DP Claudia Raschke Talks Shooting the RBG Documentary

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

At the age of 85, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a lengthy legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon. But the unique personal journey of her rise to the nation's highest court has been largely unknown, even to some of her biggest fans – until now. RBG explores Ginsburg's life and career. DP Claudia Raschke answers a few questions about working on the film.

PH: How'd you get involved with the RBG documentary?

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 the 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 setups and feature documentaries with extensive cinema vérité challenges. It has been a great joy to witness that more women are pushing the doors open to produce and direct films. These women are tough, super focused and know what they want.

The RBG directing and producing team, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, were already convinced about my expertise in cinematography but also wanted to create an opportunity to have an all-women team to represent the strength of leadership to echo RBG’s equal rights fight throughout her life. The minute they offered me the job, I was on board knowing that we would make an excellent team. 

PH: What was your favorite part of the project? 

Claudia Raschke: Shooting documentaries is most inspirational to me because no two stories are alike. Each experience gives rare access to someone’s inner sanctuary. It causes a shift in paradigm and that is the unexpected treasure and ultimately open one's mind. For me, that is pure gold. It’s my true inspiration that I hold on to.

Mostly my mind is drawn to look at lighting, contrast ratios and framing for each situation I encounter, no matter if I’m waiting somewhere, sitting in a subway or walking down a street, I’ll catch a glimpse of perfect alignment and hold on as long as the story allows for it. You can’t plan for it, but you have to be alert to see these opportunities. Therefore I like to spend as much time as possible on location scouts, imagining the possibilities, talking it through with my directors.  

There have been many directors and producers who were immensely supportive that gave me a chance to shine. But to find a director who will embrace your ideas and work with you on equal footing is a challenge. I end up feeling more creative during a process when everyone is allowed to pitch in equally.

There is an underlying knowledge that we 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. That’s why the RBG directing and producing team, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, were fun to collaborate with.

For example, they always invited us to pose questions to our subjects at the end of the interview.

PH: Talk a bit about the Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark II and why it was an essential part of working on the film.

Claudia Raschke: When I shoot docs, I need to multitask and be a cinematic storyteller at every moment. Evaluate exposure in split seconds, mixed lighting adjustments, create scene coverage, anticipate character movement, location obstacles, choose creative focus pulls, listen to the story unfolding, be in the right place in the right moment. For the look of the documentary, I decided to shoot on the Canon EOS 300 Mark II partly because of the 4K option, better codec and C-log options. It’s such an easy menu with lots of choices to customize each shot to your liking. That is key.

But most importantly, I need to be able to pull all technical strings at any given moment. My left and right hands need to be free to do so. I LOVE the right-hand grip with its option to magnify and control iris or ISO settings. While my left hand can control the zoom, focus and reach for the programmable button on the left side of the camera and enable a playful cinematic approach rather then the come to a complete stop for a technical reset and then restart. I simply can’t risk it while I’m shooting a live event or Cinéma Vérité moment especially when my subject, RBG, has so little time to spare.

The Canon Cinema Primes allowed me to isolate our subjects in a multitude of locations by choosing an ultra-shallow depth of field. This offered me painterly control over the background bokeh. Primes are fast, versatile and interpret the scene in a way similar to how your eye perceives it. Canon lenses were my top choice for all of our interviews. They create beautiful highlights and make skin glow with internal radiance. I used a combination of a two-camera setup with a 50mm and an 85mm prime for every single interview, as well as a 35mm for the interviews with two subjects in frame. The Canon Cinema Primes added a creamy luminance to skin tone like no other prime lens I’ve used.  

For most of the vérité shots, we used the Canon EF Zoom 16-35mm, 24-70mm T2.8, 70-200mm, and the 400mm Prime lens with a two-time extender during the opera performances and talks RBG gave to large audiences. The Canon EF zoom lenses are light-weight and worked very well in high contrast situation for all our exterior scenes as well as the high contrast lighting during RBG’s on stage opera performance.

PH: Can you talk about some of the shooting techniques you used?

