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“Pretty Much Everything in Life Influences My Shooting”: DP Reuben Aaronson on The Cost of Silence

A still from The Cost of Silence by Mark Manning (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit experienced a deadly explosion that would be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Over the course of 87 days, 130 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, and deadly chemicals were used in the lengthy clean-up process that civilians and workers were not warned about, leading to the effective poisoning of those in close proximity of the disaster. The U.S. government and the petrol companies have not been held accountable for the misuse of this chemical nearly a decade after the incident occurred. DP Reuben Aaronson details the often devastating experience working on The Cost of Silence, a critical exposé on the dangers of offshore drilling. 

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?

Aaronson: My friend, Mark Manning, used to be a deep-water commercial diver on similar oil rigs to those that blew up in the Gulf in 2010. He flew down there to check it out immediately. When he got back to LA, and I heard what he had to say about what was happening down there, I immediately told him I’d be on board for wherever this journey might take us. Neither of us suspected at the time that the journey would take ten years. 

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?

Aaronson: This is a huge question that comes up for me on every film. And the answer changes with every film. It changes with every day of filming. 

With figure-it-out-as-you-go kinds of storytelling like The Cost of Silence, overall control is pretty much out the window. Finding an appropriate style/approach to a film is something I hope to do before any film. But we don’t typically have production designers on our documentary teams. As a result, I’m constantly searching for unanticipated, magical kinds of shots that will enhance the storytelling but not distract from it. Usually the shots I’m looking for are consciously “found moments.” 

When I’m shooting, I want to give the editor choices. And I want to try to anticipate any directions a given scene might go in editing. It wasn’t so easy to do in this case. Much easier to do for, say, a film about a master gondola builder in Venice, Italy. Especially challenging if you don’t know where the story is going or that it might actually keep on going unpredictably for years.

While I’m shooting, I’m listening intently to the person we are focusing on, looking for clues to what I call “visual metaphors” to help illustrate an edited story that hasn’t even been formulated yet. 

This film was shot over a long period of time under lots of different conditions over more than 25 separate shooting trips. When we found it necessary to add inelegant looking stock footage from multiple sources in the, like, third generation TV news footage and footage from other camera folks on different kinds of cameras, we invariably ended up with a mélange of “looks” and feels that just came with the territory for this kind of film. That’s not a part of my design vision—I want art.

Here’s how I feel: I always want art. But a project like this with our kind of shooting schedule only achieved art in very few places. I’ll settle any time for a well-lit interview instead, with someone on camera telling you a story that makes you want to scream or cry.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?

Aaronson: Pretty much everything in life influences my shooting. 

While telling the specific story at hand is clearly the most important part of documentary filmmaking, the “what” and “when” and “how” of shooting that story so often gets informed by myriad visible and invisible elements that go into enhancing that storytelling. 

The camera and lenses that I choose are another strong influence on how I work. On how I see. The tools define the solutions.

In the case of this film, we almost always landed on the person/location—cold—without any prior scouting. Mark would have had a phone conversation with them, of course. Usually a fairly short one—by design. We would often discuss an upcoming scene en route to the location.

We were often limited by the amount of time available to shoot any given sequence. Sometimes, the people being filmed might be reluctant to be on camera or to talk with us. So, we don’t usually ring their doorbell with 8 big intimidating-looking equipment cases in hand. We try to ease in, feeling out the situation to start with. 

Mark would start to engage with them, reminding them who we are and what we were trying to do. He’s good with people. They tend to trust him right off. I’m always listening closely but also looking around (subtly) for where the best place might be for an interview. And always for those visual metaphors to help tell this person’s story inside the context of our film’s larger story.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Aaronson: In addition to those mentioned above, with time itself being an important element of challenge, money was the other. We were funding this project ourselves, taking each trip and each turn in the story one step at a time. We had occasional financial angels who came to the rescue at just the right moment. So challenges? Time and money. What else is new?

When we were filming in the Gulf or later in Washington, D.C., we had lots of options before us at any given moment. Lingering, say, another hour with someone to get some shots of them or their family photos or them walking outside with the family dog—every decision to make those kinds of time commitments took away potential time from the next location and story waiting to unfold at the next stop. 

I almost always have the camera in my hands wherever we go. One time, while driving with Kindra, one of the most important people in the film, I was in the passenger seat while we were just driving from one place to another. She began to say some amazing things about her neighbors who were sick and dying after the oil spill. I began to roll. What she was saying was so spontaneous and powerful. But 30 seconds into what she was saying, it started to rain. She had to put on the windshield wipers. Hard, loud pelting rain. With more time, I could have waited for the rain to stop. But would I lose the moment? No! Absolutely not. You bet I kept rolling. That scene is pretty much the opening of our film, pelting, loud rain and all.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Aaronson: I’ve mostly been using Canon cinema cameras. When we started, I already had a Panasonic HVX-200, a 720p video camera that recorded to P2 cards. By the third trip to the Gulf, Mark and I each had a C100 Mark I and later, into the project, Mark and I both got 100 Mark II’s. I love so many things about that camera. Its only limitation is that it shoots 1080 4:2:0 and 8bit.

I usually keep a Canon 17-55mm lens on it. I go wider with a Tamron 11-16 like when driving with Kindra in the car. And then I’ll go longer when it feels right with 24-72 or 24-105 or 70-200.

I almost always want to shoot with primes but just can’t seem to make that happen given the flexibility and practicality of the zooms.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Aaronson: Light so it doesn’t look like it was lit. But create beauty and depth in the frame within that boundary.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Aaronson: Not surprisingly, filming interviews with children with cancer and their parents is extremely difficult on many levels. One young boy who appears in the film was in very bad shape and I felt a kind of strange out of body experience being there in the room with him, listening to him, knowing that he probably wasn’t going to make it.

I have no idea at all how I was able to manage doing this.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Aaronson: I only shot in LOG on one of the trips. It didn’t seem to make any difference, visually, to me. Others disagree. I came up shooting film where getting exposures “on the money” was an important skill to have. So my footage tends to be properly exposed making for fairly easy colorizing in post. And we don’t tend to have “looks.” Our looks are called “reality.”


Film Title: The Cost of Silence

Camera: Canon C100 MI and MII (plus DJI Osmo and Drone)

Lenses: Mostly: Tamron 11-16, and Canons 17-55, 24-72, 24-105, 70-200.

Lighting: Medium and small sized LED’s mostly. Inexpensive Chinese-made mostly.

I love the flexibility of battery powered lights (no cables!) and they’re powerful and accurate temperature-wise for rendering good color to human faces. They’re almost always filtered through something like a silk and they’re often shaped or cut with a portable flag/net kit. Subtle fill and backlights. Often some negative fill. Usually a few smaller LED’s scattered around the room to highlight certain details of the room and give the eye something to look at here and there.

Processing: Digital I went back and forth as to whether or not to shoot in LOG. There are, naturally, two different opinions on whether it’s really necessary to do this. With 8bit, 4:2:0 it doesn’t really seem to offer-up a better final image in post.

Color Grading: Only moderately done during the editing prior to post. The film contains a lot of stock footage from many different sources plus some home videos from a principal family that we were following and some TV news footage as well. So the grading was a real challenge that was met heroically by Brian Hutchings at Different by Design. 

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