Sundance 2020 Documentaries: How I Shot That

When choosing cameras and lenses, nonfiction filmmakers are not only guided by the “look” they are trying to create, but also by what their production demands and resources allow. Which is why in answering the question of why they picked the gear they did, this year’s crop of Sundance documentary directors also tells us how they shot their movies — the challenges and choices, as well as their cinematic styles.

The following films from U.S. Documentary Competition, World Documentary Competition, and Documentary Premieres appear in alphabetical order by title.

Dir: Radu Ciorniciuc
Format: 1080p
Camera: Canon c100 MK II, Canon c300
Lens: Canon 24-105mm f4, Canon 35mm f2.0

Ciorniciuc: “Acasa, My Home” tells the story of a family — two adults with nine children — that lived for 20 years in the wilderness of the Bucharest Delta, until they were chased out of their home and forced to adapt to city life. This film is about family drama, and having a “humane” look to the footage was something that Canon’s sensor delivered well. The style of the film is observational, and most of the film is shot handheld. I went for this style because it was essential to me to create a feeling of being a family member, an intimate witness to the family’s great adventure. To keep it simple, clean, and “naive” — close to how the characters of my film were living their lives.

First of all, to get all this, I had to reduce the size of the filming and sound equipment and the team size to a minimum. I used Canon C100MK II and C300 because of their size, but also because of their high battery and data storage capacity. I would spend nights camping, with the kids, with no access to hard drives for backing up or electricity, and could still get some good hours of footage with only five batteries and four 32GB SD cards. It was also very important to have fairly affordable, but sturdy gear – as it happened on more than one occasion to drop the lenses or cameras while running around after the brothers or filming in improvised boats, in the middle of the night. I needed my cameras and lenses to be flexible – easy to use and fast – to allow me to capture close-ups that would look natural albeit being filmed from a non-invasive distance — and the Canon 24-105mm lenses helped a lot with that. And because this film was shot handheld — it was important to have stabilization for both of the lenses.

Gund: For the look of this film, we wanted to achieve visually striking interview tableaus that played in dialogue with the design aesthetic of the spaces we were shooting in, as well as the world class art that was at times in the frame or being discussed. At the same time, we wanted to create an intimate environment with naturalistic lighting that would give the subjects space to connect with each other, and reflect their authentic connections in the film. We used the Sony FS 7 with Canon EF lenses and a Metabones Speed Booster adapter (because it gave an extra stop of light to the lenses). We also used Westcott Flex Bicolor lights to supplement available light, which was the main source whenever possible, because of their portability, flexibility and small footprint. The FS7 also afforded us a wide dynamic range and maximum color flexibility in post, which would be necessary to reproduce authentic tones for both skin color and the art works themselves.

Format: XF-AVC 4k
Camera: Canon C300 MII, Sony A7sII
Lens: Canon EF 2.8 L-Series 70-200mm Canon EF 2.8 L-Series 24-70mm Canon EF 2.8 L-Series 16-35

White: The subjects, for the most part, demanded a high level of discretion. To be nimble and lightweight was ever important, so we leaned on the compact Canon L series for the vérité style of the doc. To keep a low profile, I went without a tripod for most of the film, and without tools like an Easyrig. The modest cultures in Indonesia and Vietnam called for a more subtle approach, so the mantra was to keep the camera stripped-down to its minimum build, which is what I prefer on any film. It allowed us to disappear from the characters, some of whom were very nervous, as well as to not capture the attention of onlookers, or gov’t minders. To me, the C300 MII does that as well as any cinema-style camera. I love the texture and latitudes it offers for bright exteriors and the dark interiors of night markets and cramped rooms. We were a super-small crew with very little kit to haul around. Ryan would shoot second camera when it was called for.

“Be Water”

Dir: Bao Nguyen

Format: Red Helium S35 @ 8k, 6k and 4k
Camera: Red Helium S35, Canon 1014xl-s
Lens: Cooke Speed Panchros (32mm, 50mm, 75mm)

Cinematographer Caleb Heller: “Be Water” is a film told primarily through the use archival materials including old home films, photographs, screen tests and audio recordings with the goal to create an immersive experience where the viewer felt very much in the present with Bruce Lee and his life. In support of this structure we shot dozens of interviews and moving portraits with family, close friends and collaborators, all people who knew Bruce Lee and could spend hours telling of their experiences with him. With that in mind we opted for digital capture because we knew it would allow us the flexibility to roll for extended periods of time with each interviewee.

