Sundance is often the pinnacle of indie film—we all have stories of submitting to the fest, waiting to hear back, hoping to get in. Regardless of whether we've gotten that coveted notification yet, we should all continue to learn from others in our field, including those talented creators who got accepted to the festival this year.
We know making a film isn't easy. So that's why it's great to hear from directors, screenwriters, and other team members who perhaps hit roadblocks, had creative challenges, or faced huge creative setbacks. We spoke to over 60 amazing creators this year to learn what their biggest obstacles were, and how they overcame them.
Dig into this valuable advice, then add your own in the comments!
Director Lisa Cortes attends the 'Little Richard: I Am Everything' premiere.Credit: Jovelle Tamayo/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jana Edelbaum, producer, Beyond Utopia
"Every aspect of this story was challenging: from shooting in communist countries where our subjects could be arrested, imprisoned, or deported at any moment to 'regular' production challenges including sourcing archival footage, editing over 200 hours of footage down to under two hours of actual screen time... not one aspect was straightforward."
Jake Van Wagoner, director, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out
"I've been lucky enough to have made my way up the ranks of production. I started off as a PA, and really kinda spent a lot of time in that position before moving on to be a 2nd 2nd, then 2nd, then 1st AD, UPM, line producer, and then director/producer. I've been able to watch firsthand some amazing directors work, and have also seen some not-so-great ones. I've learned a ton from both categories. Having spent so much time in production, I was able to learn the function of each department and how to best communicate with them. Having this experience and background has helped me tremendously as a director.
"For this movie in particular, we were really up against the clock with shooting. Our lead was a minor, giving us only a certain amount of time with her on set. We didn't have a ton of shooting days (15) and a good amount of the movie takes place outside, which we filmed in November. Some of the night shoots, the temperatures got down to 7º, combine that with the 12 pages we had to shoot on a lot of those nights and the kids and the schedule of Will and Elizabeth and the movie was really a juggling act. I wouldn't have been able to pull it off without my amazing friend and DP, Jeremy Prusso, who always had a plan (whether we stuck to it or not) and kept his setups nimble, practical, and gorgeous. The crew was also so amazing to be constantly hustling and changing gears and happy to roll with everything we had to do. Most of the crew are my good friends whom I've worked with for years. Combine with that with our producing team that was always prepared for the craziness that was on any given day, from locations falling through, to lending their hand to be a hand double for an actor because we didn't have time to shoot an insert, they really helped make this movie happen."
Cary Lalonde, DP, Young. Wild. Free
"We had to stitch two houses and characters from different locations into a seamless dual world that presented several challenges with blocking, editing, and lighting."
'A Still Small Voice'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Rashad Frett, writer/director/co-editor, Ricky
"Some challenges were harsh weather putting production on hold even though we were filming the interior scenes. Also, wardrobe bringing the wrong clothes for the cast the night before the first day of shooting, hence having to personally go shopping at the last minute to save the shoot."
Jarreau Carrillo, director/writer/editor, The Vacation
"We had to shoot 15 pages in three days, during COVID with no rehearsal beforehand. Also shot daylight exteriors with only using bounces for lighting."
C.J. "Fiery" Obasi, director, Mami Wata
"At the beginning of our shoot, when the cast and crew had all arrived at the camp, and we were smack in the middle of rehearsals, building sets, finalizing costumes, etc., our equipment partner pulled out of the production, with no explanations whatsoever, till date. So here we are, stuck in a remote community in Benin republic, with over eighty people from more than seven countries camping together—no hope for camera, grip, light, or any gear whatsoever. This meant of course we had to take out funds from the production purse to rent equipment in Lagos, which had its own set of challenges, then transport all that gear in trucks across the border to the Benin republic. The financial implication of this took a toll on the entire project, and had a domino effect across the production. Lílis and I had to rethink and approach the cinematography differently because we didn’t have as much time as thought we would. Looking back, It's a miracle we pulled through."
Lílis Soares, DP, Mami Wata
"Mami Wata is an aesthetically daring film. The choice of director C.J. Obasi to make a film in black and white with 99% of actors with jet black skin, shot essentially at night, either on the beach or in the forest, and with an ancestral African theme would be a great challenge. And we quickly understood that the pandemic and logistical issues would make our process even more difficult. We had to adapt a lot from what we had initially planned. We shot in Benin, and the equipment that was coming from Nigeria was delivered very late, which also brought difficulties for our shooting schedule. Since pre-production, we had to get creative to find technical and narrative solutions for the scenes."
'Deep Rising'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sterling Hampton, director/producer/editor/composer, Kylie
"I directed, produced, edited, colored, and composed the project. My cinematographer and I filmed. So it was a very small crew. It was really about using the environment to our advantage and using creative ways to make the mundane feel larger than life."
