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John Pope on filming "Blood Brother"

November 14, 2014

Blood Brother is one of those films that lingers with you for a long time after the credits roll. In part, of course, this is due to the truly heart-wrenching, soul-searching and thought-provoking content. But also present in the mind’s eye are the images – truthful, sad, scary, and yet uplifting and enlightening.

“The artistry in Blood Brother is one of the things I'm most proud of,” says Blood Brother’s cinematographer John Pope. “It might not be the most classically beautiful film. From a cinematography standpoint, it’s sloppy at times, it has such a raw edge to it, but I like that. Those moments of rawness are beautiful. They lend themselves perfectly to the character and human element of the film.”

Blood Brother, a feature documentary about Rocky Braat, a young man longing for a family and finding it at an AIDS hostel in India almost by accident, was shot over a two-year period in a small village outside the city of Chennai. The director and Rocky’s best friend, Steve Hoover, did a lot of the filming both before and after Pope was there, but the relationship was a symbiotic one, lending itself to easy collaboration on multiple formats of capture.

“Everyone at some point had a camera in their hand,” recalls Pope. “The way Blood Brother turned into something more than just Steve’s one-man trip to visit his friend in India was because of our connection with [Producer] Danny Yourd from Animal Inc. in Pittsburgh. Once we arrived at the orphanage, anyone would jump on a camera if needed, and even our writers, Phinehas Hodges and Tyson VanSkiver from Animal Inc. joined in as well. It was a tightly knit group we had over there.”

Using the EOS 5D Mark II in low-light

In order to work in low-light and no-light situations – which they’d come up against often in a village that is almost 40 years behind the rest of the world – Pope utilized his own Canon EOS 5D Mark II. He only had along with him a small LED panel, but traveling lightly was the very reason Pope and the team wanted to shoot on a DSLR.

“At the time in 2011,” Pope says, “there weren’t many cameras on the market that were as good in low light as the EOS 5D Mark II. Being able to shoot in low light is always important especially if you're going for a natural look of existing practicals in a location that you don’t have control over. The 5D’s strength lies in its full frame 24x36mm CMOS sensor. To this day, the 5D line is unique to many cameras on the market because of its full-frame sensor. Although it’s not always easy to articulate the look of a larger sensor, I think that it lends itself to a different feel of the space within the image.”

Pope tends to shoot one whole stop increments at ISO 160, to 320 to 640 to 1250 and not in between, adding that he can go all the way up to 1250 with low noise levels and still feel comfortable with the image he is going to get.

“We had to have technology that could perform gracefully in low light on Blood Brother,” he explains. “The 5D was ahead of the pack and it was my visual preference to use for its shallower depth-of-field, as opposed to a Super or APC to APS-size sensor of the EOS 7D. Although the 7D was a great complementary camera and allowed us to get our slow motion shots.”

DSLR form factor aids in filming sensitive scenes

In the opening scene of the film, in which a young girl is seriously ill, Pope had his EOS 5D Mark II on him and was shooting B-roll around the village with Yourd. The girl’s father and other villagers were in a temple in the village trying to heal her. There was a fluorescent light inside and outside; it was pitch black except for a few fluorescent fixtures and fire light throughout the village.

“I shot that entire scene – going from the temple and getting on the back of a moped – with my 5D and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L-Series lens. I honestly don’t think that would have been possible to capture such a meaningful moment, with the visceral quality to the imagery, with any other camera – Hodges driving, me on the back shooting Rocky driving, the father holding his little girl on the back of that moped. It was crazy how everything unfolded. And when we stopped at the train tracks, we realized she’d already died.”

It was an incredibly emotional moment for everyone – something Pope carries with him today. Because in the moment, his mind is locked into documenting a really important and hard aspect of life; it’s only after that he can process it.

“It’s important to me be responsible with what I say in regards to documenting paramount moments like that,” he adds. “I want to be respectful. In no way do I want people to think I'm exploiting their story for the sake of technology. That's not our goal. But at the end of the day, I do think it was important to document, because a lot of people have been moved by this film and by this part of the film. As a filmmaker, that's my goal. I want people to be moved by the things I'm a part of. That's why I started doing it, so any tool that serves that which brings me full circle as to why I became a cinematographer in the first place, I’m a fan of.”

