Sundance 2023 Documentary Cameras: Lens, equipment, Sony, Canon
Written by on January 24, 2023
Cinematographers with documentary films at the festival explain the camera, lenses, and look of their films playing in Park City.
Every year, IndieWire reaches out to the cinematographers behind the films premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and asks which cameras, lenses, and formats they used, and why they chose them to create the looks and meet the production demands of their films. Here are the responses from filmmakers who brought documentaries to the festival; click here to read our survey of the year’s scripted narrative features.
Films appear in alphabetical order by title.
Dir: Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler DoP: Tyler Graim
Format: 4K Canon C-Log 2.35
Camera: Canon C300 Mark II
Lens: Angénieux Optimo 16-40mm and 30-76mm, Zeiss CZ.2 70-200mm, Canon MP-E 65mm macro, Lensbaby Composer Pro
Graim: As cinematographer on “Bad Press,” my main goal was to make sure the textures, colors, and feeling of Muscogee Nation permeate the screen. The Canon image feels very true to life, but also gives me enough depth to make stylistic changes in post. We went with a slightly cooler tone on the color correction but retained the amazing colors of our locations. The Angénieux Zooms worked out great, giving me a little extra character but also the practicality of size and range. The wider focal lengths give you a very intimate feeling during vérité scenes, so the audience feels like they are right there with Angel as she’s reporting. Since we always shot interviews with a single camera, the longer zoom gave me the flexibility to change shots quickly and stay nimble depending on what was being said.
The Canon 65mm macro lens was solely used for the newspaper inserts. We were always dead-set on shooting all archival inserts practically rather than relying on digital recreations. I think it really pays off because when you fill the frame with one word from a real newspaper, the audience can feel pulp and ink on the page. It gives the shots so much more life and depth than a digital still image would. We also did some practical effects in these shots that I am very proud of — so every whip, spin, or movement you see on a newspaper insert was done practically in-camera.
“The Deepest Breath”
Dir: Laura McGann, DoP: Tim Cragg
Camera: Red Gemini 5K
Lens: Cooke 2x Anamorphic
Cragg: The backbone of the film centers around a wealth of iPhone, GoPro, and home footage, all very raw, jagged, visceral, and honest. We wanted to add to this visual palette a heightened essence of what the free diving lifestyle is like in contrast to this hyper-real home footage. Sun drenched interiors, beautiful remote beaches, glistening oceans with sun flare, and the huge space-like abyss in the deep depths of the underwater. We felt that anamorphic lenses and in particular the three-dimensional nature that the Cooke Anamorphic 2x lenses evoke would help with this heightened imagery. Blown-out highlights, rich primary color interiors, bright imagery. This film was shot during lockdown whilst travel was very restricted, and yet through huge effort on the production team at Ventureland we managed to get to Dahab in Egypt, Blue Hole in Bahamas, Nice, Prague, Rome, L.A, Mexico — beautiful places that we felt more than ever the responsibility to bring the essence of these places into the audience’s world, a virtual travel and beach escape whilst listening to the most incredible, heart-gripping story. The combination of the larger sensor on the Red Gemini and the 2x Cooke Anamorphic lenses helped hugely in creating this cinematic escape.
Dir: Matthieu Rytz, DoP: Matthieu Rytz
Format: Mix of formats
Camera: We use a wide range of cameras: Sony Alpha, Panasonic S1, Blackmagic 6K, Fujifilm GFX, industrial cameras on submarines
Lens: We use a wide range of system
Rytz: “Deep Rising” is an investigation on deep seabed mining and in that context we use a very wide range of cameras. Some undercover scenes have been filmed with cheap smartphone and some underwater footage was captured with 6K raw footage (Panasonic S1). State of the art cinematography has the power of triggering emotions. Undercover and fly-on-the-wall cinematography can create intriguing dynamics and suspense. In order to tell our story we mixed investigative journalism with emotions. The deep ocean cinematography was done with camera integrated to ROVs (Remotely operated underwater vehicle) that can go to the ultimate untouched frontier of our planet. Technical developments coupled with science brought never before seen footage of our planet to the big screen.
courtesy of the director
Dir: Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, DoP: Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck
Camera: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K
Lens: Sigma Art
Van Aertryck: “Fantastic Machine” is 90 percent archival footage. There are three scenes in the film which we filmed ourselves. They all follow a method we have developed over several films where we use the camera to capture human behavior. We approach certain scenes as if it was a study, we create setups in in which we let people interact with it. A diving platform in “Ten Meter Tower,” or a large camera obscura in “Fantastic Machine,” for example. Setting up the cameras becomes a decision of which perspectives we want to cover to best study how people behave in the setup.
