Canon Creative Studio Presents: Sundance 2021 Standouts - Part 1

Examining a selection of the recent festival’s most interesting features, with an eye toward outstanding camerawork.

Patricia Thomson

Examining a selection of the recent festival’s most interesting features, with an eye toward outstanding camerawork.
At top, from the feature Coda, which won multiple awards at Sundance this year.

Going mostly virtual for the first time, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival featured fewer movies than usual (73) but attracted an audience 2.7 times larger than its typical 11-day Utah edition, according to festival reps. 

Though the excitement of unveiling new work in front of a live audience was a rare privilege — tickets for theatrical presentations were sold at just a few venues in Park City and in select cities around the United States — there was no dearth of noteworthy films. Here are a few of them, selected for their standout cinematography.

Cinematographer: Paula Huidobro, AMC
Director: Siân Heder

The festival’s breakout hit, Coda, won four prizes, including the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category, and was picked up for distribution by Apple Studios for $25 million. Set in Gloucester, Mass., the coming-of-age story centers on Ruby (Emilia Jones), a teenager who is the only hearing member of her family. (“Coda” is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults.) Approaching the end of high school, Ruby feels obligated to stay in Gloucester and continue fishing with her family, acting as an interpreter for her parents and brother; however, she longs to attend Berklee College of Music. The internal pressure mounts when Ruby begins studying with a music coach, who encourages her to pursue her dream. But to do that, she must break away from her loving family.

The film is an adaptation of the French hit La famille belier, and in transposing the story to the U.S., writer/director Siân Heder changed the family’s occupation from dairy farming to fishing — something the Massachusetts native knew from childhood summers on the North Shore. Heder brought on Mexican cinematographer Paula Huidobro, AMC, who had shot two other projects for her: Tallulah, Heder’s first feature, and the series Little America. 

Filmed in Gloucester, Coda’s visual tone was set by the sea: neutral landscapes with bright pops of color in the fishermen’s clothing and gear, huge nets of fish being dumped on deck, and weathered faces of fishermen struggling to make ends meet. “We wanted to capture the spirit of this environment, this town, the people,” Huidobro said in a statement. “We really strived to make it as natural and realistic as possible.”

The big challenge was shooting in open water. Heder wanted the family to be “draggers,” a type of net fishing that is hard to cheat, so cast and crew went three miles offshore under the guidance of marine coordinator and Gloucester resident Josef Boreland (whose credits include Dunkirk and Manchester by the Sea). The actors worked in an actual 50' dragger boat and learned to handle the nets and gut fish. The camera boat was a large catamaran that carried a 50' Technocrane, and two passenger shuttle craft and a 100' vessel typically used for whale-watching tours provided restrooms and craft services. Huidobro shot with a Sony Venice, capturing in 6K, and Arri Signature primes.

To facilitate communication with three deaf lead actors (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant), two ASL translators were always present. In addition, Heder learned to sign so she could communicate with the actors directly. ASL also came in handy when signaling from boat to boat and when the dragger engine was loud enough to drown out verbal communication. Huidobro also had to adapt, avoiding any framing that put a deaf actor’s back to the camera.

Ultimately, Coda achieves a convincing level of authenticity in a crowd-pleaser that’s full of heart.

In the Same Breath
Cinematographers: Multiple
Director: Nanfu Wang

Few films about Covid-19 have managed to get inside Wuhan, China, the way Nanfu Wang did in her documentary In the Same Breath. The irony is, she did it remotely. 

As she did in One Child Nation, her 2019 Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, Wang melds her personal story with those of others, then broadens the view to give an incisive picture of government denials, bad decisions and propaganda — first in China, then in the United States. 

Wang was visiting family in China when, on Jan. 1, 2020, President Xi Jinping gave his usual New Year’s address lauding the country. But that same day, newscasters reported eight doctors had been punished for “spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.” As In the Same Breath shows, the coronavirus had already been circulating in Wuhan for a month or longer.

Before China went into lockdown, Wang returned to the U.S. for work, leaving her husband and toddler behind. From a distance, she worriedly scoured the internet for news and saw a yawning chasm between what Chinese media were reporting (essentially nothing) and what Chinese citizens were posting online, including copies of relatives’ X-rays along with pleas for help and videos of desperate crowds packing hospital corridors.

Wang remotely recruited 10 cinematographers/camera operators in China and eventually 10 more in the U.S., as well as dozens of researchers, field producers and fixers. In voiceover narration, she explains how difficult that was — filming in Wuhan hospitals required a letter of permission and was strictly monitored for proper “positivity.” Wang notes, “[They] agreed to film for me, each for different reasons.” Some did it to help; some did it for the money. As footage came in, Wang noticed differences in what each cameraperson was willing to shoot. Some toed the line, shutting off the camera whenever anything critical was said. But those who did not captured indelible images of dying patients and caregivers speaking the truth, all while China’s propaganda machine was churning out hero narratives and turning the national response into a victory lap.

“I could tell whether [the camerapeople] felt proud of the government’s response to the outbreak or moved by the healthcare workers’ sacrifices, or if they were angry and sad about the cover-ups,” Wang wrote in a director’s statement. “I then assigned the camera people to different tasks based on those determinations.”

“China and the U.S have a 12-hour time difference, and our crew would film all day and start uploading footage onto an encrypted cloud service,” she continued. “When they were asleep, I’d review the footage they shot that day and give notes for the next day’s shoot.”

