RBG's DP: Claudia Raschke, Ruth Ginsburg & Canon C300 Mk II
COW Library : Cinematography : Jimmy Matlosz : RBG's DP: Claudia Raschke, Ruth Ginsburg & Canon C300 Mk II
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now popularly known as “Notorious RBG” (T-shirts are available) stands at a mere 5’1” and at 85 years young can instill fear in her opponents. But for many, the name is synonymous with not only women’s rights, but also human rights in America and throughout the world.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her office at the United States Supreme Court, in the Magnolia Pictures documentary release "RBG"
RBG, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, produced by CNN Films and Storyville Films and distributed by Magnolia Pictures is one of the most popular documentaries in years. Boasting a score of 93 at Rotten Tomatoes, RBG is already the highest-grossing release in Magnolia Films history, and nearing the top two-dozen most popular documentaries of all time, ahead of such Oscar nominees and winners as Amy, Hoop Dreams, The Fog of War, and 20 Feet From Stardom.
RBG is also hands down a MUST see for every woman, child and man. The film offers a 1 hour 37-minute window into the impact this woman has had on society, which is perhaps unparalleled in our time. It will leave the viewer awestruck and inspired.
I recently sat down with cinematographer Claudia Raschke, who lensed the film and played a crucial role in seamlessly blending archival footage along with contemporary footage quite seamlessly to deliver a compelling and beautifully orchestrated look at this behemoth of law.
Claudia Raschke, right, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the team behind the documentary "RBG", courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Claudia, an immigrant from Hamburg Germany who began her artistic career as a student of fine arts and modern dance, is an exemplar of the RBG generation. Her story reads like a magnificent biopic itself, riveting enough to make you wonder if the meeting of Claudia and RBG was serendipity at its finest.
She began her cinematography odyssey while studying and training for the career she hoped for in modern dance. While supporting herself waiting tables at a restaurant in New York City, a chance conversation with part-time bartender Jim Jones, a cinematography teacher at Columbia University, led Professor Jones to suggest the potential of a cinematography career after Claudia shared a few of the photographs she took as a hobby.
Her priceless response to his invitation to study cinematography: “What’s that?”
She describes the day she was first invited to a movie set as “quite magical.” She immediately took to the tangible nature of the camera and film, but also the energy on set, both in front of and behind the lens. She felt it was natural and so much like choreography. “It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I have been training my whole life to do this! Between painting and sculpting and dancing, this does it all!"
Claudia continued to work with students who needed help with their film projects, while she enrolled in a one-year filmmaking program at NYU. After graduation she worked her way up the ladder as an Assistant Cinematographer, then Camera Operator, and joined Local 600 as a Director of Photography in 1991.
Her career began to flourish working as a 2nd AC under such cinematography legends as Jost Vacano (Das Boot, Robocop, The Never Ending Story) and Stefan Czapsky (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns).
She continued to shoot student films for Columbia students and it was at a Columbia University awards show as guest of honor film director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) was announcing films that Claudia became recognized for her work. Seidelman expressed surprise at seeing a woman listed as the cinematographer, not once but several times, not realizing it was Claudia who had shot several of the award nominated films.
This led to Claudia being courted by some of the biggest agencies for cinematic arts representation, including the legendary Gersh Agency, who Claudia now credits for her start in the feature world.
“Because there were so few women with established track records in cinematography, there were questions. ‘Can a woman really handle the budget? Can a woman really handle the math? Can a woman really run a set?’ This was 1990, and these questions were very heavy,” she says. Gersh coming on board was the backing she needed to help her get the ball rolling on her career.
After shooting several features and commercials, Claudia found herself being drawn more and more into documentaries. which led both Cohen and West, directors and producers of RBG, to find her and her work.
Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo Credit: © Myles Pettengill, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
“The filmmakers wanted to have an all-women team,” says Claudia, “to echo the leadership that RBG’s equal rights fight had throughout her life, a crew who had been impacted by RBG and stood their ground and echoed her strength. When asked to shoot the film, the answer was simple: ‘Oh you got me, I definitely want to be part of this!’”
Claudia knew going that this was to be an interview-driven documentary intercut with archival footage. She also knew that they would be limited with time and access to Justice Ginsburg, not because she didn't want to participate, but because she is so devoted to her job, which also imposed some limits where and when they could shoot: notably, the Supreme Court itself is off-limits to cameras while in session.
For each individual interview of colleagues, the approach was to have each person or character interviewed to be a standalone, since the team really didn't know which archival footage would be used in the end. With that, Claudia actively created an atmosphere for each person, and took into account mystery, utilizing highlights and shadows for the background, while keeping the foreground more broad strokes and natural.
