The story of how I became a cinematographer surprises even me. Although I've always loved watching films, I had no idea one could make a career out of being a cameraperson and I never imagined that cameras would create such extraordinary ways to interact in the world.
After I graduated from college, based on my curiosity for West African cinema and my desire to travel for the first time in my life, I went to Senegal. The visually bold stories of seminal filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty had opened my eyes. Emboldened by the courage of youth, I went and literally knocked on Sembène's door. Not only did he talk to me, he encouraged me to stay in the country, and promised me that if I stayed long enough, he would invite me onto a film set. I stayed, learned French and Wolof, found a camera to borrow, filmed 90-year-old World War II veterans, and Sembène kept his promise.
I ended up loving being on-set and knowing that I had to figure out a way to keep being a part of making films. The fact that I had somehow pulled off finding my way in a country where everything was new to me gave me the courage to imagine I could continue.
A Senegalese photographer friend told me that the French National Film School was impossibly hard to get into, but if you did, it was free. I decided to try. I was told that my best shot of getting in would be to apply to something other than the directing department, so I tried for what they called "Image." Though I didn't know anything about cinematography, through a series of improbable good fortune, I was accepted as the first-ever American student!
France is where I really fell in love with shooting. Although I found it challenging to understand the technical aspects of cameras, I started to understand how much I loved what could be experienced with a camera. Composing images, seeing light and interacting with people all happened through the camera.
After seven years in France, I came to New York and began working with friends at Big Mouth Productions. We all worked together, each taking different roles on different films, and I worked as a director and a cinematographer. I haven't stopped and I have now been shooting documentaries for 25 years!
An Incredible Opportunity with the FS7
My latest project took me to the Sagaing region of Myanmar to shoot an observational documentary in a Buddhist nunnery. I met the director, Kim Shelton, in person for the first time when I landed in the country. Kim had reached out to me based on an interview she had read about my approach to filming. She convinced me over the phone to come almost at once by telling me that the residents of the nunnery ranged in age from seven to their nineties and they all wear matching pink! Kim envisioned a beautiful approach in which we would film observationally and discover the story through filming.
The nunnery was set on a lush tropical hill just up from a glistening river. It was a world run by women and so was our film crew! Although some of us were dressed in pink and some of us weren't, we all went about our "daily practice." For the nuns, it was meditating, maintaining the grounds, and preparing food, always aware of their desire for spiritual equilibrium. As the film crew, we sought to let the nuns lead our pace.
It was important to me to search for a way to film these Burmese women beautifully without falling into the trap of "exoticizing" them or their religion. The FS7 was a critical part of my approach. I wanted to be as physically close as possible and to have the camera I was holding feel as comfortable as any tool one of the nuns was using. With the FS7, I found myself able to move quietly any way the nuns moved, whether it was kneeling, walking barefoot, or climbing a jungle path.
I had shot in 4K before with the Sony F55 and knew what breathtaking images were possible, but I also understood that this production would not be able to support working with a camera that demanded a larger infrastructure. I wouldn't have an assistant, the film had a minimal budget, and, most important, we wanted to be as inobtrusive and as integral to the nuns' lives as possible. Having shot extensively in slow-motion on a film called The Wound and the Gift with the NEX-FS700, a similar Sony camera, I was also hoping to find a way to film in slow-motion at the nunnery. Then, at a cinematography panel at DOC-NYC just weeks before the shoot, I was introduced to the FS7. Suddenly, I saw a way to shoot in 4K! But what I ended up loving more than anything were the FS7's ergonomics.
I'm always searching for the camera that gives me the most physical possibilities and the FS7 really delivers in this regard. I knew that in Myanmar I would constantly be in confined spaces like jungle trails or tiny caves, or in boats or on the backs of vehicles, so my capacity to move freely in these situations required a camera that I could really hold and use in many configurations. The FS7 is the first camera I've held in many years that feels like I could cradle it in my arms and feel comfortable. It is a camera designed in the spirit of the 16mm Aaton and its ergonomic shape is optimized for observational documentary work.
I'm used to certain workarounds in order to hold a camera in a particular position and to move with it, but I was able to flow with the FS7 in ways I never have before. I found myself experimenting with the grip and where I moved it to. Because we were in many different physical positions and we were on the floor with the younger girls frequently, I was on the ground a lot. When operating from the ground level, sometimes I would work standing with the grip up high and holding the camera really low. Sometimes I would be crawling, sometimes I would be sitting on the ground. I found the grip couldn't go down below the level of the camera; it had to be above it. I tried the grip at all different heights and configurations. I'm really tall, so the FS7 gives me the capacity to hold the camera really high, but then I can find ways to hold the camera really low, which proved to be great for filming the little girls. After getting used to the camera, I was able to get the grip exactly where I needed it to be. That was a new experience for me with a camera. I felt as though I got the camera to almost feel like a part of my body, which is always a state I am trying to achieve!
