“The Film Began As an Experimental Skate Video”: Director and DP Bing Liu on Minding the Gap
A camera assistant who has worked on The Girlfriend Experience, Sense8 and Chi-Raq, 24-year-old Bing Liu makes his debut as a feature documentary filmmaker with Minding the Gap. The film was made with the help of production partners Kartemquin Films, ITVS and POV, and it includes an executive producer credit from Steve James. Minding the Gap‘s three leads bond in part over skateboarding, and as such the film includes extensive footage of its leads on their boards. As he discusses below, Bing used a number of different methods to “shoot skateboarding in a way that I hadn’t seen before.” Minding the Gap screens in competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Liu: My film was a one-man-band type of production – the lack of a crew allowed access to an intimate, trusting and emotional part of my characters’ everyday lives I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Liu: The film began as an experimental skate video which, after partnering up with Kartemquin Films, I began trying to shoot and shape into a straight vérité documentary. I eventually went back and shot with the mindset of camera-as-character, drawing inspiration from Sherman’s March and Cameraperson to craft a meta-level language of the filmmaking itself as its own developing story within the story.
From the get-go I wanted to shoot skateboarding in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I’d been an assistant cameraperson for highly experienced Steadicam operators over the years and came to know Steadicam operating as an art, like a dance. I’ve always thought of skateboarding as a form of dance as well, so I thought it’d be a great fit. I needed a much lower-profile tool for the run-and-gun, anything-could-happen type of production days so I bought a $500 Glidecam and practiced using it for a year while shooting a skate video for a local skate shop. Unlike electronic gyro-stabilized gimbal rigs on the market, the Glidecam is all analog – the steady picture comes from the way you displace weight between your two hands, with your dominant hand taking 99 percent of the weight and your other hand guiding the rig with a soft touch of the fingers to pan/tilt, all while running on foot. I got so comfortable with the rig that I could run backwards, jump down stairs, and jump on and off my board – all while keeping pace with my skateboarding subjects. What I love most about the look of this footage is that it’s at head-level with the skaters; I’m really happy with the way it translates not only my characters’ amazing skateboarding but, more importantly, what it feels like.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Liu: I drew a lot of inspiration from ’90s and 2000s indie films that were gritty, shot on 16mm and had an energy to the way they were photographed. Films like Kids and Gummo communicated a stylized realism that reflected the way the young people in those films experienced their worlds. There is a lot of textures in each scene – a lot of handheld, raw-around-the-edges camerawork that somehow made it feel even more real.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Liu: I couldn’t capture it all. Because of the nature of the community I was documenting, everything I captured was at the expense of missing something else. The group of young men I was following was unpredictable and, many times, one of them would leave at a moment’s notice or people would show up unannounced. At other times both characters would be out doing separate things in different parts of town. Even within a scene, I had to choose, say, whether to shoot a couch conversation in one room or people hanging out in a different part of the house. Being a one-man-band also meant slip ups. Because I shot Minding the Gap in between other projects, once in a while I’d forget to bring a cable or an extra memory card or enough charged batteries – those were huge let-down days.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Liu: For the first couple of years, I shot on a Canon 5D. The last couple of years, I used a Canon C300. I chose the 5D because of its affordability, its low-profile and its integration with my Glidecam rig. When I switched to the C300, my main and ancillary subjects had gotten so used to me filming them that the bigger rig didn’t bother them. I continued using the 5D to shoot Glidecam footage. For a few scenes I used a small Sony PMWX70 camcorder – mainly for its low profile and XLR inputs, its high bitrate, its large sensor. Its size was perfect for long scenes in cars.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Liu: I am very passionate about lighting; I got my professional start in the lighting department when I was 19, teaching me an appreciation for image design. For Minding the Gap, I used a small arsenal of handheld LEDs, collapsable 1×1 LED panels and portable flag kits. I love both exposure contrast and color contrast and work hard to make sure my frame’s backgrounds include a wide range of textures. When shooting OTF with natural light, I try to shoot with the sun at 3/4 to my subjects, using it as an edge light. Sometimes I’ll use natural bounces, placing my subjects near a white sign, for example. The goal, though, was to not make things look over-lit.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Liu: Spoiler alert! The scene where I interview my mom was incredibly difficult to get perspective for. I knew that there were all these different layers going on: my camera pointed at my mom, a hired cameraperson filming me interviewing my mom and a 3rd camera shooting all of us, including the sound person, in a wide. It was such a different scene from the rest of the film, but we were able to play with the artifice of it in a way that ended up working in the edit. It was probably this scene that I spent the most time lighting.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Liu: I shot as flat as possible on all the cameras I used, with the intention of underexposing during drastically contrasty situations. I was actually surprised by how much the highlights actually held up in the DI. If I were to go back again, I would’ve tended less towards underexposing. We did end up blooming highlights and lifting shadows in the DI to give both a ’90s indie look and a nostalgic softness to the story.
- Camera: Canon C300, Canon 5D, Sony PMWX70
- Lenses: Canon 24-70mm L, Canon 16-35mm L, Canon 70-200mm L
- Lighting: Brightcast 1×1 LED Panels, HDV-Z96 handheld LEDS, Astra 1×1 Litepanel, Roadrags Flag kit
- Processing: Digital
- Color Grading: Company 3 Chicago