Video portrait

by Tom Barrance

New York photographer and director Dustin Cohen has created a ‘video portrait’ of 91-year-old Brooklyn shoemaker Frank Catalfuno, using an interview illustrated with shots of Frank’s shop and Frank at work.

How the film works

The film starts with an extreme long shot as an establishing shot. This shows us where the film is set. Then we gradually move closer, with a montage of shots building up a picture of the area before we finally see Frank at work. We hear old music to set the scene before we hear the sound of the train.

The sound of the train starts just before we see the shot of the train and carries on over the next couple of shots. Changing the sound and the picture at different times (split edits) helps to make the editing seem smoother. We hear Frank well before we see him, which gets our interest going.

Like many films made by photographers, the film is very strong visually with carefully composed shots. There are lots of closeups of Frank at work. The film also uses shallow focus (using a lens with a wide aperture) and movement, including sideways tracking shots.

The film was shot almost entirely using natural light, sometimes with reflectors to fill the shadows.

How to make a film like this

Start by finding out information about the subject of the film. Then you need to think of questions. The best questions are open (they can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and are about “who, what, why, where, when, how”. It’s best if you can get them to answer in complete sentences which stand on their own so that you can edit out your questions.

There are several ways you could record the sound for the interview. You could use a directional microphone mounted on the camera, but many filmmakers use a separate audio recorder and sync the sound later. Listen to the background sound in the room before you start recording – if there are machines making a particularly distracting noise you could ask to turn them off.

You should also record half a minute or so of room tone (background sound with nobody speaking) which you can use to smooth out any gaps in the sound when you edit the interview. Finally, record interesting sounds from the location. It’s usually better if you record these separately and add them in later rather than just relying on the sound you pick up while filming.

You need to shoot lots of shots to illustrate the interview. A rule I got from an old BBC training site: shoot the thing, the person, the person and the thing. That usually means a closeup of the thing(s) they are working on, a closeup of their face looking at the work (from a low angle if they are looking down while they are working), and long shots or mid shots which include them and the thing they’re working on. Then you need lots of cutaways of the setting and things around them. Shoot from lots of different camera positions and take your time; look for interesting shapes and patterns and things which will help to tell the story.

Once you’ve shot all your material you need to go through it and work out which bits you are going to use. Concentrate on the most interesting things they say and edit out the rest. Make sure it makes sense – you may need to change the order. Some filmmakers create a complete written transcript of the interview and edit it on paper, and then create a storyboard or a list which shows which shot goes with which bit of the interview. You may need to edit drastically: you might need to record a lot of material on separate occasions to get a really good minute or two. You can use the documentary script on this page to help you with this.

Then you can import the video into your editing software. Edit the interview first and then add the shots which illustrate it as cutaways on a video track above the interview. (A ‘cutaway’ is a shot which replaces the image from another shot without affecting the sound).

You can add additional sounds (like ambient sound or music) on extra audio tracks. Be careful about sound levels: if you’re using background music or ambient sound, make sure it doesn’t drown out the interview. Your editing package may let you clean up the sound and get rid of distracting background sound.

Dustin Cohen describes the film here:
I read about Mr. Catalfumo a few years ago in a local newspaper article and on paper I thought it would make for a story. He opened up F&C Shoes in 1945 and, to this day, works five days a week at the age of 91. I remember walking into the shop for the first time and it was like stepping back in time; and I immediately knew this was a story that needed to be told. The smell of leather and shoe polish, all the textures, the original machinery, it was really something special. I went back the next week with a filmmaker friend of mine, Michael Hurley, and we filmed and documented Frank and his son Michael working for the day. We were geared up with 5D Mark II’s, a variety of Canon lenses, a small travel slider and some minimal audio equipment, doing our best to not be in the way while the Catalfumos worked just like any other day. The shop is not big and we needed to keep our impact very minimal. I went back a handful more times by myself to the Bensonhurst shop, some days focusing on stills and other days on interviews and B roll. Every story that came out of Mr. Catalfumo was so thoughtful and retrospective. He really has lived an amazing life, dedicating himself to his family, his community, his country (he is a World War 2 veteran) and his craft. The response thus far has been to the short film has been so incredibly positive, I’m humbled by it.

Many thanks to Dustin ( for permission to use the film and screengrabs.

The Shoemaker from Dustin Cohen on Vimeo.