Discomfort to Powerful Truth: How DP Daniel B. Levin Shot ‘The Trayvon Martin Story’
From Trayvon to Trump, the unyielding docuseries 'Rest in Power' explores how we got where we are today.
On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old, unarmed African American high school student Trayvon Martin, inside The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, Florida.
Zimmerman, 28 and head of the neighborhood watch, called the police about a suspicious character walking the streets. That "suspicious character" was Martin, who was returning from a local convenience store carrying Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Instead of waiting for authorities, Zimmerman took matters in his own hands. Trayvon’s death and subsequent trial changed the climate of America and the conversation of our culture in ways we haven’t witnessed since the ‘60s.
"The challenge was that we weren’t following one character but piecing together a big puzzle.”
Not all of us grew up during the Montgomery bus boycott or the March on Washington. Or listened first hand to Malcom X’s “God’s Judgement of White America” speech or read about the months-long Birmingham campaign or witnessed the atrocities of the Selma to Montgomery march. This generation’s civil rights movements go by different names: Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling.
Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story is a six-part documentary from directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason currently airing and streaming for free on Paramount Network. The allegory goes into brutal detail–much of which you may not have heard about on the news–including Martin’s death, the trial and aftermath that spawned the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Cinematographer Daniel B. Levin is no stranger when it comes to working in the social and political documentary space and understood the gravity of this moment in history. “I was aware of the story while it was happening–it affected me–and going into this project I was ultimately surprised by its complexity and how the ramifications of this one incident reverberated throughout the local community and through the country.”
Documenting the unwavering truth became the mantra of the production no matter which side of the discussion someone was on. “We wanted to get everyone’s story on screen and humanize them,” says Levin, who alongside cinematographer Ty Stone made up the entire camera department.
The six-hour story is woven with interviews, archival footage, 911 calls, depositions, and original footage. But it covers more than the Trayvon Martin trial. It explores Zimmerman’s life today. It looks at our current culture. It looks at President Trump. The people who support him. Charlottesville. It does so without agenda. It does with honesty. Levin says, “The challenge was that we weren’t following one character but piecing together a big puzzle.” Figuring out how to tell that story was the predicament.
Interviews grounded the narrative and from there production jumped from one person to the next to see how all the pieces fell. Levin and Stone used Sony FS7 with Metabones adaptors for EF Canon Cinema Zooms recording in 4K 4096x 2160 10-bit and S-Log3/SGamut3.cine, which was later color corrected and delivered in HD.
Interviews were traditionally shot on tripods, stacked with wide and tights and lighting that addressed the summer heat in Florida. “I tried to stay all LED, using Astra Bi-Color light panels and LiteMat fixtures which can fit conveniently in smaller spaces. We created book-lights where we could and always aimed to bounce light or shoot it through diffusion to create a soft wrap around the subject's face.”
For lenses, the CN-E 30-105mm and CN-E 15.5-47mm were prominently used. “For me, the T2.8 is fast and able to achieve a nice, shallow depth of field when shooting wide open. We also had a CN-E 50mm Cinema Prime in our kit which we utilized for B-roll and in low-light situations.”
Reenactments and B-roll were approached to avoid being sensationalized. Instead, a Steadicam moved through the locations of Martin’s last moments, the courthouse and neighborhoods. “We wanted to create a visual texture that engrossed you in the environment,” says Levin. “We asked ourselves, how do we make Miami come alive? How do we make Sanford come alive? How do we show the veiled racism that exists in Florida? It was about trying to find those images and take portraits of people in the streets and the people who live there. We wanted to bring the viewer through the locations as the people might have experienced them.”
"The more you push forward and through a story and embrace the challenges, the bigger the opportunity lies to uncover a significant truth."
A looming part of the documentary was filming the divide of racial lines and social-economical lines. “We looked at everything. The legal side. The activism side. The spectrum of American life. We talked to the people who were part of the tragedy. Activists that grew out of this story. We talked to the other side. The "whitelash" side… As a human being that can be difficult,” says Levin. “To sit there and deal with someone being outright racist and share their racist views–to hear people talk about that is hard to stomach.”
When asked if he has any advice to offer, Levin says, “A big part, if not the biggest part, of documentary filmmaking is tackling difficult subject matters. You can feel uncomfortable physically and emotionally, but the fact is that the more you push forward and through a story and embrace the challenges, the bigger the opportunity lies to uncover a significant truth. The ultimate goal of documentary filmmaking is to tell powerful and transformative true stories that create conversations and can effect real change.”