The choice of cameras was very practical: It had to be small so we could change its position easily, as well as blend with the surroundings more easily, so as to not constantly make its presence felt and influence our subjects. As directors, we always start with the image in mind. We look at the role of the photographer almost like that of a hunter, capturing moments of life. In that regard the most important thing is to know where the camera should be placed and when to press the button.
“5 Seasons of Revolution”
Courtesy of the director
Dir: Lina DoP: Lina
Camera: Canon 7D, Sony HDR-CX760, others
Lens: Canon EF 50mm, Canon EF-S 15-85mm, Canon EF 70-200mm
Lina: The priority was for staying under the radar. All shooting was undercover, in very challenging situations, so the least detectable, minimalist, good quality kit was prioritized. Also, maintaining intimacy with characters was very important, especially in situations were I was part of the scene/event, so I could not focus all my attention on operating the camera and needed something simple. For instance, I loved the intimacy of the shallow depth of field of the Canon 50 prime at 1.4, but there were moments were I could not dedicate enough concentration for its manual focus, and then also moments where I simply just had to shoot with whatever I could get my hands on at the moment then and there, so I don’t even know/remember now what cameras they were. At first this was very challenging, especially when trying to cut the material together in the editing and seeing how different the look was, so I realized the Sony is just a more realistic option, especially with microphone use being very limited. Later we all just learned to embrace this as part and parcel of this type of filmmaking situation, and a true representation of the story itself.
“Food And Country”
Dir: Laura Gabbert DoP: Jerry Henry
Format: 4K digital
Camera: Sony FX9, Canon C300 MKII
Lens: Fujinon MK Cine Zooms, Cooke S4Mini Primes
Henry: I shot with the FX9 because of its superb image and capability in low light. The dual sensor allowed me to have versatility, and to be able to work at quick speeds. I was mostly solo because of COVID. We shot this film in the height of the pandemic. That meant that I had to be nimble, but also able to capture a cinematic image. The FX9’s ability to switch to variable frame rate with one touch of a button is the main feature I used the most. They have perfected it. Especially when you’re in the field shooting vérité and you want to switch frame rates, the camera does it seamlessly.
“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project”
Dir: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, DoP: Greg Harriott
Format: Canon Clog2 XF-AVC
Camera: Canon C300 MKII primarily, but also had Arri, Sony, and Blackmagic cameras some days
Lens: Zeiss Contax Primes with some Canon 2.8 L zooms
Harriott: The production of “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” was a mix of intimate vérité scenes and some more stylized poetry reading/dream scenes during production. The directors and l both wanted strong images with a focus on interesting compositions, but it’s often a challenge finding the right gear for vérité filming to keep the quality and creativity high while still being able to record long takes all day without an AC.
The Canon C300 Mark II was the sweet spot of a high-quality cinema camera that could handle the wide dynamic range we needed in a small enough body that I could handhold all day without a rig. Zeiss Contax Primes similarly were a good mix of interesting vintage glass that were still lightweight, fast, and easy to focus off the barrel. I didn’t want the look to feel too clean, so the vintage lenses paired with Black Pro Mist filters helped add a dreamlike quality to the image. Nikki has so many wonderful lamps in her home which paired well with the Pro Mist filters giving a soft glow to the highlights. For practical reasons we’d also use a set of 2.8 Canon L zooms for filming speaking events or places where my movement would be limited. For the more stylized sequences we kept the camera/lens package mostly the same, but relied on dramatic lighting and use of projectors/reflected images.
