Sundance 2018: Here Are the Cameras Used to Shoot This Year’s Documentaries

Nonfiction filmmakers talk about creating the look of their films and how unique production demands dictated their equipment choices.
Kevin Kerslake shooting Joan Jett for "Bad Reputation"
Kevin Kerslake shooting Joan Jett for "Bad Reputation"
Ryan Kane Fitzgerald

Choosing cameras and lenses is a complicated process for nonfiction filmmakers; it must take into account their films’ unique shooting situation, budget and cinematic styles. 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, the choices, and the look. Thirty-seven directors, with features in Documentary Premieres, and the U.S. and World Cinema Documentary Competitions at this year’s festival — took IndieWire behind the scenes of shooting what will be some of the most talked-about nonfiction films of the year.

Category: U.S. Documentary Competition

“Bisbee ’17”

Behind the scenes of shooting "Bisbee '17"
Behind the scenes of shooting “Bisbee ’17”Douglas Tirola

Dir: Robert Greene
Camera: Mostly the Sony FS7
Lens: Mostly Zeiss superspeed primes

Greene: “DP Jarred Alterman created a look that he and the team of amazing filmmakers we were able to get for the big days of the shoot (the Ross brothers, Rob Kolodny of House of Nod) could use to evoke the emotional experience that was happening in Bisbee around the 100th anniversary of the deportation. The film uses the fantasies of genre, as performed by Bisbee locals, to illuminate the shattering truths and complexity of this awful event. So it was necessary to collapse Western, musical and other genre elements into a whole, while never straying too far from meaningful documentary observation. It was like making several films at once, but the look had to contain all of the chaos and capture the layered, transporting experience that we were all going through.”

“Dark Money”

John Adams appears in <i>Dark Money</i> by Kimberly Reed, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eric Phillips-Horst. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
“Dark Money”Sundance

Dir: Kimberly Reed
Camera: Primarily Sony FS700 and Canon 5D Mk2, then Canon c300
Lens: Canon

Reed: “I’m just in love with the look that Canon’s systems (camera, lens, codec) deliver. Especially when it comes to skin tones. For a film that’s trying to humanize the issue of campaign finance, it was crucial for our subjects to look great!”

“Devil We Know”

"Devil We Know"
Shooting “Devil We Know”Kristin Lazure

Dir: Stephanie Soechtig
Camera: ARRI Amira and the Sony A7S
Lens: Zeiss primes

Soechtig: “I love the look of the Amira because it gives you such a cinematic look without being overly fussy or high maintenance. Our crews were really small and there’s a lot of run and gun; we needed a camera that could keep up with the fast pace without compromising quality. This film in particular really unfolds like a narrative, so it was imperative that the camera capture that feeling which the Amira does so beautifully. One of the things I love about the Amira is how beautifully it captures skin tones. Because our film is about the power of the individual, it was imperative that we captured the essence of the fact that these are every day people taking on a behemoth corporation without compromising cinematic quality — the Amira did a beautiful job of both.”


"Hal" director Amy Scott
“Hal” director Amy ScottBrian Morrow

Dir: Amy Scott
Camera: RED with dragon 6k sensor, Sony FS7 Black Magic Pocket Cam Canon Scoopic 16mm with custom-bored gate for 16×9 transfer Timelapse on canon 5d with dynamic perception Dolly
Lens: Angenieux lenses

Scott: “It was shot on many different formats with many different lenses, partially because the project had such a long timeline and partially because we were trying to capture and recreate such different times in [Hal Ashby’s] life and career. It was extremely important that the interviews maintain a sophisticated look while the re-creations and 16mm atmospheric footage provided an era-specific look. The RED allowed for push-ins if we weren’t happy with the second angle, although the Sony did give us an image that was so rich in natural light that I usually preferred that.”

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

"Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”Sundance

Dir: RaMell Ross
Camera: Canon mark III
Lens: 50mm and 24-105mm

Ross: “The DSLR looks like a standard photography camera, and doesn’t, unless you load the body up with a bunch of accessories, look high production. The ability for me to be a member of the moment and be able to look and move without pause, was something this camera offered and became a important element of the film.”

