The Most Important Qualities You Need as a DP According to ‘13th’ Cinematographer Hans Charles
A longtime collaborator of Bradford Young, DP Hans Charles is on a hot streak.
Cinematographer Hans Charles has been behind the camera for more than a decade, coming up as a camera assistant to the latest Star Wars DP Bradford Young. Since a big break shooting Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary 13th with their mutual colleague Ava DuVernay, Charles has been on a roll. Another feature doc he shot, Mr. SOUL!, premiered at Tribeca earlier this year, and he’s putting finishing touches on a feature narrative that he both produced and shot called 1 Angry Black Man.
1 Angry Black Man, directed by Menelek Lumumba, is sort of a modern spin on the classic Sidney Lumet film 12 Angry Men. Instead of a courtroom, the film takes place in a classroom where a diverse set of students is wrestling with race and gender in today’s politically charged America. Charles and I will discuss his career on stage this weekend at BECOME 2018 in Los Angeles. To get a preview of what we’ll chat about and how his new film came together, read on. In the conversation below, we cover everything from what he learned from Ava Duvernay, to what qualities make a good DP, to how you make your first feature cinematic even if it takes place in a single location, and more.
NFS: Your new film represents a few transitions. You transitioned from shooting some feature docs to shooting this feature narrative, and from being a DP to being DP and producer. So I'd love to hear a little bit about those transitions.
Charles: I always intended to do features as a cinematographer. But I was Bradford [Young]'s camera assistant for about seven or eight years. During that time, we just spent a lot of time together, we traveled the world together. And I remember when he felt strongly that he had some features in him and that he wanted to get an opportunity to get to shoot features and the freedom to do that but the opportunities weren't coming then.
Now he just shot Solo, but something I kinda learned from him was that at that time is that he kinda took what came. So what came were a series of docs. Like, one of the bigger, almost breakthrough things for his career was he went to Africa. He went to Kenya, I think, with Alicia Keys to do a segment for the Oprah Winfrey Show. That was a really big deal for him.
He was getting this opportunity as an unknown cinematographer, it was about 2006 or 2007. And that was a doc, and then we did the documentaries for ESPN featuring Hugh Masekela and Sal Masekela, which were precursors for the World Cup. So, Brad did a series and the way we met Ava [Duvernay] was through a documentary called My Mic Sounds Nice that we made for BET about hiphop. So I've learned that sometimes, as a cinematographer, when people are trying to do features, documentaries are an opportunity to continue to work, and to express certain cinematic ideas in a specific form.
So for me, it was the means to an end. You know, I did Venus VS. for Ava and then got the opportunity to do 13th and some other opportunities that are sort of expanding my style specifically for documentaries. But I've always been waiting for the opportunity to do a feature. Then I kind of realized that I maybe had to take the bull by the horn and not wait for somebody to "give" me an opportunity.
NFS: Yeah, we're saying that here at No Film school all the time. Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities.
Charles: Yeah. I realized I could use all the years of knowledge, all the years of contacts and then to use, quite frankly, the momentum of 13th as an opportunity to create the opportunity, not only for myself but for somebody else, in terms of the writer/director for a feature.
Ava asked me, "When are you gonna do your feature? I want to see your feature work. "And then I was telling her, "Well, me and my partner are thinking about what we want to do." And she gave me some advice. She said you should follow three rules for your first feature. First, it should take place in one day, you know, over the course of a day in “movie time”.
Then she said the second is it should be in one location. And then the third piece of advice, which I guess you have to scale, she said it shouldn't cost you more than $50,000. If you look at I Will Follow, her first feature, it follows those three rules, right?
So basically our film follows two out of three rules. Our budget is a little bit bigger than that but still. You know, I told Menelek [Lumumba], I think we should figure out how to follow these three rules. I think Ava's onto something. I think this is actually gold advice.
"And I remember reading, getting to the last page, I was in the airport and I stood up and clapped."
And so we kept on bouncing these ideas around these three rules and we came back to '1 Angry'. Because the first time he pitched to me he's like, "Look, I want to do a feature, real-time in an African American literature course and I was like, "That is literally the dumbest thing I've ever heard. What we're not gonna do is we're not gonna do that feature."
So we went around, we wrote some pilots, we did a ton of things. And then we just came back to it and he said, "Look, let me take a crack at this. Just let me write some pages and then we’ll see." And I was like, all right, well, writing doesn't cost anything, knock it out. Usually, we co-write together but I said, "I'm not participating. I don't have anything to contribute for this idea so knock yourself out." And then he sent me 50 pages and I was like, "Okay, this is a good start. It's not bad." I gave him some notes.
And then probably two weeks later he sends a script and he probably took one or two of the notes. And I remember reading, getting to the last page, I was in the airport and I stood up and clapped.
I was like, okay. I can see the entire thing. I saw it in my head as I was reading it. It fit. So I was really excited once I read the script and I said we could do it when I managed to convince somebody to give us the money to do it. And that's where it went.
