Looking back on the 8-episode documentary series I made for the Luminous Landscape.
Over the last eighteen months Luminous Landscape has published a series of documentary shorts about some of North America’s most inspiring landscapes and the photographers that specialize in capturing them. We started with a profile of Charles Martin in the bayous of Louisiana, travelled on to Yosemite, California with Charlotte Gibb, then southern Utah with Jeremiah Barber, Ontario’s Georgian Bay with Sean Tamblyn, Florida’s fresh-water springs with Jennifer Adler, New York City with James Maher, Appalachia with Michele Sons and finished with Justin Kelly in Nevada. On the completion of the eighth piece, I thought it would be a good time to look back at these shoots, impart some of the film-craft that went into making them, and share some behind-the-scenes images. I’m going to present it step-by-step, in a manner that will reflect the process behind the pre-production, production and post-production stages of each shoot. Enjoy
1. PRE-PRODUCTION: RESEARCH and SCHEDULING
The process of finding our photographer subjects was fairly straightforward – I thought of locations that would be interesting to viewers (and to myself) and that were reasonably affordable to travel to, and then I looked for photographers that knew these locations best. When deciding on photographers, I always looked at the subject’s personal story instead of their social media popularity or reputation. I wanted subjects that grew up in the areas in question so that we could examine how these places have changed over the years. From the beginning I imagined the pieces as perhaps not overtly about climate change, but still touching on the effects of what is being called ‘the Anthropocene’ (the period in history where the greatest impact on the planet is not through natural phenomena like ice ages, but through human interference) and I figured this series could be an opportunity to show how some famous natural places have changed over time.
I usually live in Toronto, but I spent several weeks living in New Orleans during January through March of 2019, so organizing travel for our first shoot was not an issue. I wanted to find a photographer that was a Louisiana native and knew the bayou areas. I found Charles Martin by simply googling ‘bayou photographer!’ The fact that his website is called eyesonthebayou.comwas probably helpful. Charles did not have much recent work and did not have an instagram account, so I wondered if he was still active, but eventually he replied to my inquiry. As with all the subjects we had a brief phone interview before scheduling the shoot and that’s where I found out that Charles also ran a cafe that doubles as his gallery and that he is up at 2am making donuts most mornings. He’s also a true rural cajun, not one for social media!After Charles’ piece proved to be a success we figured the most economical way to keep shooting these pieces was to knock three out on one trip, which would allow us to reduce the travel costs. I wanted to explore the southwest next. I figured Las Vegas was a cheap central place to fly into and took it from there. I found Jeremiah Barber in St. George, Utah, a day-trip away from Vegas, and I found a photographer based in Flagstaff, AZ who would take me to the Grand Canyon. I was also realizing that, unfortunately, 90% of the landscape photographers I was encountering in my research were men, so I was determined to add a female photographer to this ‘block’ of shooting and that’s how I came upon the remarkable work of Charlotte Gibb in Yosemite. Charlotte lives in the Bay area so it was easy for me to fly over to San Francisco from Vegas and ride up to Yosemite with Charlotte and her husband Gary, and then to fly back to Toronto from San Francisco after the shoot. Unfortunately my Flagstaff photographer cancelled a day before I was scheduled to travel down to Arizona so I was left scrambling to find a replacement, which is how I found Justin Kelly, a Las Vegas native who documents the desert outside the city and a who very worthy replacement. The southwest trip was a wonderful experience and after publishing Charlotte’s piece we knew we could keep going and try to get a full series out of this. I was working an editing contract in the summer of 2019 so another long trip was impossible at that time, but what was possible was a nice long weekend trip up to one of my favourite places in the world – Georgian Bay. I had discovered ‘the Bay’ a few years before on a canoe trip and was determined to find a photographer that specialized in it. I think Sean Tamblyn is the only photographer that specializes in Georgian Bay so I was so glad he agreed to meet me and take me through a part of the biggest freshwater archipelago in the world. I hesitate to play favourites but I think this shoot was my favourite for the simple fact that it was a genuine camping trip in a beautiful corner of the world over some beautiful August days.
After my editing contract ended I again looked for a varied three-shoot trip that I could undertake in the late fall. I had an idea that a city shoot would be a different kind of experience for viewers so I looked into New York City photographers, of which there are many. James Maher fit the bill in all kinds of ways, a great street photographer and tour guide with a wealth of knowledge about the city. I also decided to end the trip in Florida, mostly for the selfish reason that my parents live there in the winter and so I could add a family visit to the end of the shoot. I found Jenny Adler’s work in the freshwater springs of Florida and knew she would be an amazing subject, though I was worried about how to do a shoot underwater (more on that later!) Finally I figured Appalachia was a good halfway location between New York and Florida and absolutely loved Michele Sons work when I encountered it. I scheduled my trip so that after the New York shoot I would take the Amtrak all the way down to Roanoke and meet Michele, drive with her down to the Great Smokies for a couple of days and then make my way from Knoxville, TN to Gainesville, FL where Jenny lives, before heading down to the Tampa area to visit my parents. Shockingly this plan worked flawlessly and I even managed to have a weekend break in Nashville along the way. Yee-haw.
