Sundance 2016 — O.J.: Made In America — Q&A With Cinematographer Nick Higgins

O.J.: Made In America is a seven and a half hour documentary premiering at Sundance 2016. Sports guru and director Ezra Edelman, who also helmed the Peabody Award-winner Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, as well as the Emmy Award-winner, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush, will be on hand at the festival for a Q+A following the film, which is broken up into two showings at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, January 22nd, first at 11:15am, and then the second half following at 7:15pm.

Following is an interview with cinematographer Nick Higgins on his work with Edelman and his use of the Canon C300 in filming O.J.: Made In America.

Cinematographer Nick Higgins
Cinematographer Nick Higgins

You’ve been working as cinematographer for more than a decade, and the majority of your work is documentary; what is it about the medium that appeals to you as a cinematographer?

Cinematographer: Nick Higgins – I read something a few years back that basically said there were two camps of photography, the farmers and the hunters. Farming in photography means that scripts are written, story boards are drawn, sets are constructed and then the films are executed according to these plans. Of course along the way in a scripted film or a commercial there’s some room for improvisation but by-and-large those films are quite preplanned and there’s a bureaucracy to the actual production.

Personally I was drawn to cinematography via stills photography and the genre I appreciated most was those street photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Robert Frank that immersed themselves in interesting pockets of the world around them as they hunted for and focused on whatever interested them. To me documentary cinematography work is amazingly satisfying because the process is so very fluid and the bureaucracy of production is minimized. The better you get at hunting the better you are at identifying what would be a rich arena and the better you are at not spooking the participants, which means you can capture authentic moments. As a documentary DP, I seldom feel like we are behind schedule. On a scripted film its apparent from the get-go that if you aren’t behind now you feel like you will be soon.

With documentaries, I’ve definitely peeked behind the curtain of life as I’ve filmed with the world’s “most” and “least” fortunate beings. If you shoot documentaries for long enough, you are going to spend a bunch of time with the greatest scientific minds and with the most accomplished artists, athletes and creative thinkers. It’s not only mentally stimulating but often physically exhilarating. Personally I’ve shot at -40º F in Mongolia and at 120º F in the Sub Sahara. (I think I’d take the cold over the heat if I could choose. Possibly that’s helped by the fact I went to high school in the middle of the Scottish Highlands where you were not allowed to wear long trousers until you were 13, even in the dead of winter, I kid you not). I recently shot at 14000ft above sea level in Hawaii where it’s hard to think, never mind carry gear, and a few years back I went to sleep at 500 ft below sea level on a submarine while contemplating that the vessel’s only purpose was to deter nuclear annihilation by being capable of reciprocating nuclear annihilation. (It was remarkably peaceful down there and your phone didn’t work so it turned out to be a bit of quality time off the grid).

More often than not the documentaries I am shooting have some element of saving the world which means I can come home and talk about them proudly to my kids. I’m not quite so sure that would be the case if I was doing more scripted TV or film work or burger commercials. These are the things that keep me coming back for more.

Director Ezra Edelman of O.J. Made in America
Director Ezra Edelman of O.J. Made in America

How did you become involved in this project?

I became involved with the OJ: MADE IN AMERICA project because I was fortunate to work alongside another experienced documentary DP named Ronan Killeen on an episode of THE YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. We shot the episode that starred Matt Damon and we had the “pleasure” of shooting in the LA city morgue on that one. (“Yikes” is the word that best described that experience as we were immersed that day in 300 dead bodies.) New York based Ronan had been working with Director Ezra Edelman who was looking for an LA based documentary cinematographer and thanks to him my hat went in the ring.

Premiering at Sundance - The 7-1/2 hour documentary O.J. Made in America
Premiering at Sundance – The 7-1/2 hour documentary O.J. Made in America

How did the footage match up between the three camera you used; the Canon C300, Sony F3 and F5? Was there a specific reason that these three models were chosen for this project?

I only ever shot with the C300 on this production. Prior to my coming on board the Sonys were used for a few interviews but the vast majority was on the C300.

Cinematographer Nick Higgins used the Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 85mm/T1.5 Super Speed lens with the Canon C300
Cinematographer Nick Higgins used the Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 85mm/T1.5 Super Speed lens with the Canon C300

Lens-wise we used:
Canon 50mm f1.2
Zeiss 35mm Super Speed CP2 T1.5
Zeiss 85mm Super Speed CP2 T1.5

Our go-to lens was the Canon 50mm. I shot all the interviews at an f/2 so we could pleasantly soften the background but still allow the subject a few inches of focus to avoid me sweating that they’d go soft as they breathed. In locations that offered little-to-no production value we’d go with the 85mm, and in rooms that had some production value that was worthy of showcasing but with limited space we’d opt for the 35mm lens.

Typically when i shoot interviews in real locations I employ some element of available light, whether it be a sliver of a window in the background or allowing the windows to fill in the back of the room. For the interviews in this series one stipulation from the director, Ezra Edelman, was that the lighting in the shot should not change at all. Over a 3-6 hour period there’s basically no way to employ almost any element of natural light without the shot changing, so we had to work out ways to block out all the light and keep things consistent. For any fiction filmmakers reading this, it sounds super easy, but we didn’t have a gaffer or a grip truck with lots of hardware. We had myself, my trusty assistant (most often stellar AC David Smoler) and my usual interview light kit that fits neatly into my Jeep Patriot. Over the course of the year of this production my skills at this consistent look were honed and the amount of duvetin I carry in my kit has quadrupled.

From the get-go, it was clear that this was an interview based production and because of the subject matter they were always going to be intense. Director Ezra Edelman is a walking-talking encyclopedia on the whole OJ story and more interestingly the race relations in LA in the five decades leading up to the murders and the trials. Ezra was keen for the interviews to be completely uninterrupted, consistent in terms of lighting, and he would conduct these intense conversations for typically five or six hours straight. Given that most of these characters would have preferred not to talk about this chapter in their lives, it was fascinating to watch them open up and get in to these massive sessions. This was only possible by creating an atmosphere that was as low key as humanly possible. Creating a space where the subjects were comfortable without drawing attention to the film-making process was the true creative challenge of this film.

Ezra Edelman and his 7-1/2 hour documentary O.J. Made in America
Ezra Edelman and his 7-1/2 hour documentary O.J. Made in America

When a documentary like O.J.: Made In America relies so much on archival footage and interviews, how do you decide what kind of supplemental footage is needed to fill in missing pieces of the story?

The additional footage we shot to supplement the vast amount of archival footage that was used came out of the editing process. We shot the bulk of the interviews first and the editors worked on them with whatever available archive they could get their hands on. I’d receive rough cuts and there’d be big gaps that had the necessary audio without any interview footage or archive covering those bits. We’d have some idea about the types of shots we would need, and from there I’d head off to either South Central LA or to Brentwood and do the documentary hunting process. This was a thoroughly enjoyable part of the process, and even after doing this for fifteen years, I really do still enjoy seeing what the editors select from all the footage I collect and send to them. I typically send them as many options as I possibly can. That means I’ll hold shots and get wipes from left-to-right and from right-to-left because you never know what the shot before or after will be, and this means the editors can get their Lubitsch touch on.

Founded in 1985, Sundance has become the penultimate independent film festival, featuring roughly 200 feature films, shorts and experimental installations from around the world. This year HDVideoPro will be on the ground with interviews and daily updates through our Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts.