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Davis Guggenheim on filming "Teach" and other documentaries

January 30, 2015

Davis Guggenheim is no stranger to challenges. In fact, he seems to thrive when obstacles are found in his path. Documentarian for such notable stories of the last decade like Waiting for ‘Superman,’ An Inconvenient Truth and the upcoming Malala Yousafzai documentary, Guggenheim knows when a story needs to be told and how. For his recent films, he’s found the ‘how’ to be simpler than ever with the Cinema EOS C300.

One of the biggest challenges for his most recent documentary, Teach – a film that took a look at the education system through the eyes of its teachers – was to figure out how they were going to shoot in many different locations all at the same time.

He needed to send crews to Colorado, Florida, Idaho, and Los Angeles. Guggenheim knew that having only one cinematographer and/or operator was out of the question, due to multiple stories happening simultaneously and the delivery schedule for the final product to CBS, who aired the film in September 2013.

“My first order of business was figuring out what camera system we could use to handle this very ambitious, complex challenge,” says Guggenheim, “Thirty plane trips and fifty classrooms.”

The other piece of the puzzle was making sure filming in a classroom – with students at multiple ages and from various walks of life – was as unobtrusive as possible.

“This was my fourth film about education,” Guggenheim explains, “and I know how easy it is to distract students when the crew arrives. If you get too close to a kid in the middle of a classroom and that boom comes down into their face, they might look up or reach out to touch the fluffy thing. Or if the camera gets too close, they can become self-conscious and not be themselves because they’re aware that someone is filming them. So we needed a camera system that could let us be in all these places and also be hidden at the same time.”

First impressions of the Cinema EOS C300

Guggenheim had heard about Canon’s Cinema EOS C300 on an independent camera blog, but had never used it. He and his camera team tried out a few C300s on a test shoot in Los Angeles and, immediately, he knew it was the right camera for the job.

“For one,” he explains, “I could hide on the other side of the classroom while on a very long lens – 70-200mm – get really close on a kid’s face and they didn’t know I was there. And that same camera, I could slip into a backpack and take with me to an airport and get on a plane without checking it as we rushed to the next location. If you took a time lapse of our equipment room you would see four small roller bags with different sets of lenses and batteries being consistently re-sorted, constantly leaving for a new location and then being sent back.”

Only just last month, for a fairly dangerous shoot he was doing in Nigeria, Guggenheim and one other crew member had to forego declaring anything (e.g. professional camera gear) at customs because of the sensitivity and security of the shoot he was working on. The only choice was to put their C300 in the cameraman’s backpack, which, to the casual eye, looked like any tourist’s camera package.

“If we had tried to do it the traditional way,” posits Guggenheim, “the shoot never would have happened and that scene would never have ended up in my next movie.”

A few weeks after the test shoot, they had four C300s in four roller bags heading off to four cities at the same time. Just on a practical level, Guggenheim felt it was the only camera that could do it. He later used the C300 on The Dream is Now and Spent – both documentary shorts for The Emerson Collective and American Express – but Teach was his first project with the camera and it was the highest bar to reach in terms of proving that it was the right format for the job.

“I’ve done a lot of work for networks,” explains Guggenheim, “and in many ways, their quality control departments have higher standards than many of the studios. A studio will accept a documentary that looks very ‘documentary’ – rough, if you will. But in network television, they demand the very highest quality cameras.”

In the past, Guggenheim had tried to convince networks to let him try other cameras than their accepted norm, but they refused to consider other options.

“We just decided we were going to shoot on the C300 – preferring forgiveness over permission – and to deliver it with fingers crossed,” he admits. “But that’s how much faith I had in those cameras. We knew that if we asked, they would say no, because that’s just how big, bureaucratic systems work. They’re slow to respond to new technology and, rather than embrace something new and a little different, they just say no.”

Lenses and low light

Guggenheim is certain there was no other camera system out there that they could have afforded that would allow him to have four cameras with four sets of lenses in four locations.

“It’s five times cheaper,” he says. “The camera I used in my previous film was much more expensive, so the thought of getting four systems was out of the question. Plus, I already had these great Canon lenses, my own personal lenses, to go with these cameras.”

Guggenheim would usually start off shooting with the CN-E 24mm T1.5 L F “It’s wide, but you don’t notice the distortion,” he says. “You can still build so many layers and depth in the composition – a close-up on their eyes while maintaining some of the frame on the teacher writing on the whiteboard in the background.”

Simultaneously, they would have a second camera shooting with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Canon lens, which would be getting close-ups without students knowing they were filming them. And when he secured Canon’s CN-E 50mm T1.3 L F about halfway through the shoot, it quickly became his favorite.

