Back to IndieWire

How I Shot That: The Cameras and Cinematography Behind Sundance’s Narrative Feature Films

Sundance: Cinematographers break down the look and lenses of 33 features premiering at this year's festival.

Shaka King and Sean Bobbitt Shooting "Judas and the Black Messiah"

Sean Bobbitt and Shaka King shooting “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Glen Wilson

“One for the Road”

Shooting “One for the Road”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: World Dramatic Competition

Dir: Baz Poonpiriya, DoP: Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun
Camera: ARRI Alexa​ Mini​ LF
Lens: Arri​ Master​ Prime and Arri​ Signature​ Prime

Jiraungkoonkun: For me ‘One For The Road’ is a story of a final confession of two struggling friends. The film is mostly shot at real locations such as bars which are quite dark and small. Despite the low light conditions and narrow spaces, I still wanted to capture the actual sites and situations. My usual method is to start with turning off the lights instead of adding them, so we needed the camera lenses that have wide aperture in order to capture it naturally. We mostly shot wide open with Master Prime T1.3. To shoot in cramped locations like bars, Boss’ apartment and Aood’s basement, giving the sense of living in confined spaces in Manhattan, Alexa​ Mini​ LF has the attributes we needed. I could shoot against the wall by removing the battery, plugging in portable one and placing it on the floor so I could gain more space. Together with Signature Prime Lenses, 18mm and 25mm, I could capture every actions and details, somewhat improvising scenes.With the technical knowledges and aspects of my young-blood second camera operators, Boonyanuch and Natdanai, we were capable to design the shoot in these conditions with two cameras on set.


Shooting “Passing”

Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition

Dir: Rebecca Hall, DoP: Edu Grau
Format: 2.8 ARRIRAW with a 4:3 extraction
Camera: ARRI Alexa Mini
Lens: Lomo Ananmorphics

Grau: We shot in black and white, 4:3 with anamorphic Lomos for a painterly quality in the image, both vintage and contemporary because the movie is actually both. We played with a high contrast grainy black & white look that plays a role in the narrative of the film as light, shadows and everything in between tell the story of a movie that is about racism, class and being a woman in 1920’s Upper Class Black Harlem. We created some very frontal frames in 4:3 so the movie could at times feel purposefully two-dimensional only to find the third dimension for an emotional intention in the development of the characters.


Pleasure Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins

Sophie Winqvist Loggins shooting “Pleasure”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: World Dramatic Competition

Dir: Ninja Thyberg, DoP: Sophie Winqvist Loggins
Format: ARRIRAW and other formats
Camera: Alexa Mini and other cameras
Lens: Cooke s4

Loggins: The camera and lenses were chosen for texture and authenticity of the skin. The look needed to be soft but real and unreal. We wanted to reverse the imagery that we normally are presented with in adult film. We did tests of camera angles in different sexual positions. What is the normal depiction and what would our heroines point of view look like? We searched for images that we had not seen before and that were clearly from her perspective. We looked for the storytelling boundary where you go from being looked at to looking back.

We fought to make all scenes based around our heroine as a subject and insist on the emotion of having a female body. We were interested in the mechanisms of manifesting yourself as a performer and seeing yourself in different lights. We used camera angles, compositions, lighting, color and image dynamics to realize them. In our previous collaborations we have studied commercials, music videos, genre films and their representations of the ideas in our society. How they normally represent power and who is looking and how.

We have played with conventions in the opposite way of how they normally function in order to show the world from a girls perspective. Ninja’s research photography within the industry set the tone of what the world looked like, the colors, the details. The world was to be authentic and have an appealing palette that our main character would want to see. Except this research I believe that we are both planted in a Scandinavian palette of color and light. Sweden is a very distant country and I think there’s a specific unheated way of looking at things where the viewer gets space to interpret in their own way. The style of the film is an authentic world inside a heightened world. The acting is extremely real and shot almost like a documentary but the image can be enhanced. This creates a hybrid with the real and the symbolic at the same time. We wanted the porn industry to function as a metaphor.