“Inventing Tomorrow”

"Inventing Tomorrow"
“Inventing Tomorrow”Sundance

Dir: Laura Nix
Camera: ARRI Amira
Lens: Canon CN-E 18-80 Cine Zoom. In addition we had Canon Cine Primes 35mm

Nix: “The lenses provide great color and contrast rendition; the zoom was versatile and the cine primes were great for low-light situations. This flexibility was necessary to deal with shooting in very difficult physical locations, such as pirate ships in Indonesia, and contaminated lakes in India. We also wanted to shoot a very intimate story. We needed to stay close to our documentary characters as much as possible and the flexibility of lenses allowed us to do that, while also being able to shoot wide landscape scenes to tell the environmental story.”


Kailash Satyarthi appears in <i>Kailash</i> by Derek Doneen, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Derek Doneen. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Dir: Derek Doneen
Camera: Sony FS7, Sony FS5, Sony A7s
Lens: Canon Cine-Servo 17-120mm, Milvus Primes, various Canon zooms (17-55, 24-70, 70-200, 100-400)

Doneen: “As a general rule, I don’t like relying on zoom lenses for documentary shoots. I find that if you have a zoom lens, you’re going to use it. Often, that sets the tone for a ‘documentary style’ that’s rough around the edges and less crafted. Shooting on primes forces you to really think about each frame because you have to physically move the camera every time you want to reframe. This allows me to be more careful in my approach and often lends itself to a more cinematic look.

That said, there were several shoots where the zoom lens was necessary. Particularly the more delicate scenes with the kids. We were shooting with children who had just been rescued from slavery and didn’t trust anyone — especially foreigners with giant cameras. Putting distance between ourselves and our subjects in those instances allowed us to observe without making our presence felt.

On the raids, we embraced the chaos. Handheld cameras and zoom lenses were the only way to go. We had to be ready for anything. This included shimmying up onto rooftops for the shot when that’s where the story took us. For most of the shoot, however, we let the camera live on sticks. Our lead character, Kailash, is incredibly measured in his approach to the work and we thought it was important to reflect his calm, thoughtful demeanor in the way we shot the film.”


Yayoi Kusama appears in <i>Kusama - Infinity</i> by Heather Lenz, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Harrie Verstappen. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Dir: Heather Lenz
Camera: We have been shooting since 2004, so we have used many cameras and shot in many formats. The most recent footage was shot with the Sony model ex3.

Lenz: “I think it’s most important to work with a cinematographer who knows how to frame a shot. These days it’s possible to make a film with high-end equipment and modestly priced equipment, like a cell-phone camera. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with Hart Perry, an accomplished documentary cinematographer who has shot Academy Award-winning films like ‘Harlan County, USA.’ Our key footage in Japan was shot by Hideaki Itaya, who also did an amazing job.”

“The Last Race”

“The Last Race” Director Michael Dweck
“The Last Race” Director Michael DweckCecilia Luppi

Dir: Michael Dweck
Camera: Canon C300, Sony F5, Canon 5d Mark 3, Go Pro
Lens: Canon L Series, Vintage Arri and Zeiss lenses

Dweck: “We went into filming knowing that we wanted a warm sunlight look that was reminiscent of iconic auto racing films like ‘Days of Thunder’ and the golden glow of ’70s surf photography similar to my earlier photography works. The Canon’s C300 produced a beautiful image that had a great compression for a manageable post-production work flow. It was compact and just all-around fun to use. The Sony F5 was also used with excellent results in some scenes. Canon L Series glass, zooms, and primes, were our primary lens choice. They are compact, have a nice image, and most importantly for this shoot, budget friendly. Vintage Arri and Zeiss cinema lenses were also used on a few occasions. For the cameras that we mounted on the car, we used Canon 5D mark 3s and GoPros in the positions that were most at risk of impact. These smaller cameras allowed us to get right into the bashing, banging, and crashes of the racing.”

“Minding the Gap”

"Minding the Gap" director Bing Liu
“Minding the Gap” director Bing LiuEmily Strong

Dir: Bing Liu
Camera: Canon 5D, Canon C300, and Sony PMW-X70
Lens: Canon 16-35mm L, Canon 24-70mm L, Canon 70-200mm L

Liu: “The Canon 5D with a 16-35mm mounted on a Glidecam allowed a type of skateboarding cinematography that really allows a window into the headspace and heartspace of the characters as we experience them skateboarding. With the C300, it allowed a lot of latitude for grading, even in dimly lit situations. The Sony X70 was so small and compact that it was perfect for long car ride-along scenes; it also had two XLR ports so I could easily run sound, a high bitrate to help with grading, and a larger-than-usual 1″ sensor to give the footage some depth, even though it was a camcorder.”

“On Her Shoulders”

Alexandria Bombach shooting “On Her Shoulders”Mariam Dwedar

Dir: Alexandria Bombach
Camera: Canon 5D Mark iii for the run-and-gun, and an Alexa Mini for the interview
Lens: The two workhorse lenses we used most were the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L and the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II.

Bombach: “For much of the film, we were running after Nadia [Murad] and her team in an endless array of situations. From meetings and interviews in government buildings to wading through the crowds surrounding her at refugee camps in Greece to rallies on the streets of Berlin – we needed to be lightweight and fast. Having a small kit and a small crew was also essential because of the sensitive nature of her work – it was either myself and a second shooter, or just me. I also knew after making my last film that the big cameras get stopped in security in all types of government and UN buildings, but a 5D can get through faster.”

“The Price of Everything”

"The Price of Everything"
“The Price of Everything”Sundance

Dir: Nathaniel Kahn
Camera: ARRI Amira
Lens: Mostly the Cannon Zoom, 17-120

Kahn: “The colors and details this camera brings out are marvelous. Also, I’ve had an easier time dealing with Amira material in post than some of the other options out there. I know primes are all the rage — they are beautiful, and some scenes in this film are shot with them — but I find ‘moves’ done in post often feel dead and mechanical. I like the risk of being in the moment.”

“Seeing Allred”

Behind the scenes of "Seeing Allred"
Behind the scenes of “Seeing Allred”Behind the scenes of "Seeing Allred"

Dir: Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman
Camera: We used a variety of cameras, everything from iPhones to the Sony FS-7s.

Sartain/Grossman: “Because we had to be a fly on the wall in all kinds of situations and locations from press conferences, to courthouse steps, hotel rooms, airplanes, and cars, we had to be mobile and as unobtrusive as possible. Flexible lighting, hand-held, low-profile cameras were the needed tools.”

“The Sentence”

Rudy Valdez catches himself in the mirror while shooting "The Sentence"
Rudy Valdez catches himself in the mirror while shooting “The Sentence”Rudy Valdez

Dir: Rudy Valdez
Camera: Canon 5DMii, C300, C500
Lens: Canon 24-105, 24-70, 50mm

Valdez: “These were the right tools because of the form factor. The small footprint they allowed me to have while still allowing me to capture beautiful images. I relied a lot on the 50mm 1.2. I love shooting this lens wide open and really isolating images in the frame. This is a very intimate film, and this allowed me to let the audience feel very close to the family I was filming.”

“Three Identical Strangers”

Location shooting for “Three Identical Strangers”
Location shooting for “Three Identical Strangers”Tim Wardle

Dir: Tim Wardle
Camera: Arri Amira
Lens: Angenieux Optimo 15-40 and 45-120 zooms

Wardle: “We were very keen for the film to feel like a documentary — often films with a past-tense element can drift into feeling like a strange drama-doc hybrid and we wanted this to always be a documentary at heart. The zooms give an energy and restlessness that keeps an audience on its toes; I love including camera moves (especially in interview) to keep that raw, real feel. In a film that contains a lot of interview, it’s especially important to keep energy levels up and not have everything feel composed and static. This look also allowed us to blend our footage more easily with the archive in the film, which was mostly 80s news archive and home movie footage, both of which have lots of in-camera zooms.”

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