When choosing cameras and lenses, nonfiction filmmakers are not only guided by the “look” they are trying to create, but what their production demands and what their resources allow. Which is why in answering the question of why they picked the gear they did, this year’s crop of Sundance documentary directors also tells us how they shot their movies — the challenges, and the choices, as well as their cinematic styles.
Section: U.S. Documentary Competition
“Always in Season”
Format: 1920×1080 24p
Camera: Canon C300 (primary camera) and Sony FS7 (for stylized footage)
Lens: anamorphic lenses: canon L-series and Zeiss primes
Director Jacqueline Olive: Life in the South is complex, so my goal has been to give viewers a sense, in every scene, of how it feels to live at once among all the layers of reality. To do that, creating scenes that resonate viscerally was essential. As we brainstormed an impressionistic aesthetic, cinematographer Patrick Sheehan immediately thought to use macro tilt-shift lenses to capture footage, like the shots in the scenes about the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida. These lenses shifted the plane of sharp focus beautifully without increasing the depth of field, so the images you see in those sequences of pigs in the swamp give viewers the sense that they are not simply watching pigs, but as the camera moves along their flank, constantly shifting from the hazy whiteness of their skin to reveal grey leathery cracks covered in stiff bristles of hair, viewers feel like they are actually brushing up against pigs. That’s just one of the tricks that made Patrick’s footage more hauntingly gorgeous than I’d even imagined. Always fully engaged and creating outside of the box, It’s been wonderful collaborating with him.
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Format: Digital HD
Camera: Canon C100 mk II, Canon C300, Sony FS7, Sony A7s, Sony X70, Canon 5D mk III, GoPro, other
Lens: Canon 24-105mm, Canon 70-200mm
Directors Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert: This film largely takes place in a roaring, crowded factory. We needed small, lightweight cameras good in low-light situations, that could handle hot and humid environments. The cameras we had did the job well.
Luisa Betancur/Upper East Films
Camera: Panasonic Varicam, Panasonic HPX170, Sony HXR-NX30U, Sony PXW-X70, Sony PXW-Z90V, Sony PXW-FS5, Canon C-300
Cinematographer Joan Churchill: Many cameras were used over the six years it took us to shoot this film but when we started shooting in the ER, the different situations we encountered required we adapt our approach. At the beginning we were shooting only inside the hospital’s psychiatric emergency room. This is a locked ward. People come into the ER in extreme emotional states. I did not want to add to their anguish by calling attention to myself.
The Panasonic HPX170 has a beautiful filmic look; it also is small, ergonomic, unintimidating, and I could shoot all day and night for all those 16-hour days we pulled. Also, with the camera off my shoulder, I am a person, not a glass eye. People can see my face and my reactions to what is happening and understand I am not a threat to them. This allows for an intimacy that provides the audience with the feeling of being there, and it allows me to interact with people, which can be reassuring to them in their distress.
After spending the first year shooting in the hospital, we started following people in their lives. I changed to a series of even smaller Sony cameras (ending with the Sony X70). It was the only way I could fly under the radar and not attract undue attention to myself as I walked the streets. The Sony cameras have a bright, crisp look that enhances the feeling of people confronting real life as they struggle with their problems. It’s important to see these people in their environments. Also, because the background contains important context in these scenes, it is appropriate to use a smaller chip camera so we can see their surroundings. The shallow depth of field of large-chip cameras often prevent that as well as causing all sorts of focus problems, which can be distracting. The X70 has a larger 1” sensor, which gives the look some depth and it can be ‘disappeared’ under one’s clothing if necessary. We could not have gotten much of what we shot without using these small cameras. In this case, people skills are as important as shooting ability. It’s important to honor that relationship with the people we are filming, to be sensitive to their reality and to be respectful.
