"O.J.: Made in America" is a 7-hour documentary series from ESPN that will screen in its entirety (in two parts) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Cinematographer Nick Higgins is a doc veteran who previously collaborated on a number of films with two-time Academy Award nominee Lucy Walker, including "The Crash Reel," "The Lions Mouth Opens" and "Countdown."
Why was this the right camera kit for the job? My knee-jerk answer to why I opt for the C300 is that, for my handheld observational documentary work, I really appreciate the small form factor of the C300. I love the fact that I can carry an entire working camera package with a few lenses on to a plane in a single 1510 Pelican case. This means whether or not the tripod and lights arrive on time, we can shoot regardless.
That said, this production was almost all in LA, where I am based, and it was 90% interview-based. Instead of the usual 1-2 hour interviews I usually do on other films, for this production the interviews were at least 3 hours and were typically closer to 5 or 6 hours long. The interviews were always intense and to make the atmosphere work and keep the conversation flowing, they had to be as uninterrupted as humanly possible. With 64 two Gig cards and AC power we were able to roll without ever stopping for camera for almost 6 hours. The longest interview was an 8-hour mega monster marathon interview with O.J.’s agent Mike Gilbert. For that one we did actually stop to eat, but besides that we basically rolled straight through. I survived these long interviews by adding two bananas that could be consumed with absolute ninja silence to my kit.
Of all your training and schooling what one experience made you the cinematographer you are today? An early job I had after graduating from AFI’s cinematography program was shooting a Discovery Channel show about a firehouse in Boston. I was there for five months straight without coming back to LA at all.
This might not sound like such a big deal, but at that stage, we had a 10-month-old baby and I needed the work, so I went. It was an intense experience on many fronts. On that production I was able to put to practice a lot of what I'd picked up at AFI, but most importantly I got to practice moving very fast and shooting scenes that had already started and couldn’t be stopped.
At first it was so intense during a dramatic scene that it was difficult to slow down and return to the firehouse with useable footage. Shots that you thought you’d nailed for an eternity were a second or two at best. On one dramatic scene a few weeks into the production, I was focusing on Ladder 26’s Lt. Kevin Kelley, who was a true stalwart. He might have been freaking out inside, but he was projecting true calm to me and it was really infectious. Observing him, I was able to take a deep breath and slow down to actually think during the crisis and get the shots that told the story. Remaining calm when things get intense has been an invaluable lesson and one that I use to this day.
Sadly, a year after our production was over, Lt. Kelley was killed when the ladder truck’s brakes failed on the way back to the firehouse. I channel him often.
What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer? Is film school a good place to start? I did go the film school route, but not for undergrad. I was talked out of doing something photographic as an undergrad at university in Scotland because I couldn’t explain to the careers officer how I would make a living with a degree in that field. Instead of something fun in the Arts, I did a degree in Business and I got a job selling GE’s massive aircraft engines.
Luckily for me, I was posted to Hong Kong and Rio De Janeiro where I shot stills and video on the side of the job constantly. Over the course of a decade, I had a fairly exotic reel that secured me a place on AFI’s Cinematography program. I was possibly the least "experienced" student they had ever accepted, but I could definitely demonstrate a level of keen that couldn’t be stopped. Upon graduating I’d say it was clear that there wasn’t a line of people waiting to employ any of us. That happened for me when I kept shooting my own films during my plentiful downtime as a freelancer.
While film school was indeed very useful for getting me hands on experience, more importantly was that I couldn’t be stopped from shooting after I left. If you keep shooting your own productions, you’ll get better and when you get better you eventually get hired. There’s no excuse to not be shooting something between paid gigs.
What new piece of equipment are you most excited about using in 2016? I recently rented a Canon 14mm f2.8 to shoot a piece in Hawaii about the massive telescopes that are installed at 14000ft on the summit of Mauna Kea. The 14mm lens was a great addition. I just need to find a way to justify adding one permanently to my kit, that now includes a Canon C300 Mk 2.
[Editor's Note: The "How I Shot That" series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street.]