Shooting “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”

“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is an intimate portrait of the beloved comedian as told through the stories of family, friends and colleagues, streaming on HBO. Image courtesy of HBO.

In the entertainment business, there are and were few comedians with a career as diverse and all-encompassing as Robin Williams. The HBO documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” which premiered in July of 2018, explores Williams’ entire life and career and culminates in exploring why Williams took his own life. The film’s director, Marina Zenovich, shot interviews with Williams’ family, friends and a raft of his co-stars, comedy partners and admirers, including Billy Crystal, David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, his first wife, Valerie Velardi, and his oldest son, Zak Williams.

“Come Inside My Mind” paints a deep portrayal of a complex character. In watching the film, one is struck with the consistency in the feel and lighting that all of the interviews shared, so we set out to explore the challenges and trials that the cinematography team experienced during production and sat down with DPs Wolfgang Held, Nick Higgins, Thorsten Thielow and Jenna Rosher to discuss the finer points of shooting the film.

The Journey Of The Cinematographer

Each of the cinematographers has had a diverse journey into documentary filmmaking. Wolfgang Held: “My love for filmmaking started in the mid-1980s when I spent two years hitchhiking around the world shooting video diaries along the way. I have been filming independent movies and documentaries professionally in New York City since the early 1990s. They include movies like ‘Brüno,’ ‘Teeth’ and ‘Sophie and the Rising Sun,’ and documentaries such as ‘Children Underground,’ ‘Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,’ ‘Crazy Love,’ ‘The Carrier’ and ‘Half the Sky,’ amongst others. Most recently, I photographed the upcoming HBO feature ‘O.G.’ directed by Madeleine Sackler and the Showtime documentary series ‘The Fourth Estate’ by Liz Garbus, as well as Alex Gibney’s upcoming doc series ‘Enemies,’ also for Showtime.”

DP Nick Higgins’ path has been somewhat different. “When I graduated from the AFI Masters program, I read a piece of advice about getting a career going in Hollywood that struck me as being true. From that point on, I marketed myself as a specialist documentary DP as opposed to a DP that did everything, including documentaries. I was the DP for the Oscar-winning ‘OJ: Made in America.’ I also shot HBO’s ‘The Crash Reel’ and ‘The Lion’s Mouth Opens,’ both of which premiered at Sundance and were shortlisted for Academy Awards.”

DP Thorsten Thielow on the set with Williams’ half-brother McLaurin Smith Williams. Photo by Marina Zenovich.
DP Thorsten Thielow on the set with Williams’ half-brother McLaurin Smith Williams. Photo by Marina Zenovich.

Thorsten Thielow has a long history shooting documentaries. He’s an NYC-based cinematographer and director making documentaries and commercials. Thorsten’s current work includes Netflix’s multi-part series “Dirty Money” as well as “China Hustle,” directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jed Rothstein. Thielow shot “Water & Power: A California Heist,” a documentary feature directed by Zenovich as well. Thielow is also currently working with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Gibney on a multi-part series for Showtime, and with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg on a criminal investigative HBO series and a documentary on the women’s movement in America.

Jenna Rosher’s path has always been clear; she has always been interested in and worked on social, political and music documentaries. “I’m a third-generation cinematographer. I combine my love of filming with my passion for people and storytelling. This has given me the opportunity to not only shoot but also direct some high-profile projects. In 2005, I worked as a co-cinematographer on ‘Jesus Camp,’ an award-winning documentary about an evangelical summer camp for kids. The film earned numerous awards, including a 2007 Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Documentary. I’ve had the great fortune of collaborating with such talents as Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (‘Jesus Camp’ and ‘Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You’), Amy Berg (‘Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue’), R.J. Cutler (‘September Issue’), Lauren Greenfield (‘Generation Wealth’) and Rory Kennedy (‘Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton’).”

Working With Director Marina Zenovich

Jenna Rosher: “I met Marina while working on Lauren Greenfield’s ‘Generation Wealth,’ and we hit it off. Marina gives her DPs a lot of freedom to explore and express their ideas. I think because production often spans over several months, it’s often difficult to have the same DP throughout. Luckily, all of the cinematographers on this project seemed to have similar sensibilities.”

Nick Higgins: “Working with Marina is a collaborative process. We discuss at length what the essence of the film is really about and then on set we look for ways to visually get that into the film. It’s subtle things, but it all adds up. The idea of setting a tone and capturing a mood is key. This is a film that celebrates one of the most creative minds on the planet, but his final chapter was anything but lighthearted. We tried to strike a balance between these two elements.”

Behind the scenes with director Marina Zenovich interviewing David Letterman. Photo by Shirel Kozak.
Behind the scenes with director Marina Zenovich interviewing David Letterman. Photo by Shirel Kozak.

Wolfgang Held: “I have worked with Marina before on ESPN’s ‘30 For 30’ ‘Fantastic Lies.’ We did many interviews for that story and also some recreations. I used very shallow depth of field and soft, yet dramatic, daylight-inspired lighting. I enjoy working with her [Zenovich] whenever our schedules align.”

Maintaining A Consistent Look With Multiple Crews

Robin Williams’ life and career reflected immense variety, so it presented a tremendous challenge to create a look for the interviews that could be easily reproduced by different crews in different locations that would also give the film a rich and classic look and feel.

