Monday, July 16, 2018
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Emmy Nominees Kelly, Charles, Averick Reflect On "13th"
Cinematographer Hans Charles
Cinematographers and editor/writer/producer discuss their collaborative relationship with Ava DuVernay
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Hans Charles and Kira Kelly didn’t meet face to face until the documentary they shot, director/producer/writer Ava DuVernay’s 13th (Netflix), premiered at the New York Film Festival. Since then, 13th has received assorted accolades, including a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination as well as eight Emmy nominations. 

Among the Emmy nods are recognition for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, Directing for Nonfiction Programming (DuVernay), Writing for Nonfiction Programming (DuVernay and Spencer Averick), Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program (Averick) and Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program (Charles and Kelly).

The documentary delves into the history of racial inequality in America, zeroing in on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans. The title 13th is in reference to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Filmmaker DuVernay segues from that second qualifying clause to an eye-opening exploration of the American prison industry, the country’s justice system and the horrors of mass criminalization

SHOOT connected with Emmy nominees Charles, Kelly and Averick to gain their insights into 13th and their collaborative relationship with DuVernay. Whereas Charles has worked with DuVernay before, 13th marked the first collaboration that DP Kelly had with the director. Kelly recalled that DuVernay was following her work on social media, “then I got a call from Ava’s assistant who said, ‘Ava wants to meet with you.’ We wound up getting frozen yogurt together. At the time she had this VR project she was getting together. Things didn’t pan out but then 13th came along. I got the chance to work with her directly. She is an incredible director. She knows what she wants but at the same time she wants to know what you think. She has a clear vision but is open to collaboration.”

Meanwhile Charles has worked with DuVernay since 2010, starting with her documentary My Mic Sounds Nice. “However,” noted Charles, “her documentary from 2013 called Venus vs. is the first project that I shot for her. Working for her as a cinematographer is special because I worked on two projects with her as a focus puller and then she tapped me to shoot Venus vs. and 13th. It’s not often a director can see past your crew position to promote you on their upcoming projects.”

Charles went on to say of DuVernay, “I feel like she establishes a set of parameters for me to work from and gives me the freedom to work within that space. She always wants you to bring ideas and solutions to the table, not problems and limitations. Because I worked on My Mic Sounds Nice and Middle of Nowhere [for DuVernay] as a camera assistant (I was DP Bradford Young’s camera assistant for about seven years) and I worked with ARRAY, Ava’s film distribution company, I feel like I had some insight into her creative process before I jumped behind the camera to shoot for her. I believe that helped.”

For 13th, Charles shared, “I was inspired by Bruce Davidson’s photographs of the New York City subway system in the 1980s. I sent my ideas to Ava and told her this was the visual direction that was inspiring me. Ava had strong visual ideas as well, so you give her a sense of what you are thinking and then she tells you what she’s thinking and you go from there.”

As for how cinematographers Charles and Kelly collaborated, they really didn’t--as each did his or her own lensing on 13th. Kelly said it often was a matter of geography as she is primarily based on the West Coast while Charles resides on the East Coast. Still, they shuttled back and forth in terms of locations, according to Charles who related, “The division of labor between Kira and I was based on what Ava wanted and who was available at the time. We both shot on both coasts.”

Charles noted he was happy to finally get to meet Kelly at the New York Film Fest where 13th debuted. “I knew Kira’s work before I met her as she left a strong impression on the East Coast as a gaffer and cinematographer [before moving out West]. And I’ve met a ton of crews that have worked with her, so I was thrilled when I found out she was board [for 13th].”

Regarding the biggest creative challenges 13th posed to them as cinematographers, Charles said, “For me it was getting the different looks out of each location. I typically shot three to five interviews in a particular location. My challenge was changing the look within a reasonable amount of time and making sure Ava was happy with every setup. I couldn’t take all day to do so. She is so open when it comes to framing, and I felt comfortable in not limiting myself and throwing out multiple suggestions. And then she was adept at helping pare down what would work and gave me the freedom to try new things.”

Kelly too cited finding the right locations, making them work for each person interviewed while adding some visual variety to the filmmaking mix.