We only carried 3 lenses (32mm, 50mm & 75mm Cooke Speed Panchros) for the entire production with the majority of the interviews and moving portraits shot on the 50mm. The Panchros possess a warmth and softness that I love and are inherently forgiving with skin tones while maintaining contrast and edge-to-edge sharpness. An ideal situation when shooting faces on a sensor that can otherwise render an image almost too pristine.

In Hong Kong we shot about 30 rolls of Super 8 film (a mix of 100D Ektachrome, 200T & 500T) in order to fill the odd gap in the existing archival. More so we wanted to experiment with ways to infuse the film with abstracted, atmospheric imagery that felt of another time and that could play as visual metaphor with certain excerpts from Bruce’s writing and audio archival. We used the Canon 1014xl-s, which is a workhorse of a camera with a fast lens and very useful zoom range. The 1014xl-s can also shoot at frame rates including 9, 18, 24 and 36fps and we took full advantage of that feature.

“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”

Dir: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross

Format: 4K
Camera: Sony FS7 & THE Panasonic DVX 100B
Lens: Sony 28-135 Zooms

Ross Brothers: We’ve been using the FS7s since “Contemporary Color.” Love what they give us picture-wise, but they get quite bulky and heavy with the zoom. Not great for an 18 hour handheld mayhem shoot. Also, they have a tendency to break apart when they fall to the ground. BUT, the image is good and allows for a lot of manipulation in the end.

“The Cost of Silence”

Dir: Mark Manning

Format: 1080 AVCHD
Camera: mostly Canon C100.
Lens: Mark I and Mark II zooms, not primes.

Manning: We shot over 10 years. We were taking it one step at a time and we brought the cameras and equipment we had at the time. It’s 1080 4:2:2 8 bit. It LOOKS a lot better than the numbers reflect. I love the size and ergonomics of the C100. And lots about that camera. But I’m now falling into the trap of wanting higher bit rate and 4K: Don’t ask me to be exact about why. But people are asking for 4K and most of them don’t know why, either. Funny world.

“Crip Camp”

Dir: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht

Format: 4K XAVC-I SLog 23.98
Camera: Sony FS7
Lens: Canon CN-E 18-80 Cine Zoom, Canon 70-200mm, 24-105 and Canon Cine Primes

Newnham & LeBrecht: At the heart of “Crip Camp” is the amazing archival footage of Camp Jened taken in 1971. The hand held, black and white raw video quality brings the main characters to life as teenagers. We wanted interviews to flow seamlessly from the archival to interview and back, and to reflect something of the full arc of our characters’ lives. Our hope for the footage that we shot of those campers returning to Jened almost 50 years later was to capture the true emotion of returning and remembering while evoking the same organic handheld style of the older footage of their youth.

“Dick Johnson Is Dead”

Dir: Kirsten Johnson

Format: 4K
Camera: Panasonic EVA, Phantom
Lens: Canon Prime Cine Lenses

Johnson: For the observational documentary work in the film, the Panasonic EVA was a wonderful choice because of its excellent ergonomic design. It really is a camera that can feel like an extension of your body. What we wanted out of the Phantom’s capacity to shoot in extreme slow motion was the chance to capture infinitesimal moments of Dick Johnson’s emotional experience. Since the movie is preoccupied with notions of time – both in terms of past/present/future, as well as how time relates to dementia, the idea of being able to literally stretch out time as long as possible felt core to certain moments of meaning in the film.

“Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen”

Dir: Sam Feder

Format: 2.8K
Camera: ARRI Alexa mini
Lens: Arri Zeiss master anamorphics

Feder: Using a technology that has historically dehumanized trans people, our aesthetic decisions center and amplify trans voices with elegance and dignity. Historically, films favored an anamorphic format when shooting epic stories or explorations of new frontiers—that’s how we envision transgender liberation. Our serene set foregrounds the talent’s personal styles and appearance giving the viewer time to reflect on the multilayered archival footage which all fit within the anamorphic frame. Our participants share how media filtered their awareness of trans identity, and the specific movies and TV shows that were formative. The archival footage takes on a life of its own. Decades are in dialogue with each other as tropes repeat, evolve, and then regress again.

“The Fight”

Dir: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres

Format: 4K UHD
Camera: Primarily the Sony FS7 II. Also, the Canon C300mkII and Sony FS700 in a few scenes.
Lens: Canon 24-105mm f4, Canon 16-35mm f2.8, Sigma 35mm f1.4, Canon 85mm f1.2

Cinematographer Sean McGing: Reading a situation as it unfolds and choosing compositions that distill the emotions of a scene is the great challenge of vérité. Of course, a subject’s interior life — the tension of an argument or pain of a bad verdict — lies in the close-up. But I also love trying to capture the tension and humor of our subjects struggling against their environments, corralling an impish child or wrestling with a standing desk. For that I prize dirty mediums and formal, squared-off wide shots. Our subjects were lawyers, which meant mostly shooting in small space interior environments. I never needed a lens longer than 105mm and due to its flexibility, the 24-105mm stayed on the camera 90 percent of the time.