“Nothing compares to how it looks in very low light,” he says. “And I’ve shot with hugely expensive cameras and hugely expensive lenses with the most subtle lighting. Nothing compared to me sitting in a car with only a street lamp to light a face. Because of the camera speed and the sharpness of the lens, it made for a gorgeous shot.”

Adds Guggenheim’s lead cinematographer Erich Roland: “The C300 has a nice organic look and the colors are pleasing to the eye. With the Canon Log setting, it gives the colorists some room to play in post to push and pull the image around, giving me more room to not be technically perfect while on location. I can be a little under exposed and not worry about noise too much or if things are moving fast between light conditions and I miss changing the white balance pre-set, it’s not the end of the world.”

Guggenheim also used the EF 24-105mm f/4L, employing it more as an all-purpose lens. He was able to be wide and then with a twist of the wrist, grab a close up. Even though the lens was a stop or two slower, it was great for most shooting situations so he would keep that on his C300 to be ready when anything happened.

“But whenever I could go with the CN-E lenses, I would do that,” he adds, “because when I got back to the editing room, it looked like I had shot the with a million-dollar camera.”

During The Dream is Now – a short documentary about immigration reform – the same C300 that Guggenheim popped in a backpack to get through customs inconspicuously was popped onto a Steadicam to grab beautiful, impressionistic and heart-wrenching scenes where a girl’s mother is being taken away by immigration authorities.

“We also used it on the Steadicam to track a student walking through a really busy college campus,” recalls Guggenheim. “That same shot goes from broad daylight, to a very dim classroom that is four stops darker, and the camera just holds it all. If you had told me five years ago that you’d have a camera this small that could do all that, I wouldn’t have believed you. We didn’t have a focus puller nor a gaffer or crew lighting at all these different locations, so the fact that the camera can do all those things and be so small is quite remarkable.”

Although, as Guggenheim explains, if setting up lights is possible for a particular shot, the camera is notable in those situations as well.

“When we do a sit-down interview,” he says, switching back to talk about Teach, “we bring in a full lighting package, spend an hour setting up, put on a Cinema lens, and it looks beautiful.”

On that same day, Guggenheim can film a teacher driving home from school on a dark road, using his 50mm lens at 1600 ISO, lit only by the reflection of street lights, and “it’s crisp and sharp and there’s absolutely no noise.

“The versatility is pretty amazing,” he adds. “The dynamic range is high and it’s almost more beautiful in lower light. The combination of this camera shooting on that lens at 1600 may be my favorite thing I’ve ever shot.”

The benefits of small form cameras

The scene of him filming a teacher driving home from school was one of his favorite scenes, but it also could have been a more challenging shot with another camera or set of gear. There was no cameraman or crew – Guggenheim himself was holding the camera on the dashboard pointed toward the subject, trying to capture an emotional moment.

“He was having one of the worst days of his life,” recalls Guggenheim. “He was in this emotional state and was crying and I’m there trying to interview him. I knew that if I stopped and waited for my team to put a rig in there, it would break the mood. I really wanted to capture this moment without any distraction – the teacher and this drive home alone. It was a beautiful moment that I couldn’t have captured with any other camera.”

Guggenheim had his crew hold back and follow in their van behind the car. He had the sound pre-rigged so that he could be alone. This way it could be just him and the teacher talking freely and comfortably. He needed the environment to be as one-on-one as he could get it – even forgetting that the camera was there – in order for that environment to occur.

“So with no light,” he reiterates, “driving on a very dark street, in a very dark car, I could shoot a close-up and still see his eyes. It’s a very beautiful cinematic moment.”

Guggenheim has directed TV shows like The Shield and Deadwood and welcomes the added touches from a full grip and electric department and a full crew – all of which are necessary when shooting episodic TV. On documentaries, though, he likes to keep things intimate.

“I’m very comfortable on a movie or TV set where there’s 50 or more people,” he says, “but the thing that makes documentaries unique is that you can all stand together in a kitchen with the subject of your movie making coffee, shuffling around in their slippers, and you’re not taking over like a herd of elephants.”

Completing “the look”

His documentary team on Teach consisted of Roland, with whom he’s worked for almost 20 years, a producer, sound person and production assistant. Additional camera work in other cities was provided by Luciano Blotta and Jonathan Schell. Sometimes Guggenheim had a gaffer or an AC to help assist the cameraman with downloading the files, and helping with location moves.

