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05-15-2024 - Case Study

Filmmaker Nick Dorsey Visualizes the Eccentric Headspace of Artist Haoyun Erin Zhao

By: Oakley Anderson-Moore

Nick Dorsey is an award-winning DP and Director.

Documentary films are definitely my passion, it's why I got into filmmaking,says Dorsey to Sony Cine. 

I love real stories about real people. There are so many amazing stories out there that you don't always need to create your own. When I find someone with a compelling perspective, I jump to capture it.

When eccentric visual artist Haoyun Erin Zhao walked into his work space in San Francisco, he knew she was one of those compelling characters. 

Dorsey sat down with Sony Cine to talk about the process of creating the intentional visual poem about Zhao using strict visual parameters, Nikkor AIS lenses, and the Sony FX6.

To Be A Child - Haoyun Erin Zhao from Nicholas Dorsey on Vimeo.

Why Dorsey let Erin Zhaos character inform the visuals before rolling the camera

In the documentary world, theres a big divide in the school of thought on when to start filming your subject.

There's some documentaries where you just go in and you start filming, and see what happens,confirms Dorsey.

This was more intentional. Dorsey conducted a series of pre-interviews before he even brought out the camera. 

I spent a few days in her studio just watching her sketch, watching her paint, and the way she approaches her art. That's when I realized she has this visceral way of experiencing the world, she notices the small patterns, details, and textures. The way she translates that on the paper isn't a direct correlation of what she's seeing, its more of a translation of the feelings that she's having.

During this prep time, Dorsey realized his job would be to convey whats happening in the internal world inside Zhaos head.

That also inspired a lot of the camera movement; I was handheld for pretty much the entire shoot. She's so free-flowing in the way she approaches art, and the way she moves with the paintbrush, and even the way she sketches that I wanted to mirror all that. For every part of her process, I wanted the camera to be attached to it.


Why Dorsey found the FX6 camera to be the perfect fit for the project

Dorsey owns the FX6 and shoots on it a lot. 

The FX6 I love,says Dorsey. I have access to bigger cameras, like ARRI. But with projects like these, I didn't have a budget for a crew, and I didn't have an AC to pull focus, so having a small compact camera that I could also shoot in really low light was the priority. The FX6 was the perfect fit for that. It's the best solo operator camera you can use.” 

For this film, Dorsey paired the FX6 with a set of Nikon Cine primes, the Nikkor AIS lenses to create two highly stylized looks.

"I pretty much stuck to two lenses, a 20mm and a 50mm almost the entire time, to give it two different feels. Either we're in this really wide landscape with the full frame of the FX6 where we're taking in the whole world that Erin is taking in. Or we're in her head, and we're in her process, and she's in that flow state of painting. That's when I would go to the 50mm and be a little bit tighter and shallower.

To enhance the storytelling behind the wide look of the full frame depth of field on FX6, Dorsey added diopters to his lenses. 

Sometimes people make fun of me for being so in love with them, but diopters add a ton of depth of field when you're on those wide angle lenses, and you can get really close to your subject. Getting that separation was huge for me because that's what translated the feeling of being in Erin's head.

How variable ND and ISO at 12,800 captured extreme shadows and highlights

To Be A Child - Haoyun Erin Zhao was shot in high contrast situations like the forest and rapidly shifting natural skylight in Zhaos studio. However, just because the light was uncontrolled, didnt mean Dorsey would compromise on the look. 

In San Francisco, clouds move in and out very quickly, so the lighting was never consistent,explains Dorsey. I found by pushing the ISO to 12,800, and sometimes taking the EI a little bit higher to shift the dynamic range to allow for my highlight detail, I was able to retain a lot more detail than on other camera bodies. I worked with a colorist in post, and even he was noticing how much more range I had in the highlights.

Not only did Dorsey capture highlights without losing the dark shadows, but he filmed many scenes in nature using only available light. 

My favorite lighting is the post sunset blue hour when it gets really dark and crunchy, and that's when the high ISO range really shines there because it allows me to capture what’s happening in the moment without being worried about settings or image quality. We actually added grain in post because the image was so clean, and we wanted more of a filmic look!

In addition to the ISO, Dorsey used the internal ND so he could capture Zhao without stopping her process. 

I really appreciate the variable ND, and being able to dial in exactly what you want for your neutral density, especially as a solo operator,describes Dorsey. I was trying to shoot a lot of this very shallow, wide open at the high ISO range, and being able to leave those settings and then just dial in my ND as I needed kept the process really fast and fluid. Erin is an artist who transcends into an alternate world while she's painting. I don't want to disrupt that. Being able to move around her in a way that doesn't disrupt her was huge.

Why Dorseys creative capacity is enriched by strict rules

For Dorsey, holding multiple roles makes him a better storyteller. But he recognizes the importance of limitations to pull it off. 

You have to set rules for yourself, especially when you're directing, DPing, and editing all on your own,says Dorsey. Having those restrictions of say shooting on a 20mm and a 50mm and that's it, and only using handheld, those limitations give way to the creative language that the film has. I try to set some limitations before I go into filming and editing, and those help me stay on track with the narrative and the overall creative style I'm trying to create.

To Be A Child is a great case study in how creative parameters like these allow the visuals to tell the story and portray a character. 

Erin and I had a shared vision for how we wanted to tell the story, and it came out beautifully.



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