Andrew Fitzgerald, writer/director, The Family Circus
"Making it snow in Pasadena was tricky."
Christopher Zalla, writer/director, Radical
"Directing the last two days with COVID from a hotel room via live remote satellite uplink, and wrangling between 25 and 125 children every day on set were both quite challenging."
Poharnok Gergely, DP, L'immensitá
"The opening scene is a top shot that starts 20 meters over our hero, who is standing on a rooftop. The camera drops down at fast speed totally perpendicular to him and stops half a meter from Andrea's face. The rooftop set was built on an elevated platform on a backlot. We rigged a spidercam with a three-axis stabilized head from a construction crane 25 meters above our actor's head and prayed for no wind!"
Ruben Impens, DP, The Eight Mountains
"We shot at 4,000 meters in Nepal and walked up to that village with donkeys and sherpas ... ciné docu-style."
'Fair Play'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Thanasis Neofotistos, director, Airhostess-737
"We had to build an airplane set, with very low budget (25K euros), and all of this in three days!"
Ants Tammik, DP, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
"The biggest challenges had to do with the sauna itself, we had cooler-boxes taped to the camera to keep the camera temperature low, but we still struggled with condensation on the lenses. We always had to keep the lenses in the sauna 3-4 hours prior to the shoot, so they'd acclimatize. My own sweat would drip onto the camera, lenses, and the monitor, which made it very uncomfortable and slowed us down a bit as well but this was also the only way to ensure a realistic environment for our characters with the temperature peaking at 90 C degrees at times. I had a very strict requirement for my team to be physically fit to withstand our continuous four-hour sessions in this extreme heat. In the end, the camera made it out, I lost two lenses and a monitor, plus I lost consciousness once and probably suffered carbon dioxide poisoning."
Curren Sheldon, DP, King Coal
"As a hybrid film, we had some interesting production challenges for King Coal. While we were filming real people at real events, we often placed our principal characters within the scenes we were filming. This allowed the scenes to have a central subject that carried the narrative of the film along, but often meant that we had to make decisions on the fly as we would during any documentary scene. We also crafted a few scenes ourselves and populated them with members from the community, with the most complex being a memorial service on top of a mountain for an imagined king. The planning for the shoot was more akin to a live festival than a film scene and once the festival began, we treated it as we would any other observational documentary scene. Meaning no do-overs, no re-shoots, no pausing the action, no intrusion of any kind. While only about five minutes of the scene is in the final cut, the two-hour event was truly powerful and emotional on its own, and that in and of itself felt like a successful project."
Santiago, DP, Shortcomings
"The biggest challenge was lighting the scenes to feel as natural as possible while simultaneously incorporating some of the stylistic choices determined by our visual language. We had a conservative lighting package. Interior scenes were easier to light because we used our larger units to try and push as much light through windows which we then shaped from the inside. Exteriors were a bit more difficult, I didn't have enough big lighting fixtures to have a fighting chance so I tried to control as much as possible with larger negative and diffusion frames. We also wanted certain scenes to be a bit more intricate in the blocking and camera movement. So I had to balance the increased production demands for certain scenes with the need to maintain the production value of simpler scenes."
'Fantastic Machine'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Annemarie Lean-Vercoe, DP, Is There Anybody Out There
"COVID delayed our principal shooting, but it also meant that Ella and I had lots of regular short bursts of filming to show the passing of time whilst we were waiting to travel for principal filming. It enabled Ella and me to establish a friendship and work relationship that made work fun and we bounced ideas off each other.
"Ella was often filming with her young child so being swift and spontaneous was key! We also needed to show the passage of time due to the pandemic delaying shooting. "
Luke Lorentzen, director/producer/DP/editor, A Still Small Voice
"It was at first difficult to work around the masks that everybody in the film had to wear in the hospital. In the early days of production, I was really concerned that the emotional quality of the conversations I was documenting wouldn’t fully land because faces were partially covered. With time, though, I started to pay attention to a broader range of ways that feelings were being communicated and became hyper-focused on the eyes of the people I was filming. Specifically, I realized that having both eyes in every frame achieved the dynamic and emotional quality that I was seeking.
"Looking back now, I believe the film is more profound and layered because we fully embraced this specific moment in history (rather than trying to wait it out). And I feel strongly that all the emotions and experiences that I was hoping to document show up in bright and palpable ways."