NFS: I'm curious about the kind of cinematic ideas mentioned that you were able to explore through docs. Even though you always had features in mind is there anything that you were able to bring from having shot feature docs into shooting this film?
Charles: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a certain sense of efficiency, of what works, what doesn't work, when to compromise, when not to compromise. You have to be really flexible with docs.
I got really lucky with both of the docs I did with Ava that she really wanted this idea of expressing narrative ideas in the documentary space. So she was sort of overt about her use of visual language in Venus VS. and 13th. And so I got to do things in a way that even now I struggle to do but I have to push to do, which is wide open frames, super compressed backgrounds, you know, real expressive lighting. That's not a traditional documentary style.
You have to think about the space that documentaries come out of. They have this informative thing that's not necessarily entertaining. And if we think pre-video tapes, we're thinking film, the documentaries are almost exclusively shot on Super 16 because that was the cheaper film. So documentaries were not visually compelling because you couldn't afford to be visually compelling.
"We don't have to shoot documentaries this way anymore, guess what? We can shoot the way we shoot narrative films."
Once we switched to tape, now you could expand in terms of the content and visually it got worse because tape didn't bring any cinematic quality shot at 30 frames a second, which changes our relationship with 24. So we feel that difference. There was nothing you could do to make it look good because it was shot on tape.
So what did documentary filmmakers do? They created the most compelling content that they could because that was the only way to hold the audiences. The digital revolution has been able to bring both of those things to bear. They've reduced the cost of actually shooting a documentary and we can now make it visually compelling to match the content. So it wasn't that we were just, "Oh, we're bringing cinematic ideas." We came along at a time where you could do that and you didn't blow your budget doing it.
So I just happened to come along when it's like, "Oh, we don't have to shoot documentaries this way anymore, guess what? We can shoot the way we shoot narrative films." I feel so incredibly grateful to be in this era where I can say to a filmmaker, "Look, we're gonna shoot two cameras, I want to do this, I want to do that. I'm gonna even do some high speed" And now I can express different ideas.
NFS: That’s a great transition to talking about ‘1 Angry’ because it's kind of set up like a play. It’s talking heads in one location, and yet you made it look cinematic.
Charles: Menelek and I went to film school together and part of the basis of our relationship is mainly just cinema. So this is where we pull a lot of our inspiration from. Our connection goes deeper than that, but that's the genesis of our connection. So, when he was pitching this to me he sent me a link to 12 Angry Men and said, "Look, revisit this movie. I know you've seen it a ton of times. Revisit it and then call me."
And then I watched it and I was like, "Hey, you know what, I forgot how good this is." He's like, "Dude, notice it's one set." And so we talked about what is it that they did to make that film visually compelling. So we broke all the elements down: the sound design, the camera movement, all the composition. We probably broke down the blocking, who sat where, what, what happened.
If you watch 12 Angry Men the frames start really, really wide. As the film goes on, the frames get tighter, the compositions get tighter. We knew that there was an opportunity to do the same thing with this film and we knew we needed certain elements to make it work. We had to have a flexible location. We knew we had to have the set up a certain way, you know, the classroom had to be set up a certain way.
And then Menelek kind of brought that sensibility of an ensemble. He brought that in terms of his directing. He knew he wanted to direct the cast in an ensemble way and that comes off. He really cast strong actors who were able to play off each other and who stayed on no matter what.
I quickly realized that we needed to constantly move the camera just for efficiency because we didn't have a lot of days to shoot. I learned from my years of doing television. I was like, "Look, we gotta use a zoom lens, we gotta move the camera." And the way we had set it up in terms of the blocking, because it was at a table and then just working with the location I was like, "Oh, we can catch everything all the time and then when we miss something we can just dolly back around and just get it again." So we kinda developed a technique for the film. And I wasn't afraid that there would be too much movement because I knew we'd varying the movement, the speed, the size of the frame, based on the beats in the script.
My biggest thing was capturing the script in the time that we had. And so shooting it the way we did, which is essentially the camera almost never comes off the dolly, was a technique for efficiency.
NFS: It also feels a bit documentary-like in that way.
Charles: Yeah. You're stealing shots. I wanted things to happen behind the camera. And then the camera would turn around and discover something. I've always loved when filmmakers do that because, as a cinematographer, I appreciate production design so I've always felt like it's great to allow the audience to see the totality of a room in one sweep and not just in a three wall shot. It's sort of, in a way, breaking the fourth wall by turning around and seeing what's behind the camera.
So there's no lights back there. This is a real set. And I think it makes me feel like this is a real room. I wanted that feel in that room because the location was so compelling. The closed location was so specific to the setting that we were trying to create. It was a big part of the storytelling.
And then we created false pace like that because there's no natural beats in the script. There's no action beats. They're all emotional beats, they're all tonal beats. So the only way to really breathe a sense of beats in the film is for the camera to move. When the camera moves fast, then you know the pace is fast. When the frames are tighter and slower, then you know something has changed, right?