“Erich works very much like I do, usually doing everything himself” he says, “He uses very little lighting, maybe only one or two if at all. He can use more lights, but he doesn’t really like to, preferring to use the room’s natural light instead, which is perfect with the C300.”

It’s not uncommon that Roland has to make a choice, and fast. They see the dark coming as they’re shooting a real life moment unraveling and they both know this can’t and won’t be reconstructed. And the light is still fading.

“The best choice for this kind of documentary is to keep the unfolding scene intact and dial in a higher ASA on the sly,” Roland adds. “If I have to stop and tell Davis I need to move to the light or get out a lamp, well, that’s just not a happy moment. The C300 gives me some more ability to push into some fairly dim conditions and not stop the filming/capturing process. Sometimes I will see the problem coming and try to have an artificial light standing by, but flipping on a lamp has its own negative (mood killing) impact. Being able to keep shooting is a real advantage that puts scenes on the screen that might not have been captured otherwise.”

The pair spent a lot of time finding locations that would complement their look. Ones with a lot of depth – “the further away the subject is from the background behind him, the more beautiful it looks to us. Especially on this camera.”

Guggenheim feels that with documentaries one shouldn’t push a look onto the audience. He never wants a viewer to think, “Wow, that look is so cool,” because then he feels he’s taking away the authenticity of a real moment. For Teach’s modest “look,” they chose specific palates for each city in order to distinguish them from one another.

In Idaho, they went for a clean, wide open, “big sky” look. In Los Angeles, they were mostly in Latino neighborhoods so they wanted to keep it saturated and subtly a bit more crushed than Idaho. Denver was a bit in between those two, just a little cooler and a little bit more dense.

“The idea was that when you cut from one teacher to the other you know right away who you’re looking at and where,” says Guggenheim. “Then when you come back to that first classroom you’re familiar with it and you don’t have to start fresh. Each classroom in each city had a look.”

Shooting in Canon Log Gamma allowed Guggenheim all those options. It meant they could pick a look for each location and when they started color timing, those looks would be fixed. “It was in color timing that I really got an idea of the range of this camera and the level of detail that stayed in the blacks,” remembers Guggenheim. “When we started timing, it was like seeing a whole new layer of depth and detail for each shot.”

Rapid digital workflow

In terms of workflow, Teach was the first time Guggenheim fully crossed over to the world of tapeless digital workflow. He always felt more secure holding that analog tape in his hand at the end of the day. After their first day of shooting with the C300, he watched the file clear as it was dragged and dropped to a back-up hard drive, taking under 30 seconds to do so.

“We didn’t always have ACs and never a Media Manager on the crew,” recalls Roland. “It was often the field producer or myself moving the digital files onto drives. The CF cards are small in size and easy to pop in and out, also keeping it a smaller amount of data. Even the readers are quite fast and the files are not monster-sized.”

“I never fully feel safe,” he caveats. “I always feel nervous, even if I have a can of film or tape, you never know what’s going to happen. We were very cautious on Teach and we never left a location until we saw all those files on two hard drives. But for the first time, post-production and editing workflow was easy and quick. It used to be loading the tapes and waiting for it to digitize in real-time, sometimes taking all day. Now, we have the assistant editor dragging and dropping all the files so that we can start cutting right away. If I want to work on editing within minutes of shooting, I can.

“There’s a big difference now on how we make documentaries,” he continues. “It used to be that you would go and shoot everything and then you’d come home and start editing – and some people do still do it that way. However, I like to see everything the next day in dailies and see a rough assembly of that footage. This makes it easier to know where I’m at in the narrative arc. I’m always hopping between shooting on location and editing rooms. All of my movies are basically developing a very personal narrative of the characters we’re following, and so after a few days of shooting, I’m starting to construct that narrative as I start to see the rough cuts emerge. Most of the time, I don’t know what to shoot next until I’ve been editing. The shooting and editing inform each other rather than being two separate events.”

Guggenheim doesn’t cut, so editors Greg Finton and Brian Johnson are the leads. He will set a premise for a scene, describing what it should be about and the approach he’s looking for, but he lets them do the cutting. After looking at their work, Guggenheim can decide if something isn’t coming through as well as he’d imagined or make critical decisions on which characters to follow and which characters to drop. In Teach, they went from following 25 teachers and to only following five.

“When I heard about the C300, I went online and watched guys geek out about the camera. They showed me how it performed in low light and got excited about all the bells and whistles. But for me, it’s about how this tool feels. The fact that I could use it in all these different environments and hold it in my hand and work in low light, and then take it back to the edit room and have it look beautiful with the color I was aiming for, that’s what is important to me.”

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