Production

ART OF THE SHOT: “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” DP Kristy Tully

Learn how Kristy travels with gear, what she looks for when lighting interviews, and what light she still uses after all these years

With production credentials like these: “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA”, and “The ACLU Freedom Files”  is it clear why director Janice Engel connected with Director of Photography Kristy Tully for her documentary “Raise Hell: The life and times of Molly Ivins.” The sometimes camera operator for episodic shows like “Big Little Lies“, “I Love Dick,” and “Transparent” brought her history as a gaffer as well as her deep production experience to the film.

“Raise Hell” is the story of Molly Ivins, the fearless journalist and Texas maverick who spoke truth to power and stopped at nothing, not even death threats, to do her job. Six-foot-tall with flaming red hair, Molly used humor to skewer the powerful, protect the helpless, and to shine a light on bad government.

Perhaps feeling a kinship with the female truth seeker at its center, Kristy told us that this was one of the most inspiring shoots she had the pleasure to be a part of in the documentary world.

“Raise Hell” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and will be screening at the SXSW festival as a festival favorite.

Brian Hallett
How did you keep the number of interviews consistent across multiple locations?

Kristy Tully
It was a really great colorist, Luke Cahill. It turns out we both graduated from the same film school, SUNY Purchase, and that gave us a quick shorthand with each other even though we went there at different times. I spent a couple of days with him specifically trying to match all the different elements together. There were some interviews other people shot; there were some interviews that got shot on different quality of cameras, too. The director and producers started shooting this documentary in 2012 by themselves with a Canon 5D or perhaps a prosumer camera. On documentaries, often times you don’t get an opportunity to sit in a color suite with a colorist. I think to be able to do so really helped.

Brian Hallett
Tell me about the gear you used?

Kristy Tully
I went with the Canon C300 Mark I and eventually the Mark II when it became available. I usually try to use Zeiss primes for interviews and Canon zooms for b-roll when you don’t have as much time to switch between prime lenses. That’s another way I tried to keep the interviews consistent in look because that would dictate shooting from a similar distance and giving the image a similar feel.

Brian Hallett
Did you shoot solo or hire a crew?

Kristy Tully
For Texas it was mostly me. Sometimes we were able to pick up a friendly local who had, you know, anywhere from zero experience to being a pro. It technically was just me. When we got to New York, I was able to hire a person with some gear who could help me set up which was incredibly helpful, Tom Chavez. My experience in the film business was as a gaffer for many years before I start shooting. Lighting is the easy part for me and sometimes I’m more comfortable just working by myself. Everybody who helped was super great and helpful. A lot of people came to the project because they love Molly Ivins and they’re from Texas. They grew up knowing about her and feel very strongly about her to this day. And again, our colorists was really great and I want to give him props for blending six years of interviews together!

Kristy Tully

Brian Hallett
Did you shoot 4K? Did you shoot 1080HD?

Kristy Tully
I shot 1080HD. I started with the Canon C300 Mark I and those cameras are all eight bit. Eventually, we moved the C300 MKII, which is 10 bit, but for the most part, it was the MKI.

Brian Hallett
What’s it like coming into a project with interviews already shot?

Kristy Tully
I had a long talk with the director, Janice, to discuss what she had done, what she had liked and what she wanted to improve on. A lot of this was her and her friends grabbing interviews when they could, but Janice had a strong passionate vision for what she wanted it to feel like. It made it really easy to go with her vision and come up with a way to shoot interviews. I also had in the back of my mind that the with great color correction, we could make it feel even more cohesive.

Brian Hallett
Describe your process. When you arrive at the shooting location what is the first thing you do?