Like all vérité shooters, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I look for gear that is lightweight and flexible. I needed to be able to operate handheld all day and the FS7 II has stock ergonomics comfortable enough to not require additional rigging. The only additional support I used was a belt called the hipshot, which is ideal for going from shoulder to waist level support without interrupting the shot. The camera package fits into a backpack. Another huge factor for choosing the FS7 II was the variable ND filter. While shooting, we moved in and out of many different lighting situations we had no control over. The variable ND allowed me to maintain consistent ISO and aperture while still having very fine control over exposure adjustments on the fly.

“The GoGos”

Dir: Alison Ellwood

Format: s35, Slog, 4k, 23.98
Camera: Sony F5
Lens: Schneider Xenon Prime lens set, Canon Cine zoom 30-300, Fuji Mk Zooms 18-55, 50 -135mm

Ellwood: I like the Xenon lenses and I own them. They are nice inexpensive primes. I own the camera and all the gear used, so I am very comfortable using all of it and can make adjustments very quickly. Plus I know everything works the way its supposed to. I really don’t like renting gear unless its for weeks at a time. The only usual gear I used on this shoot was a Emotimo ST4 Motion control unit. We used it for a slow slider, 3/4 tight shot during the interviews. Its impossible for an operator to move a camera that slow on a 75mm tight shot. Pull focus, pan, and tilt. It was really nice to have and one of the only motion-control units out there (at that time) that could do that. We mounted it on a Dana Dolly and 6′ of track. The doc was a lot of fun to work on.The band members were very candid and fun to work with… It really is an interesting and revealing doc.

“Happy Happy Joy Joy : The Ren & Stimpy Story”

Dir: Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero

Format: 4K DCI 4:2:2 10 bit C-Log 3
Camera: Canon C300 MKII
Lens: Fujinon 20mm-120mm

Easterwood & Cicero: Our choices of camera and lenses was based purely on practicality and budget. We were just a two-man crew and shot with only one camera. I didn’t want to just lock the camera off during interviews. I wanted to give the interviews some life and movement, so I was constantly zooming in and out as well as doing very slow pans left and right so during editing we can give the “feel” of a two-camera shoot. We would have a wide shot then cut to some B-roll and when we would cut back to the subject, it would be a tight shot. It’s a gamble, and takes some finessing in the edit, but it worked. We didn’t want to just rely on punching in on the 4K to go tighter or reframe.

Prime lenses were out of the question because of this, so I wanted a zoom lens that would give me the most focal range. We never really scouted any of the locations because we mostly shot at peoples’ homes or out of state, so I had to have a lens that would work in tight small rooms as well as a hotel room or loft. The Fujinon 20-120 was fairly new at the time and seemed to have the greatest focal range and was budget friendly, so that was a no brainer.

The C300 MK2 had just come out about six months before we started shooting, and I was very familiar with it and it was in our budget, so that was the choice there. Since we were just a two-man crew, lighting was kept to a minimum. The interviews were done with a Chimera Triolet with a 750 watt bulb pushing through a six- or three-foot octabox or sometimes I used an Aputure LS1 through a silk. No backlights or kickers, but I did use some cheap Home Depot clip lights with just 60 watt bulbs on dimmers for lighting up the background. I also used a Dedo kit for one of the interviews. We did do a few interviews with just natural window light, which is risky for a two- or three-hour interview, but it worked out. Everything had to fit in my hatchback or be travel-friendly, so I had to invent and build my own equipment that would collapse and fold down and have a small footprint. Everything was shot clean with no filters and wide open on the lens at the base 800 ISO. A few of the interviews we had a sound guy, but for 75 percent of the shoot, I did the sound on top of everything else. It’s a lot to think about and have to pay attention to, so that’s why we kept everything pretty tight and streamlined so we could arrive and be set up within a half hour or so and start rolling.


Dir: Richard Poplak, Diana Neille

Format: 4K Redcode
Camera: Red Gemini 5K
Lens: Angenieux EZ Zooms

Poplak & Neille: “Influence” is a highly informative, shocking film about the power of advertising, social media, and public relations applied to sociopolitical contexts around the world. Due to the dynamic rhythm of the subject, we felt we needed a more slow-paced, simple, and contemplative cinematographic approach, hence the choice of a camera and optics that would deliver such qualities.

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