Mike Donahue, director, Troy
"Over half of the film is scored with the sounds of Troy having sex with different people. Some of the specific sounds were scored in the script, but a lot of it, we had to find the juxtapositions and dial in the tone in post (how we scored with the sex sounds actually greatly affected both the humor and the escalations/pacing). First, we worked with temp tracks—which required several days of (me) ripping audio from actual porn, breaking the files down into 1-2 minute clips, and cataloging them to create a library for us to work with (mellow porpoise, porpoise but Gatling gun, rhythmic guttural grunts, arhythmic guttural grunts, high pitched keening, etc.). Once we'd laid in a temp score, we had a recording session with our Troy (Florian Klein), our producer (Evan Jonigkeit, who is also an extraordinary actor), and another actor friend (Wyatt Fenner), where we spent about 8 hours very specifically recreating those temp tracks. Because we're meant to hear Troy having sex with a bunch of different people, we also had to do a fair bit of breaking down different character voices, different pitches, vibes, ad-libs, positions, etc."
John Spoerer Benam and Emily Topper, DPs, Pretty Baby
"COVID was always an issue and we often had to find soundpeople and gaffers and various assistance last-minute because folks tested positive the morning of many shoots."
'Food + Country'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Derek Howard, DP, Plan C and The Tuba Thieves
Plan C: "One of the unique challenges I faced was having to protect a specific subject's identity due to security concerns over the type of work they were doing for the cause. Finding new interesting and compelling angles that did not include faces was a difficult task. I relied on long focal length lenses like a 75 or 100mm to show abstracted details such as hands, feet, the edge of a cheek or glasses, or a backlit silhouette.
The Tuba Thieves: "One of the most challenging scenes to shoot was a car mount scene in Los Angeles. We had this vintage car that looked amazing but didn't always turn over. It took a while to rig up the hood mount, and then once it was finally ready we heard gunshots ring out nearby. Hightailing it out of there, we started shooting down the road, and eventually, the car died. The actor/driver managed to get the car to the side of the road and then we had to wait while the grip team removed the entire hood mount so we could jump the car battery and get moving again. This process took up a big chunk of our shooting time and required us to streamline the coverage for the scene."
Carolina Costa, AMC, DP, Heroic and Fancy Dance
Heroic: "The scene in which the main character is forced to beat up his friend is one of my favorites. It wasn't on the script actually. But the way we work with David is that in the last week of shooting we re-shoot some of the scenes and he writes new ones. It was a challenging scene to shoot because of what is happening to Luis—I would cry every take we shot."
Fancy Dance: "The camera is entirely subjective, it’s always with the characters, and for that reason, a lot of the sets had to be lit in a way in which the camera and the actors could dance freely. And that was also true for our last scene.
"The final scene at the powwow was lit entirely with construction working lights. We considered having a balloon light or a condor with a big source, but every solution felt wrong for our story. And out of our budget.
"I dreamed of those lights and then suggested them, but it wasn't after scouting a real powwow and seeing one of those that we knew it was the right choice for us."
Jacqueline Castel, director, My Animal
"My Animal was a very difficult film to make. We shot mostly at night in the dead of winter at extreme temperatures. At its lowest, we shot in -40 degree weather (for reference, this is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), which is particularly challenging on an indie film. Our equipment stopped working, every vintage picture car died, and our cast weren’t warm enough in their costumes to stand in for lighting or blocking when we shot the exterior scenes so many things were often improvised. Our financing came together in Northern Ontario, so it was a part of the financial mandate to shoot there, and I had fallen in love with the city of Timmins, Ontario for its unique look, which also posed particular challenges due to its isolated location (the previous site of the world’s largest gold mine, nine hours north of Toronto).
"Beyond these challenges, we had a weeks-long COVID shut down mid-way through production, which required our producer Andrew Bronfman to track down the mayor of Timmins to declare our shoot an outbreak in order to trigger our insurance policy so our film could resume shooting (which in turn destroyed our contingency as the policy had a deductible). As a result of the delayed shoot, we had a lot of crew turnover as people had to leave for jobs they were already booked on, so it was a lot of new personalities to navigate in an already challenging situation.
"During the shutdown, our AD and I had to reschedule the film over 10 times in a two-week period just to make it possible to resume shooting, juggling the schedules of our locations and two of our cast who had SXSW commitments that overlapped with shooting. At one point one of our actors had a family emergency, and production chartered a private two-seater plane from Timmins to Upstate NY that departed an hour after we wrapped an overnight shoot, as no other flights were available to get them there in time.
"In short—it was the most difficult shooting environment of my career, which only added to the dimension of it being my first feature film. It was like an extreme form of boot camp, I learned so much."
'Joonam'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Andrew Durham, director, Fairyland
"Our story is about a girl growing up. I cast one very young actor to play her as a child and another older actor to play her as a teenager / young adult. The child actor was only able to work about 5 hours a day. Because of our tight budget, we had 23 days to shoot the entire film so we had to make sure we got the most out of every day. We structured our shoot days to film all the young actor scenes in the morning, then once she wrapped the actor who played the older character would arrive and we would shoot her scenes during the second half of the day. Sometimes we felt as if we were shooting two movies at the same time, especially since we were shooting 16mm film in the morning then shifting to digital in the afternoon. Consolidating the locations and shooting both actors during the same day was the only way we could fit everything into our tight schedule, but I think it worked."
