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Flixclusive Interview: Cinematographer Ryan Hill

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It takes a lot of people to put together a film, but to make a movie look good, it takes a special kind of person. I am referring of course to the cinematographer, the man (or woman) who is in charge of framing up shots, lighting the subjects, and knowing what actions in the scene are important to follow. It is tough to do this in a feature film, where so many little actions are important, but it is even harder in a documentary where there aren't any storyboards to follow. Life is full of unexpected moments, and deciding what to point the camera at, even when the subject is clear, isn't easy at all. I got a chance to catch up with Ryan Hill, winner of the Sundance Cinematography Award for his work on The Redemption of General Butt Naked, who was fresh off his tour at SilverDocs with the film.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked tells the story of a general during Liberia's revolution in the 1990's who is attempting to seek forgiveness for the brutal atrocities he committed. Once a famous warlord who fought in the nude (and may have been responsible for 20,000 deaths) the general, now known as Joshua Milton Blahyi, lives a good Christian life. What the film attempts to answer, however, is how this transformation could have occurred, and whether or not Blahyi is completely honest with the camera, or himself, regarding his seemingly unforgivable past. 

DP, cameraman, and friend/mentor Ryan Hill, who has worked on many different continents shooting for clients such as National Geographic and The Discovery Channel, sat down to answer a few of my questions about documentary work and the lessons he has learned in the field. 

Me: For those readers who haven't seen the film, can you tell us a little bit about what this project was like, how long it took to shoot, where shooting took place, etc.?

The story is of Joshua Milton Blayhi, filming took place in Ghana and Liberia over the course of five years, with three DP's, Peter Hutchens, Eric Strauss, and myself. Best to come clean with that. He laughs. 

Me: Who first approached you with this project, and was there any trepidation about the subject material? 

Eric Strauss, whom I had recently met, had already gone and scouted at that point and had met Joshua at a refugee camp in Ghana, and he invited me to come over and spend three weeks over there. That's how my involvement began. I wasn't too worried about meeting Joshua, but it was one of the most difficult shoots I had done, because of the material.

Me: What constrictions did you have with shooting, and did that change what kind of gear you chose to bring?

At the time, the only camera I had was the HVX-200 shooting on P2 cards, so I brought that. We decided we would use natural light, we wouldn't light anything, but we brought a light panel or two. But so often, when we were filming the day would change on a moment's notice. Joshua would sometimes say we had to go meet someone, we didn't know where we would be, so you really had to be ready for whatever.

Me: Tell us a little bit about filming in other countries. Is it tough to get everything you want and need?

Permission was hardest when you are trying to get access to something that would be tough to get access to even if you lived there, the inside of museum back rooms, places like that are tough to get access to, but that would be for anybody. Usually if you have a guy who you want to spend time with, see his family, it's usually not too difficult to get [permission], and in this case we had a Liberian "fixer" who arranged a lot of things for us. It really was an advantage that English was the main language. We were able to move around the country pretty easily.

N.B. A fixer is someone who helps with logistics, gear and crew acquisition, and has an intimate knowledge of a particular area.

Me: What equipment did you use, and did that alter your shooting style at all?

Yeah, that's a good question. We had wanted to bring a jib, which we did, and we brought a dolly, and we thought we would use these things, but we didn't use either. Pretty early on we realized it would be about 95% handheld. Later on, Peter Hutchens got a lot of stylized shots that we needed. That stuff was done later on when we were into the edit. As far as the verite stuff, it was mostly handheld, we needed the mobility. And dumping the P2 cards, we didn't have enough cards to make it through the whole day [with two cameras] so during lunch we would be dumping cards and resetting. 

Me: There were some very cinematic shots in the film, specifically with some interiors. What decisions did you have to make on the fly to get what you needed but also have some artistic freedom with the scenes?

I think that when you are shooting something like this, you are obviously looking for how you can communicate the story as if it were a silent film. I think what's always running through my head when I am shooting is like "if this were a silent film what would I need in order to communicate this?" One thing you notice in The Redemption of General Butt Naked, is just a whole lot of tight shots, whether its on his face, in the audience, whether or not its a rack from his face to something. Basically when you are shooting something like this you are always aware of where your characters are and how they are reacting to what's happening in the moment. I guess this is the biggest thing, no matter what you do you need out of the corner of your eye to always be watching your character, and if they are about ready to say something or even have a facial expression change, you need to be ready to get that expression

Me: Did you run into anything that you were really worried about, given the location you were in, and did you ever feel like maybe this was a bad decision?

Definitely. After I filmed the scene in the drug den, afterwards when we came out, the crowd was getting pretty irritated and it was very clear to all of us that it was time to get out of there. That was the most nervous I got during the whole shoot. These people are desperately poor and a lot of them were ex-fighters, where we were in Salali, these burned out barracks, basically all they do is sit there and do drugs all day long, and yeah, we definitely over-stayed our welcome there. We all got very nervous.

Me: Do you gravitate towards any specific projects, or are you comfortable shooting any subjects?

The verite, any film that doesn't have narration, those are the kinds of projects that I enjoy. This is a good example of it, its compelety verite, you are capturing what's happening in the moment while its happening, you are trying to piece together the story, and its a difficult thing to do, it's challenging and a lot of fun, but with this show in particular, there were definitely moments where it was overwhelmingly dark and depressing, especially in some of these interviews about what was happening during the civil war (in Liberia). 

