Producer/director Lesley Chilcott called on DP Logan Schneider to capture the images she needed to tell this story.
By Randi Altman
Lesley Chilcott makes documentaries. Some as a producer, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman and It Might Get Loud, and some as a producer and director, such as her latest, A Small Section of the World. The project is about a group of women in a remote part of Costa Rica who started a coffee mill… and a very successful one at that.
Chilcott got involved in the project when Greenlight Media and Marketing in Los Angeles told her about ASOMOBI (The Association of Women of Biolley) and their micro mill built on top of a hill in Costa Rica. They sell their beans to Italian coffee company Illy Cafe. “My husband and I have a small farm in Costa Rica,” explains Chilcott, “so I was especially intrigued by their story, and the fact that it is a coffee mill run by women.”
What started out as a short film turned into a feature because Chilcott found the women at ASOMOBI and their story so compelling. The film combines freshly shot footage, via DP Logan Schneider (more on him in a bit), in addition to archival and stills. Chilcott admits that it’s always a challenge when a big part of your story has already happened.
“Luckily for us, some small news stations had shot footage early on, as had a group of early volunteers and family members of the associates that founded ASOMOBI. Logan and I were taking great pains to shoot with the Arri Alexa and carry around prime lenses for all the new footage so the archival footage, some of it from old camcorders, really stood out.”
Chilcott and her editor Chris Catanach played with a few ideas but ultimately shrunk down the archival and created a smaller window for that footage. “Some of the older footage was really great in terms of telling a story, so I definitely wanted to use it.”
She readily admits that having the right DP, one with similar sensibilities and way of working, is a critical part of making a film like this. “Since you are often following events as they happen, you have to work out a plan beforehand so you can react quickly. We’ve developed a shorthand over the years, and Logan and I sat down several times during the project to make sure the camera and lens choices were what was best for furthering the story.”
They also did some tests on how best to shoot extreme close-ups of the coffee process. “I wanted people to really understand all the hard work that goes into making a cup of coffee, and Logan had some great suggestions on how to capture this without making it overly polished.”
She calls Schneider’s verite work amazing, especially considering he was carrying a not-too-tiny Alexa on his shoulder most of the time. “He would be running after people in the field picking coffee, or roasting coffee, and he was still able to pull focus and follow what’s important for the story — not just what makes a lovely image. I also trust him to change framing regularly in really intense interviews when I don’t want to break focus with who I am interviewing. I generally prefer one camera to two — you then have to change framing regularly so you have edit points, but never in a crucial moment.”
She says this is a unique skill that Schneider has. “Documentaries are really challenging — not enough time, light, crew, money, gear, etc. — so you have to bring the minimum possible that won’t compromise what you need to capture. I feel like Logan really gets this and doesn’t let it hold him back. He’s a great planner but also brilliant on his feet. I’m really proud of the way this film looks.”
After talking to Chilcott about Schneider, whose credits include the recent No Doubt Push And Shove video featuring Busy Signal and Major Lazer, in addition to A Small Section of the World, it seemed only right to reach out to him directly to talk about how he works, on this documentary in particular. (And if you want to see A Small Section of the World, it is now available on VOD via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Comcast’s Xfinity TV, Google Play, Sony PlayStation, Time Warner Cable, Vudu, Xbox Video and VHX worldwide.)
How much of what you do is documentary work?
I am fortunate to be involved with many different types of production. I would say that documentary shooting represents about a third of my work. The rest is a mix of commercials, sports and narrative work.
Why are you so well-suited for docs?
My years as a union focus puller in Los Angeles have allowed me to bring a cinematic approach to my documentary work. I’ve been lucky to watch many brilliant cameramen work and, to the extent that I can, I try to approach documentaries with the same visual discipline that I’ve experienced on so many Hollywood sets.
What attracts you to documentaries, such as A Small Section of the World?
To me, documentaries are my chance to have a positive effect on the world. I enjoy the challenge and limitations of the small crews and the quick thinking that’s necessary. Additionally, every documentary that I’ve worked on has served as a sort of continuing education. The people that we interview and follow are often the very brightest in their field, or they have extraordinary experiences to relate. At the start of this documentary I knew almost nothing about the source of coffee and the circuitous path that it takes before it reaches our cup.
You have a diverse resume, with all sorts of projects, can you talk about how you approach each project differently?
Every project has different requirements. Commercials and music videos are primarily visual. Feature films involve a balance between visuals and performance. Documentaries range from following a subject for years on a small camera to other approaches with much higher production value and a more scripted shooting plan.
Ok, let’s dig into A Small Section of the World. How early did you get involved?
One of the real pleasures of this film was that I got to be there for every shoot day. That is very rare in documentaries. Lesley told me about the project a month or two before shooting began and we were able to develop the visual approach together, although we benefitted greatly from a shorthand developed from over the years.
What kind of direction did you get from the director?
