great. It’s great. I sometimes I sometimes will put that soundtrack on while I’m shooting sometimes, because it’s a great, like, if I’m out doing B roll for something that has that kind of feeling to it. I like to sometimes listen to listen to inspiring music that has that, you know, as as I’m trying to, as I’m making images, it’s really great. And it also reminds me that like, make it count, you know, make these shots really good. Because, you know, that’s that’s what that film is all about. Just really being intentional in in each shot and trying to make make everything count.


Owen Shapiro  21:18

Oh, what do you think about the other two? Cutting movies? The sequel secret?


Alan Jacobsen  21:25

I like them. I think I probably like the soundtracks more than the films, I think the second one is great visually, and I think the soundtrack of that, or they do the music, and that is really fantastic. There was something very pure and just so groundbreaking about the first one that it’s always, it’s always held to a more powerful place. And I remember when, when Reggie I was getting ready to do the third one. I was I was actually friends with one of the producers who was, you know, helping him do it. And I was like, boy, I’d really like to really like to work on that, you know, like, could I get on there get on there. I just when it came right down to it. I thought, you know, I think it’s, I think it’s a little bit too close, I wouldn’t want to work on it and have it be a disappointing experience, you know, so I kind of let it go. Because I’ve had that situation a couple of times where I’ve been able to work with some of my idols, and it can be heartbreaking, you know, because even if even if you really like the work, sometimes the you know, the process of making film can be really hard. It’s, you know, it’s very intense process. So I just, yeah, there was a moment there. I thought, oh, maybe it could be a part of this. And then I realized I don’t I don’t want to, I don’t want to I don’t want to be anything else. But something that I can just go and experience. I dodged that one. Maybe it was a mistake. I don’t know, from what I’ve


Owen Shapiro  22:47

seen a lot of people really don’t like the third movie, which seems very understandable to me considering kind of that. The first one as you said, it has like a very few pure feel. And the third one is kind of the complete opposite of that. Like it has all that CGI everywhere, though, that is kind of like the point kind of contrasting technology with beautiful cinematography. Yeah,


Alan Jacobsen  23:08

I think it’s kind of the, you know, the first films where they were sobering, but they were, I think, ultimately kind of hopeful. And I think the third one was just like, was the filmmaker just saying, you know, what, no, there’s nothing very hopeful about any of this. So it’s, it’s kind of the horror installment, you know, there’s really, there’s no happy ending in that trilogy. So yeah, it’s a bit of a it’s a bit of a, it’s a bit of a challenging one.


Owen Shapiro  23:30

There’s also similar movies like Baraka and samsara, I believe, yeah. Hmm. Yeah, big fans, those who are really really good.


Alan Jacobsen  23:39

Yeah Baraka, I’m a big fan of Yeah, I you know, and I came up seeing a lot of when I was at NYU, you know, studying I was lucky to be living a couple of blocks away from anthology film archives, which is this amazing kind of repository of experimental film from from the kind of glory days of 50 60 70 so I was like, because I was coming up on seeing a lot of this very experimental work and so you know, when I say coin and Scots yet that okay, this makes total sense this is born out of this idea of pure cinema and and you know, the totally a wholly visual film where you know, you’re giving the audience imagery and ideas but you’re not there’s it’s not explicit at all the audience is filling in the filling in the rest of the of the thing and it’s it’s something I can’t remember who the filmmaker was talking about that but it’s the idea that the audience is a crucial part of the of the film and the way the film works like you know, you go to a Spielberg film, everybody in the audience has the exact same experience you everybody cries at the same time, everyone cheers at the same time. He’s a master of you know, designing that roller coaster so that everyone has the same ride but these more open ended and experimental films. I mean, like oh, no, Scotty or you know, some of the some of the great experimental units brakhage are Peter Hollis Frampton, you know, there’s great space there for the audience is going to bring their own interpretation into it. And I find that really, really wonderful. And that’s something that a lot of my favorite filmmakers do to like, you know, even Nashville or being there, they leave, there’s a lot of room in the story for you to kind of be thinking about ideas that are not explicitly talked about in the film. So I like a film that’s patient in that way. And that, you know, gives trust the audience enough to give them a role in the, in the storytelling really, you know, you’re not just receiving a story, but you’re, you’re contributing to so that’s something we really tried to do in strong Ireland, where we were, you’re giving the audience images, they were challenging, and not not very explicit, not totally explicit. And then really, you know, almost forcing the audience to fill in the blanks. And that’s why, you know, a lot of people see that film and it’s a really, really intense film to watch because you can’t just phone it in you got you have to be, you have to kind of participate in it, you know, in this very kind of experiential way. So that was something we really tried hard to do. And I’m pretty proud of that. Because it’s, I think it’s then you get if an audience can stick to it and can can make it through you’ve got you’ve created a much more impactful experience, you know, for the audience. It’s really powerful.


Owen Shapiro  26:20

So finally, where can my listeners find and connect with you?


Alan Jacobsen  26:25

Well, I while I’m here in the internet, I’m on I’m on Instagram, I’m Alan Jacobsen on Instagram, and I’m around I’m on Facebook or my website is is www.alanjax.com, you know, come make move, come make movies together. Let’s, let’s make something together. Always looking for great collaborations with directors that want you know, really strong, powerful visuals.


Owen Shapiro  26:53

That’s all for today. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Kino Society on iTunes and Spotify.


Alan Jacobsen  26:58

Thanks, Owen.


Other episodes