We're continuing our Sundance coverage with an exclusive interview with Claudia Raschke, DP of My Name is Pauli Murray — a beautiful love letter look at the life and career of the American civil and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.
PH: How did you get involved with this project?
Claudia Raschke: When Julie Cohen and Betsy West approached me about collaborating on My Name Is Pauli Murray, I was on board right away. Pauli, an African-American civil rights activist, was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Petersburg, Va. 15 years before Rosa Parks; and organized restaurant sit-ins in Washington, D.C. 20 years before the Greensboro sit-ins. I knew very little about Pauli and wanted to learn everything.
PH: Can you describe your approach to pre-production?
Claudia Raschke: Julie, Betsy, and I had creative conversations about what the film could look like. They had found a treasure of about forty hours of Pauli’s memoir voice recordings and needed to create the visuals to go with it. Since Pauli passed away July of 1985 it was clear that we would use lots of archival media and hoped to find former students, historians and family members to shed light on Pauli’s life. Therefor the questions became how to integrate the modern-day footage, interviews and small cinema verité scenes, with the archival to create a visual framework that will be compelling and unifying. Not knowing which archival footage will be used and when or where the modern-day footage would be intercut made it clear that I had to create an overall naturalistic look for the interviews that could easily fit in anywhere while still setting an intimate tone.
PH: What lighting choices did you make and why?
Claudia Raschke: There is a level of uncertainty during the process of making a documentary that will directly impact the cinematic approach. For example, for us some locations fell into place magically while others were hard to find and popped up in the very last minute. When you walk into an unknown situation it is key to embrace the location for what it is and make the best of it. To develop a cinematic look based on the unpredictable made me think about similarities locations might offer. I thought that maybe by selecting certain compositional elements, adding lighting finesse, and a painterly depth of field, it might create the right unifying framework for the interviews. I chose a naturalistic lighting approach and incorporated a spacious background with windows for each interview whenever possible. The idea was to set up one large source as if sunlight was filtering in through the windows. I applied this idea to each particular location with either existing or imagined windows and treated the background by setting up highlights the way sunlight can accentuate hidden details in a room, giving it a sense of character and depth. For me it solidified this idea of being at someone’s home connecting the viewer to a personal story rather than setting up an interview in front of a backdrop.
We wanted to set up the interviews with two cameras side by side. Once both camera angles for the window themed backgrounds were determined I worked with my dimmer controlled ARRI Sky 60 panel, attached a medium size chimera and set it up as a high angle side light to mimic sunlight coming through a layer of thin clouds. Adding a large silk close to the frame line in front of the Sky 60 wraps the light around the subject very softly. Sometimes I add a dimmer controlled 1x1 LED unit with a soft box to extend the wrap around to the front and one unit for the back as an edge light. This allows me to control the fall off in both directions without over lighting the shadow side. Adding a negative fill opposite the key light to takes away any unwanted bounce that soft lighting creates.
After the lighting is roughed in for the foreground I focus on the background. Here my approach is focused on setting highlights and shadows to reinforce the natural lighting design and to bring out the location’s character. Checking my composition, I test how my eye reads the image and adjust what needs to fall into shadowy mystery and what needs a dash of highlight.
PH: What film techniques did you use to bring this project to life?
Claudia Raschke: As the cinematographer I have no input which archival footage will be used. The directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, our producer Talleah Bridges McMahon and our editor Cinque Northern made the decisions based on what was ultimately available and fitting for the story.
But in post I was challenged to balance and bring to life the different archival source materials with the prepared graphics, animations and the modern-day footage. Thankfully shooting at 4K in LOG with cinema gamut settings allowed me lots of space to adjust. At times we added grain while other times we pushed the contrast levels of the modern footage to create a better match with the archival. Other post effects were utilized for example vignetting, isolation of part of the frame to pull out details, defocus or shadow the image. Ken Sirulnick, our colorist at Goldcrest, had many options available for me. Some low resolution, partially damaged and rare archival video footage of Pauli could not be altered because it would have given it an even more damaged look. It’s hard to know what source material I have to work with until I sit in the online color correct session to navigate the various archival media. In the end it was amazing to see it all come together and to realize how far the digital film technology has come in comparison to the old archival video recordings we used in My Name Is Pauli Murray.
PH: How has your professional experience in the industry shaped your work on this project (and in
Claudia Raschke: When I started out as a DP in the biz 1988 everyone advised me to buy my own camera gear or I would not get hired as a female DP. I refused to buy into it and stood my ground insisting to only be hired for my artistry and not because I had a camera package. A female DP in the feature film industry was a rare sight and often considered too weak to carry the camera, or without stamina to last a long day, and too emotional to handle the pressure on set, or too soft spoken to call the shots. I was fighting the lack of confidence in women throughout history but I kept following my passion. I have now worked in the film industry for 30 years, shooting feature films with complex lighting set ups and feature documentaries with extensive cinema verité challenges since 1990. There is an underlying knowledge that we, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, our producer Talleah Bridges McMahon and I, all had to stand our grounds in a man’s field and with it is comes a level of confidence that enables us to work freely side by side, willing and eager to expand the creative horizon and foremost set the stage to be great storytellers. It has been a great joy to witness that more women are pushing the doors open to produce, direct and shoot films.
These women are tough; super focused, and knows what they want because like Pauli Murray they did not take no for an answer.
PH: What did you shoot on? And why?
Claudia Raschke: The Canon C300 mk2 in combination with the Canon cinema primes are a fantastic combination to create beautiful colors, glowing skin tones and a contrast latitude with deep shadow details and exquisite highlights. The Canon sensor technology allows me to be an artist, especially when I have to adjust to challenging documentary situation. Without the sensor’s latitude and easy to modify camera settings I wouldn’t be able to instantaneously capture and react to an unpredictable moment with the lead characters.
PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?
Claudia Raschke: The most memorable moment for me was entering the Schlesinger Library archives. It wasn’t because of any big technical challenge but because hidden away from sight, locked in a dim basement vault were these incredible historic gems. With the Canon C300 mark ii and a Cine Prime 35mm on the Ronin 2 rig I was able to capture a sense of being boxed up and forgotten in these narrow aisles of the archive. But there it was, this wealth of Pauli Murray’s life achievements. Box after box filled with ground breaking historic details from a time period when women but especially women of color were told to shut up and step aside. That was an impactful moment and created an emotional link to Pauli.
PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you
Claudia Raschke: For the interview set-ups I chose to include windows in my compositions but that can be tricky. I’ve been in situation when weather changes ruin the contrast ratio or worse when sunlight gets reflected of passing cars and creates wild flashes during the most sensitive interview moments. The uncertainty of when the sun will dive behind clouds or at what time weather changes occur makes it a challenge to provide lighting continuity for a lengthy interview. We calculated and tried to be in perfect synchrony with all the elements of nature. Thankfully having windows facing North, a pre-scouted location, the Sun’s path checked on my trusted scout app for the interview time slot and having a back-up plan in my pocket made it all work out.
PH: Now that Sundance is virtual, how do you think the experience has changed? What are some of
the ways you, along with other production professionals, can still socialize and collaborate?
Claudia Raschke: I’d say the experience radically changed. Sundance reached more viewers than ever before because it was virtual. But what I missed most was the daily exchange and network connections with other filmmakers. I tried to enjoy what I could but honestly watching a movie meant for the big screen on my laptop is far from perfect. Highlights and shadow details get compressed and mostly lost in translation before it arrives virtually on your door steps. As a cinematographer that is heartbreaking. However, there was a great selection of documentaries and fiction films to see.
I enjoyed the ones I was able to view very much.