NFS: In this particular case, you were a producer and shooter. As a producer people are constantly asking you questions on set, so how did you juggle those two roles?
Charles: Easy answer. So I have two other producing partners, Caroline Onikute and Cordielle Street and we've had this company Align Pictures for the last four years and Caroline and Cordielle are commercial producers and they also do some documentary and branding work, they're also both interested in narrative. We've had all kinds of clients: Facebook, Google, Cadillac...
But I've always wanted to use this model specifically for narrative because I knew that as a cinematographer my strengths as a producer would be in pre-production and post-production. And their strength would always be production; they would have all the muscles for directing, line producing staff and making sure all the production staff was in line and what needed to happen. They had the relationships.
So basically the way it broke down, while we were actually shooting, most of the producing duties fell to Caroline and Cordell. So they ran the day-to-day. They made sure all equipment showed up, they dealt with all the location issues. And myself being a producer on set, I'd help with certain question or certain things that I could just handle because I had the title, so I could just say, "Hey, I can jump in."
But I really came in in terms of producing in terms of post-production. I supervised all the post-production. But on set, I wouldn't have been able to do this by myself. You definitely have to work in conjunction with a team of people.
"Pure moxie, pure self-confidence or self-loathing, one of the two, is what made you convince people that it's in the can."
NFS: What qualities do you think a DP needs to have to be successful?
Charles: That's a good question. Let me start with emotional intelligence and then we'll go to the technical stuff. I think in this new world I think you have to have a certain emotional awareness. The old world of cinematography, of celluloid, of pigmentation and negative prints and positive prints, you had to have a complete and utter mastery of the technical, you had to understand Western art, how to incorporate that in order to not only move beyond the technical but to have an artistic bent towards your work. And I think you could afford to sacrifice any emotional connections both to the work and to the people you work with.
So I think that translates into how you could be a jackass if you wanted to. You could treat people the way you wanted to because there were higher stakes in a way. So what did the DP let go of possibly back in the day? Personality. Maybe those sets weren't the nicest places to work. Maybe they said things in a way because the risk was you could shoot something, and if you were lucky you would get a two day turn around and see your rushes. You're shooting something, you have your day, you've moved on, you're not even gonna go back to location. You don't know if it's even shown up. Pure moxie, pure self-confidence or self-loathing, one of the two, is what made you convince people that it's in the can. You may not be nice to your first, your second, your production designer, your PAs. That may not be something had the bandwidth for [because of all the pressure.]
I think we live in a different world now. One, we're digital, we're seeing our images instantly. So the weight of that responsibility has lessened. So I think now what you have to factor in, what you have to add to your bandwidth is how you treat people on set.
And so I think the number one thing for me is you have to treat people with respect. You have to internalize that despite the amount of money that's on the line, despite all the pressures, we are not necessarily doing something that's monumentally important to society. I think it has an offshoot importance, but we are not first responders, we are not teachers, we're not obstetricians, we are not midwives. We actually do not hold anybody's life in our hands.
That's the first thing to keep in mind. That means we do not have to speak to each other and deal with each other in a certain way. We have the privilege of working in film in 2018, working in film where you're not exposing celluloid where someone could lose their job. We have that privilege and we should act accordingly. And part of the problem with the industry is, we still deal with each other with the old pressures. They've not adapted to the new reality of the technology.
So for me, it's treat people with the utmost respect, which is something, I'm not gonna lie, I sometimes struggle to do. Because sometimes when you're a shooter you're in your own head and you're not thinking about what's happening outside of your own head. So I always have to remember whatever I'm thinking or feeling is not the most important thing, to not yell at people, I certainly should never humiliate anybody. I should learn how to deal with my frustration in a way that always has a positive outcome and could let people leave whatever interaction with a positive taste in my mouth.
Every day of shooting is a new opportunity to let go of old things and old frustrations. And so I think that's the first attitude to take on. Because I think in this new world, that's gonna be the leading edge.
To me, secondary is the technical, to consistently and always try to master new things, to be open to not knowing things. To film is inherently collaborative, so surround yourself with people who will forgive you for not knowing something as long as you're willing to learn something and to grow with every project.
I'm in the process of re-thinking how I do certain things and trying to grow, applying myself and learning new stuff. Okay, I know how to do this, now I need to master this. And I'm open to that process. I just know now that some PA or some assistant is gonna know something because they have the time to sit and obsessively figure out this one thing. Listen to what they have to say. They may help me. Be open to that. Create a space where people feel empowered. Because when we feel good when we walk away from a project, I think that leads to the next job. And that's not easy for anybody to do.
It's so easy when people are asking questions to be a little bit dismissive. And I don't think people are trying to be jerks, I think it's just the way it's set up. So it's up to us to begin to change it so it's a more open process. And I know that starts with me.