“Prime Time”

"Prime Time" Cinematographer Michał Łuka

Michał Łuka shooting “Prime Time”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: World Dramatic Competition

Dir: Jakub Piątek, DoP: Michał Łuka
Format: 3.4 K ARRIRAW, Betacam
Camera: Arri Alexa mini, Sony BVH360
Lens: Panavision Primos and 19-90mm Primo zoom

Łuka: The film takes place in a TV studio on the final day of the year 1999. This is the time before the digital revolution, when 625 interlaced lines were all one could wish for. Kuba was very passionate about the PAL format and we decided to make use of it. Watching the first test from an old betacam camera felt like a time travel experience. Busy chasing high resolution, with 4k cameras in our smartphones, we tend to forget that low resolution also has its unique value and charm. However, it wasn’t the only format that we were using. For the main part of the film we chose Arri Alexa mini with Panavision Primo Primes and the 19-90mm Primo Zoom lens. We wanted to achieve an image that would be neither too modern, nor too vintage. Combining Alexa’s sensor with the Panavision Primo lenses gave us the result that we were looking for.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Shooting “Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Toshio Watanabe

Section: Premieres

Dir: Sion Sono, DoP: Sohei Tanikawa
Format: ARRIRAW Open Gate 3.4K
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini / Arri Alexa SXT
Lens: Arri Ultra Prime

Tanikawa: I think it is most important to capture the energy and passion the actors gave to Director Sion and I while making the film. It requires a quick filming style, so you don’t miss the feelings of the actors. The lighting is often set for shooting with a 360-degree field of vision, and I frequently shoot in a hand-held style.The ALEXA Mini is compact and easy to handle, and I really like how the ARRI sensor captures organic shades of color. Also, the Ultra Prime is compact and sufficiently sharp, so it fits well with our shooting style. This combination is very useful and effective to capture free acting from the actors at a good angle.We used tobacco brown as the color tone for scenes in the wastelands. For flashback scenes, we used the LUT based on the tone made from cross-processing the color reversal films.I hope everyone enjoys our film.


Diego Madrigal & Carey Williams Shooting "R#J"

Diego Madrigal and Carey Williams shooting “R#J”

courtesy of filmmakers

Section: NEXT

Dir: Carey Williams, DoP: Diego Madrigal
Format: Blackmagic RAW 6K.
Camera: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K
Lens: 18mm, 25mm Uncoated Zeiss Super speeds, 32mm Cooke Anamorphic, 28-76 Angenieux zoom

Madrigal: When Carey first reached out to me about “R#J,” with the idea that we were going to tell the classic story of Romeo and Juliet with a modern twist by telling the story from the perspective of our characters’ cellphones, I was instantly intrigued. But from the start neither one of us wanted to use actual phones to shoot this project. We wanted a more organic and dreamlike feel to our images and really create a different world for these characters. With talks about several scenes playing really close to the edge when it came to underexposure, I knew phone cameras would just fall apart in post. At the same time we wanted to keep our cameras as lightweight as possible. We knew we wanted our actors to “hold” the camera while our B-cam Op or I guided them in operating the camera on the other end. This gave many of our scenes the “cellphone look”.

We also had the dilemma of making our single camera budget turn into a dual camera budget, so we started testing. After some tests and some hiccups we decided on two Blackmagic Pocket 6K’s modified with PL mounts. Using a matching set of uncoated 18mm and 25mm Zeiss Super Speed lenses as our primary “phone lenses” as the 18mm resembles the FOV of cellphones the best without warping our actors faces too much. Using the 25mm for whenever we wanted to emphasize a specific moment. These uncoated lenses really helped give our images a more organic feel, and because they are uncoated the flares are spectacular.

We also had a 32mm anamorphic Cooke for a couple scenes in the film that were purposefully not from a phones’ POV to really help separate these scenes from anything else in the film giving them an other worldly feel. We also had an Angeniuex 28-76 for scenes where we wanted to create that push zoom effect that is very common in phone videos.

“Son of Monarchs”

"Son of Monarchs" DP Alejandro Mejía

Alejandro Mejía shooting “Son of Monarchs”

Renee Xie

Section: NEXT

Dir: Alexis Gambis, DoP: Alejandro Mejía
Format: 4:3 2.8K ProRes
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini, Canon C300 Mark II
Lens: Lomo Anamorphic Round Front

Mejía: We chose the equipment based on experience and the first option was the Arri Alexa Mini camera because it is versatile and I have been working with it for years and I knew that it would respond to the needs of the project. In terms of optics, I decided to work with the anamorphic spine lenses because it seemed to me that they fit perfectly in the characteristics of the story by having this combination of two places so diverse in two countries, besides that they are lenses that have their own personality that helped the film.

