“There is a montage in the middle of the movie where all four of our characters are in a swimming pool. We knew we wanted to have some underwater shots as part of this montage, but I was worried about the time and resources it would cost for us to put a camera and operator in the pool for just a couple of shots. I ended up having the idea to put a GoPro on an old $10 monopod and just dunking it in the water and following the action around. This was difficult because I couldn’t monitor the camera while shooting. I was just hoping for the best and luckily, it worked out great.” – John Guleserian, “The Overnight”
“When you are capturing documentary material in a vérité style, every shot is difficult because you don’t know what is going to happen next. Everything is the spur of the moment and you have to adapt to the situation quickly. I had a very intimate style of shooting. Most of the time it was just me, the subject and the camera. There are many factors to be thinking about — picture, sound, story. It can get difficult, but as you get used to it you start to flow on an intuitive level.” – Crystal Moselle, “The Wolfpack”
“There’s a scene in ‘Cartel Land’ in which I’m crammed in the back of a jeep in Michoacán, Mexico. A member of the Autodefensas (citizens who rose up to fight back against the villainous Knights Templar drug cartel) was interrogating a suspected cartel member, constantly jamming his pistol into the man’s forehead, threatening him, intimidating him for more information. Not only was it frightening and disturbing, but I could barely move as I was jammed in the middle seat, sandwiched by two other armed men. It was an hour-long take, while the car was speeding through curvy city streets. Throughout this scene, which turned out to be an important turning point in the film, I was constantly thinking about how I would edit it and what angles I would need to cover the scene.” – Matthew Heineman, “Cartel Land”
“As a photojournalist accustomed to documenting a decisive moment captured in a still image, it was initially difficult for me to not turn off the camera while filming ‘(T)ERROR.’ I missed a lot of moments during initial shoots (though we had the audio) as I transitioned from creating still to moving images. While our main character gathered intelligence for the sting operation actively profiled in ‘(T)ERROR,’ he was often guarded. I consider many shots in the film to be difficult — not in the technical sense — in that they required a substantive time and effort to achieve. In order to visualize the complexities of the informant’s role in the active sting, I had to be patient and roll picture without attempting to turn the camera off.” – Lyric Cabral, “(T)ERROR”
“‘Z for Zachariah’ takes place after an apocalyptic event. There is no electricity. Night light is either candles, lanterns or ambient moonlight. Creating realistic ambient ‘no light – light’ is a challenge. In this movie it became even more of a challenge because all of the night interiors had to be shot Day for Night due to the production schedule.
“In one instance, Ann (Margot Robbie) walks down the hallway to find Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, having fallen after trying to leave the house. The challenge was to keep the scene dark and realistic, but still see detail. The walls of the hallway were also white, which made it even more difficult. Ann was lit by a lite panel that the gaffer held while the camera tracked back with her. She then walks into her POV which then booms up to look over the stairs at Loomis below. The shot began wide, so there was little to no room for lights. I put a dense black fabric over the panes of the window in the background to knock down the light, then did a ‘lean to’ tent to allow some ambient daylight to touch the window to create a moonlight effect. A 4′ daylight kino flo with one bulb was hung above the window, out of frame, that was heavily diffused with ND 6 and 1/4 blue and 1/8 plus green. At the bottom of the stairs there was an M8 bounce diffused with muslin to provide fill light on Loomis. The lighting was sparse and simple, but very challenging to create the proper tone of darkness, which you could see through, but not get ‘muddy.’ I exposed the scene very bright, so it would not get muddy and printed it down in the grade. In the DI (Digital Intermediate), we added some power windows to darken the walls further.” – Tim Orr, “Z for Zachariah”
“It’s funny that sometimes a simple shot can actually be the hardest to do. There’s a scene in ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ where our lead character, Minnie, is walking down Polk Street on a sidewalk with a leading camera move. In the final shot she is walking next to an animated character from her imagination, which was laid onto the scene in post. That’s it, nothing fancy, but it was a testament to indie filmmaking to get all these moving parts to work together with so many obstacles. It’s a period 1970s film so all the cars parked on the street had to be vintage, background actors had to be dressed correctly, the few ADs we had were trying to hold back pedestrians and crazy Tenderloin tenants, all as the sun was literally setting on us. It was total chaos! The angle had to be low to block modern traffic and people across the street and hide unwanted signage, so I sat with the camera cradled in a rolled up furniture pad on a doorway dolly while being pulled backward over a rough sidewalk to get the shot. We couldn’t afford a Steadicam, so this was the best we could do. The shot is much less stabilized than I prefer, but we finally got the shot and the scene turned out great. I’m sure no one will think to notice how hard it was to pull this off in the end, but that’s just another day on set.” – Brandon Trost, “Diary of a Teenage Girl”
“I remember the lighting was particularly challenging in one scene that takes place at dawn in Jake’s (Jason Sudekis) apartment. I wanted a really cold early morning light coming in from the outside and the warm practical light coming from inside the apartment, emphasizing the contrast of the intimacy of the moment and the colder reality of the world. We shot the wide shots last as the sun was going down (dusk-for-dawn), but we had started shooting the scene in the middle of the day. Since we shot the wide last so I had to predict what the light would look like in the apartment as the sun went down before I had actually seen it. All the close-ups were shot in full sunlight, so I had multiple layers of gel on the windows that I was stripping away slowly as it got darker outside. The warm interior light was a Tungsten soft light on a dimmer so that we could match the levels of the exterior light. The resulting scene has what is my favorite moment and favorite shot of the entire film.” – Ben Kutchins, “Sleeping With Other People”
“Much of the film is captured with designed handheld shots. Adam Salky, the director, and I wanted to do one specific shot that follows an emotionally fragile Laney (Sarah Silverman) as she stumbles down the hallway and into the bedrooms of her sleeping children at night in one long handheld take. We were pressed for time because of the schedule and lighting a scene through multiple rooms where the lights are all off is already challenging if you want it to feel natural. Given the time we had, Jason Beasley, the gaffer, and I decided to motivate the lighting from the nightlights in the children’s rooms which would make the scene both more intimate and more unsettling with the resulting shadows and silhouettes. We went low-tech and strategically hid simple bulbs on porcelain sockets dimmed way down and wrapped in black wrap in any corners of each of the rooms that wouldn’t be seen. We even tossed Christmas lights into the bathroom sink to give a glow as she walks past. It was a very raw, emotional scene and I think we were able to make the scene work well with Sarah’s incredible performance.” – Eric Lin, “I Smile Back”
Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrate cinematography at Canon Creative Studio on Main Street. Read the entire series here.