Kristy Tully
Usually, when I show up at a location and first meet the subject, the director starts a conversation with them and I start roaming. I try to find a room or space that has some context to the story. I feel that this helps lend more information to the interview so that what you see in the frame helps you develop additional insight. Also, I’m looking to see if there is anything that could help us, like a window in the perfect place. Sometimes you find a room that’s perfect because it gives you context, but you know it’ll be really challenging because it’s small or there isn’t any natural light. After I find an option, I usually bring over the director and we talk about it and start placing chairs in places to find the best frame. Then, I start lighting it. Once the lighting is in the ballpark I want, I’ll have the person sit in to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything that might be challenging for them, like the color of their hair or their facial features and adjust from there. Then, I finish lighting and check the sound level. The way Janice and I worked is she would put the Lavalier mic on people while I was finishing lighting, which was really helpful. After they sit in I would then just assess what to do next. If nothing else needs attention, I will use some oil blotting tissue to matte their face. For me, the easiest way to soften and even out the lighting is really just by de-oiling the people’s faces. If I needed to, I could break out some neutral powder and a big brush too. Then we roll.

Kristy Tully

Brian Hallett
People love to talk cameras.

Kristy Tully
I consider cameras to be more in the realm of film stocks. Canon has a really specific look. Sony has a really specific look. Arri has a really specific look and a RED camera has a specific look. A few of these interviews were shot with a Sony and when those clips would pop up in the color correction session, I would know immediately it was from a Sony camera and then we would work to blend that footage in with our Canon footage. I did some tests between the Sony and the Canon and lenses and filters for a documentary I did before this, Feminists: What Were They Thinking. Coming out of those tests, I thought that the Canon C300 Mark II had nicer, warmer skin tones, which is what I felt like that movie needed. I felt like the Canon look complemented the look of Texas, the big sky, and the warm tones. It just felt truer to Texas to me. I feel like Sony is really beautiful; it’s a true neutral look and it’ss really crisp. Canon has more of a creamy warmth to it that I think really lends itself to documentary filmmaking. And, the camera’ss ability to shoot in very low light was really helpful. At this point, I think I just know Canon like the back of my hand. For me, if you can take away all the technology and just be able to film, you do much better. So, whatever you’re comfortable with is almost better because then you don’t have to worry about some button you might forget about.

Brian Hallett
How did you find this project?

Kristy Tully
The editor of a movie I shot, “Feminists What Were They Thinking” was consulting on this project. She said to the director to give me a call and she did. We hit it off over the phone.

Brian Hallett
How long was this shoot for you?

Kristy Tully
I think we did a couple of weeks in South Texas, then a week in Austin, Texas. Later, we shot a couple of weeks in New York and then a few days here and there in Los Angeles. It wasn’t all at once.

Brian Hallett
How do you manage traveling with your gear?

Kristy Tully
Kristy TullyTravel as lean as you can but have everything you might need. I try to get a layout of all the situations we will be in and I try to come up with the leanest package that will make it easy to flow between all the different situations. I know that I can personally manage three cases in and out of airports. Sometimes I’ll just travel with the old doc kit which is like a bunch of photo correct bulbs from daylight to tungsten and sockets and dimmers. Sometimes that is the easiest way. You shoot naturally and you change light bulbs in the house. I have this Rifa Light I bought in like 1995. It was like the first thing I ever bought when I was a gaffer. It’s so old I had to have it retrofitted because now you can screw in an attachment and use a Kino Flo bulb. In Texas, for example, I took my Rifa with the Kino Flo adapter. If the shot was tungsten I could just open up the umbrella but if it was daylight I could just pop on this adapter and screw in some Kino Flo daylight bulbs. You know the trip through Texas was really amazing and fun. For me, at least in documentaries, a lot of my work is really emotional and really heart wrenching and can be really heavy on the soul. But I feel documentaries are important because of what they let the average person see. This project was just so much fun and Carlisle, Janet and I had the greatest time driving across Texas, meeting Molly’s friends, talking about speaking truth to power, and meeting so many amazing poignant and articulate people. People who really like taking Molly Iven’s work to the modern day of speaking truth to power was really inspiring. It was one of the most inspiring shoots I had the pleasure to be a part of in the documentary world.


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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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