Lesley and I have worked together for years, and we share an aesthetic. I am often able to get the shots and style she wants without too much talk. Lesley did want a less slick look than some of our other projects. She also asked for a slightly floating tripod for the interviews so that would match the handheld in the rest of the film. We also talked about what many people call “b-roll.” I don’t believe in b-roll. Those shots have the same importance as any other, and we approach them as such. If the interviews and verite are the prose, this is the poetry that brings the viewer past the literal and helps them connect with the soul of the project. Thus, we call this VP, or visual poetry.
You called on the Alexa for the project. Why did you choose this camera, and can you also talk lenses?
I shoot almost every project with the Arri Alexa. It is a heavier camera, and has certain limitations, but it allows me to think as I used to with film. I can focus on the idea and know that the camera is capturing what I see with my eye, and in a beautiful way. I don’t have to fuss with it. It also allows me to use the lenses that I want. This project was shot almost entirely on prime lenses, except for the interviews and the conference at the end of the film, which demanded more flexibility.
Where once we had different film stocks, processing and filters to affect the image, with digital it is really lenses that imbue the image with a distinct look. For Costa Rica, I brought a set of Cooke S2/S3 Speed Panchros. These are 60 years old and they brought the jungle to life by blending the colors and softening the digital image. The result is a very warm, organic feeling that feels as divorced from the technicality of the cameras as the coffee farms themselves. The lenses bloom and flare and soften around the edges like a portrait from 1800s.
This contrasted with our shoot in Italy, where I brought Leica Summilux-C lenses, which are the sharpest, cleanest lenses available. For these women, several of which had never traveled outside of Central American, I wanted Italy to feel like a different world, much more refined and developed than the mountains where they travelled from. This change in look also mirrors the journey of the coffee. The Leicas emphasized the modernity of the processing at Illy Cafe, while maintaining a beautiful elegance… that is one of their great characteristics.
All of the interviews were filmed using my Nikon/Optex 50-300 T4.5. This is a very rare lens conversion, but is absolutely beautiful. It is very sharp, but has a warmth to it that makes it perfect for interviews. Many of the newer zooms feel very sterile, while this zoom has real life to it. It is also very small, as opposed to most PL-mount zooms in that focal range. This was a nice balance between the Cookes in Costa Rica and the Lecias in Italy, and as a result the interviews provide a visual through-line for the film.
Finally, part of the title sequence used the “Deep field macro” from Clairmont Camera. It allowed us to fill the entire frame with one drop of coffee, which was a great, surreal way to begin the film.
What informs your work? How much of that is the photography itself?
I love films like There Will Be Blood, All the President’s Men and Manhattan, among many, many others. These all have a real discipline to their photography. I loved having the opportunity to shoot this film on prime lenses, and I really appreciate Lesley trusting me in that decision. With a zoom lens, you are alway popping in and out to get shots, covering everything easily.
With a prime lens, you have to ask, “What should this shot be? How should it feel? How would I shoot this if this were a narrative film?” In a narrative film, you don’t usually pop in on a 200mm for your close-up. You walk the camera in and shoot on a lens with more presence. I shot most of this documentary on a 40mm. As a focal length, it is a slightly glamorized version of what we see with our eyes, which would be closer to a 32mm. It also helps to connect subjects, such as in an over-the-shoulder or working with a tool. The hard part is that you need to physically move the camera to change your shot, and as a result you run around more and end up missing some things that happen. It is a balance and it’s not right for every project, however I really feel that if you are making a film for the big screen, as we were doing here, it is important to provide a cinematic experience for the audience, otherwise why go to the theater?This often requires taking the harder route, as with the prime lenses.
How did you work with the colorist on the film?
Leo (Leandro Marini) at Local Hero Post was fantastic. He has a wonderful eye, and is very, very fast. With Leo, I didn’t have to worry about getting the film to look as good as it did in my viewfinder. I only had to focus on how to take it further. This sounds simple, but finding a starting point in a color session is often a bit of a project and can really slow down the whole process.
What was that workflow like?
The workflow was very simple. We shot ProRes 4444 on the Alexa’s SxS cards. This was then transcoded for the Avid by a DIT and then we went back to the original files for the color timing.
What were some of the challenges on this doc in particular and how did you solve them?
To me, the hardest part on any documentary is learning the subject in order to make smart, informed choices with shooting and lighting. There is very little time to talk about specific angles and coverage, so it is very important to have an understanding of why you are shooting something in a specific way. I had no idea about what was involved in processing coffee. I had to learn the pieces so that I could make good choices and create a visual arc following the coffee’s life as it changes from a sun- and dew-kissed cherry to a roasted bean 5,000 miles away.
Is there any particular part that you are most proud of?
I am very thankful for the trust and the working relationship that I have with Lesley. She is incredibly smart and has excellent taste, so it really pushes me to be better at my job. I believe that this shows up on the screen and that is a wonderful feeling.
Looking back on the production and knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?
I don’t know that I would make any significant changes if I were to shoot this film again. Besides a few little lighting tweaks and little operating errors, I feel very good about the way we approached and shot this film. I had a great time.