How to Make a Career in Documentary Cinematography

Learn by doing, again and again and again and...

“Every time I do a project I’m reminded that I should follow my gut instinct.”

We recently connected with cinematographer Meena Singh to discuss her work on The Confession Tapes, Netflix’s six-part true crime documentary series about possible false confessions that possibly led to wrongful murder convictions. Every episode focuses on a different case, but they’re all harrowing investigations of injustices within the justice system.

Born in Chicago to an Indian father and American mother, Meena’s mixed cultural background helps her bring a unique perspective to her work. She’s driven by her desire to bring affecting stories with social impact to the screen in a visually compelling way – a mission that resonates with us here at Lights Film School. A graduate of The American Film Institute and Columbia College Chicago, member of The International Cinematographer’s Guild, and experienced Director of Photography, Meena has many insights to share from shooting The Confession Tapes and other projects.

But before we jump into Meena’s interview, let’s take a moment to watch a trailer for the show!

Hello, Meena! Today I watched “True East” Parts 1 and 2, the first two episodes of The Confession Tapes, about Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, two friends convicted of the murder of Atif’s father, mother, and sister in 1994. Despite strong alibis and a lack of evidence, the duo was smeared by the media and pursued by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who orchestrated an undercover operation in which agents posed as gangsters to elicit confessions. It’s a chilling story, and in classic Netflix fashion, I found myself letting the first episode roll right into the second.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a few questions about you and your career! How did you find your way into cinematography, Meena? Why did you choose to focus on this particular aspect of filmmaking?

Hi Michael, and LFS Community and students! Thank you so much for your interest in the show and my work.

I was very much into black and white photography when I was in high school. I went to an open house at Columbia College Chicago, where I saw students in the film department shooting films in Grant Park on 16mm Bolex cameras, stringing their film up on flatbed editing platforms and cutting their film themselves – this made the idea of working in the movie business tangible. I loved telling stories through imagery, so I was immediately drawn to focus on Cinematography at Columbia, and later went to AFI for the same.

I can totally relate to that encounter with film stock somehow making the industry more tangible, Meena! After graduating, how did you find work as a cinematographer? Any tips for aspiring DoPs in search of good gigs? More specifically, how did you land the job of Director of Photography for The Confession Tapes?

It definitely is hard to get started out of school. I shot as many short films as I could, many times for free, just to get contacts, collaborate with new directors, and build my reel.

I also worked in smaller roles on bigger movies to learn how the business works on big budget movies. Sometimes you can learn a lot by observing when you’re on set as an AC, or a grip. The trick is to not stay there too long – you have to learn to say “no” to jobs in order to pursue being a Cinematographer. Even when there’s a big paycut.

The Confession Tapes is one example of how getting yourself out there pays off – I did some small projects for Kelly Loudenberg (the director of The Confession Tapes) because I wanted to start a working relationship with her – not because the jobs were that lucrative. We hit it off, and she came to me when Netflix greenlit the show.

Nice. Did you have any stylistic inspirations or visual points of reference when determining how to approach the series? Any films or filmmakers who inspired you? Which ones and who? The Confession Tapes is very formal in its treatment. It reminded me a lot of Errol Morris’ work, especially The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that arguably redefined the true crime genre through its use of dramatic recreations.

You use them in your work, too – for example, a rainy neighborhood at night, an officer shutting a prison door, a cassette tape playing, blood dripping down a baseball bat, seats in a movie theatre – while skillfully weaving together interviews and archival footage.

Perhaps my biggest question is, how did you and the team decide what to shoot, and when in the process did you shoot it? For example, did you do the interviews first and let them determine what sort of recreations you needed? Or did you get a bunch of BRoll first? Perhaps a mixed approach? I’d love to hear what the workflow was like.

I’m going to answer these both in one go – because you are spot on that The Thin Blue Line was a huge inspiration for us. The class and tact with which Morris told that story was something we wanted to emulate.

Kelly is very good at staying objective, talking to all sides, letting all voices be heard (unless they declined, which some parties did). We tried as much as possible to use imagery of places and objects rather than to have people act out or re-play what happened. Because the show has so much to do with manipulation of the mind and remembering false memories, we strove to create imagery that went from the normal and mundane to spin out of control into the abstract. It was a matter of watching a tire spin endlessly, a soft serve ice cream cone getting made, 35mm film passing through a projector in a movie theater – we shot these normal objects and processes up close on a macro lens and in slow motion to show them in a different light.