We imagined from pre-production a naturalistic style where the camera movements on the steadicam in combination with the anamorphic lenses would help us create the world of the character and his obsession with butterflies, on the other hand there was the whole macro world through the microscope which helped to understand the world of the character. The most important challenges of this film were the combination of the past with the present, how to differentiate them in addition to translating into images this obsession of the protagonist with the world of butterflies.

In addition, we filmed in the winter in two completely different cities such as New York and Angangueo Michoacan. The way to unite was through camera movements using the steadicam many times simulating the flight of the butterfly and also the use of anamorphic lenses to create a powerful visual identity and a relationship between the two worlds of the character.

“Strawberry Mansion”

"Strawberry Mansion" Cinematographer Tyler Davis

Tyler Davis shooting “Strawberry Mansion”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: NEXT

Dir: Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley, DoP: Tyler Davis
Format: 3.2k Prores 4444
Camera: ARRI Amira
Lens: Zeiss Super Speeds

Davis: The first time I read through “Strawberry Mansion,” I was immediately hooked but had more questions than ideas… there were scenes on the moon, underwater, in a forest of VHS tape, and even talking butterflies. But every question I had was met with a confident yet simple explanation of how it could get it on camera, and that’s when I realized that something truly special was in front of me Albert & Kentucker share a wholesome DIY mentality that I just had to be a part of. We tested a handful of scenes that required monsters and miniatures with my Amira and a local set of Zeiss B-Speeds and sent the footage to Colorlab for a 16mm film-out test. This was actually Albert’s idea to unify all of the handmade layers and stop-motion effects he would be implementing in post, and the print exceeded our expectations.

For a variety of reasons, we all needed to work digitally on set but loved the feeling of the 16mm print, so we kept it in the back of our minds through production. The movie constantly toes the line between dreams and reality, so I knew the cinematography would have to reflect and adapt accordingly. It really was a joy to have an endless amount of looks on the horizon with all the dream sequences (especially because this was my first feature as a cinematographer). During the shoot we also used a Cooke Varotal 20-100mm, an Innovision Probe II, my Bolex Rex 5, and tons of fun optical effects like a star filter, vaseline, flexible mirror, kaleidoscope, and Schneider’s confetti filter. I tried to keep the lighting mostly natural with a splash of color plus lots of haze to thicken the ambience. Color was handled at Digital Cave in Baltimore, and our colorist Matt Riggeri was indispensable for the back and forth with Colorlab.


Cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry

Mia Cioffi Henry shooting “Superior”

Matt Borowick

Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition

Dir: Erin Vassilopoulos, DoP: Mia Cioffi Henry
Format: Super 16mm Film
Camera: Arri 416
Lens: Cooke S4 T2, Canon 6.6-66mm T2.7

Henry: Our film Superior, is based on the short by the same name which premiered at Sundance in 2015. We enter the feature six years after the short has taken place and it is largely in the same world. The short was shot on S16mm and director Erin Vassilopoulos and I knew that was an important part of the world we had built. After testing film formats and lenses we settled on our configuration for its inherent neutral warmth and nostalgic feel for our 1987 thriller. We liked the amount of grain, the depth of color in the skin tones and the way red shows up on our Kodak Vision3 stocks, 7207 & 7219. We really pushed our colors and texture with the production design by Maite Perez-Nievas and costume design by Allie Pearce which all contributed to the overall look and gaffer Zach Erwin and key grip Josh Elam did a great job helping achieve our rich lighting on an indie scale and schedule.

Being a period piece, the goal was never to recreate an era specific style, but through our framing and lighting choices make reference to a kind of timelessness of mid century through 1980s cinema. We love shooting film, it has been such a big part of our process through the many projects we have collaborated on, both in our look and in our shooting approach. I love that I can execute a certain look in front of the camera and when I get it back in the dailies it is usually ten times more interesting than I could have imagined. That is trusting the magic of celluloid. And having a great colorist, Roman Hankewycz at Harbor, helps a lot too!

