Sundance 2019: DPs Share Insights Behind Production of Sundance Featured Films

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

Sundance (January 24 - February 3) is well underway in Utah with tons of multimedia installations, performances and films. ProductionHUB caught up with a few DPs from featured Sundance films to talk about their projects, inspirations and the road to Sundance.
 

 
Matt Porwoll, DP of Tigerland
 
 
PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production?
 
Matt Porwoll: My very first conversation with the director of TIGERLAND, Ross Kauffman, was about how could we make a vérité film about the beauty and preservation of tigers. We didn’t want to make a typical nature documentary, but rather tell a story about the people trying to save the tiger.
 
Filming wildlife is much like shooting vérité. It required patience and a lot of time in the field. The main difference was how do we give the wildlife footage a perspective. To do this, our main focus was on the characters and their day-to-day life while also preparing ourselves to capture elusive wildlife in the process. To accomplish this, there is a lot of pre-production work to do, so when you get in the field you can go. There was a lot of work done to assemble the right camera packages that were flexible enough to capture whatever came our way.
 
The other element to prepare for was the environment. We began filming in Far East Russia in February, so we needed to be ready to film in frigid conditions of up to -35° Celcius. There was a lot of research done into how to do this without fogging and freezing the lenses. After Russia, we jumped right into India in March, with temperatures as high as 110° Fahrenheit. It was incredibly dry, so there was a lot of dust to contend with. All of this made for extensive pre-production work, but at the end of the day, it was much like any other vérité film. Prepare as much as possible on the front end so you can roll with the punches on the day.
 
PH: How did you communicate with the director to get a visual direction for the film?
 
Matt Porwoll: Ross and I spent a lot of time discussing the visual language of the film before we set out. What camera do we shoot with? What lenses will provide the right look? What esthetic will best convey the journey of our characters? It was helpful that we were both shooting on the film, so there was a built-in synergy to the approach of the visual style. Once we had the roadmap for the look of the film (as well as the technical needs for the environment), we would constantly discuss our visual approach in the field. Documentary filmmaking is all about collaboration, so we would come up with a gameplan for a scene, and then constantly discuss how to adapt.
 
PH: What challenges did you encounter? How did you fix them?
 
Matt Porwoll: The main technical challenges of the film were the harsh conditions we were shooting in. In Russia, we needed a camera that wouldn’t die on us in extreme cold, and in India, it was the same issue but in reverse. Having shot many films on the Canon C300 MKII, I knew this camera was up to the challenge. I’m happy to report the camera held up beautifully! When we were in Russia, we were prepared with large ziplock bags (the space saver kind that we store our puffy coats in during the summer) to put the entire camera inside to prevent condensation and freezing of the inner lens elements. We also stored all of our additional lenses in Ziplock bags while in the case. This helped speed up the warming/cooling process of the glass and keep the lenses safe when moving from inside to outside. But with all of this protection, there is still a waiting game that’s unavoidable. An example of this was after we were out for a full day in the cold, even getting into a car without the heater on and the windows down, the lenses would immediately fog up! Just the slightest amount of moisture and heat from our bodies in a relatively enclosed space would keep us from shooting for 15-20 minutes. Sometimes, all you could do was wait it out.
 
The heat and dust in India weren’t as difficult of a situation, but we made sure to keep the camera’s internal fan going at all times and do a deep cleaning of the camera and lenses at the end of each day.
 
PH: What were your favorite lenses and formats to shoot in?
 
Matt Porwoll: I was incredibly happy with our lens selection for this film. A lot of thought went into the visual aesthetic, and the lenses delivered beautifully. We wanted our two main storylines to have a different feel, while also having ways of blending them together in the edit. For Russia, we wanted to convey the stark nature of Far East Russia in the winter, so we opted to use the Canon CN-E Compact Zooms 15.5-47mm and 30-105mm for the vérité scenes. These lenses are incredibly sharp with good contrast, so they fit the bill. For our atmospherics, we used the Canon K35 primes. These lenses have a gorgeous quality to them – lower contrast, interesting flares and a lot of character.
 