Andrew Bowser, director/producer/writer/editor/actor, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
"The biggest challenge was time time time! We had a 'big' small movie, a haunted house horror comedy with a shoestring budget. We had to move fast and not be too precious while still maintaining a level of quality all departments would be happy with."
Dan Adlerstein, DP, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
"We knew that striking the right balance between horror, adventure, and comedy would be tricky to say the least. In some ways, horror and comedy visuals can seem diametrically opposed. In comedy, it’s about seeing the joke while in horror it can often be about what you don’t see. But Andrew and I discussed how Onyx is very much a fish-out-of-water story. This ridiculous character finds himself in serious situations with serious consequences. So the comedy was actually served more often than not by the movie feeling like horror. The more serious the visuals, the funnier the character of Onyx became.
"In terms of physical production, we had just a single camera for the entire shoot which unsurprisingly posed challenges in an ensemble film with many large group scenes. But in the end, I think it wound up serving the film well. There was no just trying to fit a ‘B’ camera shot in because we could. And there were no compromises in lighting to accommodate a second angle. Every shot, every angle became fully intentional."
Robert Connolly, director, Blueback
"Filming above and below the water made this an incredibly challenging and rewarding shoot! Based in remote Western Australia, we required actors to learn to free dive and above and beneath the water camera teams to take the audience seamlessly between these two worlds. It was new territory for us all, and the weeks filming out on the water required a strategic approach to camera movement and coordinating action."
'Pianoforte'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Dane Ray, writer/director, Walk of Shame
"This film explores the process of a grieving woman donating her late husband's clothes to a Salvation Army store. And so at the end of the shoot, it was kind of poetic to donate the remaining art and costumes to our local SA as well. Fortunately, we weren't as reluctant as Diane.
"The biggest challenge was shooting the film entirely in Rhode Island. I live in New York City so it was tough not having home-field advantage for my first project. We spent many weekends leading up to the shoot scouting a variety of bars and storefronts. Rhode Island is a small state but some of these places were an hour plus away from base. Executing the shoot with the least amount of company moves was a big priority."
Sara Kinney, DP, The Stroll
"We tried to recreate a lot of archival shots of the city, but the neighborhood is almost unrecognizable now, gentrification has paved over every street corner."
Patricia Ortega, director, MAMACRUZ
"As a director, I experienced two big challenges during the making of MAMACRUZ. The first one was a personal one: I arrived in Seville without knowing anyone in the crew personally, I had only spoken with Olmo, the producer of the film, during 15 minutes in the film market we met and kept an entirely-online relationship. I was afraid it would affect the workflow, I was used to previously knowing and choosing the whole crew so I was facing a totally different situation. I wasn’t only a foreign arriving to a city I didn’t know, I was also arriving in a team that wasn’t mine. Maybe my experience as an immigrant helped me to open my mind and heart, and what started as a challenge became an enriching experience, where good communication was key to build the successful work relationship I kept with my team.
"The second challenge I faced was the staging. My film has a very complex tone and I wanted to achieve an equilibrium between humor and the most thoughtful moments. It was a creative challenge that stayed with us until the postproduction stage, an intuitive process that kept me in constant revision of the script and direction of actors. I was rewriting the script until the very last moment."
Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson, producers/directors/editors/cinematographers, Fantastic Machine
"Finding a structure with such a large amount of material (the film is 90% archive material). Our editor Mikel Cee Karlsson came on board at an important stage of the editing process. We didn’t stop until every sequence and frame worked. Public screenings have been important to us. We use both surveys with questions, but above all it is about being in the room and feeling the audience's reactions, to understand the ups and downs in the rhythm of the film."
Luis Fernando Puente, director, I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry
"Filming during the tail end of the pandemic, we were flying in talent from Mexico to the U.S., so making sure every COVID travel regulation was met was a challenge."
'The Disappearance Of Shere Hite'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Charlotte Regan, writer/director, Scrapper
"Our film is led by a 12-year-old character Georgie. Finding someone who could shoulder that responsibility and be the anchor of the film was a massive undertaking. And then adapting the process to suit the kids (Georgie and Ali). I think filmmaking should adapt to your cast, particularly when they are young street-cast actors that haven't been on a set before. So that meant making sure our HODs were the right kind of people to create a great atmosphere, we often hid the entire crew from Lola to stop her getting nervous. So it felt like we were filming with just myself, Molly, and the boom op.