Career highlight
Kelly assessed, “Working on a movie like 13th is such a career highlight. It’s an important, timely movie. To be able to be a part of it already felt like an honor. Then to receive my first Emmy nomination for it is all the more gratifying.”

13th also landed Charles his first career Emmy nod. “There are people who work a lifetime and don’t get this honor,” related Charles. “The impact of the film on people is personally gratifying. I do want to enjoy the nomination and take in this moment. But I also want to hone my craft, get back to work, develop my own voice and not let this moment define my career but help shape it and have fun. If anything, I want this nomination to remind me to have as much fun on set as possible. Filmmaking as a career is a privilege, not a right. I don’t take it for granted. When I’m on a tough shoot, I remind myself that I’ve fulfilled so many of my childhood dreams looking through a lens. That alone makes me feel like I’m the most blessed person on earth.

“Professionally,” continued Charles, “I’m taking my time on my next steps. I believe collaboration is the key to my career and I want to use this moment to allow me to collaborate with people and projects I care about. I just produced my first feature with a long-time collaborator of mine. But I want to stay behind the camera as a cameraman for a lifetime. It’s just more fun to do it with someone next to you.”

For Kelly, life after 13th found her again collaborating with DuVernay on the OWN series she created, Queen Sugar. “It’s my first major show,” said Kelly who pretty much alternated on the full slate of season two episodes with cinematographer Antonio Calvache. Kelly credited Calvache, who shot season one of Queen Sugar, and DuVernay, who directed the very first episode, with building the look of the show. “He’s a great guy and a wonderful DP. By alternating on episodes, I have time to prep. It’s been a wonderful opportunity.”

Spencer Averick
Averick alone has three Emmy nominations on the basis of 13th--as a producer in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category, as well as for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming (shared with DuVernay), and Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program. Also as a producer on 13th, Averick was an Oscar nominee earlier this year in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Asked what his first career Emmy nods mean to him, Averick shared, “Personally, it feels good to be recognized for work that’s so meaningful to me. You never know what kind of reception to expect from audiences. You just put your head down and do the best you can, so any sort of recognition or nomination definitely feels great. More importantly, though, high-profile recognition like this shines a spotlight on the relevant issues we deal with in the film.”

Earlier this year, Averick garnered an American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Award nomination for 13th in the Best Edited Documentary-Feature category. Reflecting on the major creative challenge that 13th posed to him as an editor, Averick pinpointed “trying to cram over 100 years of dense American history into one easy-to-understand, digestible and interesting film. This was our biggest challenge from the beginning and I hope it’s something we’ve accomplished.”

Averick, DuVernay, producer Howard Barish and executive producers Angus Wall and Jason Sterman share the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special Emmy nomination for 13th. Averick touched upon the major contributions of each artisan to 13th, noting, “Angus and Jason were part of our visual effects and finishing team (at the Elastic studio). Over the process they became true creative collaborators and we are thankful for their passion and creativity. The graphics are incredible and help illustrate the story we wanted to tell. Could not have done it without them. Howard Barish, Ava and myself produced the film. Howard was key in the physical production and overall management of the film, while I oversaw the postproduction part of things. And of course Ava produces and directs every and all things from beginning to end. We had a great team.”

Averick first met DuVernay nearly 10 years ago on the documentary This Is The Life. DuVernay served as writer/director/producer on that film, with Averick in the dual capacity of producer and editor. “We were both just getting started in our film careers,” recalled Averick, “and it was exciting for me to meet someone with so much passion and drive to create meaningful work. We have similar sensibilities, sense of humor and taste, so filmmaking and storytelling with Ava is a natural and enjoyable process. She includes me from the beginning of preproduction through to the end. I love it and really couldn’t ask for a better partner and collaborator. Personally, over the years we’ve become great friends outside of our careers. She’s one of my favorite people in the world.”

In terms of the biggest takeaway or lesson learned from his experience on 13th, Averick observed, “This process was difficult and rewarding for so many reasons. I learned an incredible amount about the documentary filmmaking process. It’s hard to pin it down to just one thing, but I think overall I just became a stronger filmmaker, more confident in my voice and how to use my set of skills within a team to help create a film.”

This is the final installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that have explored Emmy contenders spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, visual effects and production design. This series will be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.