In India, we tried to use the K35s as much as possible. The image produced from these lenses feels like you’re in a dream. When prime lenses weren’t appropriate, we used the Canon Compact Zooms, but with a ¼ Black Pro-Mist to soften the highlights and slightly reduce the overall contrast. For all of our Indian wildlife footage, we used the Canon CINE-SERVO 50- 1000mm T5.0-8.9. This was an amazing lens to work with, not only for its incredible telephoto ability with tigers or the setting sun but also in-scene with the ability to pull back to 50mm and really feel the location. Overall, I’m incredibly happy with the camera and lens choices for the film.
 
PH: What visual decision was your favorite in the film?
 
Matt Porwoll: In documentary cinematography, I often find that it's not a pre-determined visual decision that sticks with me, but rather a reacted moment that grounds the audience in the experience. In Tigerland, I feel this is perfectly represented in a scene in India where Amit and Jai are out on safari. After spotting a tiger, we feel the excitement, beauty, and immediacy of the experience.
 
The scene begins handheld in a bouncing vehicle with Amit and Jai as they track a tigress through the brush. As she emerges onto the road, we see the sheer joy on their faces intercut with gorgeous slow-motion shots of the tigress. Time seems to stand still for a moment, but we are quickly brought back to reality as the lens zooms out to reveal the close proximity of the tigress to the vehicle with Amit saying, “We gotta go. We have to move back.” This scene perfectly reflects what it feels like to see a tiger in the wild.

PH: What's the emotion you're hoping the audience gathers from the film?
 
Matt Porwoll: I hope the audience feels the same thing I did when shooting the film. Tigers are majestic creatures that deserve our admiration and respect. But sadly, the tiger population has dwindled to frighteningly low numbers. Despite this, there are great people out there doing incredible work to preserve the sanctity of the tiger. Thanks to their unbelievable work and dedication, we can hope to share their beauty with future generations.
 
PH: Who are some of your inspirations?
 
Matt Porwoll: I am inspired by so many. I have always been inspired by my fellow filmmakers, past and present, in their unwavering passion of telling stories. After this experience, I am also in deeper awe of those who film wildlife. It is incredibly difficult work that requires a lot of patience and an intense understanding of what they are capturing.
 
PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?
 
Matt Porwoll: Premiering a film at the Sundance Film Festival is a dream come true! Every time I am here, I have to pinch myself. It’s wonderful for us all to get together and celebrate the art of filmmaking, while also having the honor of sharing our love with an audience.
 

   
David Jacobson, DP of Ask Dr. Ruth
 
 
PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production?
 
David Jacobson: Pre-production was not extensive for this film. There was no lighting package and all the camera gear could be carried by one person. This was less of a creative decision and more of practical one. Dr. Ruth has been a familiar face and voice throughout the word for decades, but we were attempting an intimacy that had never been seen before. We didn’t want the familiar production support to make Ruth feel like she was performing. We wanted her to forget about the camera entirely. To that end, we worked hard to make things as beautiful as possible with the smallest footprint we could make.
 
PH: How did you communicate with the director to get a visual direction for the film?
 
David Jacobson: Ryan and I have worked together a number of times, and I know what he wants as a director. Since we were shooting mostly verite with Ruth, our conversations were often about the vocabulary of lensing and camera movement— which lenses to shoot Ruth with and at what proximity. I was warned about Ruth’s kinetic nature and I really wanted the camera to reflect that. Instead of staying far away on longer lenses, I wanted to be wide, close and at Ruth’s diminutive 4’7” level whenever possible.
 
Ryan and I have a great instinctual relationship. One of the hardest things to do as a documentary shooter is to stop an action or disrupt a moment because something isn’t working visually. Ryan always supports me in those moments and helps keep talent at ease.
 
Documentary directors always want to be shooting, as they should, so it’s great to have his support. Ryan is also my B camera operator. He is always carrying a camera around with him and knows when a scene demands cross coverage or little detail shots that I don’t have the time to grab at the moment.
 
PH: What challenges did you encounter? How did you fix them?
 
David Jacobson: Dr. Ruth is 4’7”. I’m a little over 1’ taller than her. I knew that I either needed to start doing squats at the gym or the camera was just not going to live on my shoulder. I didn’t want to use any gimbals or Steadicam rigs to get to her eye level since I was a department of one, so I settled on an Easyrig with the Flowcine Serene arm. While not perfect, it became an essential tool. The ability to track around with reasonable stability at Ruth’s eye level or below was exactly the look I wanted and wouldn’t have been achievable with anything else.
 
