(Dr George Gittoes and co-DOP Waqar Alam shooting White Light in Chicago with Sony PXW-Z90 4K cameras.)
Award-winning artist, cinematographer, film producer, director and writer Dr George Gittoes AM has been making documentaries for over 45 years and has seen all the transitions from 16mm film to 4K. According to Gittoes, the films he shot in standard definition are now almost impossible to remarket as present day television and cable companies want to be able to broadcast HD. This in turn became one of the contributing factors in his decision to shoot his latest film, White Light, in 4K with Sony cameras.
He explained, “When I go to a store where TVs are sold many are already set up for 4K. It was not difficult to recognise that if I shot White Light with my older model HD cameras then in a couple of years the format would no longer be viable for sales. Also, as an artist and cinematographer the extra detail that’s possible with 4K is most welcome.”
White Light is a feature documentary aiming to get cinema and big screen release.
He continued, “Whatever cameras we use have to be of the highest quality, especially with detail and definition. For White Light I am using three small Sony PXW–Z90 cameras which have fixed lenses 9.3 to 111.6mm, plus Sony shotgun mics and radio mics. The footage looks wonderful and is a huge improvement on my previous work with Sony HD cameras. The compact size has enabled freedom of movement and a less attention grabbing presence when in intimate and dangerous situations.”
Gittoes has often used one of the Sony cameras as a ‘dash cam’ by fixing it to the dashboard of cars. This has enabled him to do interviews with drivers in a way that has influenced the style of the film.
He added, “On previous films we have used ultra-small GoPro cameras in cars and similar space-poor situations, but the GoPro footage has not matched our other material and was either noticeably different when cut into the story or had to be scrapped because it was jarringly out of place.”
Gittoes, like almost every other filmmaker in Australia, is also very cost-conscious when making his films. This was particularly true during pre-production and production of White Light and became another plus point for using the Sony cameras.
He said, “The kind of budget I am able to raise in Australia is generally much smaller than the kind of finance available to competing documentaries from overseas countries like America and Scandinavia. I will often find my films in competition in festivals against other finalists where their budgets allowed much more spending on production. My way of competing is to shoot everything with two or three cameras. This enables the editor to do fast-paced cutting and always avoid jump cuts in interviews. All my docos have many more cuts than is usual and that compensates for other areas where we have to economise. That said, using two or three cameras means you have to pick the right ones at the right cost and the Sony PXW–Z90 is ideal.”
Gittoes admits to being “old school” when it comes to capturing things as they happen and trying to avoid re-takes. He also relies on his long term co-DOP Waqar Alam who has been shooting films with him for 12 years to keep up with new technology and methods, such as flying their drone camera. The Sony PXW–Z90 he says, however, anyone can use.
He continued, “We have a third Sony camera with us at all times which we will sometimes leave rolling unattended on a tripod or as the dash camera in our car. At other times we will give it to some friend or someone with an extra pair of hands who is involved in a particular situation and quickly show them how to use it. One of the big advantages of these small Sony PXW-Z90 cameras is the ease with which non-camera people can successfully use them, switched to full automatic mode and get good results, without much instruction.”
On White Light there have been many days which have been largescale and fluid. The film is set in Southside Chicago which has been renamed ‘Chriaq’ due to the amount of gun deaths exceeding those during of US forces in Iraq. The local priest, Father Mike Pfleger organised a massive protest against guns and closed down the Dan Ryan expressway with thousands of marchers. This was a big shoot for Gittoes.
Gittoes commented, “In these vast crowds we needed to capture the big picture plus our two protagonists, Father Pfleger himself and the featured father of a victim of gun violence, Alan. We had an extra part time cameraman who I asked to follow Alan and the three of us knew that if the march succeeded we would all need to be at the culminating moments of breaking through the police barriers and show our characters’ triumphant after winning the moment. I found myself just an arm’s length in front of Pfleger, Jackson and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson as they locked arms and created history. A tingle went up my spine as I realised I had Jessie Jackson in my viewfinder and I was thrilled to know we had successfully shot the most climactic event in our film with perfect timing and coordination. With our small Sony 4K cameras we had managed to shoot something as big as any sequence in a Hollywood blockbuster and have production values any director would envy.”
According to Gittoes the size, flexibility and functionality of his Sony cameras were all key in creating the look and feel he wanted on White Light as he explained, “Having small unobtrusive cameras without lights or tripods allowed us to sink into the spaces like into a comfortable sofa and be unthreatening recorders of the stories and raps which come forth. I think the scenes I like the most in White Light are all in low light with a ghostly, smokey atmosphere. I cannot praise the PXW-Z90 cameras more highly for the way they captured these dark and moody interiors.”
Like any good cinematographer, the choice of equipment and cameras comes down to many things but at the end of the day it’s the results you get from them that count above all else.
George Gittoes concluded, “It was a big decision to purchase these Sony 4K cameras instead of going for larger models with interchangeable lenses as there was the chance the overall film quality could suffer but Waqar and I are delighted that by using these PXW-Z90s we have achieved such a great product in White Light. We are very much looking forward to sharing this amazing result and piece of work with cinema and smaller screen audiences worldwide.”