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How I Shot That: Alzheimer’s Patients in Sundance Documentary ‘Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory’

How I Shot That: Alzheimer's Patients in Sundance Documentary 'Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory'

After shooting a bunch of short films and music videos, cinematographer Shachar Langlev debuted his first feature-length film,“Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory” at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary, directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett (also a first timer), looks at a powerful effect music has on Alzheimer’s patients. Langlev spoke to Indiewire about her experience working on the film.

Which camera and lens did you use? It took us four years to finish the film and our cameras changed and improved as the technology developed. We started with the Panasonic HVX200, with Letus 35mm adaptor, and then the Panasonic AF100. We then switched to the Cannon 7D, and later the Cannon T2I. We finished the film with the superb Cannon C300. We used a ton of EF Cannon lenses, ranging from the 16-35mm f/2.8, to the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 75-300mm f/4-5.6. Aside from that we used a few old Nikon prime lenses.

What was the most difficult shot in your movie, and how did you pull it off? Dan Cohen is the character that we follow in the film that ties all of the other elements together. He is the social worker who came up with the idea of bringing personally-meaningful music to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The patients loved having company so much that it wasn’t too much of a challenge to engage them without the camera being an obstacle. With Dan, it took more time to allow him to feel natural and free in front of the camera– he felt the best interacting with the patients, rather than talking about it on-camera. So, my most difficult shot was when I drove alone with Dan following him for a day and interviewing him in his car while he was driving. I was alone, sitting next to him, and I had to hand-hold the camera in a weird angle to get the shot, while monitoring the sound, while also interviewing Dan and giving him the feeling that the camera isn’t there and we are just two friends talking. It was a long day, it was a very long shot, but at the end of the day, it was an important shot for the film. 

Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? I don’t have one favorite cinematographer. I watch a lot of films and I learn something from each. From every movie I learn what I like, what I don’t like, what works best and what doesn’t. We live in a time when everything is shot, there’s a camera and a screen every place you go, all the time. People film their newborn babies, and also political revolutions, on their phones. And I sit and watch and learn from all of it.

What’s the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? I came from the City University of New York system. I did my undergrad at Brooklyn College and my MFA at City College. I am a true believer in affordable education. Spend your money on your movies. 
As for it being necessary or not– the academic structure gave me the discipline I needed to create, but that might not be necessary for everyone. As for the CUNY schools, they taught me most of what I know– the rest you learn on set.

What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to SundanceI don’t know if it’s something you can plan. Never give up on a project you believe in. This specific film I shot faced so many times when it seemed the project would never come together, never be completed. But I stuck with the project because I knew we were doing something good, something important.
What’s the best career advice you received? My dear cinematography professor, Bill Hornsby, used to scream: Focus! So I’d say the best advice I got was to stay in focus (on the subjects I film).
And the worst advice? A distinguished cinematographer once told me that in order to be a good DP you have to marry your camera and sacrifice having a life outside of film. But with the correct balance, I think you can achieve both– having a full and diverse life, as well as having a career– and one really enriches the other.

Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at Canon Craft Services on Main Street. 

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