Emmy®-nominated cinematographer Hans Charles talks to RED about the challenges of nonfiction storytelling, finding inspiration in stills and getting the opportunity to be in the producer’s chair.
Question: You've worked on a number of powerful documentaries that all have unique aesthetics. Can you walk us through how you create such visually different projects?
Charles: I've had the absolute joy and blessing to be part of projects that are socially significant, and I think that's something I really seek out. I try to go out of my way, at least conceptually, to think about making every project different. There are some tools that I use consistently because it makes sense within the documentary space, but I always think about composition and how we can use the space differently.
The great challenge in documentary is inherently that the rules are sort of set. It's not like narrative where you have a lot of wiggle room. There was a moment where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to face that limitation over and over again. But I realized that I was being ridiculous because those limitations spurred on so much more collaboration with other craftspeople and other artists, to think differently about making every frame.
Tell us a little bit about working on 13th, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar®-nominated documentary, and what the vision was and how you prepared.
13th is a documentary about the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, except in the case of anybody that's in the custody of the state in terms of being a prisoner. I knew that we were going to be primarily interviewing academics and journalists, and I wanted to juxtapose their environment. I went to my go-to person Arthur Jafa and asked him who are some photographers I should be thinking about. He recommended Bruce Davidson’s photographs on the New York City subway in the 1980s. It was the look I was going for -- the background, the contrast, colors and where light was popping. I put about seven images together and sent it to Ava and we really followed that vision.
We filmed in spaces that felt stark and industrial in contrast to the interview subjects who were super polished, speaking in heavy academic terms and policy ideas. It was a portraiture that I was trying to create.
Ava Duvernay has spoken about this project being very intimate and painstaking, did you feel the same?
Let's talk about Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a four-episode documentary directed by Sacha Jenkins for Showtime.
Wu-Tang Clan is probably one of the most well-known and celebrated hip hop rap groups. I think theirs is a very American story. It's about childhood friends who decided you can try to make it in this country and they do an amazing job of it and they change world culture.
We had nine central protagonists in the film and then everybody else was sort of a secondary character. So, how do I anchor the film visually for these members and then have a look different for all these other characters in the film who sort of supplement the story? There was a lot of discussion between me and the producers. How do we have an anchor look, that every time you see it, you recognize it as a group member?
I was really inspired by photographs of Jamel Shabazz. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for a documentary that I worked on called Contact High. He is so profound in creating dignity for every single person that he photographed. I always felt like his subjects were like royalty. They were always kings. They were always queens. I just felt like his photographs needed to be the emotional jumping point for what I did.
In Wu Tang Clan, you see there's a shot of the members sitting in this chair that the producers found. I remember thinking we need to have it as a huge frame. You see the whole chair and this empty space and they're almost like gods because they have this philosophy of five percent gods of the earth. So, they were God bodies, and so to me, them sitting in this chair represented their whole philosophy and that philosophy is the way they apply to everything in life.
You had a little bit more ability to shape the story with 1 Angry Black Man because you also produced that film. Will you share that experience?
1 Angry Black Man was written directed by one of my best friends, Menelek Lumumba. We are also creative partners. The story takes place at a New England liberal arts school during a black literature course. Our protagonist has had a sort of an event that has shocked him. The title of the film itself is sort of a play on 12 Angry Men which takes place in one room and so does 1 Angry Black Man. The challenge was how do we make this interesting visually in one room with the small budget. I watched 12 Angry Men and took notes and did some research.
We got lucky finding a location in the Bronx that looks like a New England liberal arts college. Once I saw the location, I knew exactly what I was going to be able to do with the film visually.
How does the location inform you?
A location really tells you how it wants to be shot. It knows its good side and its bad side. One of the things I wanted to have in the film even though the class is in real time, is that it should feel like we went almost from dawn to dusk. My gaffer Mike Wilson discussed how we could do that within the small budget. We had to use six tungsten lights that we just gelled to create a certain look in the room. We were just augmenting what the location would do naturally. I just said, ‘OK, this is what it does.’ We shot this on a (RED) DRAGON and I made sure the camera captured what I was seeing with my eye.
What was your philosophy of working with the crew, and seeing it from a producer's eyes as well?
One benefit of being producer on this film was that I took care of all post production. So, I got to sit with the colorist, sound designers, and the music supervisors. You can make decisions and you don't have to go through a hierarchy. I think cinematographers really are like producers because we're constantly solving problems for everybody. So, I knew some of the problems we could anticipate, and what I could do to make it work.
The best part as a producer was knowing that everybody below the line would be taken care of, not only fairly but emotionally. I realize we are working with people who are filmmakers in their own right. Just because you’re a grip, doesn’t mean you are not a filmmaker. I think if you treat people like the filmmakers that they are, they give all that energy to the project and the project always wins.
Do you have any advice for students and emerging filmmakers?
I think being true to yourself is almost more important than being great technically, because we all have a capacity to learn anything technically. Artistic life is based on who we are as people. Be proud of that. You do not have to change yourself in order to have an artistic voice. If you're a white kid from Iowa, or you're a person of color from the Bronx, or from Miami, or from a foreign country, that's the experience that you can bring to set and the art. That makes a difference, so don’t be afraid of that.
Hans Charles participated in a live, interactive interview as part of RED’s Behind the Look Virtual Cinematography Series on DATE. The above Q&A is an excerpt from that conversation.