“I don’t have a library of images or shots in my head,” said Iris Ng to a wave of chuckles at the first instalment of the DOC Institute’s Masters Series of the season. Ng, the great cinematographer of documentaries such as Stories We Tell, A Better Man, The Apology and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, joined NFB producer Lea Marin (Unarmed Verses) for an engaging conversation on the art of lensing documentaries. Despite drawing a ripple from the audience when noting that her brain doesn’t host a litany of ready-made shots, Ng essentially advised that there is no single formula for landing a documentary in the #OnePerfectShot meme. (I’m paraphrasing here.) Her reflections highlighted how shooting a doc is all about being with the subject in the moment and asking the right questions to interrogate the process of which a cinematographer is a part.
The theme of the evening was “question everything,” which Ng stressed unequivocally. Ng drew upon her early days studying art in high school at Earl Haig where her teachers always challenged students by asking questions about their work. By thinking critically about one’s art, Ng said, she learned from an early age how to interrogate and defend creative choices.
Ng explained that she pursued film at York because she liked the collaborative freedom of cinema, as opposed to the comparatively isolated craft of drawing or fine art. Collaboration at university, Ng added, taught the value in questioning form and technique by exposing the process of breaking everything down and reconsidering the technical components that are often taken for granted or standardized, such as frame rate, aspect ratio, and shutter speed. “I’d like to think that we can start from scratch with every project and find the right look that every film deserves,” she added.
Being quizzical about convention helps avoid cliché, Ng observed and told Marin and the crowd that seeing Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love at the Ontario Cinematheque opened her eyes to the possibilities a film could have by defying convention. “I wish I had made a film like that,” she laughed before Marin veered the conversation towards some of the films within Ng’s body of work, including docs like Stories We Tell that arguably find their own language through the viewfinder much like In the Mood for Love did in the lensing by Christopher Doyle and Ping Bin Lee.
Ng wasn’t quick to cite Christopher Doyle as someone she tries to emulate in her work, though. She explained that experiences and environments influence her work rather than other directors and cinematographers. Ng drew upon her experience of growing up with her father, an architect, who showed her unexpected designs like buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. Ng explained how buildings that could be experiences shaped through designs, lighting, and creative decisions moved her.
The first of Ng’s films to receive a case study was last year’s hidden gem Robin & Mark & Richard III, a meta-theatrical backstage doc directed by Martha Burns and Susan Coyne. Ng dissected scenes of the doc, which chronicles the collaboration between veteran theatre director Robin Phillips and comedian Mark McKinney with actress Christine Horne for an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, to show how immediacy, proximity, close-ups, and shaky handheld camerawork combined to emphasize Phillips’ intimidating presence. By contrasting two scenes, one featuring close-ups in an interior setting and another stepping away for longer shots in exteriors, Ng illustrated how the process actors through which the actors hone their craft was honoured by the camerawork giving them distance. The use of space in the second sequence, which featured rehearsals and some improvised swordplay, avoided the cliché of screaming close-ups or tableaux shots that often serves as the default for filming theatrical performances.
“We should always be thinking about who the camera is,” explained Ng while demonstrating these shots that give the camera a third-person point of view. “Why is it there? The gaze should have some accountability,” she added, relating the camerawork back to the artistic choices she defended in high school while reminding the crowd that technology can get in the way of good storytelling. The scene exemplified the value in knowing when to step back and let the action speak for itself.
The benefit of distance echoed in the scene from A Better Man, directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman, which was the second case study from Ng’s body of work. The film, which sees Khan confront her ex-boyfriend Steve about the domestic violence he inflicted on her during their relationship years before, was a three-year shoot that gave Ng a surprising range of toys to play with. However, she added that Jackman’s preference for handheld camerawork let the film breathe in its most intimate moments.
“There is something very specific about intimacy and what it means for this film,” explained Ng. “Intimacy does not equal closeness.” For a film that tackles such difficult and emotional subject matter, Ng said the shoot required knowing when to give the subjects space to talk candidly and privately, which ultimately heightened the sense of intimacy.
Ng highlighted a scene from A Better Man in which Khan reunited with a friend from her high school days, Seth, who inspired her to leave an abusive relationship. The scene was a verité-style exchange in which Ng filmed the friends as they walked around Toronto and recalled Khan’s violent relationship with Steve. During the shoot, Khan told Seth that if he hadn’t stepped in, she would be dead. Ng elaborated upon her choice to hold on Khan following this admission and let the weight of her confession sink in, rather than go for the conventional reaction shot of Seth that many filmmakers might have pursued for an emotional punctuation mark. Ng explained that her team filmed this lengthy scene with only one camera, so the processed required tough on-the-spot decisions in lieu of a broad range of coverage that might help an editor. [Watch A Better Man here]
Other branches of the conversation touched upon Ng’s work with the Canadian Screen Award winning this river and the Emmy winning Making a Murderer. With this river, a short doc about a volunteer effort to comb the rivers for the bodies of missing Indigenous women, Ng presented a long take that illustrated the film’s languid pace. These drawn-out shots mirrored the dynamic with Indigenous subjects by listening respectfully at length. For Making a Murderer, which Ng came aboard several years into production, the cinematographer explained her process of finding establishing shots and additional material where the filmmakers forgot to fill in the details. Ng dove into the technical side of things by being conscious of the technology with which the previous cinematographer shot the material and avoiding lenses and techniques that didn’t exist during principal photography.
IIn a different vein was the discussion of Ng’s best work and arguably the strongest film of her career, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. This discussion highlighted what Ng and Marin dubbed “method cinematography,” which involves inhabiting the space of a character and using the camera to find objects and elements of space that inform the story and world of the subject. This role-playing was crucial to Polley’s poetic archival film, which used re-enactments and dramatizations to fill in the gaps of the Polley home movies and further the film’s meditation on storytelling with competing versions of the truth.
Ng identified multiple cases of “method cinematography” in Stories We Tell where the camera served as an all-seeing eye from the point-of-view of an actor backstage, a child at home, or a friend at a party. She explained to Marin and the crowd that Stories We Tell required her to play Polley’s father, Michael, while wielding the camera. This process involved studying Michael Polley’s home movies to see his movements or the aspects of a scene that would typically catch his eye. Ng then mirrored Polley’s aesthetic for the re-enactments to lend fluidity to the archival elements. This form of method acting also required considering how the hypothetical cinematographers would be making these movies in 1970s. These cinematographers of the story wouldn’t know which of their friends would be the subject of Stories We Tell, so Ng had to integrate natural movement and focus with the action to draw attention to characters without being too on the nose.
The conversation circled back to collaboration as Ng elaborated upon the involved production of Stories We Tell, which included lengthy and interactive sessions where key creatives watched the mass of footage together and reflected upon the results. Nothing in Stories We Tell follows convention, and this insight into Polley’s masterpiece was the best example of questioning the norm in the service of art.
Visit the DOC Institute for more information on the Masters Series classes.