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Documentaries enter the Golden Cinematic Age

Nov 7, 2023

Documentary makers have been enjoying a Golden Age since major streaming services began ordering them to bulk up their libraries. Now the genre is entering what can be described as a Golden Cinematic Age as the tools and craft techniques used to make high end drama are being trained on real life stories.

We’re creating a new genre of high-end cine-style docs shooting full frame using cinematographic techniques and equipment similar to those used in scripted work,” says Bafta-winning director of photography Tim Cragg.

Examples include The Deepest Breath, a thrilling exploration of free-diving, produced by Oscar winner A24 Films (Everything Everywhere All at Once) which was sold to Netflix after screening at Sundance earlier this year.  Another is Disney+ If These Walls Could Sing, the story of Abbey Road Studios directed by Mary McCartney (Sir Paul’s daughter) for Disney+. Now Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Television has made Encounters, a four-part series recounting experiences with extraterrestrials, landing now on Netflix.

All were shot by Cragg on ARRI Alexa Large Format with Full Frame Cooke SF anamorphics. In fact, these are just three among nine projects that Cragg has shot in the past two years using the same camera package.

“Major studios and feature filmmakers are opening their eyes to the realisation that docs need not look rough and ready but can be just as cinematic and beautiful as drama using the same tools,” he says. “The lenses make a big difference by transporting the viewer into a world resonant of the movies.”

Encounters pays homage to Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind in more ways than its title alone would suggest.

“It’s made for Amblin and Spielberg is in the shadows so for a DP that’s a massive incentive,” says Cragg of the project’s appeal. “When discussing the project with director Yon Motskin and Amblin executive producers Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey we very much wanted to shoot it in Cinemascope and anamorphic and to be able to capture flare.”

The landmark four-part series travels the globe to explore four extraordinary true stories of encounters with otherworldly phenomena. Each episode tells a single story from the firsthand the perspective of experiencers: strange lights in the sky over small-town Texas; submersible space crafts haunting a coastal Welsh village; an alien encounter with schoolchildren in Zimbabwe; non-human intelligence reportedly interfering with a nuclear power plant in Japan.

“We took each of our various characters back to the sites where they witnessed the event and used flare as a device with them as they recalled the event or we reconstructed the experience. We chose to shoot these scenes at twilight to attempt to capture a sense of the blue line flare, filming them from behind toward lights using a Steadicam and Cooke SF, in homage to Close Encounters but also to achieve a more abstract visual for what we’re seeing.”

Another aspect of the doc’s storytelling which will resonate with Spielberg’s cinematic sensibility is treating the subject’s experience at face value.

“A lot of the films feature children and that sense of awe of storytelling that children love. We have shots tracking into their little faces or on their glasses as they see reflections in the sky. It is very much the wonderment of youth.

Cragg adds, “The series is not about whether aliens or UFOs are real or not. It’s about human belief systems. Rather than criticise people we should allow them their story.”

The cinematographer took two Alexa LF on each location assignment, an unusual enough luxury for a documentary, and a set of Cooke anamorphics which he hired from regular partner Big Eye Rentals in Hastings.

“I try lots of different lenses and Cookes have a grandeur to them,” he says. “They make everything feel a lot bigger than really it is, more weighted, which we used to great effect on Encounters with shots that position people in a landscape. The wides are very, very straight so there’s no bending of perspective which is ideal for landscape photography.”

“There’s something intangible about the character of the Cooke lenses that have this internal glow. I don’t know of any other lens that has this radiance. It’s like shooting porcelain or a marble statue when it can sometimes feel as if the light is emitting from the object rather than being thrown onto it. Cooke seem to have some special secret for that.”

Tim Cragg | Director of Photography

For Encounters he leaned on the 40mm for strong close ups of the characters enhanced with natural distortion that “felt like I was breaking into their internal space and yet with a softness that felt very emotional.”

On these recent documentary projects Cragg will also have at his disposal a decent lighting package and a lighting person plus one, as part of a perhaps a thirty strong crew. It’s a far cry from the days when documentary shoots meant the DP and director travelled alone with a sound recordist and maybe a cameras assistant filming subjects in situ and often on the hoof.

“The scale has changed. You can now be part of a sizeable crew in a location that’s been scouted for tech reccies.  I can have a real input into the locations and plan the lighting and staging as we would for a narrative feature, controlling the cinematic look. The budgets are not massive but they are certainly a lot bigger and with that the storytelling opens up.”

Describing the documentary’s subjects as characters is a case in point. “They are not acting,” he says, “but they are often placed in environments that we feel are more suitable for the character. The camera and lighting is used to create performance.”

In another era the budgets for docs were low which in part forced a run and gun approach to filmmaking. Now, if the story demands a vérité style, the production will design and plan for it.

“We’re finding that staging real people tends to not work so well in a straight dialogue scene but tends to work best in a retrospective part of the story, where we restage elements. We can present our character becoming more reflective, tonal, moody. If our character is in an empty restaurant we start the shot from a ceiling fan and crane down to that person looking reflective, as one idea. It is very stylised in that way as opposed to ‘run and gun’. The effect can actually be more real than a drama.”

Cine-style docs are proving hugely popular with audiences. Several of the shows that Cragg has shot make the top ten of Netflix global charts.

“There are a lot of these projects bubbling away. I get offered 2-3 a week, as do other DPs. It’s a golden age.”

Feedback on Encounters has also been positive from Spielberg himself. He reportedly watched all four episodes and loved the Zimbabwe story in particular. Amblin Television creatives tell Cragg that they are astounded about how the team has managed to achieve such a cinematic look on a budget.

“This genre is only just opening up for exploration,” he says.

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