PH: What were your favorite lenses and formats to shoot in?
 
David Jacobson: I used the new Angenieux EZ zoom lenses towards the end of the production and have since bought my own set. I love them because they offer a very nice zoom range with a fast T2 aperture. The usefulness of these lenses cannot be overstated.
 
PH: What was your go-to choice of equipment and why?
 
David Jacobson: We shot the movie on Canon C300 Mk IIs. The C300 line from Canon is like an old friend to me and always my go-to for long-form documentary work. It’s reliable, the colors are great, the latitude is impressive and it’s infinitely scalable to our needs. I’ve shot a bunch with other cameras, but Canon is the real deal when you need something that just works with limited crew and support.
 
 
PH: What visual decision was your favorite in the film?
 
David Jacobson: It wasn't my decision, but Ryan made me do all the sit-down interviews handheld. I was not happy about it at first, mostly because it felt needlessly exhausting, but in the end, I think Ryan was on to something. It can be jarring cutting between loose verite and composed talking heads, but shooting everything handheld unifies everything. As a viewer, it makes you think less about the filmmaking and more about the narrative threads. I was also on the easyrig so it wasn’t that bad.
 
PH: What's the emotion you're hoping the audience gathers from the film?
 
David Jacobson: Ruth has lived through some of the greatest horrors our civilization has inflicted on itself, and she’s come out the other side as one of the most positive, joyous people that I’ve ever met. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff and she treats everyone she meets with an equal amount of kindness and warmth. I hope some of that energy is gleaned by the audience as it was for me spending the last year with her.
 
PH: Who are some of your inspirations?
 
David Jacobson: D.A. Pennebaker, Ross McElwee, Hal Ashby.
 
PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?
 
David Jacobson: This will be my third time at Sundance, but my first feature. I’m honored. I dreamed of this as a kid, but it also feels like a bit of a distraction. I’m excited to share the film with the world and meet some great filmmakers, but then I want to get right back to work.
 

 
Nate Miller, DP of Paddleton
 
 
PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production?
 
Nate Miller: I think we had about two, maybe three, weeks total of pre-production. Not extensive. Especially when you add the puzzle of getting all the right gear the budget allows. It allowed just enough time for the creative for Alex and I on set to speak shorthand and be comfortable with what our ultimate goal was.
 
PH: How did you communicate with the director to get a visual direction for the film?
 
Nate Miller: Alex (director) and I (as 2 nd Unit DP / Op) had worked together before on his first film, BLUE JAY. This meant there was a built-in comfortability factor and pre-established communication with us that helped expedite the technical and get straight to the creative side of things.
 
PH: What challenges did you encounter? How did you fix them?
 
Nate Miller: Paddleton was a 14-day shoot. All the challenges were mostly time-related. Nothing new here. Simply, you just have a great crew with people you’ve worked with before so you can keep the unnecessary communication to a minimum.
 
PH: What were your favorite lenses and formats to shoot in?
 
Nate Miller: We shot on Cooke Speed Panchros. My first feature with them. Couldn’t be happier. Beautiful, rich, warm world they express. Being a Netflix original, it required a 4K acquisition.
 
PH: What was your go-to choice of equipment and why?
 
Nate Miller: We shot on the Canon C700. I’ve worked with Canons consistently throughout my career and have always been happy with the image I’ve captured. It’s the comfort factor with a certain camera that allows you to be at ease and work off instinct, which is where I’m at my best.
 
 
PH: What visual decision was your favorite in the film?
 
Nate Miller: There’s a 180-degree pan inside a practical car on the highway. The shot was in Alex’s mind from the beginning. He also operated it. I love it and think it emotionally fits perfectly in that moment of the story.
 
PH: What's the emotion you're hoping the audience gathers from the film?
 
Nate Miller: I just want to be a part of a film that people take out of the theatre with them. Keeps them talking for a while. It’s heavy subject matter, but I think we were able to walk that fine line between despair and levity.
 
PH: Who are some of your inspirations?
 
Nate Miller: Stephen Fontaine, Reed Morano, Robbie Ryan, Rodrigo Prieto, Rob Hardy … too many to go on.

PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?
 
Nate Miller: This is my first film as a DP at Sundance. it’s a goal that has been at the back of my mind since I started. I’ve been aware of all the Sundance films since I was a kid. I couldn’t be more ecstatic.
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