From the why of choosing a Canon EOS C300 Mark II for The Confession Tapes to the importance of keep filming when your heart tells you to put the camera down, Meena Singh explains what drives her work and about her involvement with projects focusing on women’s empowerment.
The Confession Tapes is a true crime series exploring legal cases in which people have confessed to crimes they did not commit. The series of seven episodes – the first two covering one case – follows the narratives of the convicted, and is an inquiry into why people falsely confess, including an exploration of the malleability of memory, the hard press of “junk science,” the polygraph as a tool for manipulation, the covert use of hypnosis, and ultimately, the subjective nature of our own personal narratives.
Each episode reflects on how the accused’s false confessions were coerced by the police through inhuman, immoral, and potentially illegal tactics. The police interrogation video acts a structural spine, threaded throughout, showing how different narratives emerge over time. Critics praised the series, likening it to other Netflix true crime documentaries, such as The Keepers and Making a Murderer.
The comments about the series also suggest that “the muscle and skin around that spine are Meena’s emotionally evocative images. Meena’s talent as a documentarian is creating an empathetic gaze for the audience to use as their pathway into the story. She also deftly creates images that will expand on and contextualize the story; to understand what we’re seeing in the interrogation tapes, we need the images Meena provides.”
The positive references to The Confession Tapes along with previous work from Meena Singh, like Little Stones, suggested the filmmaker as a potentially interesting interview. The variety of her work, a keen interest in documentary, and a mixed cultural background – born in Chicago to an Indian father and an American mother – and her desire to bring affecting stories with social impact to the screen in a visually compelling way, all concur to give her work a unique perspective, explaining why she has been a long-term collaborator with award-winning directors.
With all that in mind, I asked Meena Singh if she could take the time to answer a dozen questions, those I would like to have answers to, and which, I believe, will also interest ProVideo Coalition readers. Interviews are always the result of two things: a set of questions that mixes technical, professional and human factors, and an interviewed person willing to reply to those the best she or he can. This interview was not possible without the help of everybody involved, an effort I am truly grateful for. So, without further ado, here is what Meena Singh had to say.
PVC – Who is Meena Singh, the woman and cinematographer? Please tell us a bit about yourself.
Meena Singh – I’m an 80’s kid from the suburbs of Chicago. Had a real John Hughes-y kind of upbringing. Ha! I kid, but it’s true. I moved to LA to pursue Cinematography at the American Film Institute, and have been enjoying the California sun ever since.
PVC – Which are the films of your youth, as a teenager?
Meena Singh – I grew up watching movies with my older brother, so it was a lot of Alien, Predator, Terminator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… I love Spielberg for his ability to tell the story in one elaborate dynamic camera move. Terry Gilliam, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze were all impressionable directors to me in the 90’s. As I got older I fell in love with New York’s independent cinema scene of the ‘70s – my favorite being Dog Day Afternoon. But I love all films.
PVC– When did you discover your interest for cinema as seen from behind a camera?
Meena Singh – I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark and for a while I thought I wanted to be an archeologist. Haha! What I was responding to was how movies allowed me to transport myself into a magical dream world. There’s a shot in Jurassic Park, near the end of the film, when the whole park is crashing down. The T-Rex stands at the entrance to the museum and a large banner that reads “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” enters frame in front of everything and falls to the ground. It’s such a chilling moment that in one beat illustrates the theme of the entire film. When I saw that shot, I noticed the hand of the filmmakers behind the film, whose vision created what I saw on screen. That’s when I realized I wanted to – and could – make movies.
PVC – You’ve done everything from music videos to comedy, but documentary and narrative storytelling seem to attract you the most? Why?
Meena Singh – I’m inspired by a good script or a compelling subject (if it’s documentary). I prefer long-form work, like a feature film, or “The Confession Tapes”, which I spent almost a year working on. To be able to really dig into a story or topic, to design the look and style of a whole film or series, that’s the best.
PVC – How did you become the cinematographer for Netflix’s “The Confession Tapes”?
Meena Singh – I’ve worked with creator/director Kelly Loudenberg for a couple years on different projects. We hit it off right away. I love her style – she dares to look at the other side of every story, even the less accepted or less easy to digest. She told me about “The Confession Tapes” almost a year before we started shooting, and I was in from the beginning. I thought it was a powerful idea and I knew she would handle the subject with compassion and elegance. I’m so happy to have been a part of the project.
PVC – Although different, your recent stories, Little Stones and The Confession Tapes, both create an emotional involvement of the cinematographer with the subject. How does a professional cope with that and keep filming? Are there moments when you simply have to put the camera down?
Meena Singh – Little Stones – a film that follows four female artists using art to create social change for women in Brazil, Kenya, Senegal and India – was my first documentary feature. The women worked with trafficking survivors and victims of genital mutilation, domestic violence and extreme poverty. During filming I learned the importance of capturing those moments you speak of – when you feel you should put the camera down, that’s when you should actually keep filming. It is of utmost importance for me to gain my subjects’ trust and show them I’m not trying to exploit them. When they know that, they open up and allow me to have the camera on, and it becomes a beautifully real experience between my subjects and I.