"In terms of more techy issues we had. There were no dollies available in the UK when we were filming. Molly called it Dolly gate. So we had to get inventive with our camera work. We also wanted to keep most lighting off the floor so the kids were free to use the space. We didn't block or give them marks. It meant we had to use a lot of daylight that was bounced around the rooms we were in."
Sam Osborn & Alejandra Vasquez, directors, Going Varsity in Mariachi
"We basically went back to high school for a year. We were in the mariachi classroom every day, got to know the security guards and administrators, had our favorite teachers. It's funny how some of that old teenage anxiety came back to us as we tried to get to know the students and spend as much time as possible filming with them. We would find ourselves waiting anxiously for them to text us back and let us know if we could hang out with them that weekend or something."
Frederic Van Zandycke, SBC, DP, When It Melts
"From the beginning, I knew this film was about performance. Normally I work quite stylized but this film asked for a different approach in terms of lighting. Almost non of the kids had previous acting experience so we needed to invest as much time as we could in their performance. The director (Veerle Baetens) asked for as much space as we could have and she doesn’t like too much technical stuff (lights etc) on the set so I knew I had to change the way I normally work.
"This often brought challenges and we needed to come up with other techniques to offer space but still have a little control lighting-wise. We also shot everything handheld but shooting on shoulder did not provide the right angle since the kids were smaller so I used an Easyrig for most of the shots."
Christopher Murray, director, Sorcery
"The stormy, unpredictable, and mysterious weather of Chiloe Island, at the very south of Chile."
'Murder in Big Horn'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jeff Hutchens, DP, Murder in Big Horn
"Any time you are working around such sensitive and emotionally charged situations, with people inviting you into their homes and trusting you to represent their story, you need to be incredibly aware of how you move and of the space that you create for them. Our whole crew very much felt a responsibility to be tonally right, factually accurate, and above all, humanizing and respectful of the people whose stories we were part of sharing.
"From a technical standpoint, there were a couple of atmospheric sequences when I was pulling my own focus with gloves on while walking backwards on snow-covered and frozen ground—the camera mounted on a Ronin 2 stabilizer with an 80mm lens set to f/1.4 on a full-frame sensor—that was tricky."
Noora Niasari, writer/director/producer, SHAYDA
"SHAYDA is the first Iranian-Australian feature film funded with principal investment from Australian Screen Agencies. Given that the majority of the film is in Farsi and is set in the Iranian diaspora community, there were many challenges in bridging cultural gaps to tell this story. My Casting Director Anousha Zarkesh was half Iranian but she didn't speak Farsi. For this reason, I was very heavily involved with casting from early on.
"And so, very quickly in pre-production I realized, it was impossible for me to be so heavily involved in every single department to make an authentic piece of cinema. So I did my best to ensure we had cultural consultants and meaningful input from the Iranian community into the art department, hair & make-up, as well as costume, extras casting, and the locations team. For example, my Mum made all of the Persian food on-screen and lent some of her belongings as props to the production and there were generous members of the community who brought their Persian stalls and sweets to the Fire Jumping Festival (Chaharshanbeh Soori). My cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh was Iranian-Australian too, which allowed us to have a shorthand and bridge the language and cultural barriers on set, with our Farsi-speaking cast and his camera/lighting team. Sherwin's mother was also a huge help, being involved with the House of Persia Community Centre, where we ran a great deal of auditions and rehearsals. We were in lock-step with our Iranian-Australian community, every step of the way. I am really grateful to each and every one of them for their contributions to SHAYDA."
Cory Finley, director, Landscape with Invisible Hand
"The big technical challenge of this movie was designing and realizing an alien race from scratch. Erik de Boer, who supervised the super-pig in Bong Joon-Ho's OKJA, was one of my very first collaborators on the project. We spent months (ultimately years, due to COVID delays) working with a great team of concept artists, then a rotation of variously shaped physical on-set proxies, then ultimately animators and VFX artists, to bring that creature to life. We also had to devise a kind of percussive alien language, which supervising sound mixer Gene Park invented in collaboration with a great foley team. Editor Louise Ford and I had to work out a pretty unique workflow in post, constantly shuttling sequences back and forth between editorial, sound, and VFX teams as we iterated and found the rhythm of the human/alien interactions."
'The Persian Version'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Liz Sargent, director/writer, Take Me Home
"As we reenter the fast competitive world, priorities are reconsidered. I think most about my youngest sibling, Anna, with an Intellectual/Developmental Disability (I/DD) and how the world isn’t made for her.
"This film is about a moment in time, the universal intense transition when a parent dies. But in families with disability, there is an additional complication. How do we weigh our independence with the needs of a sibling who cannot live on their own? What happens when there isn’t a future caregiving plan for the disabled? The film is not about Anna finding her voice—but people taking a moment to listen to her voice and how she can actually be part of a solution.
