“I Always Had Two to Three Cameras Rigged”: DP John Behrens on The Game Changers
Louie Psihoyos, the Oscar-winning director of The Cove, returns to the Sundance Film Festival with The Game Changers, his new documentary on the health and environmental impacts of plant-based diets. Psihoyos premiered his previous doc, Racing Extinction, at the festival in 2015. John Behrens (The Mask You Live In) served as a cinematographer on that project, and he reunites with Psihoyos as the DP of The Game Changers. Below, Behrens speaks with Filmmaker about shooting in five different countries and the influence of Natural Born Killers (of all films) on the project.
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?
Behrens: I met director Louie Psihoyos shooting his previous film, Racing Extinction. I joined Racing during the second half of the film. After we wrapped that film I joined Louie to shoot some of the large-scale live events: Projecting endangered species onto the Empire State Building and the Vatican. Louie asked me to join him as director of photography on The Game Changers.
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?
Behrens: Louie was a photographer for National Geographic magazine for two decades, so he is a very visual director. We developed a very rich visual language shooting Racing Extinction. The next step moving onto Game Changers was to show the raw and awesome power of the athletes we were following with no exceptions. We used techniques I use on commercials, such as Phantom extreme slow motion, Steadicam, Movi, and shallow depth of field, married with good strong connection with the characters.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Behrens: National Geographic still images, where one image tells the whole story, were my biggest inspiration, plus I learned a lot from how Robert Richardson used so many different formats in Natural Born Killers. I also was inspired by the spaces we shot and the athletes themselves. With documentary, the location is the visual palette you start with, then you find the frame and story in that place.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Behrens: We shot Game Changers in five countries on a documentary budget and timeline. We had to be ready for anything, in any country. To be true to the characters’ stories, sometimes we just showed up with the gear and had to make the story happen on the fly, while traveling with five different cameras, lights, camera stabilizers.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Behrens: For the portions I shot, our “A” camera was a Sony F5 shooting QFHD in Log; the Sony F5 is 2000 ASA so it allowed great natural light shooting, it’s a very solid camera so we never had crashes. The “B” camera was either an FS7 shooting QFHD in Log on a Steadicam or an A7s on a MOVI for the moving shots. The “C” Camera was a Phantom Flex 4K for that extreme slow motion, the “D” camera was GoPro. I always had two to three cameras rigged in different ways so we could grab the right tool and go for the shot without spending too much time re-rigging. The F5 “A” cam often had a Canon 17-120mm PL Cine Zoom for action and Zeiss Ultra Primes for interviews. The “B” cam had on of my mixed set of EF primes, either Zeiss ZFs, Leica R, or old Nikon Fs.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Behrens: Louie really preferred natural light. We lit the interviews and the action sequences when shooting extreme slow-mo. We used HMIs and LEDs all daylight-balanced lighting for The Game Changers.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Behrens: Patrik, our German strongman, was able to roll a car over with his brute strength; but we had one shot. We set up all five cameras, including two GoPros inside the car. When Patrik got the car just to the tipping point, we were all terrified that the car would roll back on him; but he succeeded. The GoPros inside the car were almost crushed, but we got a great shot.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Behrens: We shot all of Game Changers in various flavors of LOG so we could have the most control in post to match Sony, RED, Phantom, GoPro as well as the stock footage.
- Camera: Sony F5, Sony FS7, Sony A7s II, Phantom Flex 4K, RED Dragon, GoPro 4, Sony Handycam 4K
- Lenses: Canon 17-120mm PL Cine Zoom, Zeiss Ultra Primes, Zeiss ZF primes, Leica R primes, Nikon F primes
- Lighting: Available Light and HMIs and LEDs all daylight balanced lighting
- Processing: Digital