Claudia Raschke: Every interview had to capture the character’s nature and visually connect them with the location they were in. I chose the camera angles for each location with great care, imagining broad strokes of naturally looking soft light in conjunctions with bright dashes and highlights to let the eye settle in on each interview subject recounting an anecdote about RBG. Shooting with two cameras meant to light for two angles and carefully craft the images to work together in harmony.  Therefore all interview set-ups have a slight movement to them. Having the camera angle breathe with motion bridged intercuts, and represented the flow and wandering of their thoughts.

Cinéma Vérité scenes with RBG had to be as unobtrusive as possible to ensure authenticity. It was our goal to show her nature and magnificence. For this, I worked with mostly natural lights in vérité situations and a set of Canon zoom lenses. As a Vérité shooter, one needs to quickly evaluate a location’s sweet spots and downfalls for lighting and grasp the scope of the situation to capture the most cinematic storytelling coverage.

As a former dancer, I rely on my internal sense of choreography to film a scene. Each character has a unique movement which correlates to what role they play at a given moment. With RBG I had to learn to move around without disrupting her focus or limit her thinking space. Timing was everything. No small talk at all, to create a comfort zone so she could be herself during the few vérité scenes. 

PH: How did you have to work with lighting for this doc?

Claudia Raschke: First of all location scouts are essential, either in person or via photos. They can make or break your cinematic ideas. Keep in mind that documentaries for often can’t spend any money on renting lights. Therefore I spend time on pre-scouts. I need to know compass orientation for windows, power limits, time of day set for the interview, and obstacles like large unmovable items that will limit my lighting space.

Before I set up lighting, I build my camera to view different angles considering shifting influence of natural light from windows and any other wild cards that could make the window source a possible problem (cars zipping by throwing flashes of reflective lights from the sun, or bright sun lighted green lawn which reflects too much green color through the window).

Both cameras get set up once I have pinpointed two promising angles to work with including the relative field of view background canvas to be lighted.

Setting up the key light is always done in conjunction with the naturally occurring window or door to another room in the background of my frame. Then I determine my contrast ratio. With the key light in place, I set up wrap around fill, a possible edge light, maybe some negative fill, followed by multiple highlights that connect the space to the character.

Once lights are roughed in I review quality and intensity of lights, as well as shadow angles and altitude of lights. Finally, check zone levels for both cameras to match, set T-stop and focus, review if highlights let the eye flow through the frame resting on the subject in it’s carved out character-driven space. It might sound like I have lots of tools to play with but my lighting kit consists of a small documentary lighting package. Lighting is totally dependent on the location and its glory. That's why I pre-scout everything.

PH: What were some of the challenges you experienced there? 

Claudia Raschke: Time and access to RBG was very limited. She has many responsibilities, a very busy life and a tightly scheduled daily agenda. Every on-camera moment had to be pre-approved by the court. We had a timekeeper that would let us know “You have 20 minutes and that’s it.” Betsy, Julie and I did a lot of creative brain gymnastics to maximize each granted appearance. Every one of them had a different set of rules. It was a challenge. Our strategy became to let go of time-eating setups, strip away to what was the essential story point and find the best way to make it work.

PH: You got to capture some interesting, private moments with her. How did you tackle that? 

Claudia Raschke: The nature of documentaries is that each scene you shoot is a live event. You can’t go back and redo a moment in time. Once it happens it’s over. The hardest part in cinéma vérité style shooting is to decide at the right time to move to the right angle.

Having very limited access to RBG made every moment count times ten. We all felt the immense pressure of high expectations. I could not afford any tech problems or indecisiveness. I had to think fast and be quick on my feet. It seems that time warps in moments like this. My thoughts become very clear and super focused. Then all that pressure falls away and what is left is a dance and being fully present with the character that wins the day.

PH: Anything else you'd like to add? 

Claudia Raschke: The feature documentary RBG is a labor of passion and was only possible with the superb support of my excellent crews on the East and West coast of the USA.

DC: Peter Nicoli (2nd camera & add photography), Mike Wilson (gaffer) and Jim Gilchrist (sound)

NYC: Alan Hostetter (2nd camera and gaffer), Lucas Millard (AC), and Sean O’Neil (Sound) Martina Radwan (Add photography)

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About the Author

Claudia Raschke
Claudia Raschke
Award-winning cinematographer Claudia Raschke is best known for her natural lighting style, beautiful composition and held hand work in feature and TV documentaries, independent feature films and commercials.

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