"Take me Home stars Anna, my sister, who was born with a cyst on her brain leaving her with little short-term memory and various degrees of cognitive and physical disabilities. This is her first time acting.
"All actors are unique, but for this film, I considered each performer's strengths and what a safe environment feels like from their perspective. This information was the guide to the schedule, lighting, and time we allow to find authentic moments. The actors improvised within the scene's structure to help hit the beats organically.
"We wanted the world of the film to be as intimate and human as possible, so we also tried to make the filmmaking around it flexible and approachable so that Anna could feel totally empowered and comfortable to have a range of emotions on camera.
"I didn’t want to write Anna’s words. In the film she talks how she talks in real life, this is how she makes sentences. I want the audience to lean in and have to figure out how her brain is working. Her rhythms. To look into her eyes and facial expressions to understand her emotional interior."
Boaz Freund, DP, The Longest Goodbye
"We started shooting in the midst of the pandemic so the first couple of interviews were shot remotely, I feel like every time you have to do that the operation becomes double the length because even simple things like moving the camera a bit or fixing a light placement can take a while to get right since you're not there in person. we had one interview that was happening in Tokyo as I (DP) was in Spain and our director was in New York.. needless to say, patience was called for. There are so many stories to tell, it was a great ride! Shooting in the Utah Desert proved challenging as it was freezing and we really wanted to work with available light so that meant starting extremely early... but we barreled through and the images that came with it were definitely worth it. I think the entire crew (of four) got so jazzed up from the picture that we forgot for a bit about the cold."
'L'Immensità'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jerry Henry, DP, Food + Country
"I shot this film and the height of the pandemic so the most challenging thing was just being able to stay safe when I was shooting. I also had to shoot most things by myself because I could not expose my family to another crew member. Eventually, as the pandemic went on, I was able to bring on my AC Joshua Makela. We shot in a pod which meant that we made a commitment that we would only shoot with each other from project to project. That meant that sometimes we would turn down jobs that we were not able to come on as a pair. We focused on keeping safe for the entire two years when we were shooting. Also, the other complication is actually shooting people wearing masks. What you forget is that communication is sometimes nonverbal so when people were doing interviews, and sometimes when they got emotional, you lost the sense of your connection to them because you could not see the facial expressions of the person you were filming. This was the hardest part of shooting because my instinct as a vérité cinematographer is to follow the nuances in people's emotions. The face is important to read and when it’s covered up, sometimes it makes it difficult to follow what’s happening. I found that also when I was shooting with the Director, Laura Gabbert, from our experiences in the past on other films, we would communicate sometimes by mouthing things softly to each other. This is extremely hard while we were in the field because I thought miles were covered because of the masks. But we did rely [on] mostly was on our trust in each other, and the relationship that we establish from the many years of working together."
PJ Lopez SPC, DP, The Fishbowl
"I think one of the most challenging moments in the production was our shooting in the Bioluminescent Bay of Vieques Puerto Rico. We had to work with natural light in a night space, as it is a protected environment. and also because we had to capture bioluminescence on camera in the most organic way. A combination of no lights at all and night time."
Matthieu Rytz, director/producer/DP, Deep Rising
"Obviously, like all productions, we had to deal with a global pandemic. But the wonderful upside of it is that we had to adapt and start working with teams remotely. For instance, as the crew was on its way to Papua New Guinea the border closed down overnight as a consequence of the lockdowns. We decided to send Blackmagic pocket cameras to local filmmakers in order to capture the scene. The point of view and the type of images we got back were fabulous and unique as it was an insider perspective, a reflection on their own realities.
"Getting the images offshore from the mining industry was a very long process. It took 2 weeks of sailing to the location in the middle of the Pacific, then 2 weeks of work on the spot with very repetitive tasks, then another 2 weeks to get back to the harbor. We did 3 trips, so the equivalent of 18 weeks of shoots. At the end of the days, we kept about seven minutes of footage in the final film."
Samm Hodges, director/screenwriter, Tender
"The opening 'shot' has 42 hidden cuts. We wanted to make the audience feel 'stuck' with Damon, he doesn't have a way out, and we shouldn't either. When we got into post, we kept finding new ways to splice the best performances together. It was a huge amount of effort that some people won't notice, but that's the joy of filmmaking."
'Talk to Me'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Olan Collardy, DP, Rye Lane
"It was a challenge capturing the essence of adventure and freedom of a story that happens chronologically in one day, while also dealing with the unpredictable and unstable British weather. The task of creating a visually bold film was made even more difficult by the added challenge of shooting during a pandemic without time-stamping the film as taking place during the pandemic. Populating the exteriors with enough people while also avoiding seeing PPE masks in the background added an additional layer of complexity.