Creating a “soulful image”

Pope feels that the DSLR look, even with just putting the setting to neutral with a slight decrease in saturation and sharpness, is great on its own.

“The Canon EOS look that comes out of the 5D,” he says, “they have done well at creating a soulful image. It was exciting to know that we could use the 5D and the 7D, as well, to shoot a documentary that would help craft something a little more cinematic.”

Blood Brother incorporates many different tricks and styles to create a truly collaborative and unique look. A lot of Hoover’s camera operation was more handheld and visceral, trying to capture the content and the “life moments” of the story, while Pope was approaching it more from a filmic viewpoint.

Prior to Pope and Yourd’s arrival in Rocky’s village, Hoover had been there for a couple weeks already capturing shots of Rocky and grabbing stuff here and there of the kids and their daily life at the orphanage. Hoover had been getting familiar with the children and the home, building up the trust.

“When Danny and I got there,” recounts Pope, “Steve handed me this little crumpled up manila tag with a bunch of scribbling on it. It was his shot list. He needed me to go out and grab all the things he could not while he was following Rocky around. He’s a very spontaneous character, so Steve had his job cut out for him there.”

One of the things people have said after landing in India is that it’s sensory overload – a concrete jungle, with more traffic than you can imagine, people flying by on mopeds, sometimes five to a bike, colors everywhere and personalities abound.

“It seems there are no rules to the traffic,” he recalls, “It’s like harmonious chaos. And Steve wanted to be able to capture India, to capture all the different elements that he just couldn't be there for. Plus, he wanted a cinematographer to do it. Although adept at handling a camera if he needs to, he wanted to tell the story with more crafted imagery as well.”

How we chose our cameras and lenses

A meaningful symbol in the film that was important for Pope to capture was the big red gate outside the orphanage. Hoover specifically asked Pope to “make the gate look cool,” so Pope used his three-foot Kessler CineSlider and EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens to “make sure it played like a character because, really, it was part of the story in that way.”

Getting the colors you want with capturing a red door like that, with mostly a neutral/beige colored background, is not always as easy as it may seem. Pope felt that the overall color space of the EOS 5D Mark II, with as compressed an image as it was, fit the bill for Blood Brother.

“Color rendition has to do with lenses too,” he says, “and the combination of our Canon lenses for this type of documentary work – it really adds life to the story. And you just can’t beat that, especially if you’re able to stay inconspicuous at the same time with a piece of equipment like that.

“Dynamic range and color rendition are two of the things I pay attention to most when choosing a camera for a project, after form factor,” he continues. “At the time, the dynamic range on the 5D was great, and I shot on the neutral setting with negative two on sharpness and same on saturation.”

As he mentioned earlier, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens was Pope’s workhorse. He enjoyed its wider field of view on the 5D, in comparison to a Super 35-sensored camera. The EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM was used a lot, as well as the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM.

“I did a lot of my walking scenes with the 16-35mm,” says Pope. “With the bigger sensor and the larger field of view, it was fantastic and I could walk a little more stable.” That set of lenses comprised the bulk of Pope’s gear. He had no rig with him, only a Zacuto eyepiece, a tripod, the three-foot slider, his EOS 5D Mark II, the two EOS 7Ds, two Canon VIXIAs and an 8mm film camera. Pope and Yourd fit all the equipment into two backpacks and carried it onto the plane. Wherever possible, Pope travels with gear this way to avoid any possible travel mishaps. A few shots were captured on the film camera (scenes from Rocky’s life at home in the United States) and an iPhone, but most were done on the EOS 5D Mark II and the EOS 7D.

“You can’t beat the DSLRs’ form factor. We had some days where we went to shoot another girl from the home who was being hospitalized in a nearby town. The 5D is an inconspicuous camera, and you're able to get shots that otherwise you probably wouldn’t get away with. Like at that hospital, where they were adamant that we not shoot in there because journalists had been exposing how filthy the conditions were – which was very true – but we weren’t necessarily there for that. So because of the size, we were able to just pull out the camera and grab a shot real quick. We were able to get a quick scene with Rocky and the girl, which was really special.”

