“Time and Access to Justice Ginsburg Was Very Limited”: Cinematographer Claudia Raschke on RBG
Few figures remain as adored among liberal Americans as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite this, and like all her fellow justices, the public has little access to Ginsburg as a human being. One isn’t likely to see photos of a Supreme Court justice at dinner or in a Starbucks line. Hence the enormous appeal of RBG, a new documentary on the life of Justice Ginsburg from directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West. The film makes its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. RBG‘s cinematographer, Claudia Raschke, discusses the high-stakes shoot and the importance of all-woman team on this project below.
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?
Raschke: I have worked in the film industry for 30 years, shooting feature films with complex lighting set ups and feature documentaries with extensive cinema vérité challenges. I believe that the RBG producing team, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, were already convinced about my expertise in cinematography but also wanted to ensure to have an all-women team to represent strength of leadership to echo Justice Ginsburg’s equal rights fight throughout her life. Recent statistics show that only 4 percent of cinematographers are women. Cinematography is a male dominated field by 96 percent.
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?
Raschke: Cinéma vérité scenes with Justice Ginsburg had to be as unobtrusive as possible to ensure authenticity. It was our goal to show her nature and magnificence. For this I worked with mostly natural lights and a set of Canon zoom lenses. As a vérité shooter, one needs to quickly evaluate a location’s sweet spots and downfalls for lighting and grasp the scope of the situation to capture the most cinematic storytelling coverage. As a former dancer I rely on my internal sense of choreography to film a scene. Each character has a unique movement which correlates to what role they play at a given moment. With Justice Ginsburg I had to learn to move around without disrupting her focus or limit her thinking space. Timing was everything.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Raschke: What drives my passion is the hunt for the right camera angle when it all comes together, lighting, contras, framing and the focus to cinematically catch a character’s authenticity. That’s pure gold. Inspirations are all around in everyday life. Mostly my mind is drawn to look at lighting, contrast ratios and framing for each situation I encounter, no matter if I’m waiting somewhere, sitting in a subway or walking down a street. I’ll catch a glimpse of perfect alignment and hold on as long as the story allows for it. You can’t plan for it, but you have to be alert to see these opportunities. Therefore I like to spend as much time as possible on location scouts, imagining the possibilities, talking it through with my directors. That was where we synched up our vision and decided on a strategy.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Raschke: Time and access to Justice Ginsburg was very limited. She has many responsibilities, a very busy life and a tightly scheduled daily agenda. Every on-camera moment had to be pre-approved by the court. We had a timekeeper that would let us know: “You have 20 minutes and that’s it.” Betsy, Julie and I did a lot of creative brain gymnastics to maximize each granted appearance. Every one of them had a different set of rules. It was a challenge. Our strategy became to let go of time-eating set ups, strip away to what was the most essential story point and find the best way to make it work.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Raschke: For the look of the documentary I decided to shoot on the Canon EOS 300 MK 2 with Cinema Prime lenses for all of our interviews. We used a combination of a two-camera setup with a 50mm and a 85mm primes for each single interview, as well as a 35mm for the interviews with two subjects in frame. Canon Cinema Primes allowed me to isolate our subjects in a multitude of locations by choosing ultra-shallow depth of field. This offered me painterly control over the background bokeh. Cinema Primes are versatile and interpret the scene in a way similar to how your eye perceives it. We were able to shoot with minimal distortion. The Canon Cinema Primes added a creamy luminance to skin tone like no other prime lens I’ve used.
For most of the vérité shots, we used the Canon EF Zoom 16-35mm, 24-70mm T2.8, 70-200mm, and the 400mm Prime lens with a two-time extender during the opera performances and talks Justice Ginsburg gave to large audiences. The Canon EF zoom lenses are light-weight and worked very well in high contrast situation for all our exterior scenes as well as the high contrast lighting during her on stage performances.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Raschke: Every interview had to capture the character’s nature and visually connect them with the location they were in. Therefore I chose the camera angles for each location with great care, imagining broad strokes of naturally looking soft light in conjunctions with bright dashes and highlights to let the eye settle in on each subject’s reflection of Justice Ginsburg. Shooting with two cameras meant to light for two angles and carefully craft the images to work together in harmony. Therefore all interview set-ups have a slight movement to them. Having the camera angle breathe with motion bridged intercuts, and represented the flow and wander of their thoughts.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Raschke: The nature of documentaries is that each scene you shoot is a live event. You can’t go back and redo a moment in time. Once it happens it’s over. The hardest part in cinema vérité style shooting is to decide at the right time to move to the right angle. Having very limited access to Justice Ginsburg made every moment count times 10. We all felt the immense pressure of high expectations. I could not afford any tech problems or indecisiveness. I had to think fast and be quick on my feet. It seems that time warps in moments like this. My thoughts become very clear and super focused. Then all that pressure falls away and what is left is a dance and being fully present with the character that wins the day.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Raschke: The documentary was shot 3.8K in Canon Log and fully color corrected by Ken Sirulnick at GLUE, NYC.
- Camera: Canon EOS 300 MK2
- Lenses: Canon Cinema Primes and Canon Zooms
- Lighting: HMIs, Diva 400, LED Astra 1000, ARRI Kit, 8×8 silk, 6×6 silk & solid, 5 in 1 Flexfill
- Processing: Digital
- Color Grading: colorist Ken at GLUE, NYC