Sundance 2019 – “Tigerland”: Hear Me Roar

The documentary film “Tigerland” makes its world premiere in the US Documentary Competition at Sundance later this week. Directed by Academy Award winner Ross Kauffman (“Born into Brothels”), the film is an enthralling documentary that examines mankind’s relationship with one of the world’s most revered creatures by focusing on activists who track down and attempt to save the endangered tigers in Russia and India.

As Kauffman spotlights the plight of tigers in this vérité documentary, we quickly learn how a young forest officer in India rallied the world to save tigers from extinction. Now, more than 50 years later, we discover how that same creed is being carried on by the guardians of the last Siberian tigers in Far East Russia—people who risk everything to save the species from extinction.

Ross Kauffman, director of TIGERLAND, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Kauffman worked alongside DP Matt Porwoll to make the film, who explains that the shoot for the documentary process went by rather quickly: “Both Ross and I are primarily vérité filmmakers, so we are often putting years of time into a project,” Porwoll reveals. “We went from the first shoot day to the premiere at Sundance in less than a year. This is, amazingly, one of the shortest films that I’ve ever worked on.”

As Tigerland explores the relationship between two passionate activists separated by 50 years, who have made it their mission to save these majestic animals, we visit both Russia and India—two very different locations.

Matt Porwoll, DP, Tigerland

“We wanted Russia and India to each have their own feel,” notes Porwoll on the final look of the film. “It was also important to be flexible with equipment, especially given the extreme environments. In Russia, the temperature would go well below freezing, while India was over 100 degrees. We needed a camera to handle both locations and so [we] settled on the Canon C300 Mk2.”

Porwoll also went with Canon lenses, carrying along the 14.5-60mm T2.6 and 30-105mm T2.8 Cinema Zoom lenses. “These lenses have beautiful glass that is incredibly sharp with good contrast that enabled me, for example, to bring out the cold, dark, harsh feel of Russia,” he explains. “In my opinion, they are perfect documentary lenses.”

Pavel Fomenko appears in TIGERLAND by Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Discovery/RadicalMedia

While Porwoll relied on these for the majority of the shoot, he also carried Canon K35 primes, which were used to frame landscapes and add atmospherics and feel. “Things to give a little more feel to the imagery on screen,” he says.

“The K35s are gorgeous lenses that are a little bit soft, but they have a nice lower contrast to them—a little bit of a warmer image and they have interesting flares. They really added nice character and texture to the film, and it all matches together nicely with other footage.”

“Tigerland” was also shot in 4K (DCI) format.

“I think there are a couple of reasons to shoot 4K,” offers Porwoll. “First, we are living in a 4K world, and even if we are not presently required to give 4K delivery, we soon will be. So we shot 4K for both deliverables and to have that fuller, sharper resolution. Plus, if you need to do any reframing, then you have the room to do so.

“It was such a magical experience shooting Tigerland,” says Porwoll, noting how tigers have long been the subject of myths and folktales.

“They are mystical, magical creatures and to make a film exactly about this subject was fantastic. I think the film is a great entry point for audiences that gives perspective on the history of tiger preservation and also looks at what the future holds for these majestic, dwindling creatures.”