Nick Higgins: “The look was always meant to be intimate and light, but also convey a serious tone, too. Balance was key. The shoots are, more often than not, dictated by the ever-changing schedules of celebrities, and they are quite often booked up with little notice, so it ends up being a tag team of cinematographers that make up the crew. To make sure we had a consistent look across the cinematographers, the key was sharing screen grabs from the first production week. With those in hand, the next shooter could quite easily match the tone. We also shared camera notes, so we could match lenses, distances and the depth of field. The goal is always for the audience to not be aware that multiple shooters played a hand in the filmmaking. The film was shot over approximately 20 shoot days over six months.”

Wolfgang Held: “I know the other DPs on this show, and when I came onboard I looked at frame grabs from previous interviews which Nick Higgins had done. I also had a phone call about the look and feel of the shots and the technical specs with Nick. Our cinematic vision is closely aligned.”

Thorsten Thielow: “We worked together on a cohesive visual language through limitation and decided to light all interviews with a large source, a 12×12 full grid, and use an indirect lighting technique. We wanted the interview to look designed but not lit. A soft window light on an overcast day. We also agreed on shooting all interviews consistently at ƒ/2 using a 35mm focal length. We used a Canon Cine Prime. We wanted the interviews feel like a conversation that includes body language, rather than staring someone in the face.”

DP Wolfgang Held shoots an interview with Whoopi Goldberg on the set of “The View.” Photo by Tess Ranahan.
DP Wolfgang Held shoots an interview with Whoopi Goldberg on the set of “The View.” Photo by Tess Ranahan.

Working With A Minimal Crew

Jenna Rosher: “In the doc world, the AC is often the grip and the DIT. You have to wear many hats in documentaries. The majority of the interviews I shot had just that, an AC/Grip/DIT, sound, a PA and myself. I do the majority of the grip and lighting myself while my AC sets up monitoring, etc.”

Wolfgang Held: “For the crew, it was the sound mixer, a PA and me. There was no gaffer or grip. I enjoy doing simple, minimal, soft yet dramatic lighting, and if I have a bit of time to set up, I do enjoy working with minimal crew. For the interview with Steve Martin, I decided not to use any lighting at all, as we were guests in his NYC home, and there was a spot in his living room that had wonderful, clean, indirect daylight coming in, my favorite way to go!”

Nick Higgins: “Crew-wise, it was definitely lean and mean. The camera crew was a DP and an AC only, no gaffer and no grips. Between the two of us, we were responsible for any and all lighting and camera work. All of the gear has to be easily transportable, too, because it also involves travel. I typically like to employ an element of natural light and will then take steps to make sure that the key light remains consistent even if the ambient changes a little throughout the interview. To the audience, it should look effortless and perfectly natural, as if there is no fuss and no gear in the room.”

Choosing The Right Camera System

For Wolfgang Held, the choice of lenses was critical: “I have shot almost all my recent documentary work with the Canon Cine Primes. On these interviews, I used a 50mm Canon CN-E 50mm T1.3 L F Cine at about T 1.8. I own a Canon C300 Mark II and the lenses, and like to use it for its lightweight, small footprint and the beautiful pastel-colored, ‘open’ look you can achieve when you pair the C300 Mark II with the Cine Primes.”

Nick Higgins: “I’ve owned a Canon C300 Mark II since it first came out, and it’s definitely been my workhorse since then. The fact that it fits into a single carry-on Pelican case is huge to me. In this production, we were shooting a single camera, and the delivery was slated to be HD. We chose to shoot 4K to allow the shot to be punched into if need be. Lens-wise, my go-to interview lens is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. To me, that lens is the little engine that could. I typically shoot it at an ƒ/2, which focuses the attention on the subject and not the room but leaves me enough depth of field that I don’t have a cold sweat about focus if the person moves a little.”

DP Nick Higgins shooting an interview with Robin Williams' son Zak. Photo by Kristen Vaurio.
DP Nick Higgins shooting an interview with Robin Williams’ son Zak. Photo by Kristen Vaurio.

Jenna Rosher: “Much of this [equipment selection] was already established by the time I came onboard. The Canon C300 Mark II is a workhorse, indeed. There are not many cameras out there that can deliver that high-quality 4K image in such a small package.”

The Most Special Moment

“Robin William: Come Inside My Mind” is an emotional journey even if you were not intimately familiar with all of Williams’ work. When asked about what each of the cinematographers’ most memorable moment was shooting the film, the responses were thoughtful and poetic.

Wolfgang Held: “Seeing the finished film was fantastic, to see how my work and the other DPs’ could result in such a powerful film.”

Nick Higgins: “When I think of this film, I think of Robin’s son Zak. It cannot have been easy for him to participate, and he did so with the utmost grace. I really felt huge compassion for him because it was no doubt quite a challenge having such a famous father that was so busy and so revered by the public but not always there for him. Every kid really just wants their dad to be focused on them. With a dad as famous as Robin, that’s unlikely to be the way it plays out, though. I really felt for him.”

Thorsten Thielow: “When we filmed with David Letterman, he was joking with the crew the second he walked into the location, and while our Associate Producer Bethany [Dettmore] applied some makeup, David barked at her, like a dog barks at someone. It was one of those edgy jokes David and Robin made all the time. Funny afterwards—but in the moment it can be quite shocking.”

Jenna Rosher: “When I recall working on the film, I think of all the shared laughter we got to experience as cast and crew. I feel honored to have been in the company of people who really knew him [Williams] and could speak about him so intimately, with such love and compassion. I mean, Robin Williams was an exceptional person, he knew how to make your belly ache from laughter and tug at your heartstrings all at the same time.”

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