For the most part, we shot our interviews first, getting the meat of the story, and those interviews informed our b roll. Kelly interviewed our subjects, and I would be next to her at the cameras taking notes during the interview when our subject would tell Kelly of some memory from the case that sparked an interesting image to me. Kelly and I would talk after the interviews about the interesting points that coincided with the facts of the case, or many times memories people would have that were not true to the case at all. We squeezed our b roll in anywhere we could find time; in between interviews, back at our hotel room, and then we definitely had some b roll days in LA once the episodes had been through rough edit and we could see more clearly the missing pieces.

Sounds like you were right there making the creative decisions, Meena! Considering the many different types of video content in the series, how involved were you in the overarching creative process? For example, did you have a hand in selecting archival clips, or were your responsibilities more focused on staging the recreations and interviews and getting that BRoll?

I’d say that in shooting the show, Kelly and I were the creative driving force, and in post, our senior producer Kimberley Hassett, editor Alex Durham and their team of talented editors took the torch and made sense of each complex case, using our footage as we had envisioned. There were also many producers and researchers on this show who helped Kelly pull archival clips and just make sense of all aspects of each case, which was a massive amount of work.

I did give feedback on edits, as I always like to do, both to lend a helping eye to the process and to make sure that what I envisioned and intended when I was shooting ends up in the final piece. We were all on the same page though; there was harmony in the creative approach that definitely came from Kelly.

So important for everyone to be on the same page. In fact, I’d love to hear more about your working relationship with the director, Kelly Loudenberg. What does it mean for a cinematographer to collaborate with a director? Who contributed what to the process? What were your responsibilities and what were Kelly’s?

Kelly and I hit it off immediately on the first project we worked on together; a short piece for Nat Geo. She is incredibly involved in the visual language of her films, and not all documentary directors are. She likes my sensibilities for composition, and that empowers me to do what I feel in the moment is best, knowing that she and I have the same taste, see the world similarly. She is there looking over my shoulder at every shot I set up, giving me ideas when we’re shooting on the fly like a sniper team, where one person shoots and the other has visual contact with the world around them… “There’s going to be someone walking out of the courthouse in 10 seconds”, so that I can quickly adjust the camera and get that shot.

Kelly would interview our subjects, who were sometimes family members of the deceased or the incarcerated, and had a tendency to be emotionally draining, and could last over 2 hours. My job was to find the best location to set up, and set up as fast as possible, so the subject wouldn’t get too deep into talking to Kelly about the case before we got her/him on camera. Sometimes I’d set up an interview with our Supervising Producer Lauren Deuterman and 1st AC Alicia Pharris and Paulina Bryant (they did different episodes) in 10 minutes! Once we had to beg a diner to let us shoot in their restaurant. It was a hustle, for sure.

Wow! What camera did you use, and why? What about lenses? Also, what stabilizing gear did you have available – tripod, dolly, slider? The more specific you can be, the better! I know our students would be super curious to check out your equipment list!

We traveled with 2 Canon C300MKII’s, the Canon Cinema Zoom 15.5-47mm and 30-105mm T2.8. The packages were mine, so I accessorized them with gear from ARRI, Wooden Camera, Shape, and used TV Logic on board monitors. We carried L series zooms and a 100mm macro lens in case we needed to travel lighter, but rarely had to use them. I almost always had one camera with the wide zoom on and the other with the tight zoom, and was shooting them both simultaneously, even when we were out doing b roll in the field. I couldn’t have juggled that much gear without the help of Alicia and Paulina, my AC’s!

In terms of camera movement, Kelly and I wanted the imagery to be either very static, or to have very slow pans/tilts on the head. We sometimes rented a dana dolly to get b roll slider shots.

For each case we had a day of drone shooting, on the DJI Inspire 2 that we would either find locally or in most cases flew someone from LA to shoot. The drone footage helped us get up and away from the ground level, looking at the lay of the land from above was very helpful, and again we spun the camera out of control, hoping to give a sense of the macro world looking very much like the micro. One case took place in Washington, DC, a city that has very strict no fly rules, so we used Steadicam to creep down the alley where the murder happened, and still give some sense of the lay of the land.

That’s so cool. I love how much creative intent there is behind the cinematography! The tools serve the vision, not the other way around. If you don’t mind my asking, what, if any, financial constraints did you face, and how did you work with and around them?