Throughout the film, there are a series of contemporary scenes with Justice Ginsburg. The filmmakers discovered early on that she does not like cameras hovering around her or too close as to invade her personal space. She is also very sensitive to bright lights and will often turn away from them on purpose.
Cinematographer Claudia Raschke works with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her granddaughter.
To add to the challenges of making this documentary, the filmmakers were limited to just one 40 minute interview. After that, a few cinema vérité moments were granted for up to 20 minutes at a time.
CANON EOS C300 Mark II
Claudia has worked with many cameras over the years, and has found that when shooting documentaries, it is necessary to multitask and be agile. She has been working with the Canon EOS C300 for quite a while and she loves the beautiful imagery the camera delivers. She also appreciates the technical advances which allow it, in her words, to be played like an instrument.
“It was the addition of The Grip Unit that allowed for camera control that spoke volumes” she says, and the additional helpful buttons for focus and white balance on the left side of the camera that made the C300 her standard go-to.
Canon EOS C300 Mark II
For RBG, Claudia switched to the C300 MKII, with new and more updated options as well as the ability to shoot in 4K. For RBG, She used the ‘regular old’ C-Log to allow the contemporary footage to match the variety of archival footage that would have to be intercut later.
For the live events and speaking engagements, they were limited with access and camera positions, so the choice to shoot in 4K allowed for punching in during the edit as well, to help compensate for limited mobility during shooting.
LENSES AND LIGHTING
Claudia chose two cameras to outfit with Canon primes for all the interviews for this project, a rare choice for documentaries, but one that allowed her to utilize the bokeh of the wider stop and more control of the background. She admires the way the Canon primes reveal skin tones and create a radiance exclusive to the lens design.
Specifically, all interviews used a combination of a two-camera setup with 50mm and 85mm primes, as well as a 35mm prime for the interviews with two subjects in frame.
Zooms came in for shooting the vérité scenes, both the Canon 16-35mm and 24-70mm lenses, then the 70-200mm and 100-400mm EF zooms for the live events, for their weight and ease of use when going handheld; and the 400mm prime and 70-200mm zoom with a doubler for a scene shot in an opera house, to compensate for their remote camera position.
Setting up any special lights for shoots ran the risk of Justice Ginsburg choosing the seat that wasn’t lit, as to avoid the brightness, to which she is extremely sensitive.
As a result, Claudia’s approach to lighting began with a big silk. Her inspiration comes from classical painters Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Dutch painters, utilizing super soft broad strokes close to her subject and backed by Kino Flow lighting. Sculpting the background then commences with highlights and shadows utilizing small jokers and 650 fresnels for greater focus control.
SEEKING THE UNKNOWN
Prompted for reflection, Claudia reminisces, “At the beginning of a project, you are so excited about what you are about to learn, you are a hunter seeking the unknown.”
In hindsight, had she known what she was entering into, she muses that she would have possibly engaged in more testing with the sensor and certain settings. Ultimately, though, she prefers to be a very organic cinematographer, taking in the moment and being truthful to what is presented, seeing each person as a person and not a sound bite.
Claudia affirms that after shooting nearly ten feature films and experiencing how planned everything is in narrative, she appreciates the spontaneous nature of how things just “happen” in documentaries. She doesn't enjoy shooting in the traditionally-mapped wide, medium and close-up nature of narrative film making. The camera operator in her yearns for a dance between her artistry and the story she is capturing, where she is shooting more in a sentence rather than in fragments. Thinking, how can the audience really live this story in the moment? How can they feel authenticity in what this person is saying? She feels that when she gets that, she knows she has gold!
Claudia is now working on a new documentary that brings her artistic endeavor full circle: covering the Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a ballet dance troupe made up of an all-male cast performing classic ballet in full drag with a comedic twist.
While she occasionally yearns for a return to narrative, her heart is deeply rooted in documentaries that bring her beyond cinematography, exploring different cultures and problems, real situations that enrich the knowledge of many people. It is an exploration that never gets old!
Bonus feature #1: Behind the Scenes of RBG with Claudia Raschke from Canon Pro
Bonus feature #2: Adorama TV's debut look at the Canon EOS C300 Mk II at NAB 2015
More recently Jimmy has written 3 feature screenplays, 2 of which he is developing. He continues to be an active part of cinematography community while ushering in the next and additional phase of his career. Jimmy adds, "I'm thrilled to contribute to Creative COW and the esteemed Creative COW community, and was humbled to shine light on the poetic career of cinematographer Claudia Raschke."