“The Textures, Colors and Feeling of Muscogee Nation Permeate the Screen”: DP Tyler Graim on Bad Press
When the Muscogee Nation begins censoring its free press, reporter Angel Ellis and her colleagues at Mvskoke Media engage in a dogged quest for transparency and government accountability on the behalf its readers and the community at large. This is the fight that unfolds in the documentary Bad Press, from co-directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, which follows the ramifications of the 2015 Free Press Act’s repeal.
Cinematographer Tyler Graim discusses how he approached shooting a documentary full of twists and turns and the influence of “slow cinema” on the film’s visual style.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
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?
Graim: I was hired for this job after co-director Joe Peeler decided he couldn’t keep shooting it himself, haha. Joe and I have been collaborators for a long time, and I worked on his previous film as well. We have a good rapport and get along well on set. I had never worked with Becca before but she is just so magnetic that it was easy to jump in and collaborate with her. And it’s her story and her culture, so she really guided that side of the film. I have experience with vérité but am also very versed in lighting interviews so I think that was a contributing factor to being hired for this shoot.
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?
Graim: My main goal was to make sure the textures, colors and feeling of Muscogee Nation permeate the screen. Becca really wanted to make sure we portrayed a well-rounded depiction of modern Native life. One way we achieved this was by spending days at a time with our subjects and capturing vérité moments as much as possible. I think this really adds to the quirkiness and richness of the film. You never know when something funny or important will happen.
For the repeal sequence, we did bigger, more controlled interviews. We still placed subjects in their lived-in spaces, but spent more time finding the best frames and making the lighting dark and moody. We wanted the viewer to feel the weight of this scene and it really helped to separate it visually from the rest of the film.
I shot all of the newspaper archival shots practically to give them texture and life. It really paid off and when you see these shots you can really feel the ink and pulp on the page. We also did some practical effects in these shots that I am very proud of – so every whip, spin or movement you see on a newspaper insert was done practically in-camera.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Graim: I looked at The Imposter as an influence for interviews. They do a great job keeping them in the world of the documentary but also adding drama with lighting and framing. I love how the frames are well composed but the location still feels real and not produced.
Joe is very influenced by “Slow Cinema,” including the work of Bresson and Ozu. This influenced how we approached capturing the environment in Oklahoma. We set up the camera on sticks and then let action move through the frame during long takes. This was an influence throughout the entire film.
We also referenced journalism movies from the 70s, such as All The President’s Men, and built this into the cinematography as well. This really influenced the decision to shoot macro shots of papers and headlines.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Graim: I think the biggest challenge to these goals was the interior locations. It’s a movie about journalism and politics, so we shot a lot inside boring buildings with white and tan walls. It was a major challenge to make those spaces look good. I tried to shoot from the best angles and use the natural light, but in the end, the story is the most important element so I let that guide me.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Graim: I shot on the Canon C300 MKII. We chose this camera because it has a great image and is very documentary-friendly. We’re able to shoot in 4K and still shoot for a very long time without using a ton of card space. I really like the image, it creates nice skin tones and the depth of the C-Log image is great for color correction.
For the bulk of shooting we used the Angenieux Optimo 16-40 and 30-76 zoom lenses. These lenses have a bit more character than other modern zoom lenses, which is the main reason I chose them. I basically used the 16-40 during vérité and the 30-76 for the interviews. I also used the Zeiss CZ.2 70-200 to shoot the National Council meetings. I used a few interesting lenses for newspaper archival: the Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens and a Lensbaby with diopters. The 65mm allowed me to fill an entire frame with one word. I really love the results of this, you can see the newspaper pulp and it gives the shot so much texture.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Graim: I really only lit the interviews for this film. My approach was to motivate the lighting within the space and make it feel real. But I also wanted to take light away to create shadows and shape on the subjects. We accomplished this with negative fill and big soft sources for our key. During vérité shoots, I would use natural light and try to position myself in the best way possible to get good light on the subject. For certain locations if there was natural light coming through a window I would turn off the overheads and just use the natural light. We really wanted the subjects to get comfortable with us, so we didn’t set up lighting for vérité .
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Graim: The most difficult scene was covering the primary election night, during which we had three different teams filming three different candidates in different locations. This was a logistical headache and I had to get everyone on the same page from a technical standpoint and a stylistic standpoint. We wanted this scene to have a lot of energy so it’s all handheld vérité. I think it totally works and it would have been way less interesting if we had only been with one candidate.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Graim: I shot everything in C-log so we did all of the look in color correction. My colorist, Dan Edwards, did a phenomenal job keeping it within our visual world but adding some flavor to it. He also really killed it matching all the footage from different cameras and operators. The only thing that was baked in was the mist filter that I used for much of the film. I wanted to soften highlights because I knew there would be a lot of harsh lighting during vérité.
Film Title: Bad Press
Camera: Canon C300 MKII
Lenses: Angenieux Optimo 16-40 and 30-76, Canon MP-E 65mm macro, Lens Baby
Lighting: Litemat 3 S2, Litepanel Astras
Processing: Canon C-log 3