VISUAL STORYTELLING LESSONS FROM A TWO-TIME OSCAR SHORTLISTED CINEMATOGRAPHER
On 3rd of January the Singapore Association of Motion Picture Professionals, along with Singapore's IMDA of course, hosted an evening with twice Oscar nominated cinematographer Iris Ng.
The first thing that strikes you about Toronto born Iris Ng is that she is tiny. This is not unusual in itself but when I think about all the huge, hairy-arse cameramen I’ve worked with, it is worth noting. The cameras at her level are hulking great beasts and it’s no surprise to find that, as well as staying abreast of technical developments, working out is another essential part of her job. But she’s not here to talk about her gym routine, but rather her approach to storytelling, particularly documentary.
It is often assumed that documentary shooting is somehow easier or less creative than the scripted kind but Iris, who lensed Netflix’s Making A Murderer and likely Singaporean Oscar contender Shirkers, soon disabused us of that notion. Referring to her work on 2012’s Stories We Tell with Oscar nominated directed Sarah Polley, where she was tasked with recreating the memories of the interviewees, she demonstrated her skill in creating fake home movies from the 1970s using ektachrome reversal film to achieve an authentic effect. Can you tell the difference?
She noted that real home movies are generally shot by an amateur who is also a part of the family or group of friends featured, so she had to consider her role as camera operator. Who was she in the group? What was she allowed and not allowed to do as that person? Where was the camera allowed to go? How would the rest of the group react to this character?
This attention to detail was a major topic of conversation. Coming from the world of indie film Iris is used to working with tight budgets but is also fastidious about the details and insists on test-shooting for everything she does stating, “I don’t like to make assumptions about what directors are looking for and language is clumsy, so I like to test and show people what I mean.”
Test shooting involves experimenting with different cameras, lenses and other equipment to try an achieve a unique look and feel for each film but is something that filmmakers don’t always have time or budget to do. The alternative is to use references from existing film and create “look books” but in doing so one is already doomed to be derivative. So passionate is she about this process she has offered to do it for free or to pay for it herself but only if she truly believes in the projects as, by her own admission, “You can’t make anything look good with no money."
A lot of the documentary projects Iris works on take years to complete due to complications with the characters, story or financing but she has learned to take it in her stride and keeps 6 - 10 projects on the boil at the same time. Stories We Tell took five years, Making A Murderer ten (thought she didn’t work on that the whole time), and Shirkers famously took 26 years to bring to get in the can, but you can’t rush documentaries, “In documentary, if you think you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end then you’re probably doing it wrong”, she said.
Interviews are a core part of what Iris shoots and, as host Tan Pin Pin noted, “The mise en scène of an interview is one of the most under-explored aspects of filmmaking.” Iris agreed and walked us through how she shot the interviews for Stories We Tell, positioning her subjects in spaces that told us something about them and choosing not to crop or zoom in so as not to unduly influence the storytelling. One of her nuggets of advice for aspiring documentarians was to leave enough space in the frame for the action to play out rather than trying to manipulate it, which can be hard to resist but makes for greater authenticity.
One of the more difficult jobs she had was shooting 2017’s A Better Man, about a woman who interrogates her former abuser who treated her horrifically. Between takes of course he’s just another person on set and one cannot judge him and might even befriend him for the sake of a happy set and a cooperative interviewee. It doesn’t mean you endorse his behaviour, it just means that the focus is on the bigger picture, the greater good that will come out of the film.
Finally Iris lamented the effect of social media on interviewees and how people now play up to the camera or want to document the process of being in a film for their feeds. Ironically the so-called “authenticity" of social media detracts from the authenticity of the film but all one can do is be patient and let the subject's character reveal itself over time.