Production

ART OF THE SHOT: Claudia Raschke, DP for Oscar Nominated “RBG”

Think about shooting only with twenty minute windows for your next documentary? Might be a bit of a challenge.

Now that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have nominated the documentary “RBG” for an Oscar for Best Documentary now might be a great time to share this ART OF THE SHOT interview with the cinematographer who shot “RBG” Claudia Raschke. Like most ART OF THE SHOT interviews, Claudia and I talked over the phone. This is a transcription of our conversation.

For those who have been hiding under a rock,  “RBG” is a feature-length documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Here is a description from the filmmakers. “At the age of 85, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a lengthy legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon. But the unique personal journey of her rise to the nation’s highest court has been largely unknown, even to some of her biggest fans – until now. RBG explores Ginsburg’s life and career.”

Claudia is also known for her work in the Oscar-nominated documentary “God is the Bigger Elvis” directed by Rebecca Cammisa, Oscar-shortlisted feature documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” directed by Marilyn Agrelo and the recent worldwide released feature documentary “Particle Fever” directed by Mark Levinson.

Brian
What do you remember the most about the RBG Documentary shoot?

Claudia
I think the most memorable part of it was my encounters with RBG because she is so incredibly busy that it is quite difficult to have an extensive amount of time with her. So when we were shooting, no matter what we were shooting, it was fairly limited in terms of time. I would get twenty minutes with her, and when you have only twenty minutes with your main subject then every moment has such significance that the pressure is really on. There’s No, “Oh let me think about this” it is you only have twenty minutes so move fast and make your best choices. Don’t make any mistakes and you better be prepared. That pressure is I think what I feel is the most memorable from the shoot.

Brian
Do you think that kind of deadline focuses as you?

Claudia

Oh absolutely. Of course, if it’s an interview it’s a different story because the pressure is not on me at that moment. It’s really on the directors. I would have ample time to do the lighting prior to the interview. That was not the issue in terms of time. It is more so in the moments of verita (as in shooting cinema verita style). You don’t want to miss the moment and you know how organic that can be and how out of sync you also can be if you make the wrong call. You want to be in a position that you can really capture somebody’s character authenticity, you know, the emotional dynamic. At the same time, you need to be really story focused. Cinema verita is often divided into two different main subjects or topics, for me. One is only what is important for the story and the director where the director might come over and say,” oh we got this. You know I’ve got everything I needed out of the scene so move on.” You know I got my story point. Then there is the hanging out with a character as you know having that trusting relationship with your subject. Why you are photographing in their territory and their intimate space; that, from me, is usually where I get some real treasures like some pure gold of a character of that magnitude and that kind of waiting and seeing how things unfold. It’s tricky when you only have 20 minutes. So it is serving what the director needs in terms of the coverage of the story points and being very story driven. Does my shot and my camera movement at this point really tell the story in the best way? Do I get… Yes, I get the body language but do I get the emotion? Do you really get the character? Do I really bring that understanding of what she does and who she is to the audience in such a way that they feel that they are close to her? That usually doesn’t happen in a couple of shots. That only happens when you treat your cinema verite as having more time to hang out because that can only develop when you have the time. I think for me the struggle was to get all different angles to capture her. Where am I going to have that moment to really get to know her? You know where the audience really truly feels they are with her and they get her sense of humor and they get to fall in love with her. That was shrunk to such a small time in such a small window with the few moments that we were granted by the court and also by a schedule. That was a real challenge for me. I think this aspect was the most memorable because my brain was working a mile a minute having that internal dialogue, “No, hang onto the shot a little bit longer because she might just have an emotional moment right now and I need to capture that.” While on the other hand, I got to move on to another shot because I shot that already and already made the story point. You got to get more coverage; this was really pronounced when that was filming her.

Claudia
The film was shot on Canon cameras

Brian
What do you look for in a project? Like for example like RBG.

Claudia
I think the most essential thing for me is this is a very personal journey and I want to truly capture their voice. Often these are voices that have not been heard or stories that have not been told. My aim is to really capture the emotion unfolding out of whatever problem or challenge the character faces and how that fits into the bigger arc of the story of where society places them. Ultimately I have to really feel either their voice hasn’t been heard or a circumstance has not been discussed and that it is really important at the moment in life that it needs to be supported.

Brian
How did you get your start?

