How Sundance 2019 Films Were Shot: The Cameras, Lenses, and Formats Favored By Filmmakers

Report: Arri’s iron grip on scripted narrative filmmaking grows stronger, shooting on film is down, plus nonfiction filmmakers favorite tools.
Director Alma Harel and cinematographer Natasha Braier shooting "Honey Boy"
Director Alma Harel and cinematographer Natasha Braier shot "Honey Boy" on the Arri Alexa Mini, that overwhelming first choice of Sundance filmmakers
Monika Lek

Arri’s dominance in scripted narrative filmmaking would appear to have somehow only grown at Sundance this year. IndieWire polled 50 of the 55 features playing in four sections (U.S. Dramatic Competition, NEXT, Premieres, and Midnight), and 41 of those 50 films shot using Arri’s Alexa Mini. A handful of films either mixed the Mini with the more built out Alexa XT or the shoulder-friendly Amira, or relied solely on the Amira and XT, both of which utilize the same sensor to capture images as the Mini. Meanwhile, the Michelle Williams-starrer “After the Wedding” went with the larger format Arri camera, the Alexa 65, which was recently used by Alfonso Cuaron on “Roma.”

The Alexa chip won over cinematographers years ago with its filmic feel and naturalist color reproduction, while the indie world has been quick to adapt to the smaller bodied Alexa, the Mini, for not only its lower prices tag (at least compared to the XT), but also for the camera’s flexibility and versatility.

“The choice of camera was largely a practical one,” wrote Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique about his and director Rashid Johnson’s choice of the Mini for “Native Son,” which kicked off the festival last night. “The form factor allowed us to use a Movi Pro 15 [a handheld gimbal] which served as a versatile camera platform that provided us an affordable remote head as well as steadicam-like movement with the help of an Anti Gravity rig. This versatility, coupled with it’s ease of use allowed us to move at a pace necessary to succeed despite our short schedule.”

"Native Son" DoP Matthew Libatique and Rashid Johnson
“Native Son” DoP Matthew LibatiqueChris Herr

It’s that same versatility that Libatique utilized in shooting “A Star Is Born” with a handful of Alexa Minis working in tandem, as the Alexa line was equally popular amongst this year’s digitally shot Oscar contenders like “Cold War,” “Black Panther,” and “Green Book.” Interestingly though, the trend of prestige filmmaking returning to to celluloid (“First Man,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “The Favourite”) seems to have stalled with this year’s crop of Sundance films. Many cinematographers and directors cited budget and production logistics for deciding to shoot digitally. Only two films that IndieWire polled were shot on 35mm film (“Luce” and “The Lodge”) and one on 16mm (“Premature”).

The RED cameras, a favorite of Netflix episodic shows (“House of Cards”) and some large-budget special effects films (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), continue to have trouble breaking into low-budget filmmaking despite the camera company’s newer, more affordable models targeting non-studio filmmakers. The one narrative filmmaker IndieWire polled who did use a RED camera — Noble Jones, who directed and shot “Tomorrow Man” — told IndieWire he got his RED as a very special loner.

”I had the good fortune of having David Fincher loan me his Xenomorph for the production on the condition that I gave it a good workout and make plenty of notes for possible improvements,” said Jones. The Xenomorph being the one-of-a-kind camera RED made for Fincher to shoot “Mindhunter.”

Jones, like Fincher, utilized the 6K image to take advantage of “all the tools of post production,” including stabilization. Interestingly though, narrative filmmakers as a whole at Sundance, unlike their nonfiction brethren, weren’t concerned about shooting at the highest resolution. One exception, not surprisingly was the Netflix produced “Velvet Buzzsaw” which used Panavision’s new large format camera, the Millennium DXL2.

Robert Elswit shooting "Velvet Buzzsaw" on the new Millennium DXL2 8K camera for Netflix
Robert Elswit shooting “Velvet Buzzsaw” on the new Millennium DXL2 8K camera for NetflixClaudette Barius/Netflix

“The 8k was a request from Netflix to help with VFX,” wrote “Buzzsaw” DoP, Oscar-winner Robert Elswit. “Netflix requires their original productions to originate in 4K. Unfortunately, the Alexa LF wasn’t available when we went into production.”

Most Sundance filmmakers, like Libatique, cited production demands as the guiding factor in deciding what camera they chose, but that it was the unique combination of cameras with lenses that gave their Sundance premieres their unique look, texture, and feel. “Them That Follow” cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz was one of many DoPs who love the combination of the Alexa sensor and the older glass of vintage lenses.

“The image from the Alexa has a very organic, filmic feel and the vintage Cookes [the Speed Panchros lenses] have a beautiful softness and a lot of character in how they flare and react to light sources in the frame,” wrote Jutkiewicz. “The combination of the two helped create a textural, slightly ethereal look.”

Keep an eye out early next week when IndieWire publishes all 50 scripted narrative cinematographers and directors breakdowns of exactly what gear they used and how they created the unique look of their Sundance films.

The Documentaries

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang appearing "One Child Policy" which was secret shot in China
Filmmaker Nanfu Wang appearing “One Child Nation” which was secret shot in ChinaYuanchen Liu

On the nonfiction front, no one camera company dominated the field, partially because a vast majority of the documentarians IndieWire polled used three or more cameras to shoot their Sundance features, many citing production demands that could vary widely — reasons ranged from conducting a sit-down studio interview to trying to hide that they were filming a documentary. Yet there were two cameras that were clearly favored by the 2019 class of Sundance documentaries.

IndieWire polled 35 of the 39 features in three categories (U.S. Documentary Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, and Documentary Premieres) — not including the two all-archive films (“Apollo 11” and “Mike Wallace Is Here”) — and discovered that 14 films used the Canon C300, while another 16 used the Sony FS7 or AS7, or a combination of all three cameras.

The C300 has long been a favorite in the documentary world, combining high-quality image (most often described as “organic”) with the ability to capture at 4K, intuitive and professional features designed with the nonfiction filmmaker in mind, and an ergonomic small-body that makes handheld in tight quarters possible. It also, not surprisingly, works well with Canons popular and vast line of zoom lenses, which were favored by Sundance nonfiction filmmakers, regardless if they used a Canon camera.

Meanwhile, the more affordable, light sensitive (many filmmakers raved about how well it worked at night), and compact Sony FS7 and AS7 were also incredibly popular. Co-directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, who went out of their way to shoot their explosive “One Child Policy” in China without the government taking notice, cited how the FS7 could pass as a non-professional camera, but there were many filmmakers who simply liked how unobtrusive the camera can be while filming.

Ben Berman shooting "Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary"
Ben Berman shooting “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary”courtesy of the filmmaker

“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,” wrote “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” director Ben Berman. “It turns out we’re a little of both, but I think it greatly helped us kind of just slip into our subjects’ lives, 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.”

Led by an Amazon and Netflix 4K mandate, there’s an increased emphasis on films and episodic series being shot at a higher resolution. It therefore wasn’t surprising that half of the documentary films IndieWire polled were shot at 4K.

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