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DP Benjamin Gaskell Shoots the Latest Installment of the Witness Project Documentary Series with a Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K

Gaskell captured the story of Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015, as part of the eight episode series 

In late 2015, Smock Media, a Venice Beach-based film and VR production company, and the Victims of Communism (VOC), a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization, came together and started The Witness Project. Beginning with a two-episode pilot that told the tales of life in communist regimes, the Witness Project debuted at a screening at the Library of Congress and began the greater journey into the victims' stories and inherent strength. Building on that success, Smock Media and VOC decided to expand the series into an eight-episode arch for 2016, with even more slated for later years.

DP Benjamin Gaskell was brought on to tackle the first episode of the second installment, which would set the tone for the rest of the documentary series. The episode focused on Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015 and 2016, and her story. 

Gaskell explains, "The point of the Witness Project is to humanize people's experiences and allow viewers to better connect with them, so awareness can grow. The series focuses on how these 'witnesses of communism' have gained a greater understanding of what unity, peace and freedom means after having it taken away from them, and what we can all learn from that.

Benjamin Gaskell with Anastasia Lin

Shooting a documentary series like this can be tricky because you need to capture heavy emotional stuff while also offsetting it with a poetic tonality. You need to hit the right balance because its intense material, but you don't want to overwhelm the viewer because then they won't properly absorb it."

Utilizing Multiple Locations
Gaskell and the rest of the production team only had two and a half days for the episode's principle photography with Lin, which covered three primary locations. 

"While shooting, we used a soundstage with a living room set for interiors and two contrasting locations for exteriors: an urban location with lots of high rises, and a wide open wheat field with beautiful rolling hills," says Gaskell. "The urban location was shot in downtown L.A. and had lots of concrete and steel textures with contrasting lighting. The rolling hills of wheat allowed me to explore a lot more rich colors and gentle gradations from the setting sun. Then I created a look on the soundstage that had a combination of both of those exterior environments, with concrete and metal urban textures that were paired with warm amber and subtle blue hues."

Getting the Most from the Camera
"When shooting a documentary, it can be very difficult to capture moments that are either aesthetically beautiful or meaningful to the story. However, it's much easier to get an audience to identify or experience visual or emotional metaphor if something is aesthetically beautiful. 

We had a very small window to capture these moments of metaphor and beauty with Lin, so we needed a camera that flexible and provided the right cinematic look. I wanted to create a meaningful experience punctuated by moments of cinematic beauty, and the camera was essential to that," explains Gaskell.

With that in mind, Gaskell selected a Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K PL as his camera of choice for the shoot. "The camera system was the perfect paintbrush for me to create this portrait based on the project's tight timeline, budgetary constraints and my artistic intentions.

"The URSA Mini 4.6K's uncompressed RAW format and dynamic range allowed me to have a lot of control over just how the colors, textures, tonal values and contrast ratios came together in the final grade. This level of control really helped in achieving my artistic vision.

For example, I spent a lot of time testing and creating my own customized lens filters to augment both my lighting design and how the lens flaring properties can be changed to create a different look. It's something that's quite subtle but is very fulfilling as an artist to bring to the table because it gives our story something unique and organic," says Gaskell.

"From early discussions with Adam Hawk-Jensen, the director, I knew I wanted to shoot on these old Soviet-era anamorphic, square front lenses, Lomos. They allowed me to create something that was more visually immersive and had a greater sense of emotional gravity than the Witness Project's pilot episodes. Shooting in a RAW codec or at least in a 12 bit 444 color space was critical to achieving this look. 

"The URSA Mini 4.6K allowed for an incredible amount of flexibility. We were able to quickly switch in and out of shooting in slow motion and it only took us a moment to switch from the anamorphic lenses to the standard Zeiss CP2s. Not to mention that knowing I was capturing RAW the entire time gave a great amount of control and flexibility when it came time to color grade, which was done with DaVinci Resolve Studio," continues Gaskell.

Adding Impact through Vintage Inspired Visuals
"Another thing I wanted to capture was a reenactment scene from a moment in Lin's life: her practicing Chinese calligraphy at home. This moment served somewhat as a visual benchmark for how far I would push the style into a vintage and antiqued feel compared to something more conventional. I knew that the color saturation values paired with specific lighting choices would be essential for instilling this sense of time and place within Lin's story.

"So right away the remarkable color rendition and RAW capabilities of the URSA Mini 4.6K gave me access to an extra layer of control and intentionality I wanted to have as a cinematographer. I would be mindful of this during my location scouting, lighting discussions, wardrobe selection notes, and certainly throughout principal photography. It all came together beautifully.

"The affordability of the camera system also had a big impact on the look of the project. It meant that I could shift money towards my lighting budget for the project, which meant it was much easier to create the kind of look I wanted to craft on the soundstage with warm, gentle sunlight falling onto a window. We shot most of our footage in RAW, but we did shoot that interview in Apple ProRes 422 since I had so much control over my lighting design. It's a cool feature to have within the camera system, switching between RAW uncompressed, 12 bit, or 10 bit compression codecs," Gaskell concluded. 

Witness Project: The Story of Anastasia Lin was screened at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. in October 2016 and premiered at The L.A. Little Theater in Los Angeles, CA in November 2016. 

About Benjamin Gaskell
Benjamin Gaskell is a professional director of photography and member of the Society of Camera Operators. He has attended the Global Cinematography Institute, which was founded by Yuri Neyman, ASC and the late Vilmos Zigmond, ASC. Along with shooting films, Gaskell also teaches workshops on video and film production. He's been working in the film industry for 10 years and has DPed a number of feature documentaries, including "Honor Flight" which broke the world record for "The Largest Film Screening in History" in 2012 with a crowd of almost 30,000.

Prior to living in L.A., Gaskell worked as a DP in Washington, D.C. where he worked on various documentary and advocacy films. His work appeared on programs such as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

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Related Keywords:Blackmagic Design, Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K, Victims of Communism


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