2. PRODUCTION: SHOOTING THE SHOOTERS
With a couple of exceptions, I shot the entirety of the series as a one-man crew. For the very first shoot in Louisiana my New Orleans friend Tabitha came along and operated the sound recorder, and in Georgian Bay another friend – the photographer Ashwini Gupte – came along and was my canoe-mate and also the drone operator. The other six shoots were handled by myself alone. This is quite unusual. Often, even the smallest documentary crews have a director, cameraman, and sound operator, and often also a producer and assistant. But this was an extremely low-budget enterprise so I had to figure out a good system to use as a one-man-band. I own an amazing documentary camera – a Canon C300MkII – which has been used on many of the docs you might watch on Netflix etc. today. It’s a beautiful camera and to me ticks all the boxes (resolution, colour space and dynamic range, mic inputs etc.) for documentary shooting and I think it will be my main rig for several years to come… However, the C300II is not the camera that I used for this series. For a series where I’d be working alone and bouncing around the continent climbing mountains and ravines, I just felt the C300II was ‘too much’ camera for a one-man band operation. I wanted something smaller and lighter… so I left the C300II at home and instead used a Panasonic GH5 – a mirrorless camera I had picked up used a couple of years ago. There are some drawbacks to this camera – the autofocus is not to be trusted for video and the viewfinder is so small that sometimes the eye is not to be trusted either, so there were some focus issues early on (luckily, as the editor, I was able to cut around this without anyone knowing!) Eventually I acquired the Zacuto viewer assist you see attached to the camera in the picture, which really helped with nailing focus. The GH5 has a micro 4/3 lens mount. A Panasonic 11-35mm f2.8 lens (which I bought in New Orleans an hour before the first shoot) ended up being what I used on probably 80% of the series. It’s a nice lens and the wide angle felt like the right field if view for a series capturing landscapes. Other lenses that were used included a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 (with a m43 convertor) for a long lens look on some of Michele Sons piece and a Canon 50mm f1.4 which I used at night in the James Maher/New York City piece because the extra aperture helped with night shooting. And of course 90% of the Jennifer Adler piece was shot underwater with a GoPro Hero 7. Other than these exceptions, the GH5 with the 11-35mm made for a great combo.
As the GH5 does not have a reliable mic pre-amp, I needed to record the sound separately. The subjects were mic’d up with a sennheiser wireless LAV mic, which fed into a zoom Hn4 recorder that I kept in a fanny pack at my waist. This meant that as well as operating the camera I also had to keep an eye on the recorder to make sure it was rolling, the battery life was healthy and the audio wasn’t peaking (distorting). Resolution and codec is an interesting topic among film nerds. The GH5 can shoot at 4K at up to 400mb/s, but I actually shot the first few episodes of the series in good ol’ 1080p. I did switch over to 4K at a certain point, but off the top of my head I can’t remember which of the episodes were in 4K and which were in regular HD. I find that for web use, and even for bigger screens, differences in resolution beyond HD are barely noticeable. I do think, in video terms, resolution is not as important in getting a great look as colour science and proper lighting.For the interviews I generally shied away from using artificial lights (one more thing to carry) and instead relied on windows and ambience to light the subjects. Because of the nature of the schedule sometimes the interview happened before the ‘field shoot’ and sometimes after. I would always prefer that it happened after, so I would have more context when asking questions.I packed up a drone (a Mavic Air) on my travels but Georgian Bay was the only place we really got to use it extensively. I always brought a tripod with me (a Manfrotto) but other than the interviews and some timelapses and lockoffs I found I was too short on time to set up as many tripod shots as I might want, so generally operated handheld and really had to hone my hands to be as stable as possible. Luckily the GH5 I find has a good internal stabilization.
When hiking through ravines, travel light. A sense of adventure is mandatory on shoots like this. I was putting myself in the hands of my subjects. Sometimes that meant lovely leisurely drives through gorgeous scenery, but sometimes it meant hiking miles through raging waters in 100 degree weather or swimming upstream in cold water against an intense current! I’m fairly active for a 45-year-old former rock’n’roller, but I found myself testing my fitness limits a few times, and yet always felt better for it afterwards.
At the same time, these photographers were putting their trust in me! The open-mindedness to allow a stranger with a camera into your world as you practice your art, which is usually practiced in solitude, always amazed me, but not more than the generosity of the photographers who shared their secret places, treated me to meals, and were the epitome of hospitality. I definitely made some friends shooting this series.
3. POST-PRODUCTION: EDITING, MUSIC and COLOUR-CORRECTION
Once back in Toronto, the editing process begins. As a professional film editor this is the part that I am most comfortable with. For those who are interested I generally edit on Adobe Premiere at home. When I work on a TV series it’s usually AVID Media Composer as that platform is better suited to multiple editors working on the same project, but stand alone movies and web content is usually cut on Premiere. I am fluent with both and have my own custom set of keyboard shortcuts that let me move between the two editing platforms with ease.
Footage is brought into the project, the audio and video is synced up (using a program called Pluraleyes, and if that fails by ear/eye) and then I vanish into the matrix for a 3-4 days and come out with an edited piece. I also composed the music for this series. Generally I went with ambient pieces and had a lot of fun exploring various synth and string VST (virtual studio technology) instruments from companies like Spitfire Audio. Usually as a filmmaker on films and TV series the final process of the sound mix and and colour grade are handed over to experts that specialize in these very specific art forms. I did not have that luxury, so some crash course video tutorials got me learning the basics of a colour grade, enough to do a decent enough job presenting the beauty of the environments we shot in, and the mix was simple enough as the I usually only had one subject microphone plus some ambience and music to deal with.I think that about covers it. Thanks for reading. I hope this info was enlightening and useful for you and thanks again for enjoying the series. I’ll leave you with some more set photos… mostly these were just grabbed with my iphone as the GH5 was setup for video capture. Of course, seeing these photographers at work did give me gear envy, so I eventually picked up a Fuji X100F after seeing James Maher’s work, so maybe these will improve over time as well.