"Our lens choice helped to alleviate some of these issues. Shooting anamorphic lenses, which while demanding in terms of composition and control, lent a beautiful and distinct aesthetic to the film. The wide scope of the shots and the bokeh helped to dissolve the background into a dreamy canvas, making it easier to hide things. Additionally, we embraced shooting low angles to take advantage of the beautiful architecture and sky in the background when we had little control over our environment.
"Working closely with the assistant director, we were able to schedule and move scenes around to take advantage of the most favorable weather and sun conditions. For scenes that played out during the day over multiple pages, we used large light sources to give consistency to the direction of light. The final look of the film dialed in during the grade to create a consistent look across the scenes, resulting in a film that felt visually chronological and captured the spirit of adventure."
Aaron Mclisky, DP, Talk To Me
"This project was always going to be a special challenge from the outset. Shooting during a COVID surge was complex, to say the least, but with the persistence of the famously titled 'Racka Racka' brothers and the creative powerhouse minds from Causeway Films we managed to duck and weave and make it through."
Sierra Urich, director/editor/DP/producer, Joonam
"This was a unique project to film for many reasons, the most obvious being that I was filming with my own family. To keep things feeling safe, intimate, and relaxed, I decided to shoot the film myself alone. This often meant a lot of tiring days trying to juggling sound, picture, and an exceedingly heavy tripod, all while trying to be in the film myself and stay sane living and shooting with my family 24/7. As you can imagine, things didn't always go so smoothly with this setup, but my moments of collapse or utter frustration ultimately became some of the most compelling parts of the film. So I suppose the lesson here is to keep the camera rolling, especially when things feel the most messy or 'outside of the story.'"
'The Tuba Thieves'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
André Jäger, DP, The Persian Version
"To me, the biggest challenge was the fact that it’s such a personal story we tried to tell. It’s the story of Maryam and her family and of course, you want to be as close as possible to how she and her mother actually remember things. On the other hand, you want to put your own vision into it. Finding the right balance was an awesome challenge and a great experience. The most challenging scene was definitely the one capturing the crucial moment in young Shireen’s (played by 14-year-old Kamand Shafieisabet) life. In order to give Kamand the right kind of emotional space Maryam knew she needed to create an intimate environment. We had a closed set where only Maryam, the actors, and I were present. It was very emotional for every one of us. In the end, the scene turned out pretty well and Kamand’s performance is just breathtaking."
Filip Drożdż, DP, Pianoforte
"While filming music performances we had to be extra quiet. We were also shooting in master shots to maintain integrity of music pieces. Most challenging was to film last moments before performance during competition without disturbing the pianists."
Laurel Parmet, writer/director, The Starling Girl
"I really wanted to shoot in Kentucky in late spring/early summer, but with that came very unpredictable weather. We had some wild thunderstorms that would shut down our production for hours at a time. There would be no rain in the forecast and then suddenly we'd have lightning and torrential downpours. Though the skies after the rain cleared were incredible."
Glorimar Marrero-Sánchez, director/writer/producer, La Pecera (The Fishbowl)
"Unpredictable events and obstacles were constant factors during the development of the film. In 2017, Puerto Rico (which is where the film takes place) was embattled by a category 4 hurricane, causing catastrophic damages across the island and shifting the priorities of many of the people involved in our production. Then in 2020, a series of uncommon earthquakes rattled the island. These two events set in motion many delays in the development process and the situation was aggravated by what would come next. Like the rest of the world, we were faced with the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which further delayed our production plans and then put an unexpected pressure on our timeline. We were about to lose part of the financing of the film if we did not shoot before the end of 2021.
"This was very challenging because we needed to develop and implement a health protocol for Covid-19. Initially, I intended to work a hybrid form allowing more instances for documentary elements, but we needed to follow the protocol that required a more controlled set. This changed my initial proposal and turned it into a much more intimate and measured one. In some sense, with this new approach, I felt unprepared, but I think this is a common feeling for a first-time feature film director in any situation. This scenario opened doors for closeness with the cast and locations due to the necessity of creating a “bubble”. We had boundaries that allowed us to go deeper in many senses and discover new catalysts. We also had some limitations with locations and we really turned that into uniqueness. A great example of that is the end of the film. That location did not have a bath inside of the house and the tree outside perfectly provided the set for the scene and revealed a deeper development of the main character. Every obstacle was faced by rewriting on set and rethinking as a tool of the daily process. The unpredictable was essential to the film’s growth."
'Young. Wild. Free'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Scott Miller, DP, A Little Prayer
"Some of the challenges for A Little Prayer may be familiar—we had a short prep/shoot schedule with a goal of 10-hour days. I was fortunate to have a long zoom correspondence with Angus MacLachlan, the director about six months before the shoot, which therefore became fundamental. We developed a shorthand and a trust, and I was able to understand his sensibilities.
