Verdigris: shooting narrative film in a documentary style

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth talks about the Canon Flex Zooms and CN-E Primes that brought her latest movie to the screen.
A young woman and a middle-aged woman stand in front of a block of flats, facing towards the camera, in a publicity photo from the film Verdigris. Photo credit: Eleanor Rogers

"The focus of the story is on the relationship between the two female characters and a change in their lives, really as a result of a friendship," explains cinematographer Tania Freimuth. Verdigris was shot on an estate in Dublin, Ireland, and the team needed a lightweight, run-and-gun kit setup that would allow them to keep a relatively low profile. "We were working in a real neighbourhood and shooting side by side with real people getting on with their daily lives. We just didn't draw much attention to ourselves, I think because of the ergonomics of the Canon EOS C500 Mark II." © Eleanor Rogers

Marian and Jewel are an unlikely duo walking the streets of Dublin, Ireland. But as they go from door to door, getting locals to fill out census forms, a friendship blossoms. To bring the story of Verdigris to the screen, cinematographer and Canon Ambassador Tania Freimuth had to find equipment which allowed her to shoot narrative film in a documentary style, which could be used handheld all day, and wouldn't be conspicuous in the inner-city Irish neighbourhoods.

Tania, who shot Dream Big and Little Darlings, and whose work streams on platforms including Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer and Sky, describes the gritty 2023 film as "a narrative fiction film, genre social realism, shot documentary-style with naturalistic lighting". Telling the story of unhappily married and recently retired workaholic Marian, whose perspective changes when she meets young sex worker Jewel, required careful attention to gear to create the necessary visual language.

Verdigris, which premiered at Newport Film Festival, California, has already been recognised across the Irish awards scene, winning Best Narrative Feature at Kerry Film Festival and Best Indie at Galway Film Fleadh. Here, Tania shares how she brought it to the screen with the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, two Canon Flex Zooms and a set of Canon CN-E Primes.

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth, wearing a bright orange raincoat, stands outside holding a camera rig with a Canon EOS C500 Mark II camera on it. An assistant leans towards her to adjust the rigging.

Shooting handheld meant a shoulder rig for Tania. "The kit as a whole we built to be grab and go," she says of pairing the Canon EOS C500 Mark II with either a Canon Flex Zoom or CN-E Prime. "We could move around quite swiftly and we didn't draw as much attention to ourselves on the street as we would have with a bigger rig. It served its purpose brilliantly. It was also producing high-quality images due to the codecs and the bit rates. With the lenses, it was a win-win, really." © Eleanor Rogers

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth sits on the pavement, pointing her camera up at a man standing in front of some railings. The scene is at night with a light being held at the side.

Some of the indoor scenes were shot in low light, as were the night shots out on the streets of Dublin. Tania needed her equipment to be able to deliver in variable levels of light. Shooting full-frame on the Canon EOS C500 Mark II also allowed her to get a cinematic shallow depth of field, separating in-focus areas from the background to a greater degree than would be captured at the same angle of view on a Super 35mm sensor. © Eleanor Rogers

Getting a feel of the narrative

One of the first conversations Tania had with writer and director Patricia Kelly was about precisely what kind of film Verdigris was. "Obviously it was a drama, but what kind of drama? What were her visual references?" says Tania. "Because the story is set in a 'real' situation, she wanted to have that grassroots feel for the story, that it's something that could happen to any one of us, and the films she had as references were mostly shot documentary-style."

While today's documentaries are often shot in a fairly structured way, with set-dressed in-studio interviews, here, documentary-style references "old-school documentaries", says Tania. These are typified by a handheld look and a mixture of long and wide lenses, with a tendency towards longer focal lengths, creating some separation between viewer and subject. Taking inspiration from the look and feel of films including Beach Rats, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and those made by Andrea Arnold, Tania started thinking about the way she would film Verdigris, and what gear best suited the project.

"From there it's asking what the camera is going to do," explains Tania. "Is it going to be very stable, handheld? Are we just going to be very observational, or are we going to interact?" Leaning into the documentary style, and the social realism story, the team wanted the audience to feel they were getting an insider's view. Creating a sense of 'getting in on the action' meant the camera would need to take the point of view at times. "That, for me, means choreographing my moves with and around the actors, as they're performing," says Tania.

This shooting style would have immediate implications for Tania's gear choice. "I knew it was going to be handheld, every day, for four weeks, with long shooting days," she says. "You start thinking about weight." Ergonomics were also a key consideration when it came to the rig. "It couldn't be bulky, because I'm going around actors, so the bigger the machine, the more I'm in the way. I want to be able to duck and dive around the action without accidentally taking someone out."

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Two female actors walk along a pavement, with a selection of camera crew following and filming them for a scene from the film Verdigris.

Filming close meant Tania needed a rig light enough to manoeuvre around actors. When it comes to building her aesthetic on a film like Verdigris, Tania takes a deep dive into the script. "From my point of view, you're looking at what motivates a script, what's in the subtext of the script to inspire picture choices or visual references to put into the film," she says. "You're finding the beats and the turning points in the story, so that you can think about moments within scenes that will help support the narrative." © Eleanor Rogers

Building the Verdigris kitbag

Taking her requirements for weight and ergonomics into account, Tania turned to one of her favourite bodies, the Canon EOS C500 Mark II. "The good thing about the EOS C500 Mark II and that range of cameras is that they can be rigged up," she says. "I recommended Canon for Verdigris for its form factor." Weighing approximately 1,750g, the camera can be carried around comfortably even when used with gimbals and handheld rigs. Having already used the Canon EOS C500 Mark II on Cyn, her film about John Lennon's first wife, Tania trusted the industry workhorse's full-frame sensor and colour spacing, along with its modular design.

Having initially considered shooting Super 16 for that signature documentary look, Tania decided to go for full-frame Cinema RAW Light to have the highest quality files for whatever life the film would go on to have. "The minute you go full-frame, your lens choices change quite dramatically," says Tania. "I knew we needed zooms because we were going to be outside, and having many focal lengths is an ideal choice." To cover the outdoor scenes, on location on an estate and the streets of Dublin, two of Canon's Flex Zooms – the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L and Canon CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L – offered the coverage and focal lengths Tania needed. "I didn't think there were any zooms which covered full-frame, so that sealed the deal."

For the closer indoor scenes where she would be playing a delicate dance with the actors, Tania needed to find prime lenses which matched well with the Flex Zooms to ensure a similar look in the footage. She settled on Canon CN-E Primes, which would keep the camera profile compact, while offering powerful visual results. "I started using CN-E Primes a few years ago and I trust the look," she says. These lenses are engineered to deliver exceptional 4K optical quality and are known for their edge-to-edge sharpness and brightness.

"I knew that on the primes on the interiors, I was going to be at a wide f-stop, so I was going to have to try and maintain that depth of field with the Flex Zooms," says Tania. "It wasn't only maintaining the look and feel in terms of the quality, or the colours and the skin tones; it was actually maintaining the feel of the depth of field. And I think we did."

A Canon EOS C500 Mark II with a Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X Sumire Prime lens.

Shooting Cyn with Canon Sumire Prime lenses

How cinematographer Tania Freimuth used Canon Sumire Prime lenses to bring Cynthia Lennon's story to life in Cyn.
Several people stand around a dining table discussing the filming of a scene from the film Verdigris, shot by cinematographer Tania Freimuth.

Verdigris' interiors were filmed on Canon CN-E Primes, allowing Tania to get close to the actors and create the sense that the audience had characters' points of view as she moved around them. "I personally really enjoy that," she says. "It's quite exciting and it also means that one's got to have quite a good knowledge of the script. There was a fair bit of conversation prior to shooting and on the day about, 'Where do you want this to land? Who is the lead at the beginning of the scene, and who is at the end?' Then I knew where I could position myself in relation to a scene." © Eleanor Rogers

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth, wearing a bright orange raincoat and carrying a camera rig holding a Canon EOS C500 Mark II, faces across a road and towards a pavement by the side of a large grey building.

Getting close to the action both on the streets and around an estate meant Tania shot the whole film handheld. "Core strength and physical fitness is vital, especially when handheld," she says. "We've got to be nimble and move our body to be able to adjust the framing by fractions. More than weight, it's the ergonomics that matter. Every camera is going to come with a certain amount of weight." She found the Canon EOS C500 Mark II's modular and compact design, which can be changed between EF and PL mount, gave her the right balance to be able to film with the longer Flex Zooms on location. © Tania Freimuth

Fast, flexible and cinematic Flex Zooms

Along with their industry-leading T2.4 iris for shallow depth of field and sensitivity, the two Flex Zoom cinema lenses – which are now complemented in the lineup by two Super 35mm options – offered the production a combined focal range of 20-135mm. "There were some scenes where we were filming one of the characters who works as a sex worker to supplement their income, and so we wanted to give it that slightly voyeuristic feel," says Tania. "The long lens was just enough to achieve that." For scenes capturing people walking around cars, or on the street at night, there was a need to be closer to the characters, so Tania switched from the Canon CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP to the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP. "That allowed us to get more of a human view, a bit more subjective, and more engaged, because the minute you put on a long lens, you're pushing people away from the action," she explains.

Throughout the varied shooting locations, from low-light scenes to action on the streets, Tania found the Flex Zooms held their own alongside the CN-E Primes, across their warm colour consistency, contrast and in how the lenses resolved, including in terms of sharpness and clarity. "They responded really well – they were a fast T2.4," she says. "It's good quality glass in there. Some lenses you could get the T2.4 and look at it and go, 'We're not going there, the lens just isn't resolving very well at that f-stop,' but these did." The full-frame Flex Zooms are the fastest cinema zoom lenses in their class covering their focal lengths, while each is also equipped with 11 iris blades giving beautiful, rounded bokeh.

When paired with the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, the Flex Zooms not only offered a run-and-gun handheld setup, but they were also compatible with the camera's focus guide. "We were shooting side by side with real people getting on with their lives," adds Tania. "We could move around quite swiftly, and didn't draw as much attention to ourselves on the street as we would have with a bigger rig." There was one moment, she remembers, when the crew was running short of time and Tania had to grab the camera as it was rigged with a Flex Zoom and go. "We were outside, with no time to put up any lighting, just using available lighting, and those scenes look great," says Tania. "Just really inky and nice, and you've got the starkness between the LED streetlights and then how the light just drops off.

"I think the lens is responsible for it looking the way it does, which I love."

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