“David Crosby: Remember My Name”
courtesy of filmmaker
Format: 5k and 4k
Camera: Red Epic Dragon (at 5K), Sony FS7, Sony F55, Sony Z150 (at 4K), additional footage on DSLR, Drones
Lens: Canon 17-120, Fujinon XK20-120mm T3.5 Cabrio Premier Lens, Fujinon ZK85-300mm T2.9-4.0 Lightweight Cabrio Lens, Zeiss Variable Prime lenses
Director A.J. Eaton: Coincidentally, David Crosby’s father Floyd Crosby was an Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning cinematographer. So when I originally began designing the style and feel of this documentary, I wanted to try to shoot like Floyd would have shot in the digital filmmaking age. On a number of our interviews, we were able to use vintage Canon zooms and Zeiss Primes that felt timeless and cinematic. Red Epic Dragons were used for our initial stationary interviews when we had adequate support to handle the workflow. The Sony FS7 proved to be extremely valuable for vérité with their low light sensitivity and faster card transfer times, which came in very useful when shooting in darker backstage areas, in moving cars, and run-and-gun on location. Eventually, we started to love the speed of the FS7 workflow and the quality of their image, and ended up shooting the stationary interviews with F55 working as the primary camera and FS7s as B-Cam. However, I was able to capture many of our most crucial and vulnerable moments in the movie with a Sony PXW-Z150 4K. Its size gave me the ability to become somewhat discreet and unobtrusive, which allowed Crosby to become unaware that a camera was present, which allowed him to act naturally.
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Format: Primarily 4K DCI, but it varied per camera used.
Camera: Main camera was the C300mkII, but we used multiple cameras over the 2+ years of shooting, including the FS7, A7S II, C100, and others.
Lens: Mainly the Canon L-series (EF 85mm 1.2 II; EF-S 17-55mm 2.8; EF 16-35mm 2.8 III; EF 70-200mm 2.8 II; EF 24-70mm 2.8 II)
Director Penny Lane: I had the great fortune of collaborating with a gifted and experienced cinematographer Naiti Gámez, who worked with us to establish a warm, intimate and fluid look for the observational scenes. Naiti was able to establish her own relationships with our subjects, often much faster than I was able to myself, and I can’t say enough how much that helped us on shoots. I personally find pointing a camera at people an incredibly rude, intrusive, and downright bizarre thing to do, so I really needed Naiti’s help to make up for my stunning deficiency (which I’m starting to get over, I swear I am.) In terms of the interviews, producer Gabriel Sedgwick and I decided early on to do formal studio shoots with neutral backgrounds because we wanted to push hard against all kinds of preconceptions about Satanists that make it hard to “take them seriously.” We take them quite seriously, ourselves, especially because they are an incredibly intelligent, well-read, philosophically minded bunch, so that “formal” “expert” look was important to us. And we also used an Eye Direct setup, so that the Satanists would look directly into the eyes of the viewer — after all, that kind of uncomfortable, direct confrontation is kind of what they’re all about.
“Knock Down the House”
Camera: Sony FS7
Lens: Canon EF 24-105 f4/L, EF 70-200 f4/L
Director Rachel Lears: I shot this film primarily alone, run and gun, to keep up with the fast pace of the campaigns we were following and capture intimate stories that often unfolded in small spaces. The style was primarily observational, as we were going for a look that would unfold cinematically like a gritty fiction narrative, and I wanted to maintain the feel of sharing social space with the subjects and action. I used the FS7 with a Shape telescopic arm mounted on a belt as a stabilization rig, which allowed an amount of handheld dynamic energy that I liked, plus the mobility and flexibility to work without a tripod, sometimes for very long days, shifting between different shooting environments. The Canon EF 24-105 lens gave a range of focal lengths that worked for most situations (though the 70-200 also came in handy); the Metabones speedbooster adapter eliminated the crop factor and gave the lens an extra stop of light down to 2.8. I also chose to work with the Sony FS7 in Cine EI mode to capture the fullest dynamic range possible, because part of the concept of the film was to establish senses of place in the four settings: New York City, Las Vegas, West Virginia, and St. Louis. This allowed us to faithfully render a wide range of interior and exterior environments, bringing to life the social, architectural, and geographical diversity of these very different American landscapes.
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Format: 4K XAVC
Camera: Sony FS7
Lens: Canon 24mm f/1.4L series prime
Director Luke Lorentzen: Almost all of our film takes place at night. Finding a camera and lens package that could handle dark and shadowy situations was probably the most important consideration when picking the Sony FS7. The camera has a native ISO of 2000, which is uniquely sensitive to light, and I kept my Canon 24mm prime lens open to a f/1.4 for most of the shoot. There ended up being very few situations where a lack of light ended up being an issue, and I captured an amazing amount of detail in really surprising places.I was also a one-man-crew, and the FS7 has a great ergonomic build for attaching sound equipment or other accessories. It’s not too heavy for long and exhausting shoot days, and the 4K media is incredible.
“Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements”
Format: 2k HD
Camera: Canon C-300 Mark I, Canon 5D Mark III, Varicam, iphone, GoPro, Osmo, DJI, Sony A7S, Sony FS7
Lens: Canon 17-55mm, 70-200, Leica R 60mm macro, Sigma 24mm art series prime, Sigma 50 mm art series prime,
Director Irene Taylor Brodsky: Our film includes nearly 80 years of motion pictures and a kaleidoscope of image texture. Add to that, I wanted the core of the film to be verite filming of my family’s daily life. I needed to be nimble with a kit I could pick up at a moment’s notice. Over the 12 years I shot this film, I always wanted run-and-gun kits to give us the readiest access to the intimacy that would build our story. Since we were already including 8mm film from the 1940s, video from the ’80s, and home movies from the ’90s, we added even more texture to the mix with some specialty cameras to round out the visual narrative with more contemporary looks.
“One Child Nation”
Camera: Sony FS7, GH5s, A7Sii,
Lens: Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95, Olympus 12-100mm f/4, Sony 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3, Canon 24-105mm f/4, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, Rokinon 85mm f/1.4
Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang: We used the GH5s and the A7Sii to shoot everything in China, and we used the FS7 for shoots in the U.S. Given the sensitive nature of the One Child Policy and the reality that filming in China tends to draw attention from authorities, we chose to use the smaller cameras because they draw less attention to themselves. Except for interviews, everything else was shot handheld. The lenses we chose are reliable, portable and versatile enough for shooting verite scenes. The smaller cameras also can be less intimidating to an interview subject, especially for some people in our film who lived in rural areas and have never been filmed before in their lives.
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Camera: Canon C300, Red epic, 16mm Bolex, Osmo, DJi inspire
Lens: Canon K35, Canon Cinezoom, 17-50, 30-105
Director Ross Kauffman: We were filming in extreme conditions, and the Canon is a very reliable camera in very hot temperatures and very cold temperatures. We were shooting vérité, and we’re shooting for a very magical, beautiful look at the same time. That’s why we used a variety of cameras and lenses.
“Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary”
courtesy of the filmmaker
Camera: Sony A7S MK II
Lens: Canon 24-70mm L Series, Canon 70-200mm
Director Ben Berman: The Sony A7S2 was a pretty great camera for our purposes. It’s small and lightweight, but other than the obvious benefits, I think it greatly helped to put our subjects at ease. With a camera like this, people don’t know if you’re actually a legit filmmaker or just some dope off the street. It turns out we’re a little of both, but I think it greatly helped us kind of just slip into our subjects’ lives and not having any red flags raised by tons of expensive looking equipment. We’re young(ish) and have these small prosumer cameras that look like still photography cameras — so I think it kind of disarms people. But whatever the size or whatever vibe you get from seeing these cameras in person, there’s no question that you can get a really great image out of the A7S2. It’s deceiving, and therefore I suppose it’s a good camera to use when making a movie about deception. The aesthetic of our film kind of goes from verite and rough around the edges to a bit more composed and professional as the film goes on. I imagine this is normally an issue, but for us we embraced this idea, being that the story of our film becomes something it didn’t necessarily start as, so our shooting aesthetic subtly grows and becomes more professional and quite serious as it goes on. This was due to the fact that I began filming the movie myself and wasn’t as aware of lenses and misc tools like ND filters to improve our image. Not too far into the process, I was lucky enough to bring on the great DP Dan Adlerstein and a number of talented pro camera ops, which gave the film a more confident and filmic style. We embraced this shift and feel it greatly benefits the ever-developing story of our film. Also, having the movie colored by Nathaniel Pena really made the film look great! For me, the A7S2 was a great camera for this project; it just gets hot quickly in the 100-degree Vegas sun, so please plan your summer shoots accordingly.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
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Format: C-LOG HD
Camera: Canon C300 Mk 1 and 2
Lens: 50mm Canon Cine Prime on A 85mm Canon Cine Prime on B Canon EF Ultrasonic Zoom Lens 70-200mm f2.8L Canon EF Ultrasonic Zoom Lens 24-70mm f2.8L
Director Matt Tyrnauer: The prime lenses helped create our shallow depth of field in tight NY locations, adding to the thriller aesthetic. They also work well in low light, which is another element of our look. Since the lenses are made by Canon, they were a natural fit for our C300 camera — an Altimeter workhorse (we’ve used this camera on every single one of our last four films). In a way, it keeps “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” in the same “world” as “Studio 54,” as they both used similar two-camera C300 set-ups.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Mike Wallace Is Here” and “Apollo 11” are all-archive films.