"COVID chased us around while 1st AD Jake Heineke nimbly reorganized our schedule mid-shoot, and we had to embrace filming Day for Night in some challenging locations, to keep up the pace. Most of the locations were locked when I arrived, it was quick work with the gaffer and the key grip to figure out how to light and work around our main family house, as most of the windows were 2nd to 3rd story. Filming during a heat wave and the longest days of summer was a real challenge. If we had a morning / late afternoon exterior, we had one chance to film with beautiful light, which like any day on set, is fleeting.
"On a creative end, it was an interesting challenge for me to be precise; we often had long takes and locked-off frames. So the thought was, where is the right place for the camera? As I worked with the director remotely prior to the shoot, he shared his desire for the images in the film to feel as if they were illuminated from within, that the soul and heart of the characters would glow. There is a lot of darkness in the characters and the story, but not on the surface. The photography was not to lead but to accompany. While the characters in the film encounter challenges and darker times, the camera and the lighting were to accentuate the warmth and love still between the family."
Nate Hurtsellers, DP, Theater Camp
"We really tried to stay true to the spirit of documentary. We lit broadly and naturally as much as possible. A lot of practicals or daylight or overhead fluorescents swapped with astera tubes. This allowed us to cross-shoot and pivot quickly through our scene work. We wanted to give the cast the freedom to improvise and the camera the freedom to discover. Panning and zooming and 'finding' was a big part of our visual language. Anything could have a lens turned on it at any moment, so actors and crew alike had to be on their toes. I couldn’t have done it without a rockstar camera and lighting team."
Christian Vasquez, DP, OURIKA!
"The majority of OURIKA! was photographed in three days in March 2021 in a defunct hospital outside Philadelphia. There was power, but no heat and it was damn cold. We pretty much had free reign inside the hospital which was a blessing but also a challenge. I think we did a good job working with the environment rather than against it while embracing certain textures that presented themselves and embedding those in the film."
'King Coal'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Rose Bush, DP, The Disappearance of Shere Hite
"I believe that making a film is much like preparing a dazzling meal. One finds a recipe with a captivating essence of soul-nurturing insight, be it through method, ingredients, and presentation, and in the experience, often is the result of new perspective and evolution. I think the trick is to find a recipe that can guide the journey in the most simple yet bold way possible, allowing the ingredients to blossom as their most realized selves.
"Helping to make The Disappearance of Shere Hite was such an incredible privilege and involved stepping into many of the dynamic worlds that Shere manifested in her life. In collaborating with the people who shared a life path with her, our team found ourselves in homes, libraries, and sidewalks all around the US and Europe. The recipe of our film involved ambitious and specific aesthetic goals in the making of an immersive film which led us to using anamorphic lenses, super16mm film, multiple camera bodies, and a well-supplied lighting package. I firmly believe that the experience, or aesthetic, or one might say the 'look' of a film must always be as in resonance as possible with the wavelength of the on-camera contributors. There’s nothing more important than the energy in the room, and so on this film, much of the art of making it, is involved in the elegance of managing a significant amount of filmmaking tools around a sensitive array of conversations.
"The Disappearance of Shere Hite is largely built on cinéma vérité scenes that look like interviews, archival material that plays like kinetic immersive vérité, and perspective-based poetic explorations of the transcendence of time in which the memories of Shere’s closest friends, lovers, and colleagues transport her presence into our time and consciousness. The greatest challenges in making a film like this do exist during the decisive moment of photography, but more expansively, in developing a precious wavelength shared by our complete film team to help advocate for the transmission and evocation of history. I’m amazed by the leadership of this team helmed by director/producer Nicole Newnham in externalizing the continuation of Shere’s legacy beyond the point that it was censored from public knowledge. Nicole opened the doors to an intricate world of Shere’s history and impact in such a rich way that our team could embrace the urgent nature of this unfolding story, and advocate for it with every breath, footstep, and composition made by the film effort.
"Non-fiction filmmaking, in my opinion, is an unfolding of the universe, in which every crew member, on-set or not, has exponential impact in the progression of a community. It’s very much so like being on stage while being on set, and I’m so impressed with the level of humanity and insight held by this team collectively to help bring Shere’s life to cinema."
Mickey Triest & Aaron Geva, directors, Chanshi
"We had a beautiful crane shot, in which Aleeza Chanowitz (Chanshi) hovers above a street in Jerusalem. It was after a night with no sleep, a location we lost, a sex scene (!) in the middle of the stinkiest alley (!) in Jerusalem, it’s raining and it’s also the only time we fought on set. Good times!"
No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2023 is brought to you by Adobe.