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Supremely Interesting: The Interviews for ‘RBG’

"We'd ask, how can you make each person that contributes to this story stand out and give a sense of who they are, not only by what they're saying, but also in terms of the location and how we shoot them."

At 85, diminutive Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a long history of arguing and winning women’s rights cases, of writing historic decisions as a powerful voice on the Supreme Court and has become a pop culture phenomenon, the Notorious RBG, mobbed by fans—not only of people who appreciate her work on behalf of women’s rights but also by those who admire her determination and outspokenness.

The documentary RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, takes a look at Ginsburg’s life and career through a combination of archival material and interviews with people such as Gloria Steinem, NPR Supreme Court correspondent Nina Totenberg and the Justice herself. Cinematographer Claudia Raschke discusses her approach to shooting the interviews for RBG.

How did you prepare for the shoots?

The edit started quite quickly after we started shooting so the filmmakers were going through all kinds of archival footage in order to figure out how best to construct her life, from both the personal and professional perspectives. So knowing that the film would be built around the material they were finding, we thought about the interviews in terms of capturing some of the “characters” that would create the outline of her life.

We’d ask, how can you make each person that contributes to this story stand out and give a sense of who they are, not only by what they’re saying, but also in terms of the location and how we shoot them. So [directors] Julie and Betsy and I, once we had the confirmation that an important person of interest was going to be interviewed, we would scout locations and walk around very diligently asking, “What can we do with this? How does it translate into the role this ‘character’ is going to play? What kind of cinematic approach can I suggest that would support it? So, pre-scouting was a huge part of it.

What kinds of features were you looking for?

When I go into a location, the first thing that I look at is the orientation of the windows. It’s always a wild card. How does that affect the light in the space? How’s that going to change over the course of the day? What time is the interview scheduled for and where is the sun at that point? What is outside the window that might be reflecting something unwanted like cars driving by that could catch a glint of the sun and create a distracting highlight?

Then I figure out how I can position two cameras for an interview and find two promising “canvasses” for the background [in each shot] that we like. Then I can kind of carve out a space for our subject. It’s a lot more to the storytelling than just choosing a location at random because locations can make or break your visual opportunities.

Does that mean you just used available light for the interviews?

We used lights. But that’s where I like to start. For quick setup, I have a standard little documentary package which consists usually of two Kino Flo [4foot-4bank with daylight or tungsten bulbs, a 1 x 1 LED [Astra], a reflector, and 300 and 650 Fresnel-tungsten light. So I usually can manipulate those few units to work with whatever is available in the room. But believe me, sometimes there was no choice and I had to create everything from scratch and then it really helps that you have a cinematic approach. It naturally is very important to have a good crew. I had mulit talented crew, including Peter Nicol [AC, Camera Operator, and Mike Wilson in DC [gaffer and camera operator] and Alan Hostetter in NYC (Gaffer and B-Camera Op).

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I used Canon Cinema Primes. My favorite three were the 35mm, the 50mm and the 85mm. And for the cinéma vérité scenes, we used the 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm Canon EF zoom lenses. I was very impressed by the Cinema Primes for their superb rendering of highlights, radiant skin tones and their sharpness.

I shot most of the interviews at a T2 for shallow depth of field which helps bring the viewers’ attention to the face and then, depending on how close or far away your background is, you have a different sort of bokeh. Whenever you frame something, you think in terms of how you can lead the viewer to where the most important information is. You guide them. And focus is definitely one of the tools for that.

Some documentary interviews tend to move the camera around a lot and frequently they’ll have a B-camera at some pretty extreme angles to the subject. You seemed to have taken a more traditional approach to camera placement and movement.

I want to maximize the two angles we’re getting. If you have the eyeline very close to the A-camera then you can set your B-camera just slightly off, I would say 25-30 degrees to the right or the left, to capture a tighter frame where you still see both eyes so it’s not a profile shot and it’s not quite a portrait shot. 

The most important thing is to be able to capture the person’s emotions from both angles. That means that when you have to light a different background for each of the angles and so you want your location to provide two “canvases” behind the subject. Then I can create something with the lighting, maybe a pronounced highlight, to pull it together so shifting from one camera to the other doesn’t feel abrupt. You feel that they’re in the same space.

My idea about camera movement is if we’re moving both cameras ever so slightly, it feels kind of like a floating camera. It doesn’t draw attention to itself but a very slight move at certain moments can be very effective when cutting to help the transition from one shot to the next.

Let’s talk about a specific shoot. Is there one that stood out?

Well, certainly the interview of RBG at the Supreme Court. Of course, she’s the subject of the film and it was a high-pressure situation of limited time—she is an incredibly busy lady! —and there are lots of expectations. You want to do right by her to make her look as magnificent as possible so she can just be comfortable being herself.

We also captured a few cinéma vérité scenes of her and her granddaughter at home and they had their own feel, more homey, to give a sense of that part of her life in comparison to her work. But the interview in the court were about her great mind and the space that her thinking takes place so I felt it was a beautiful idea to have just an empty space behind her with the classic wood paneling of the court which, again ties into her far reaching knowledge and grounded mind.

We had a few options of rooms and we chose one that I favored because of how the light was pouring through these big windows. In documentaries, you are often trying to take advantage of what is there to give it that authenticity. And for me, the windows, the size of the windows, the size of the room, the wood paneling, and the chair that she’s sitting in made for the perfect set. It captured her amazing character. Then it was up to me to use the light that it was feeling very natural and powerful just the way she has been in her life. Very powerful and strong.

We always tried very hard to think of any possible situation that might come up. She wears bifocals, which can cause a lot of reflections. She doesn’t like to have cameras too close. She had mentioned previously that she has sensitive eyes and found it quite jarring to be sitting in the spotlight. So I lit her quite differently than I did most of the other interviews for the film.

I bounced an HMI M18 into an Ultrabounce and the return through an 8 x 8 silk. In addition I worked with my Kino Flo as a soft frontal fill wrap around. It became a very big, beautiful, soft key source but we needed to have a strong sense of how to place it and how to build it when you have a limited amount of time to even be in the room before she would be called in. We had another Kino Flo on a boom as a back light to complete the look.

Did you have any situations where you just weren’t able to get the feel you wanted from the location available, where you had to kind of fake it through creative lighting?

Yes. That did happen.

Can you give us an example?

I don’t want to give everything away!