“Going Varsity in Mariachi”
Courtesy of filmmaker
Dir: Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez, DoP: Michael Crommett
Format: S-Log3.S-Gammut3.Cine, XAVC-I Codec
Camera: Sony FX9 and FX6
Lens: Angénieux EZ-1 and EZ-2 and Sigma 24-70mm and 70-200mm
Crommett: The mariachi rehearsals occur in typical cinder block, fluorescent lit classrooms, and though we wanted to be true to that environment in our wide shots, the large sensor of the FX9 helped isolate the students and remain connected to their experience within that environment. The other benefit of large sensors is they allow longer lenses to have a wider field of view. This mimics the narrow focus but wide range of vision of the human eye. This places the viewer squarely in the students’ experience whether in the classroom, at home, or in the wings right before their competitions.
Oliviero Toscani/Sundance Institute
Dir: Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng, DoP: Mia Cioffi Henry
Camera: Canon C70 and Canon C300
Lens: Canon EF and Sigma lenses
Henry: For this documentary directors Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng were looking for a cinematic and storytelling eye to create the “present day” and interview material we wanted to shoot to complement our archival footage and illustrate this personal portrait film. I drew from my love of heightened naturalism, celebrating gorgeous diverse skin tones and bringing in patient observant frames that bring closeness to the subject. We shot on Canon cameras and lenses with a minimal crew and footprint to achieve this intimate film. Coming primarily from narrative film and commercials, I really enjoyed working with the C70 for its form factor and low profile as well as the flexibility in the log image for furthering our look in the grade with our phenomenal colorist, Natacha Ikoli.
Courtesy of Andrii Kotliar
Dir: Roman Liubyi, DoP: Andrii Kotliar
Camera: Arri Alexa, Sony FX9, and Sony as7 II
Lens: Arri Lightweight Zoom, Cooke Classic zoom, Cooke uncoated, Arri Alura
Kotliar: We have a hybrid film so the solution could not be classical. We used Sony cameras for the documentary part with good quality zoom lenses. For the part with artistic recreations/fiction parts/physical theater, we used Arri Alexa with different Cooke optics — for me it was the best combination. Also we used a lot of atypical lenses, long-focus lenses from Canon and uncoated Cooke lens, for example. (Our gaffer and 1AC of this film now serve in the Ukrainian army.)
“Is There Anybody Out There”
Dir: Ella Glendining, DoP: Annemarie Lean-Vercoe
Format: 1920×1080 HD
Camera: Canon C500, Canon C300, Panasonic GH5, iPhone 12
Lens: Sigma Art 18-35mm, Sigma Art 50-100mm
Lean-Vercoe: I needed a practical compact shooting kit as I was recording sound as well as filming — so primarily solo shooting. We were often filming with a small child and filming windows were short. It was mostly observational filming and not possible to set up shots or repeat shots so I needed to be very flexible and not miss opportunities. The 18-35mm lens was the workhorse lens as I was following Ella and wanted to stay close to her on a wide lens, and feel present, as it is her story. Shooting with fast lenses and having the possibility to be able to create the shallow depth of field was important, so Ella and I could create moments of poetry as Ella reflected on her childhood whilst she carved new relationships in her adult life in the search to find someone else who looks like her and shares her unique life experiences. The small and simple camera package was the way to go so Ella and I could work spontaneously and also build our relationship together behind the camera.
Dir: Sierra Urich, DoP: Sierra Urich
Camera: Sony FS7
Lens: DG HSM Art Lens 35mm f/1.4; DG HSM Art Lens 20mm f/1.4
Urich: “Joonam” is a personal film about me, my mother, and grandmother. It is about our intimate relationships, but also about place, landscape, and home. It was important that my camera and lenses allow me to not be intrusive but still capture spaces and places beautifully.
courtesy of the filmmaker
Dir: Elaine McMillion Sheldon, DoP: Curren Sheldon
Format: 4K XF-AVC
Camera: Canon C300 Mark III, Canon C70
Lens: Voigtlander Heliar Classic, Zeiss CP.3, Sigma Art
Sheldon: “King Coal” tells the story of two different worlds: the locked-down world of a fading culture and the imaginative world of a future unrealized. We wanted to reflect both worlds in a visually unique way, and so specifically chose techniques and lenses to do so. While filming the different events around coal, we kept the camera locked-down and unmoving with clean, sharp glass. But to showcase the magical realism elements of the film, we tested quite a few vintage and modern lenses to find the look we were going for. We decided on the Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm lens, which is a new lens but with a style and look truly all its own. Paired with a 1/8 Pro Mist filter, it gave us the desired effect.
