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Staying Focused: Cinematographer Shana Hagan Concentrates on Capturing the Scene

By Brigid Kelly

Cinematographer Shana Hagans films a scene for Shakespeare Behind Bars. Courtesy of Philomath Films

You may not know what cinematographer Shana Hagan looks like, but it's likely you've seen her work. One of the first widely acclaimed projects she shot was Breathing Lessons, the 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary short by Jessica Yu. Hagan's camerawork also has been seen in two films that premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival--Thin by Lauren Greenfield and Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated--along with After Innocence by Jessica Sanders and Shakespeare Behind Bars by Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller, both of which screened at Sundance 2005. The reality shows Survivor, The Apprentice and The Contender include Hagan's work as well.

When she was in grade school, Hagan received a 35mm camera for her birthday. The gift sparked an interest that led to a stop-motion animation project in middle school, experiments tying a video camera to the family car and a stint as her high school's theatrical lighting technician. But it was the 1985 film Witness that made her realize that "the role of a cinematographer is not only to make beautiful images but to create moods and emotions through lighting and composition."

After graduating from Loyola Marymount University in 1989, Hagan was not able to find work as a cinematographer, so she went into post-production. "Post-production was an amazing finishing school because you ended up learning everything you didn't in film school--like about labs, film stocks and printing," she notes. Hagan's first major project was as an assistant editor on Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991). The producers knew she could handle a camera, so they gave her a few insert maps and pictures to film. Other production companies eventually hired her as a camera assistant. 

By the mid-1990s, Hagan had mastered most of the technical skills she needed and felt confident about her shooting abilities. It was at this point she had an epiphany. "I realized it was more about my people skills and communication, not only between me and the director but me and the subject," Hagan explains. "Being responsive, being able to listen, being able to perceive emotions--particularly when things aren't even being said--are all vital to capturing a scene."   

Hagan shot several documentaries prior to Breathing Lessons, but it was that film, about poet/journalist Mark O'Brien, that catapulted her into a new realm. Breathing Lessons had very specific cinematic challenges. "The shooting ratio was really small," recalls Yu, who also collaborated with Hagan on In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) and The Living Museum (1999). "It was about 6:1. So we had to plan everything out ahead of time. Shana was extremely thorough about discussing potential shots and coming up to speed on the subjects we were shooting." Yu adds that O'Brien lived in a very small apartment--which included an iron lung in which he was confined due to polio--that was difficult to shoot. Hagan was not deterred. "She's very good at approaching things creatively and giving you options in your coverage," Yu notes.

 "As director, picking the crew is as important as picking the subjects," says Rogerson, who also directed Homeland (2000). "They need to have a sympathy for the subject matter and a good sense of storyline and themes." Torrie Rosenzweig, director of Smoke and Mirrors (1999) and a work in progress, Tick Tock, concurs. "Cinematography can make or break a documentary. Unlike feature film, you either do or don't get the footage necessary to tell the story."

Hagan agrees that cinematographers work under a lot of pressure. "There's a sense of responsibility," she notes. "You have to deliver not only to a director and a producer, but to an editor and a network." And she has to be true to the story. "It's my responsibility to be there and, with style and attention, capture emotional response and tell people's stories accurately, fairly," she maintains.

 "The best thing about working with Shana is that she's a good listener," says Spitzmiller, co-director of Homeland and also a cinematographer. "Because she is, she's good at capturing the observational vérité stuff. She's knows when to linger on someone for a reaction and how to anticipate shots. As a director you always have to listen to your subject, but not all cinematographers do." 

"One of the big things that I've learned is to just stay focused," Hagan says. "In documentary, patience is a key because you have to wait for moments to happen and you have to be there, sometimes be rolling; you just have to trust that things are going to happen.

"The films that I've been involved with that have been issue films or activist pieces all come down to individual stories," Hagan continues. In Homeland, four Native-American families from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota were profiled. According to Hagan, it would have been too much if all the film did was feature them talking about the poverty, infant mortality and diabetes. "But if you meet individual people and spend time with them, they begin to tell the story of poverty through their individual daily lives," she says. "They explore the issues for you."

 "Documentaries are based on relationships," says Spitzmiller. "If you don't have a good relationship with your subject, you won't be able to get the content you need."

"I think somehow it's my approach to individuals, and I don't know if it's because I'm a woman or because I'm just this sensitive being that tries to make a connection with my subjects that makes them feel comfortable," Hagan reflects. "I tend to think it's a little bit of both. I think we got what we did from all the guys in Shakespeare because I'm a woman." Rogerson concurs: "The inmates were willing to tell her their deepest, darkest secrets. If it were myself and a male cinematographer, it may not have gone to a level that deep."

"There's a trust between director and subject but also camera and subject," Hagan adds. The latter relationship is more intense or more intimate to her because there are things that she's seen or chooses to focus on that the director isn't aware of yet. And, she adds, there are instances when subjects won't disclose things to a director that they will disclose to her. Hagan has to decide what to do with the information. "There's that line that you really have to go up to as far as you can without destroying that trust," Hagan explains.

As an example Hagan cites a scene in Aging Out, by Roger Weisberg and Vanessa Roth, in which a dispute between a foster child and parent escalates to a call to the police. Hagan remembers the temptation to put the camera down and intervene. But the moment was the perfect opportunity to show the boy's frustration and define his relationship with the foster father. "If subjects are going through hard stuff I really try to be a fly on the wall," she maintains. "Try to shoot from far back and not be in people's faces, to stay behind that fourth wall. 

 "I love to get involved with a project," she continues, "to a point where I really feel like I'm an integral part in the making of the film as opposed to just a button pusher or a camera operator. The greatest collaborations I've had are with people who give me broad thematic strokes and then let me interpret that visually." Hagan has worked both with directors who are very meticulous and particular about the style in which she shoots, and with those who allow her freer reign. Regardless of the approach, exchange between filmmaker and Hagan is constant throughout the project. It's important for both parties to keep track of what's been shot, what is needed and what the big themes are for the project, according to Hagan.

"Shana is persistent about style," Rogerson notes. "On Shakespeare, I was busy dealing with subjects in crisis and funding, etc."  When he watched her footage in the editing bay, he was grateful she had taken the time to check in. The window reflections, puddles and shots of prisoners' hands were helpful in conveying deeper levels in his scenes.

For now, Hagan has several concurrent projects: Married in America, a longitudinal look at married couples in America directed by Michael Apted; Money and Medicine, an examination of the health insurance crisis in the US, produced by Weisberg, with California stories directed by Spitzmiller and Rogerson; and a documentary for the Disney Family Foundation with Ted Thomas and Kuniko Okubo.

"I love the vérité, run-and-gun," Hagan observes. "Just getting in there where you don't know how many windows are in the room, you don't know the light source. You're making all of these decisions and you just have to go with it. That's really challenging and very exciting."

While she's fond of documentary, Hagan is eager to expand her repertoire in narrative film. "I've done a fair amount of narrative work and I'd like to do more using the documentary style," she notes. "That's what I love about my life. Documentaries allow me to explore the world and have these incredible personal life experiences, all while doing my job."


Brigid Kelly is an independent documentary filmmaker and field producer who lives in Los Angeles.