Claudia
ClaudiaI was a dancer and then switched over from modern dance into cinematography and that was really by coincidence. I had done still photography pretty much my entire youth and thought first I would become a still photographer. Then I was swayed by dance and I came to the United States because the modern dance community is really either here or in Amsterdam. I’m originally from Germany and so when I came over to the United States I started dancing and trying to support myself being a waitress. There was this you know a colleague of mine who was a bartender but also taught part-time cinematography at Columbia University. He one day looked at my still photos and said “wow you have a really great sense of framing and composition,” and I said, “oh really.” He said, “have you ever thought about cinematography.” I had no clue what that meant so he explained what he did and invited me on set. He said if I would be willing to work for free then he would, in exchange, teach me how to use different cameras and I could continue working on set with them for free. So I went on set. I worked my butt off. I’m sure you can imagine when the grips, the electrics, camera department, the prop department, and everybody is working in sync it is quite like choreography. The magic really happens when you get closer and the director calls action and there’s this transformation where you have created a different reality for the actors to step into and at that moment you are becoming a shadow person that is just watching in awe. That, for me, was really Claudiathe magic being at that threshold between the hard work and reality and stepping into this storytelling, this fantasy world. That just got me hooked. I didn’t want to do anything else after that. So, I decided that I would study and take classes and hone my skills. I developed being a camera assistant and continuously then went out to try to p.a. my way up the ladder and shot many many student thesis films. Joined the union, got an agent, and won awards. Then I found myself doing feature films. I did about 10 feature films and then I found myself tossing between what is really my next big role. Should I move to L.A. and do more feature films? At the same time, I also realized there are different forms of storytelling and I got the opportunity to work on some documentaries with Diane Taylor who hired me and we had many philosophical conversations.  You know when you’re working on feature films, obviously that is a whole different class of storytelling, you are a technician or even as a cinematographer,  you are a storyteller in your own right but you are very much focused on the technical aspect and you’re suggesting the camera moves and you’re collaborating with the director but the script has already been written. Sometimes you have some improv on set but it has already been written. You have a roadmap that you serve that is the script. Whereas in documentaries you are always an explorer. You’re always an explorer of human nature and explore different ways of life and different cultures. You’re experiencing things that you would otherwise never experience because you are carried by different directors to different parts of the world to different socio-economical situations. You know it’s really being an explorer when you are a documentary cinematographer, and for me that what is so satisfying and so much in alignment to what I want to contribute to a better world. With documentaries, you enable others to have a voice and hopefully educate the society of changing policies or just paying attention to things that otherwise are outside of your bubble. For me, this step of being an explorer is being outside my comfort zone and continuously learning and living and cherishing human nature and the beauty that comes forth. The truth to see the brilliance of how people get along and how they can get caught up in their thinking is endlessly fascinating to me. So I decided to drop feature films and go full force into documentaries and I have felt ever since very much that that was my true calling.

ClaudiaBrian
What would you suggest to someone who maybe just graduated from film school and is thinking about the next step? What would you suggest to them?

Claudia
I started in 1984. It’s 2018. That means I’ve been in the business for 34 years. I think looking back I realize that the first years of cinematography were all about learning the craft speaking that language, what kind of impact the camera has and what mood you can set with lighting. I’m very very grateful that I learned that way, because once you have all the toys, the cranes, the dollies, the Steadicam, the lensing, and all the lights you can ever wish for, then you take that knowledge to documentaries and I have the understanding and therefore if I’m in the situation where I have no light I know how to position myself to take advantage of what I have, or you can easily let go because in your mind you’re doing the math and you say OK this is a really dark scene but you know life has dark scenes. I can embrace that whereas when you’re starting off you’re often so caught up in “oh I have to have good exposure and I have to have key light on my subject” and that changes. So, I would say to somebody who starts out try out all the technical tools that you can get your hands on so that you have that knowledge and then see where it takes you. As an artist, you want to try out watercolors and oils and pastels before you know what fits you and what is really your way of expression. I would say experiment as much as you can with the technology and always create a playground for yourself so that you don’t box yourself and try to challenge yourself to think outside the box. Once you’ve done that enough and you feel like yeah I’ve had some play time with different tools and different circumstances or different situations then I think that will inform you to what type of cinematographer you want to be and then you can take that direction and be more focused.

Brian
What’s next for you?

Claudia
There’s always an unknown. I have several projects that I’m involved in at the very moment. I am doing a documentary about the ballet the Hockaday the Monte Carlo which is an all-male ballet dance troupe. They are very popular around the world. They have a very busy and have a huge fan base so we’re doing a documentary about that troupe. I am also involved in three other projects but unfortunately, I have signed a non-disclosure agreement so I can’t really talk about it.

Claudia


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Brian Hallett, is an award winning cameraman, editor, and producer. He has shot everything from Network broadcast news, promotional image campaigns, music videos, short films, and documentaries. Check out his reel at hallett-brian.com

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Claudia Raschke-Robinson
Claudia Raschke-Robinson

HI Brian,

Thanks for writing this wonderful article! Just one correction the new project I’m working on is called Le Ballet des Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The working title for the documentary is Ballet Boys, an American Masters PBS production.