I love the Canon C300 III and C70’s sensor as well as the flexibility both cameras’ form factors give us in different shooting scenarios. While we played in the hybrid space for this film, we were often still reacting to real people at real events and so needed a camera package that allowed us to adapt quickly. The Canons give us that flexibility without sacrificing image quality and so remain my go-to package for documentary work.
“The Longest Goodbye”
Courtesy of Boaz Freund
Dir: Ido Mizrahy, DoP: Boaz Freund
Format: 3.2K Pro Res 4444
Camera: Arri Amira as A camera and Canon C300 II and Sony FS7 as B cameras for interview
Lens: Canon K35 25mm-120mm zoom and Zeiss Super Speeds
Freund: We chose the vintage glass to get in a way a nostalgic look. Given that the film explores humanity in a very high-tech, futuristic, and advanced technology environment, we wanted an image that contrasted that and would feel natural and textured. With these older and softer tools, it made the image relatable and familiar out of the box, and in comparing this set against newer and sharper glass, both Ido Mizrahy and myself agreed the image felt more organic and “right” for this story — which deals a lot with the human condition in extreme isolation — to go with the older and imperfect glass.
“Murder in Big Horn”
Jeff Hutchens/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Dir: Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin, DoP: Jeff Hutchens
Format: 3840 x 2160 XF-AVC CLog 2
Camera: Canon C500 Mark II
Lens: Leica R Summilux primes 35mm/50mm/80mm with 1/8 Black Pro Mist
Hutchens: We wanted to craft a grounded and compassionate portrayal of the underlying issues that propel the #MMIW (murdered and missing Indigenous women) movement, working as sensitively and collaboratively as possible with the families who’d lost loved ones and are still searching for justice. The filmmaking needed to feel seamless to their environment — quiet filmmaking that would elevate the voices of those directly affected but wouldn’t jump out stylistically, apart from its intimacy.
We wanted the lighting always naturalistic (which paradoxically can take a lot more work than creating an image that feels “lit”), and the interviews to always have a sense of place and feel like scenes rather than interviews, with an overarching color palette that reflected the warm earth tones of Montana. Working with hard lights, usually modified theatrical spotlights which can be aimed and controlled very precisely, I’d almost never directly illuminate a person. Instead, I’d have the light indirectly interact with their environment, either diffused and coming through windows, or ricocheted off the floor, or bounced off a wall. The key was to not notice the light, but instead to feel the light — a moody blend of intimate naturalism and noir.
I shoot with the camera cradled in front of me rather than on my shoulder because of the extra presence that change of height (which puts the camera slightly under eyeline) gives people in the frame, and because of the compositional agility it gives me to create dynamic sequences. For lensing we chose ’90s Leica R Summilux still lenses, shooting 35mm/50mm/80mm focal length primes with 1/8 Black Pro Mist filters for a slight touch of halation. Wide open at f/1.4 they dovetail in a beautiful way with a naturalist and intimate style of filming.
We also wanted to create an atmospheric sense of place, but without falling into drone clichés. So anything aerial was either static or a hauntingly slow pan, as though the camera was sitting on a 300-foot tall tripod capturing the dissonant lines and undulations carved like naturally occurring scars into the landscapes of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
“Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV”
Dir: Amanda Kim, DoP: Nelson Walker
Format: So many formats, but primarily 6K Raw and 4K ProRes
Camera: iPhone 11 Pro, Blackmagic Pocket 6K, Zoom recordings, Sony FS7, Sony FX9, Panasonic S1H, Panasonic GH5, Arri Amira, Canon C500
Lens: Arri/Zeiss 35mm high-speed mark III Prime T1.3
Kim: A large portion of the film is made up of mostly archival materials in a wide range of formats – from videos filmed with the first ever prosumer video recorder (Sony Portapak) to camcorder footage from the early 2000s. The visual language of the film feels like “everything but the kitchen sink” of camera formats, so I wanted to embrace this multiplicity when I was thinking about filming new material like interviews and B-roll. I used a wide range of contemporary video formats that I had access to, ranging from the more expensive cameras like the Arri Amira to accessible options like Zoom recordings and iPhone. The film is a wild mixed media experience that feels very Nam June!