Comparing the U.S. with China during the Sundance Q&A, Wang observed that “freedom of speech doesn’t mean easier access to the truth.” She said she is dismayed by the pushback and disinformation coming from some Americans. Going forward, she said, “We need to think about what brought us here, not rush to put it behind us.” In the Same Breath is an excellent start.

Cinematographer: Diego Madrigal
Director: Carey Williams

Cinema has a Romeo and Juliet for every generation: Franco Zeffirelli’s for hippies, Baz Luhrmann’s for the MTV crowd, and now Carey Williams’ for Gen Z.

R#J tells Shakespeare’s tale almost entirely through smartphone screens, mashing up the Bard’s verse with the modern lingo of texting. Eruptions of violence are live-streamed. Romeo discovers Juliet’s artwork at a party, reaches out through Instagram, and they flirt and fall in love by GIF. iMessage, FaceTime, Twitter, Facebook Live, Lyft and Spotify all take their turn onstage, along with a diverse cast. 

Neither Williams nor Mexican-American cinematographer Diego Madrigal wanted to shoot the live action on smartphones, however. “We wanted a more organic and dreamlike feel to our images,” Madrigal explains via email. “With several scenes playing close to the edge of underexposure, I knew phone-camera [images] would just fall apart in post.”

To shoot actors simultaneously during simulated FaceTime calls, they used dual Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras modified with PL mounts. “We wanted a very fluid look for our FaceTime scenes, so we added a third arm to our handheld rigs and let our actors hold it while [B-camera operator] Joshua Lehnerd and I focused on framing. This turned into a delicate dance between us framing the image and the actors steering our waltz.”

The primary “phone lenses” were uncoated Zeiss Super Speed T1.3 primes. “The 18mm resembled the POV of cellphones the best without warping actors’ faces too much, and the 25mm served whenever we wanted to emphasize a specific moment,” says Madrigal. To mimic a phone video’s push-zoom effect, they zoomed with an Angenieux Optimo 28-76mm.

Several love scenes break out of the phone’s POV. Shot with a 32mm Cooke Anamorphic lens, these include Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, their wedding and their wedding night, all of which “show them at their happiest, before the outside world can tell them their love is forbidden,” says Madrigal. “Pulling them out of the ‘phone look’ and giving them their own space felt appropriate.”

As for the plethora of apps, “the beauty of Screenlife was we were able to play around in post [to find] which platform could best tell the story in this moment,” Williams said during the Sundance Q&A, referring to the Screenlife system for recording screens (pioneered by R#J producer Timur Bekmambetov). “The FaceTime stuff, that’s what it is. But the texting stuff, that layout of information could be put into multiple apps. So we played around with it.”

In the Q&A, the director speculated that the actors would be surprised by the final film because so much had been added in post. “I liked it better than the script,” confessed Camaron Engels, who played Romeo, performing only Shakespeare’s text. Comparing the finished film to his memory of the shoot, he added, “I’m like, yo, I feel like I wasn’t even there!”

Cinematographer: Eduard Grau, ASC
Director: Rebecca Hall

Among the black-and-white films at this year’s festival, Passing stood out as an object lesson in tonal range as good as any crash course in Ansel Adams’ Zone System. And it was framed in the 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio.

Writer/director Rebecca Hall conceived the project, her directorial debut, 15 years ago. At the time, she had discovered that her grandfather, who was from Detroit, was likely a Black passing as white. She read Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing, and immediately sat down to write an adaptation. Larsen’s story centers on the friendship and rivalry of two light-skinned children who land on opposite sides of the racial divide as adults during the Harlem Renaissance. Both are comfortably bourgeois, but Clare (Ruth Negga) passes as white, a secret she keeps from her bigoted husband, whereas Irene (Tessa Thompson) never felt the desire to pass. When their paths cross as adults, Clare infiltrates Irene’s life and marriage with disastrous results.

The film starts with Irene taking refuge from the summer heat in the posh Drayton Hotel restaurant. She hides under her wide-brim hat, nervous that her Blackness will be detected by the maître d’ or patrons. That’s where she encounters Clare and her husband, who accepts Irene as white, given the context. From that moment on, what’s hidden and what’s revealed is a running theme.

The camera closely studies faces throughout. Thus, “the aspect ratio was an early choice,” said Hall in the Sundance Q&A. That harked back to 1920s cinema and was also ideal for close-ups, driving home how Clare and Irene are constantly assessing each other. “There’s no room for anything but the face,” Hall said of the format, “and what the face wants to project to the world.”

As for black-and-white, Hall added, “I always instinctively thought that the best way to make a movie about colorism was to take all the color out of it.”

Director of photography Eduard Grau, ASC (who joined the Society just this year) shot with an Arri Alexa Mini and anamorphic Lomo lenses, chosen for their painterly quality. Shooting in color, he created a grainy, high-contrast look that brought out the lustrous surfaces of the bourgeois households as well as light and shadow generally, which Hall noted works as a metaphor. Grau and colorist Roman Hankewycz transformed the images into black-and-white in the final grade at Harbor Post.

Netflix acquired Passing for $16 million.

Part 2 of this report, featuring three other titles, can be found here.

The Canon Creative Studio and AC also conducted a trio in-depth filmmaker interviews, which can be watched here.

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