PVC – During the production of Little Stones you and director Sophia Kruz founded a non-profit organization, Driftseed. What’s Driftseed? What moved you to create it? Was it the stories you followed for Little Stones?
Meena Singh – Driftseed is a nonprofit organization founded by Little Stones director Sophia Kruz, DC based lawyer (and my cousin) Ankita Singh and I that aims to empower women and girls through outreach, education and documentary storytelling. We started Driftseed because we wanted to further the impact Little Stones could have in education and community settings. We worked with University of Michigan School of Education (CEDER) to create a comprehensive education toolkit with discussion guides and resource guides so that organizations and schools across the world can have materials available to discuss the issues raised in the film. We also provide fiscal sponsorship to other filmmakers with projects focusing on women’s empowerment. It has been a joy being a part of Driftseed with Sophia and Ankita. We do it in our spare time, whatever we can give, because we feel the need for women’s stories to be told and for female documentary filmmakers to be represented.
PVC – In Little Stones, as Sophia Kruz mentioned, you play with details, visual transitions and juxtaposition. The Confession Tapes trailers show sequences of images, abstract imagery, that will expand on and contextualize the story. This seems to be constantly present in your work. It’s not just the technique, it looks as way to see the world and share it with others, somehow similar to a writer’s style. Is this “Meena’s style”?
Meena Singh – My work is always driven by story; I try to always keep the story and characters in mind when crafting the visuals. For “The Confession Tapes”, the challenge was to explore very complex cases, to examine them years after the fact from different angles, like in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a film that tells the same story from 3 different perspectives. We would come back to a location where the crime occurred – or in one case the site of a perp walk set up by police that became a media blitz causing a public confession – and we would shoot the space from different angles as different peoples’ memories were shown to coincide or conflict. The show is about false memory and manipulation of the mind. We focused on making mundane images that we see all the time unfurl and become abstract.
PVC – Little Stones reflects on the stories of four women whose lives are dedicated to empowering survivors of gender-based violence. Although in a different setting and away from the glitter of Hollywood, do you feel these stories, somehow, relate to the “little stone” which the movement #metoo represents?
Meena Singh – The movement #metoo is a powerful but horrific one in that it shows the massive scope of the issue. The Little Stones subjects try to make the problem and its cure more manageable by helping the people they can actually reach, bringing it down to their local level. There’s a quote that inspired the name of the film, by Alice Paul, famous activist: “I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.” The takeaway is that we can all do something to expose violence against women, and it can be something as simple as making people aware that there is a problem. As a filmmaker, that’s where my energies are best focused.
PVC – For Little Stones you traveled with a Canon C300 as your kit. You used the Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark II for The Confession Tapes. Any special reason to choose the C300?
Meena Singh – Canon made a great camera in the C300 MKI. It was built light for travel, but also with all the bells and whistles you need for long form documentary filming and professional shooting. I love Canon’s color space, and I see it in the well-rounded skin tones of my subjects. They are above and beyond in that regard. The C300 MKII follows suit, and I’m happy to see that Canon listened to our complaints and fixed the quirks in the first model. As documentary operators, our camera becomes an extension of our hand, and we get very specific about how we want our tools configured.
PVC – Besides the cameras, which equipment did you carry with you for those two documentaries? Was the team size responsible, at any time, for the choice of cameras, lenses and other equipment?
Meena Singh – You need to travel light. You need your equipment close at your fingertips. But you also want to get the best image possible. I used Canon’s Lightweight Cinema Zooms 15.5-47mm and 30-105mm T2.8 that gave me the best range and are incredible glass for the weight. I had 2 LitePanels Astras w/ Snapgrid soft boxes and customized the camera accessories from a many different companies to work best for me.
PVC – What’s next for Meena Singh the cinematographer? And the woman?
Meena Singh – I just wrapped a special for Adult Swim called “Mother May I Dance With Mary Jane’s Fist,” written, produced by and starring Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Artemis Pebdani from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – it’s a hilarious and raunchy spoof on Lifetime TV movies. Quite different from “The Confession Tapes,” as I’m sure you can tell by the title!
One final note
On December 6, 2017, filmmakers Meena Singh and Kelly Loudenberg will be at Canon Burbank to discuss their collaboration on lensing Netflix’s “The Confession Tapes”. According to the information provided by Canon, Kelly and Meena will share their process in designing the visuals of the show; original look book, re-creation B roll, how to film 6 complex murder cases in over 15 cities in 50 days -, capturing sensitive interviews in the moment, true run and gun documentary filmmaking. Follow the link to find more about this free seminar included in Canon’s Live Learning program Professional Development Seminars & Workshops.