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Industry Advice: Two DPs on Good Documentary Filmmaking

Tanner Shinnick

We sat down with Craig Atkinson and Alex Takats, cinematographers from the new Netflix show “Dogs,” to talk documentary filmmaking.

Craig Atkinson and Alex Takats are both cinematographers on the new Netflix series Dogs. We wanted to know their take on good documentary filmmaking vs. . . . well, just documentary filmmaking. Here’s what we found out.

PremiumBeat: We’d love to hear your career experiences so far and how they resulted in filming Dogs for Netflix.

Alex: I started working with Heidi and Rachel of Loki Films in 2008, which was my entry into the documentary world, and we worked together for the following five or six years, and I always had a long-time collaboration with them. I then went off and directed my own film that came out in 2016 that’s called Do Not Resist, but we still come back to together and work on these projects as they come down the line. So there was just an opportunity to jump on this one, and I took it.

Craig: I went to film school and studied documentary at NYU, and while I was there, I also met Heidi and Rachel from Loki Films, and that was back in 2012. Since then, I’ve worked with them on and off, and I think the first time I acted as a cinematographer with them was for One of Us, which just came out last year, and I work with them kind of full-time on a daily basis with their other projects too. 

Industry Advice: Two DPs on Good Documentary Filmmaking

Image via Netflix.

Alex: We both kind of came up working for Heidi and Rachel, so obviously those influences informed both our decisions to work together. 

PB: I’m interested to hear more about your approach to the cinematography of the show. It was very cinematic.

Alex: I think that has a lot to do with the tone that the director, Heidi, has always set. Heidi and Rachel have always tried to push the visual envelope of films. So, the directive always is “How do we make this cinematic?” It makes no difference; in a house or in a gymnasium or in a doctor’s office, you can always find an angle — you can find the lights there; you can find a close-up and respond to reflection. It’s great to work with them because they are always encouraging that type of cinematography.

Craig: Creativity. 

Alex: Yeah, creativity exactly. For someone who is always trying to push something visually, it’s joy to work in that way. 

Industry Advice: Two DPs on Good Documentary Filmmaking

Image via Netflix.

PB: You would shoot through doorways and catch the edge for an extra sense of depth, and I thought that was really great to elevate the cinematography.

Alex: I think it helps viewers feel that they’re there. If you start to put something in the frame, and shoot through a dirty frame, it just seems to lend you a little bit more authenticity for the viewer because obviously that’s how we’re seeing in real life so often. The general note is always finding it spontaneously in the moment but having the framework of always trying to push stuff visually, guiding those moments that you’re finding. It’s all happening in the moment creatively, but Heidi comes in and sets the tone.

Craig: Yes, and you get influenced by the spaces that you’re in.

PB: As cinematographers, how do you keep that sense of intimacy with your subject while pointing a camera at them? 

Alex: Craig and I were talking about this a little bit earlier, but normally we shoot for a year, at least a couple years, for documentary and project films. However, for this project we shot it fairly quickly in, like, three and a half months or so, and that was a big test in building trust and building good relationships with our characters quickly, which I hadn’t done before. We spent time in Ohio for weeks on end, and we just hung out with the family every day, go to this, go on their trips and errands and whatnot and really just got absorbed into their lifestyle, so when it came time to point the camera at them, they had been seeing me without the camera or with the camera.

Craig: Yes, and I think in this particular case we were using cameras that aren’t as intimidating. The Canon C300 Mark II is not that overwhelming in size. I think the selection of camera and keeping it small just allowed for us to work more intimate.

Industry Advice: Two DPs on Good Documentary Filmmaking

Image via Netflix.

PB: What were your lens choices? 

Craig: Usually it was the Canon 70-200L and we might even do 24 – 105L since the C300 MII has the great lowlight capabilities, which allows use of those slower lenses.  

PB: It’s seems to be getting easier and easier to make documentary content since equipment is becoming more affordable. In your opinions, what do you think separates a good documentary from a great documentary? 

Alex: I would say story. Actual unfolding narrative that’s developed and sourced out and allowing the audience to come to the table with their experiences intact and not try to overwhelm them with didactic information. I think just respecting the intelligence of the viewer in trying to help them see something further beyond what they might be coming to the table with, keeping in mind that they’re coming to the table with a lot. I see a lot of documentaries that are just trying to didactically cram information down the throats of people. And I think that people respond to so much more when it’s more of an observational style. They can think and that’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about Heidi’s role as the director as well as Amy Berg, the EP’s, films is that they help audiences get sucked into stories by not over-relying on narration that seems to kind of clutter up the opportunity to just sit and think and be able to reflect with the material. I just think that respecting the audience and allowing them to come to the table with their views intact is really something I appreciate from good documentary films. 

Craig: For me, intimacy is a big thing. When you are watching a film from the outside, you can get an audience member or capture a scene in the way that makes them feel present and connected to the characters. With that, I think you have done your job well.

Cover image via Netflix.

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