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Inside Out: Joan Churchill

By joan Churchill

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, "Inside Out," in which we ask filmmakers in the field—and in the edit room—What are your essentials tools of the trade, and the essential accessories for doing your best work? In the issues to come, as well as online, we will be spotlighting the worlds inside the bags that help create the stories of our times. To kick off "Inside Out," we turn to esteemed filmmaker/cinematographer Joan Churchill.

When shooting the 1973 vérité series An American Family, my crew consisted of a camera assistant, a sound person and me. We needed to have everything with us ready to go…anywhere. While filming Bill Loud talking to his girlfriend on the phone, we heard him say, "OK, I’ll meet you at the airport in 30 minutes." We were there too, ready to fly. When shooting on film, it was normal to travel with 20 or more cases. We honed it down to one travel case (on removable wheels) that we could open and work out of from the back of a car. It had all the things we needed—which was a lot!  

Ever since then, I have worked on streamlining my kit. I’ve got it down to a bum pack (as we called it in the UK, where I lived for 10 years), which I wear on my front. It’s not exactly a fashion statement, but it has everything I need for the day and it serves as my tripod. In observational shooting, much of what I shoot is people sitting—or in the case of The Residents, a 2003 vérité series that took place at a hospital, people lying on beds with doctors standing over them looking down. I want my camera at their eye level or in a position to see people’s eyes when they are looking down. I rest my camera on the bum pack while standing, tilting the viewfinder up so I can see and can move fluidly by cradling the camera and following the action.
I tend to work very close to people.  I like them to be able to see my face which is why I will never go back to the shoulder mounted cameras.  It provides me with an opportunity to relate to people.  They can see my reactions and know that the power I wield by pointing a camera at them is nonthreatening.

Often I am on my own, or working with my partner Alan Barker. So when I go out for the day on a shoot, I must have everything I might need on my person, and still be able to jump in and out of cars while shooting.

Click image to enlarge in new window.

In the picture, you will see my bum pack on the top left. It is very sturdy and very old. It has one big compartment and a smaller one in front. I hang pouches on its belt to carry a wireless receiver and cell phone. Everything else in the picture has come out of the bum pack. Starting from top left going clockwise:

  1. releases and call sheet

  2. medical/hygiene necessities: tin with mints, allergy meds, aspirin, Band-aids,   Neosporin , cleansing towelettes, eye drops and nail file

  3. cash, driver’s license (no credit cards), and business cards for the production. 

  4. camera batteries

  5. cell phone with back-up battery pack, car key (always have a back-up)

  6. rain barney (stolen laundry bags from hotel on location)

  7. make-up kit for shiny faces: blotting rice paper, face powder, make-up sponges, Kleenex and, in a pinch, some scraps of toilet seat covers (a tip from a famous make-up artist)—which are great for blotting greasy faces

  8. rubber bands, twist tie and parachute cord

  9. shooting glasses with case (custom-made bifocals, clear on top, +4 magnification on bottom for holding view-screen close to face)

  10. media cards with labels, thumb drive, extra holders

  11. baseplate screws (3/8" & 1/4")

  12. hoodman (men)— I make my own (.010" black plastic sheet with flat and shiny      sides) for shading viewscreens outdoors (also good for privacy when you don’t want others to see what you’re shooting), electrical tape to fix my hand-made "hoodman" to the viewscreen. A patch of female and male velcro for attaching whatever to whatever.

  13. lots of pens, which I will lose when asking people to sign releases; Sharpie

  14. various lens cleaners: chamois, microfiber cloths, lens pen

  15. black pro mist 1/8 filter to help victims of high-def and 4K.

  16. pouch and in-ear phones (VERY important for monitoring sound), extra earphone tips, corded ear plugs for explosions, loud music, etc.

Editor's Note: Regarding the cameras that Joan Churchill uses these days, Alan Barker—her partner in life and, as her sound person, in film—offers the following breakdown:

  1. The Sony PXW-X70 is rigged with a Sony URX-P03 wireless receiver and a Sennheiser K6/ME64 microphone, which is covered with a modified Shure A81WS windscreen. The microphone is held in the Sony mount with a twisted #84 rubber band, which holds the microphone just firmly enough to act as a decent shock mount. The blue electrical tape on the microphone covers the on/off and low-cut switches, which cause wind noise. The Sony receiver is patched to channel 1. It receives a mix of my double-system audio tracks, which I record individually on a Sound Devices 633 mixer/recorder. The K6/ME64 is patched to channel 2. It is a cardioid microphone, which has a wider pattern than the usual "shotgun” and is tailored for clarity of speech. The blue band on the lens is a silicone wrist band, as in the Colbert WristStrong bracelets. They happen to fit many lenses, making for a better grip on the focus ring.

  2. The Sony PXW-FS5 is rigged in the same way. These are our cameras of choice for vérité work at the moment. 

  3. For interviews, we currently use the Canon C300 MKII with a variety of lenses.  

All cameras are compromises. We match the camera to the moment and are always on the lookout for new options. A key to Joan's shooting style is engaging the subject. She does not use shoulder-mounted cameras because the viewfinder obscures her face (Joan is left-eyed).


Joan Churchill won the 2005 IDA Award for Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Cinematography.