Pope also used the EOS 5D Mark II to hang outside of a bus in Chennai, with one hand holding the camera.

“Little things like that make using a DSLR awesome,” he says. “You can do unique shots, have unique angles, and you can stay under the radar the whole time. I think it's important to reiterate the form factor of the DSLR, which allows you to get certain shots that would otherwise be impossible to get. You're not going to get on a moped or a motorcycle and just be able to grab the moment with a huge camera. It just doesn't work. It's too cumbersome, it's too slow to be able to adjust your exposure and react quickly enough. This is what makes them unique to other cameras.”

Pope also credits the small camera with garnering a different response from the kids and with the ease in gaining their trust. Not only that, he found they’d often want to explore the cameras, touching them and trying to figure them out on their own.

“That part was so much fun,” he recounts. “Because we could pass the cameras off to the kids and not feel vulnerable, like I just gave them a $30,000 piece of equipment. They’d go nuts with the gear – grabbing them and filming themselves and doing goofy things.”

This interaction with the children eventually segued into Braat teaching them how to use the cameras. Braat is a photographer as well and saw the value in teaching these kids a trade that could perhaps help them get a job in the future or maintain an art and craft in a life that is otherwise quite challenging.

“I was in India again this year for a different project,” says Pope, “and I stopped in Rocky’s village. These kids have turned into amazing photographers. It was so good to see them, and the kids remembered us like it was yesterday. They started showing us pictures they took from when we were there. And then they started showing us pictures that they'd been taking since. It was really intense and emotional. I’m so glad these kids have taken this away from our experience shooting Blood Brother.”

Pope knew that he’d want to get some imagery of these special children in slow motion, and that was the reason for having the EOS 7D on hand.

“We’d carry both [the 5D and 7D] with us most of the time,” he says. “If the kids were goofing around, we'd just try and keep it in mind that we’d want some slo-mo and it ended up being an in-the-moment capture, like ‘Ok, I’ve shot at 24 fps for the last hour, let me go to 60 fps for the next hour.’ In that type of situation, creatively, you don’t necessarily know what you're going to get. It’s nice for the editor and for Steve to come back with options.”

Another reason for using the EOS 7D in conjunction with the EOS 5D Mark II was to shoot rapid, continuous stills. They’d shoot these sequences, little vignettes of the children, with the camera on the slider, moving it while holding down the stills button to create a stop-motion feel.

“Canon stills are beautiful,” says Pope. “It was a fun and unique way of incorporating the still camera function into the film.”

To wrangle all the data Hoover and Pope were shooting, VanSkiver stepped in.

“One of my favorite things about DSLRs is how easy data management is,” Pope says. “In these situations where you can’t afford to bring out a Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) or a data wrangler, it’s important to keep it really simple and organized.”

They shot somewhere around 9TB of footage total, all on 32GB compact flash cards. Throughout a day of shooting, Pope would take a full card out of the camera and tried to stay on top of it by putting it back into its case, but much of the time it’d end up in his back pocket.

“Tyson was amazing at keeping everything organized,” admits Pope. “If you’re not staying on top of the footage – labeling it correctly, dumping it and storing it safely – it can cripple post [production], especially with the magnitude of a project like Blood Brother. Even Steve’s timeline in Final Cut would take about 15 minutes to open because it was so complex.”

Pope also found the Canon’s built-in microphones helpful in post for synching audio when using a dual sound capturing system. It actually saved them on quite a few scenes – one being the opening scene at the train tracks with the dying girl – because it wasn’t always possible to use the Zoom H4N audio recorder in a situation where there’s no time to pull it out.

“Regarding color and finishing,” Pope concludes, “I’d like to give Animal Inc.’s Allan Stallard a lot of credit for pulling all of our looks together in such a cohesive way. The 5D and 7D’s footage got pushed quite a bit in various places in the film, but in the end, he helped it come together, ultimately serving the big picture of the story.”

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