These ideas came about by chance as I began the production at the height of COVID-19. Our reliance on Zoom and FaceTime felt very much in line with Nam June’s ambition and prophecy: to use technology for communication and human connection. It felt natural to start recording some of these Zoom conversations and incorporating them into the film. I also filmed interviews mixing the Blackmagic Pocket 6K and iPhone. Part of Nam June Paik’s mission was to make new video tools available to all artists. He thought everyone could be an artist and these two video tools represented that accessibility when I began production and didn’t have a big budget. I used the Blackmagic Pocket 6K camera with a vintage lens which created a softer cinema look and mixed it with the ubiquitous digital visual language of the iPhone. I liked playing with the contrast and placing different video textures next to each other throughout the film.
These production choices served our film thematically and visually — as an homage to Nam June Paik’s beautifully chaotic style and philosophy.
Courtesy of Filip Drozdz
Dir: Jakub Piątek, DoP: Filip Drożdż
Format: 4K Canon Log/V-Log
Camera: Canon C300 II, Canon C500 II
Lens: Oberkochen Opton
Drożdż: We conducted extensive testing before filming began. We were checking “the look” and the ergonomics of the camera in the field. Canon C300 II, combined with older Opton (and Zeiss) lenses gave us the soft look we were looking for. The ergonomics could be better , so we decided to use Easyrig for the whole shoot. The other reason was sitting position of our protagonists for majority of the time. We were often filming in dark spaces, so having fast lenses was a must. We also wanted to differ from standard television broadcasts and be close to protagonists, so such a small setup was perfect, allowing us to be mobile and ready to shoot.
Dir: Tracy Tragos, DoP: Derek Howard
Format: 4K Super35mm
Camera: Canon C500 Mark II
Lens: Cooke Panchro/i Classic
Howard: We wanted to have a technical set up that would work well for vérité style shooting, so the compact size of both the C500 Mark II camera and the Panchro lenses were a great combination. These vintage primes helped cut the sharpness of the cameras sensor and translate images with slightly less detail than contemporary glass, while maintaining very pleasing textures and gorgeous flares and bokeh. I wanted the audience to feel embedded and close with our subjects, so I favored sustained takes on either wider and longer focal lengths, generally omitting medium shots. I wanted to lean into a cinematic look with very shallow depth of field that clearly sets it apart from news reportage we are so used to seeing. Traditional talking-head interviews were generally avoided in favor of wide shots that show subjects in context with their surroundings, and extreme close-ups that isolate specific character traits. The use of long lens macro shots became especially useful when preserving certain subjects’ anonymity was important.
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”
courtesy of filmmaker
Dir: Anna Hints, DoP: Ants Tammik
Format: 3.2K ProRes 444
Camera: Arri Amira
Lens: Sigma Art
Tammik: The environment of the smoke sauna can get very hot and humid so I based my camera selection on something that wouldn’t fail in these conditions — this wasn’t the case unfortunately. The camera body was so hot, it left burn marks on my skin, but it was the best choice still due to Arri’s color and dynamic range — I was filming bare skin in a dark environment. It was amazing to see how a small reflection from skin to skin can expose inside the sensor and add so much to the overall look. For lighting, I used Arri LED and HMI lights. The smoke sauna by tradition is something very ancient, full of mystery and magic — that’s why there’s so many shadows, silhouettes and depth in the cinematography. From a narrative perspective we realized with the director that chiaroscuro was the way to go in terms of style of lighting, supporting the concept of telling untold stories.