We were able to get whatever we needed, but always had to keep money in mind. There is no getting around cost issues. Must be mindful and always be thinking what is the best way to get the best footage for the project but also not break the bank.

Fair enough! Speaking of equipment, I’d especially love to hear how you went about lighting and shooting the interviews. More often than not, the subject is foregrounded beautifully, in sharp relief against a blurred background. How did you get this look? What sort of lights did you use, and where did you position them? What lens(es) did you choose? Also, I noticed a Wide Shot and a Medium Closeup in each interview. Were two cameras rolling, or was the tighter frame created with a crop in post?

Generally, how long did it take to set up for an interview?

For lighting, all I had were 2 Lite Panel Astras with softboxes – I’d use one as close as possible to the subject to key them, and then used a second as backlight if necessary. On a few occasions I just placed the subject close to a window and let it play in natural light.

Because these interviews could last over 2 hours, I had to be mindful of the path the sun would take, any changes that would happen in the time that we were shooting. Sometimes changes were unavoidable – shooting someone as the sun is going down, we just didn’t have the control to keep the light from changing. I only notice it two times in the final piece though, I wonder if your students do?

Hah! We’ll all keep an eye out for it! Any tips for beginning filmmakers struggling with interview lighting and framing? At risk of over-simplifying, how do you get an interview to really look good? Are there specific steps you should take? “Checklists” you should follow? Or is it entirely contingent on the environment and circumstances?

I think over time you’ll learn by doing, and making mistakes, and seeing what worked and what didn’t.

I really pay attention to where the sun is, and try to figure out where it’s going, and how it’s going to effect the room I’m shooting in for the next 2 hours. Looking out windows is always great, it feels good to have some heat in the frame, but then you have to be able to get some exposure out the window, so then you’re having to blast your subject with light, and some people are very sensitive to that. There are so many variables that come into play in the moment, so I guess the best thing is to have a style, a look, some plan for every time you get into a space, so that you’re just executing it on the spot.

For us, the look was to be very flat, compose our wides with the subject centered, and find frames within frames in our composition. The archival material that inspired us was all in TV aspect ratio, 1.33:1, and so I would go into a space and find the lines where I could compress the subject back into that TV aspect ratio. Making a choice like that gave the visuals some cohesion throughout all the 150+ interviews we shot.

Awesome. Again, so much creative intention. What would you say are the differences between shooting a documentary versus a fiction film? What are the similarities?

Wow, there are so many differences, I guess the only similarity is that as the DP you’re trying to tell the story through the visuals, and that you’re striving for the best image both technically and creatively as possible. In every other regard it’s different.

Documentary shooting is all about being able to work on the fly, with no planning, and find it in the moment. Fiction filmmaking is all about prep, development, having a plan, designing a visual aesthetic before filming even begins. I think my narrative filmmaking background has helped me in documentary filmmaking, and the other way around as well.

Well said. On a different note, did you ever find yourself emotionally affected by the reality? Like, were you ever emotionally caught up in the cases? If so, how did you balance that very human response with the need to “remain objective” and get the job done? Where’s the line between “the human” and “the craftsman”? I’m very curious to hear your thoughts, Meena, in light of your desire to tell stories with social impact!

I’ve always been kind of a quiet observer – I try not to get wrapped up in heated debates with family, I try to see logically why people are the way they are rather than being emotionally affected, and maybe that helps me do this work. I can hide behind my camera and it keeps me from having to interact with the subject in the way Kelly does.

But on the other hand, I think that because I’m behind the camera, recording a moment of a person’s life that will be kept forever, maybe I do have a connection with my subjects. I do get emotionally involved. This was a long, arduous, frustrating project to work on. It was also very rewarding, to know that I had some hand in it, and to have met all the people involved along the way.

Totally. Is there anything you wish you’d done differently with The Confession Tapes? If you had to boil it down, what would you say was the biggest lesson you learned on this production?

Every time I do a project I’m reminded that I should follow my gut instinct. In the face of opposition or time/budget constraints, it’s easy to falter and give up. But you’ll regret it if you do. Always follow your gut – that’s what I have to keep saying to myself, even when times get tough.

Thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective with our students and readers, Meena!

Thank you for asking such great questions! 🙂

Our pleasure. Onward!


Want to learn more about documentary filmmaking and cinematography specifically?

Then join our online film school, complete with a comprehensive filmmaking course. It’s everything you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.

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