Me: What advice to you have for aspiring DP's and cinematographers?

I guess that I would say take every opportunity when you are starting out, because even if it is not the kind of work you want to do, you will learn something new on each shoot. As you do that, your work will get better and better, to which eventually you will have a reel that you are very proud of. It sounds trite, but read "American Cinematographer", there is a ton to learn there, no matter what level you are. If people aren't hiring you, go find your own story and go work on it. That's only way to learn stuff. For me, I recommend when you just start shooting, you don't really know what to shoot. One of the toughest things is shooting people talking to each other. That's what this movie is really about, a lot of people talking to each other. Technically it took the longest for me to learn, you can make beautiful images, but knowing where to swing the camera and when is important.

If there is a group of people having a conversation, it's like batting a ping pong ball around the room, and you need to swing the camera to  to follow that action. Whoever is talking needs to be covered. It doesn't matter if it isn't beautiful, there are parts of General Butt Naked that are beautiful, but a lot that aren't. But we are trying, attempting to cover [the story], to be able to communicate what's happening in a conversation, no matter how many people, trying to communicate that on screen and that takes practice, but to be willing to swing the camera and follow that action, that is a huge thing to do.

The second thing, I am a big fan of this, if you don't know what you need to shoot, need to get some shots, think about if your sound guy didn't show up and you had no sound whatsoever, what would you need to tell the story, and as you go you will basically be making your shots list. It's not a silent film, go get everything you need, but always be shooting thinking "what will they need after this scene" in the edit room. What are they going to want next? Will they want a reaction shot, a wide shot to set the stage, a closeup? These are things that should be running through your head while you are shooting. Always focus on the larger sense of the story. Don't ask the director "what do we need to shoot", ask "what are we trying to communicate in this scene". And when they tell you that, hopefully you can piece together in your mind what shots you will need. You are thinking about what the images look like and how you are helping the director communicate that for the scene.

Me: Sometimes when two people are talking, and one says something and stops, and you can kind of anticipate who will talk next, how do you read that during a shoot and when do you cut away from the speaker to the listener, etc.?

Those are all judgment calls that you are constantly making on set. Every time I go shoot, I make wrong calls. Sometimes you think someone is about to say something and you swing the camera, and they don't say a thing then you have to go back to the other speaker. You are just continually making judgement calls, but it is not that hard to follow the cadence of a conversation, you can kind of anticipate who will speak next and when they are going to speak so its not a surprise to you, its not that hard to anticipate what's next. Human conversation, no matter what you do, at times you will get it wrong. Another incredibly useful piece of advice I got, recently actually, from Greg Henry (EP on GBN) is when you are re-framing shots or moving shots, don't just yank the camera, make sure everything is usable. When you move around to get a reverse, if the editor had to they could use that, otherwise you are eliminating that from the conversation. There is very little they can do with that footage. When it comes to reaction shots, get them at the end of the conversation. Usually there will be a producer who will be talking, and you don't want to miss anything during a conversation, so i don't want them, to direct them to "nod and listen", so whenever we are not shooting, that is when i try to get the listening or reaction shots, and that works pretty well. 

Me: Are there any exercises that you can do to help build your strength as a shooter, any little things you can do on a set to sharpen your skills?  

I wish there were ways to develop, but you really need to work on your own projects. For me, the most useful thing is to notice light and understand the light. To quote another DP, he said "the million different ways that light can hit a face" it really helps develop your eye, the reflections it makes inside a room, to really notice light is the best. Watching other films can be helpful, but if you like films you notice what you like. The thing with documentaries is watching them can make you better, but watching features, its tough because they usually have a grip truck, so its different. In docs, you don't have a grip truck, so you have to see what's around you. 

Me: What kind of gear did you actually use in this film?

Basically 90% of it was one wireless mic, an HVX-200 and a boom mounted on the camera. If we were following Joshua, that was it. The HVX is a pretty crappy camera, so that should be encouraging to young filmmakers, because whatever you are shooting with is probably better than that. It really is all about where you are pointing the camera and what you are getting. It's really about how good you are, not about your gear. The (post) guys in New York did a great job with our footage, matching the camera, so that made things look a lot better.

Another piece of advice is roll when you aren't expected to. The producer has so much on their plate, they have like a million things going on and they won't see everything that you are doing, so if you know the story, you can be out there shooting things you will need in edit later, even if the producer is off doing something else. Things that are relevant to the story, you are helping tell the story. To thoroughly understand the story and what and why and what you need to visually tell that, you can continually use things that help move that along. On lunch break, if you see something that is part of the story, go shoot it. 

Me: Did you have any examples of things like that during Butt Naked?

The interaction with his first victim, even though we were all there that was an unexpected thing, where Joshua meets the woman from Salahi, who was crying because Joshua killed her brother, that came out of the blue, and you just got to be ready for whatever. If something happens, you don't want to be running back to the truck to get batteries or whatever, if you are filming a movie like General Butt Naked you have to be ready for whatever and if that means carrying extra batteries and card, its simply what you do. There are those types of things, you need to always be ready. You may not get back to the hotel for lunch or gear, the more prepared you are for a shoot the better a film is going to be.

Images courtesy Ryan Lobo

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