We only used a tiny window to light the scene, bouncing light off of small silver plates in the water, people’s skin, etc. It was physically hard to shoot hours on end in temperatures of 60 to 80 degrees Celsius, in a room filled with smoke, but the group mentality kept us going. I recommend everyone try taking a sauna.
“A Still Small Voice”
Dir: Luke Lorentzen, DoP: Luke Lorentzen
Format: Arri ProRes 4444 XQ
Camera: Arri Amira
Lens: Angénieux Optimo 28-76mm T2.6
Lorentzen: From the very beginning, I knew this would largely be a film of faces. After doing a few tests, I fell in love with how the Amira with Angénieux lenses handled skin tones. Concerns I’ve had about the Amira in the past — it being too heavy or challenging in low light — didn’t apply as seriously for this project, which took place in a relatively controlled environment. I kept the lens almost always at 45mm and as close to f/2.6 as possible but needed the Angénieux zoom range for several scenarios — especially when filming phone calls, which looked best to me close up at 76mm.
I wanted my cinematography to create a feeling of being present — of being close, connected, and right there with the chaplains and patients I filmed. I shied away from images that would draw attention to themselves and worked towards a very consistent and clean style. This package ended up being an absolute dream for the job and was made possible because of the Rooftop Films TCS Camera Grant.
Dir: Zackary Drucker, Kristen Lovell, DoP: Sara Kinney
Format: 4K UHD/ ProRes 4444 XQ
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lens: Cooke S5i Primes, Angénieux zooms
Kinney: I’m deeply familiar with the Arri family from my narrative work, so it was an easy choice. It was important to have a camera that lends itself to a small build because we were hopping from handheld to sticks to Steadicam. Arri makes my favorite cameras from a color science perspective as well.
I love the Cooke S5 lenses for how they render color, as well as their contrast and how they hold detail. I found them to be very flattering on a lot of different skin tones. The directors and I wanted to create something visually bold, very colorful. We wanted the interviews to be as vibrant and visually dynamic as the women we were filming. It’s about the Meatpacking District in New York City from the perspective of the transgender sex workers who lived and worked there, and we wanted to frame it from their POV, what it looks like to them. For the B-roll, I chose a wide angle lens, and kept the camera close, and just below eye level, to give the shot a feeling of being triumphant, almost reverential.
We thought a lot about color and also texture. The film we shot was cut in with a lot of archival footage, as well as some incredible animation, so the challenge was to create a look for the modern-day scenes that would stand out but also work well when it’s woven into the rest of the film.
Dir: Nancy Schwartzman, DoP: Jenni L. Morello
Camera: Sony Fx9
Lens: Canon FDs, Canon CN-E 15.5-47mm
Morello: Nancy and I began our visual conversation with a color palette where we discussed using different color temps for interviews and how she wanted the film to feel like. As the film evolved we knew we were going to have a mix of cinematic languages from interviews to vérité to stylized scenes with each one operating under its own parameter. We were filming with an investigative reporter during her real-time investigation so we needed to be nimble and small and be able to adapt to what would happen in real-time; in addition to filming with women who are survivors and being cognizant of our footprint.
We settled on the Fx9 and the Canon FDs almost simultaneously. It was important to us that we pushed ourselves out of traditional visual boundaries. The vintage glass was something we both wanted to use to break up the feel of digital cameras and it had a bit of creaminess to its image that would provide us with happy surprises. We knew we were going to be creating some interesting looks and playing a bit with some light sources for reporting scenes. Nancy wanted to incorporate as much beauty as we could find for a film that is heavy and dark in subject matter and the FDs really helped with that. Most of our scenes were a single camera and often in small hotel rooms so for many of the vérité scenes we couldn’t use a prime, we went with the Canon CN-E 15.5-47mm. We really wanted to favor a wider shot so the audience could sit in the imagery and content.
One of the earliest conversations I had with Nancy was thinking about how to film interviews with survivors in a way that felt different. We wanted to give them power and decided filming with an eye direct would give them some of this power back. Overall, we were making a film about an investigative reporter, and “Spotlight” was a visual reference we often looked to for inspiration.