“Together Together”

Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition

Dir: Nikole Beckwith, DoP: Frank Barrera
Format: 3.2K Prores 4444 2.0:1
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lens: Zeiss Super Speed Primes

Barrera: I have shot extensively with the Alexa system and have always admired its color science, its representation of skin tones, its roll off into over exposure and its rugged build. So, it’s really a default choice for me. We wanted the film to be soft, warm and inviting but also be able to retain areas of contrast and shape. We wanted it to feel like a naturally lit comedy with an underpinning of realistic drama. The interiors of Vermeer’s paintings are never far from my mind when working on dramatic projects. I focus on the idea that the lighting needs to support an empathetic reaction from the viewer towards our are two main characters. To this end we wanted to look at using older glass to add a timeless feeling. After extensive lens tests with both modern and vintage glass we landed with the Zeiss Super Speeds. It had just the right amount of built in softness.

Also Nikole (director) and Anthony (producer) liked the flatness of the image versus the more dimension we get with a modern lens. So many great films were shot with the Super Speeds during their heyday that we tend to associate their characteristics with a time that has past. In addition we also used Tiffen Black Pro-mist filters to push the softness even further. I have never shot an entire project with so much diffusion on the lens before. I was often surprised at how much detail was retained after the light passed through all of this glass. It looked beautiful. I quickly fell in love with these images.


Adam Crosby Shooting "Violation"

Adam Crosby shooting “Violation”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: Midnight

Dir: Dusty Mancinelli, Madeleine Sims-Fewer, DoP: Adam Crosby

Format: BRaw 4.6k
Camera: Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2
Lens: Zeiss Super Speeds

Crosby: “Violation” was captured on a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2, recording BRaw, the proprietary RAW codec. Given the duration of the shoot, on location filming the way we wanted, made the cost of renting a full package prohibitive. Initially we spoke of shooting Micro 4/3s but I’m not in love with the format so I opted to pick up a G2 in order to allow us to operate in a Super35 ecosystem. As a team we’ve tended to prefer the aesthetics of Super35 or large format spherical over the years; we like the compression characteristics of longer focal lengths while obtains the field of view larger formats offer. Our lensing consisted of a set of Zeiss Super Speeds and also as carried a couple of old Soviet-era still lenses, a Helios and a Jupiter, that we would use for more emotionally visceral moments associated with the character of Miriam; moments that called for a more stylized and heightened treatment of the image.

The Super Speeds delivered the consistency and reliability they always do, they were simple, beautiful lenses that softened the overall image just slightly enough when wide open to give an organic texture that didn’t feel like it was robbing the image of fidelity. That said, we then heavily…heavily diffused the image from there. Dusty and Maddy have inspired in me an embrace of softening filtration; in this case Glimmer Glass was our weapon of choice. There would always be some degree of GG in front of the lens but our preferred density would change scene to scene, scenario to scenario; I think we hit a 3 at one point! At the end of the day, the visual language we created for the film, while in many ways initially born out of necessity, came to really embody the subtle surrealist fairy tale undertones that I find keep the film consistently engaging and unnerving.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

"We're All Going To The World's Fair" Cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone

Daniel Patrick Carbone shooting “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: NEXT

Dir: Jane Schoenbrun, DoP: Daniel Patrick Carbone
Format: ProRes 4444 XQ (S16 mode)
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini (S16 mode)
Lens: Canon Vixia HF R800, Zeiss superspeeds (16mm format), Canon 8-65mm and 11-165mm zooms

Carbone: The Alexa mini has more or less been my go to camera on projects of any size for the last few years, whenever possible. While shooting on location in real world environments, the smaller and lighter form factor just simply allows for angles and moves that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. We also opted to take advantage of that model’s S16 mode, which really complemented the specific tone of the film and level of intimacy we were after. It also allowed for a lot of interesting experimentation with older cinema lenses. The combo of the small-censor mode and vintage lenses helped us get closer to Jane’s vision on set, rather than relying on fully on post.

“Wild Indian”

Eli Born Shooting "Wild Indian"

Eli Born shooting “Wild Indian”

courtesy of filmmaker

Section: Premieres

Dir: Lyle Corbine, DoP: Eli Born
Format: Prores4444 2.8k
Camera: Alexa mini
Lens: Cooke Anamorphic

Born: I love the Cooke anamorphics because of their flexibility. Wide open, you get a lot of character you’d expect from an anamorphic but stopped down they look like a clean modern lens. We had variety of shooting scenarios that needed that flexibility to either hide something or enhance the emotions in the scene. Both Lyle and I enjoy the melodrama created in lensing.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox