Nommed non-fiction d.p.'s faced wildly different challenges

The Emmy-nominated productions for non-fiction cinematography have little in common but striking results.

Todd Liebler, nominated with Zach Zamboni for the “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” episode shot in post-earthquake Haiti, says each episode of the show varies in “empathetic” style.

“We let the location speak for itself,” Liebler says. The concept is to treat each week’s locale as a character and capture Bourdain’s feeling about it. But just shooting in disaster-ravaged Port-au-Prince was a constant struggle. In public, the populace was camera shy. Once set up to shoot a sunset dinner at a private home amid the rubble, he discovered there was no electricty. He got his shots by setting up his own generator.

Arlene Nelson and Nicola Marsh of “American Masters: Troubadours,” faced a different problem: capturing the now-and-then essence of James Taylor and Carole King. Nelson says they sought “the iconic look of the ’70s,” interpreted as warm colors and romantic key light.

Director Morgan Neville had Nelson shoot with his ’70s-era Nikon lens “for a filmic, print, record-album cover” look. Nelson (who, coincidentally lensed the music mocumentary “A Mighty Wind”) added her own aesthetic. “When we shot Carole and James in the bar, there’s a natural, modern, fresh look,” Nelson says.

For Hurricane Katrina docu “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise,” necessity forced Cliff Charles to shoot digitally, practically abandoning the 16mm film of the doc’s first part. But Charles adapted and thrived, lighting eight textured backgrounds to “look like a hundred” for “quality, clean, sharp” portraits.

“We definitely wanted a realistic, natural look, to treat the subject matter with dignity and class,” Charles says, “not the look of a hand-held prosumer production.”

The climax of “Whale Wars” finds Marc Carter’s crew following a jet-skiing sea shepherd on a cheeky night mission to hand a Japanese whaler an invoice for his damaged boat. “We used night vision. It’s gritty and grainy, but we didn’t want lighting to tip it off,” Carter recalls.

Overall, Carter strove for a “unified look” with 10 shooters wielding 40-plus cameras on three boats. “I’m most proud of photographing an extraordinary conflict, in a natural, non-invasive way, and make it a great-looking show at the same time.”

Josh Fox, who favors a rock-show-flavored subjective style, went bare-bones for “Gasland” — to the point of “smelling water that smells like turpentine, with one arm holding the jar, the other holding the camera.” He credits editor Matthew Sanchez with developing the “verite style that matches the emotional sensibility of the story.” Fox called the nomination “an endorsement of reckless driving. Texting and driving has nothing on shooting and driving.”

Click here for the full list of Creative Arts nominees.

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