Usually cameras are much more limiting, but with this one, I could be in a lot of different physical positions that I normally cannot. With the FS7, my movements were more natural and comfortable, and I think that energy gets conveyed to people and our interactions can be more open. I don't want to feel like a camera is a barrier between me and the person I am filming, but is a place for interaction to flow between us. I often think that no matter where it is or how you're holding it, if the camera can almost become a part of your body you have a better chance at human connection.
My interest in shooting in slow-motion came when Kim and I spoke about the concept of time changing for people who spend their time meditating and living their life devoted to a religious ideal. Kim was particularly interested in the way the nun's long periods of meditation might be a part of how the nuns approached everything they did. We felt that slow-motion might be a way to evoke their interior life.
For example, there was a woman who spent her time whirling pounds of rice around in a basket, trying to pick out the few bad grains. She would rhythmically toss the rice up into the air and let it all shower down again. There was a speed to it that went along with her spiritual practice. It was her labor-intensive chore, but she brought a meditative contemplation to it. What a joy for me to find that filming the rice flying through the air in slow-motion somehow looked like water flowing!
The nuns spend a great deal of time taking care of their bodies and clothes. They have to shave their heads regularly to keep clean-shaven and I captured a very tender slow-motion scene when two teenagers shaved the littlest girl's head. The camera's slow-motion imagery transformed the simple, repetitive gestures of the women washing their pink clothes into unseen visions. I enjoyed filming all these activities at different speeds, searching for ways for the viewer to move in and out of states of the nuns' realities.
Even despite varying terrains, conditions and lighting, the FS7 managed it all. We shot in a combination of very dark places, including some grottos and caves, as well as shrine spaces with Buddhas inside of tunnels. There were a lot of very low-light situations and sometimes we were in very bright, high lights outdoors, which were almost white during midday so there was a real range and the camera handled that range beautifully. Most of the places women lived and worked relied on natural light during the day. There would be one room with a window and then another room having no source of illumination at all, so there was incredible contrast to film. Some of what we got in the dark spaces just blew my mind. As you can imagine, a lot of those spaces were completely painterly in how they could be rendered through the camera.
A memorable segment with the FS7 came on an alms run with the little girls. We walked down this very steep hill, in the shadow of trees, and then we came out to the flats by the river. The girls were sitting in this little hut that had them in shadow and day was incredibly bright. I sat close, among the little girls, and I was shooting with a 16-35 mm lens. Surrounded by the girls, I saw a line of monks coming down the road in the distance. I didn't think I would be able to capture with the camera what I was seeing with my eyes. But through my lens I could see the details in the shadowed face of the little girl next to me and still make out the forms of the monks coming down the road in the distance despite the white hot light and the range of contrast between the two. It was breathtaking to capture that all in the frame while holding the camera comfortably; living that scene with them as I was filming. I was having a blast being silly with the little girls and at the same time looking at this ravishing image as I was recording it. I thought to myself, "this is the way that I want the film, somehow translating what it feels like to really be here."
For me, after shooting The Wound and The Gift on Sony's FS700, it was an easy shift technically to move to the FS7 and its 4K capacities. Because the FS7 offers such a comfortable body to work with and hold, it was also a discovery. I was able to go off my knowledge of using Sony's FS700 camera and also the FS100 camera, which I used on Citizenfour, and move to this new one without technical support while creating beautiful images with it and being incredibly comfortable physically. I know the baseline Sony camera infrastructure and I could function effortlessly from my use and knowledge of the other Sony cameras.
Overall, the FS7 is a superior camera at its level and I find myself recommending it to everyone who does this type of physically challenging observational documentary work. Maybe it was the spirituality of being in Myanmar among the nuns, but I am now a convert and believer in the power of the FS7 and I plan to use it religiously in the future!
Kirsten Johnson is an award-winning cinematographer and director known for her unique ability to connect camera and subject. The majority of her 60-plus credits are documentaries, and her most recent effort, 2014's Citizenfour, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. She has also won awards from the Sundance Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. Her first experience with Sony PXW-FS7 was a documentary shoot set in a Buddhist nunnery in Myanmar.