The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2016 Return to Table of Contents
Kathleen Kennedy
The Fits
Notes on Blindness
The Lure
ASC Close-Up


by Patricia Thomson

Director/Cinematographer: Kirsten Johnson

Toward the beginning of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, there’s a moment that always gets a laugh. We’re watching a locked-down shot of a chilly Missouri landscape. Suddenly two little sneezes erupt, jiggling the frame.

It’s a funny and a gentle entry point to Johnson’s film memoir about “the images that marked me.” It’s one of the spoonsful of sugar that help the more harrowing scenes go down, for Johnson has photographed some pretty hairy stuff during her 25-year career. She has shot in Bosnia, Nigeria, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda and Darfur, as well as on America’s battlegrounds over abortion, government surveillance, execution, and post-9/11 military strategy. She’s been in 86 countries and shot 60 documentaries, 24 of which appear in this film, including Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour and The Oath (AC April ’10), Whitney Dow and Marco Williams’ Two Towns of Jasper, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

In the world of personal documentaries, Cameraperson is unique. There’s no voiceover, no reminiscing. There’s not even an identification of film clips, just locations. It’s left to the footage to tell the story — a bold but appropriate strategy for a cinematographer. And the pictures speak volumes, sneaking in an array of ethical issues that documentarians face — along with everyone else with a camera in their pocket. “We are all now camerapeople,” Johnson said during an interview at Sundance, where the film appeared in the New Frontiers section. “We’re all making choices about what we look at and when we film.”

In this project, Johnson wanted to enlarge the four corners of the frame. Many scenes are outtakes or expanded versions of edited shots. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Corporal Abdul Henderson tells Michael Moore that he will refuse to be redeployed to Iraq because “I will not kill other poor people.” In Cameraperson, that shot runs longer. It begins with the corporal pointing out he’s ignoring military prohibitions against such conversations with the media, and continues through his admission that he has no legal counsel for what will undoubtedly be a court martial. You can feel Moore’s heart drop. “We’ll see what we can do, if you need any help,” the director offers.

It’s moments like these that make documentary work fraught with emotional peril. Cameraperson includes many such instances that reveal the feeling of impotence, the difficulty of walking away, the lack of control over a film’s repercussions.

“Sometimes documentaries are doing such powerful storytelling that you forget how much there is at the edges,” says Johnson. “I wanted to remind you what’s beyond the frame: the whole team behind the camera and the insanity of trying to fit life into a movie. When we shoot films, we’re there with other people — drivers, translators, producers. Most people who see films have no idea what those people are going through.”

Though Johnson uses no voiceover, she does have her surrogates. One is a Bosnian translator who talks about the fallout of the job, listening day after day to women dredging up horrific stories about rape and wartime atrocities. “How do we process these stories, we who collect them?” she asks. Trauma can spread like a virus, even to filmmakers, as Johnson realized during the assembly of this film.

Initially, she had a whole other topic in mind. In 2009, she embarked on her third outing as feature-documentary director: an essay film about Afghanistan called A Blind Eye. “It was about visibility and invisibility,” she says. “What does it mean to be wearing a burka? Why are certain women letting me film them with their burkas off? Do they understand that this is not just intimacy between us, but it could go out into the world and someone in their village could watch it on a phone?”

That project hit a major roadblock when one of her main subjects dropped out. The girl said her voice could be used, but not her face. Johnson and editor Amanda Laws tried to work around it. But “once her eyes were gone, that film was dead,” says Johnson. What’s more, the film was too “obtuse,” she admits. When she tried explaining its themes, she found herself recounting experiences from other films. The project began to morph and expand.

But as she wrote the voiceover, “I started to realize my memory was inaccurate.” In particular, she was haunted by an episode in an underequipped Nigerian hospital, shot for Dawn Shapiro’s The Edge of Joy. “I could only remember a blurry face of a midwife. At a certain point I said, ‘I want to see what I shot and why I can’t get this woman’s face out of my mind.’” She retrieved the raw footage and filmed herself and her longtime collaborator, sound person Judy Karp, watching it, reliving the day they followed that midwife delivering twins. The first came out fine. But the second couldn’t breathe. Worse still, the oxygen machine wasn’t working. All the midwife could do was wrap the baby in blankets and keep him comfortable as he gasped for air. “It was horrific,” Johnson says. “We were putting our hands over our eyes. It was so much more visceral and traumatic than I remembered. It made me realize how I had managed that experience by putting this block in my mind.”

