Discover how the popular new HBO documentaries explore the worlds of comedy and documentary at the same time.
In case anyone hasn't discovered it, there is a great documentary on HBO called How to with John Wilson. Produced by Nathan Fielder (known for his sardonic Comedy Central show Nathan For You), it's an absolutely fascinating look into the world of run-and-gun documentary storytelling. As a case study, it shows how much of a documentary a man can do with a camera. On top of that, it's also a great example of how the documentary genre can get comedy out of the most unlikely of places, even with a DIY one-man band production.
Using How To, with a focus on John Wilson, let's examine how this documentary filmmaker turned his Vimeo channel into perhaps the greatest hybrid documentary and comedy program of all time.
Shoot what you see
At the heart of How to with John Wilson is one crucial element of filmmaker John Wilson: he shoots everything. Much like the protagonist in another famous metadocumentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, but without detaching from the reality of its meaning, Wilson has built a style and brand based on his “Always Shoot” style. How to deal with John Wilson is really a look at the life of a man roaming New York, exploring both the city and himself in the process.
As you can only see from the trailer, Wilson really shoots everything he sees. And for those starting out in film and documentary, this is absolutely 100% the best attitude you can have when learning your craft. You can literally watch Wilson's mind work in real time as he moves his camera, zooming in on different elements, changing the frame to create humorous compositions, and generally keeping his head on a vortex, always ready to photograph any weirdness, that he comes across.
You don't get a lot of footage from the camera or equipment Wilson uses on the show. There is enough insight, however, to determine that he is working with a Sony Cinema Camera that is light enough to be used as a handheld and flexible enough to shoot in a variety of environments – from bright, sunlit streets to dark subway platforms at night.
Add context and VO
Fortunately for Wilson and his production, the format of his show doesn't require much audio recording, at least not in the field. Instead, Wilson conveys much of the show's narrative through voice-over. We don't get a pre-camera introduction or exhibition from Wilson, but we do get a lot of background information about him if he fits in early and often in his narrative.
Not to say that Wilson doesn't record audio in the field. As it stands, he has at least some sort of shotgun mic with a strong windshield and some glimpse into his run-and-gun setup. The audio is included in the story whenever it is needed, but as you can guess for a show that is mostly filmed on the crowded streets of New York City, it is often the case that the loud and chaotic sounds that get you out hear the craziest situations get hammered home.
Let people tell their stories
An example of John Wilson's interview style with comedic composition and DIY setup. Image via HBO.
That being said, there are plenty of interviews on the show as well as solid audio files of the various characters Wilson encounters. This leads me to believe that Wilson (or a small crew) at least placed clip-on microphones or other additional audio methods for certain scenes for the more “set up” situations. However, with modern audio technology, it is very likely that Wilson will do just fine with his camera, clip-on microphone, and his own creative solutions to achieve organic sound with his voice-over narration.
However, the goal of the show – like any good documentary production – is not to create the scene for perfect lighting, audio and performances. Instead, it should be there so that situations can develop by themselves. And Wilson does a great job with his interviews too. As someone who has shot a lot of interviews and at the same time is behind the camera and conducts the interview himself, this can be a tricky business.
You can see in many examples that some subjects are a little disarmed at first to speak more to a camera than to a person. Wilson takes advantage of this wisely and with his quiet demeanor can quickly get a subject to open up about himself and his discomfort at its reception.
Document and record everything
In an interview with Indiewire, Wilson shares a little more about his obsession with documenting and recording everything.
In my opinion, video and film are best at creating an archive, a document of a specific time and place. And I always worry about losing things. I like to take in as much of it and keep as much of it as possible.
We see examples of this on the show. In addition, Wilson shows numerous old tapes from his earlier camera recordings as well as detailed diaries documenting his daily schedules and activities over the years.
It may seem a bit extreme to some, and it could certainly be the only approach for a particular personality type. If we take a closer look at this "constant recording" approach, we can learn a lot about how documentary filmmakers develop their craft and worldview. It's amazing that even when Wilson makes himself the subject of the show, he can be so objective about himself and the various topics he encounters. And when you watch some of the episodes of the show that you are about to watch, Wilson encounters some very insane subjects and situations. However, with his experienced approach, he remains objective and in the moment.
Find the comedy, don't create it
At the end of the day, How to with John Wilson is a comedy. As you can see in one of his previous videos documenting a trip to the Sundance Film Festival with Vimeo, his unique ability to combine documentary and comedy has always provided a fun and fascinating look at the world around him.
But even with big comedic names like Nathan Fielder and HBO, Wilson's approach has clearly stayed the same, finding comedy rather than creating it. Sure, there are some very weird and weirdly designed topics that Wilson is exploring. The jokes are never on her, however, as Wilson allows his camera to easily figure out the funniest and best of any situation.
If you're into documentaries and have an eye for comedy of your own, this is a perfect program to easily learn how Wilson uses his camera. His focus on comedic composition and framing, open-minded interviews and narration, and the general style of the show indeed teach viewers how to deal with John Wilson regarding his documentary craft.
Cover photo via HBO.
For more advice and resources on documentary filming, see the articles below.