That scene was added to a new cut, along with additional material. Johnson recalls her shock at watching the assembly: “What was a total reveal to me was that I had put together five genocides, a baby dying, several rapes — and I thought it would be watchable! It was hideous, two-and-a-half hours of horror. I had not understood. Clearly, the people who experienced it are in a different category. But like my Bosnian translator says, the people who do our work — the journalists, the fixers, the drivers, the editors — we’re taking things into ourselves, and we don’t yet understand what it’s doing to us.”

After the “trauma cut,” as it came to be called, producer Marilyn Ness told Johnson to stop and get some perspective. Fresh eyes were needed. Johnson started interviewing new editors, and it was during this eight-month process that she started thinking the footage by itself might contain everything she needed. She broached the idea of eliminating voiceover with her new editor, Nels Bangerter, who embraced it with enthusiasm.

They talked three days straight. “He likes to work the way I like to work as a cameraperson,” Johnson says. “I love to hear all the themes, all the issues, all the quandaries, all the desires of the director. And then, let me shoot! I don’t want to talk about it in the middle of doing it. I want to be filled with the things that motivate you to quest after this film. And then I am in it, doing it.”

Six weeks later, Bangerter came back with the rough cut for Cameraperson. Though episodic in nature, it had an embedded narrative that started soft, showing the practicalities of shooting: those sneezes under a stormy sky, clearing the weeds from a low-angle shot of sheep, conferring with the director about shot choices in Sarajevo. But then it moved into more complex territory, showing the choices Johnson faced and the traumas absorbed. Do you intervene when two toddlers are playing with an axe? Do you lean in to show a grisly photograph of James Byrd Jr.’s body after he was dragged to death behind a truck? Do you film your own mother with Alzheimer’s against her wishes?

Bangerter’s cut also included moments of pleasure, such as a lovely sequence with a Bosnian farm family, where sunshine and cowbells and children’s play left indelible marks. “It was beautiful,” Ness says of the rough cut. “When the lights came up, Kirsten said to Nels, ‘Thank you so much for giving me back the gift of what I do. I remember now what I love about it.’” Johnson concurs: “I’m nourished by all of these beautiful things I see and feel when I’m in the worst of the worst contexts. He gave that back to me.”

With clips going back to 2002, there’s a huge range of formats and cameras. “Certainly a lot were standard def,” Johnson says. “There’s Betacam, Sony PD150 and Panasonic DVX100 [cameras]. Then a lot of Canon C300 and Sony FS7.” Her late-’80s work was shot on 16mm with an Aaton camera, “but I didn’t find that footage and didn’t think it was interesting enough. We looked at stuff shot on U-Matic and VHS. Boy, it didn’t look good. But it’s compelling. It’s of its time.”

The raw footage filled two 12TB drives. Material was up-rezzed to 2K and transcoded to Avid DNxHD for editing. The post workflow was routine, says Bangerter. “More exciting from my point of view was that we were looking through all this footage from an almost inside-out perspective,” he says. “The most valuable material were the bits and pieces of footage that included accidents — happy or unfortunate — or meant something perpendicular to the subject of the projects they were shot for. These bits of rogue tape, these wild clips, allowed the audience to see through Kirsten’s eyes and get behind the camera with her, where nothing is quite predictable and everything means something deeper than what appears on the surface.”

The 2K DCP was produced at Final Frame in New York City. “It’s barely color-corrected,” says Johnson. “Nels and I did the color correct because we couldn’t afford to do a real correction. It’s kind of perfect and beautiful and absurd that it’s not done by a colorist. That’s the distance I had to go — from wanting this most beautiful work in its most beautiful form to the most raw material that would serve the story. But if there’s any film where we can get away with that, it’s this film.”

Cameraperson helped Johnson unload some heavy emotional baggage. Now, she says, “I’m going to follow someone who’s really funny. The next version of this film will have a lot more laughs.”



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