Updated: May 15
Visionary artist Trevor Paglen attempts his most audacious project, a compelling exploration of state and corporate surveillance. Cinematographer Tom Bannigan ACS shoots documentary Unseen Skies, which premiered recently at Sydney Film Festival.
By Tom Bannigan ACS Read the Australian Cinematographer Article here The director of Unseen Skies, Yaara Bou Melhem, called me one morning and told me this story of an artist, Trevor Paglen, who was about to launch an artwork into space. It was essentially a big silver balloon in a cube satellite that would inflate, orbit the earth for a few months then burn up on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere, the astro version of a sand mandala.
The artwork was a commentary on who owns space and who is permitted to use it, traditionally it’s been military and communications and this was a statement about that. Before there was any significant funding, we flew to Los Angeles for a satellite test and San Francisco to get a feel for how a documentary would pan out. I worked closely with the director during development right through to completion and we had lots of discussions about how to best visually represent some of the concepts and the tone of the film.
I became involved at a very early stage so initially there were lots of conversations about what the film was going to look like before we started shooting. I’ve worked a lot with the director in the past and we are big on planning. A lot was multi-camera and, with this type of documentary you often only get one chance to capture the action. We knew from the start that multi-camera sequences were a visual device we would use on the shoot to align with a concept we were trying to convey about whose perspective are we seeing the world through, what is being seen, the act of seeing and what remains unseen or obscured. At times, three or four cameras would be rolling on a scene and if we were in an incredible landscape, I’d put up the drone up as well.
From the beginning, we planned that one perspective would be run through computer vision software and inserted at certain times of the film to show people what these algorithms ‘see’ when they’re looking at the same scene the viewers have been. With some early funding we went on a shoot to the Nevada desert and to Washington DC which culminated in a teaser and a treatment. The trip to Nevada gave us a visual base for the film in that we were filming in massive landscapes that housed lots of air force bases that date back to the cold war. It is also transected by the ‘extra-terrestrial highway’ so it felt like the twilight zone at times. This gave us a sparse visual style and we wanted to embrace the beauty and ethereal tones of these landscapes.
We settled on shooting with a Canon C700 full frame with cine primes, a C300mkii, a Black Magic Pocket 6k, a DJI Inspire 2 drone and various other smaller cameras that we would use to try and mimic the surveillance-like footage that we would run through computer vision algorithms. When we started filming it was pre-Covid and there was a lot of travel for this film and also other projects we were working on. There were times I would fly back to Sydney and swap out gear and fly out again. A couple of times I left gear in storage in Dubai and picked it up en-route to the shoot if I was coming from another job. All the travel meant that I packed fairly light and didn’t have anything superfluous. We also used a Rig Wheels mount and Ronin S with the black magic as the external car rig which were critical for some of our scenes in the Algodones Dunes and Central Australia. Some gear we picked up in various locations as a rental if we could find it so we could limit the about of Peli cases we were lugging. Covid meant that our last shoot was cancelled but Paglen picked up some filming for us.
At the beginning the camera and sound department was the director and I, so yes, very light. It forced us to be really economical and efficient. We shot about thirty-percent of what ended up in the film this way with some early development support from Screen Australia and the Shark Island Development Labs. It was only when Participant in the United States and In Films in Australia came on board that we had the budget to add more crew but it was really minimal at times. Part of that was because we felt it was more intimate and we could be much nimbler and I think this allowed us to be very direct and targeted with what and how we were shooting. Trevor moves quickly and was also working while we were filming so we’d lose momentum in the scene if we asked him certain things.
We had to be reactive and flexible so a small crew was easier. We had a camera assist for parts of the United States and in Australia and we would often get them to wait ahead of the action and rig cameras so that we could catch the scenes as naturally as possible and without stops. There was a lot of data as we were doing multi camera shoots, all in 4k and the drone was shooting CinemaDNG which is something like four gigabits per second. I think we had five cameras running during the Kronos Quartet performances in London so that was also pretty heavy. I did the majority of the wrangling until we got a bigger budget which meant some pretty late nights. To overcome the limitations of a small crew we often rigged second and third cameras as a static wide.
I was the drone operator and because I was also filming ground shots, we had to really plan the sequences that involved both. Most of the time we were pretty efficient in getting coverage and would shoot ground camera then drone then ground cam. The assistant camera would also be hidden somewhere with a camera when the drone was up to keep both shots synced. Sometimes we would retrace our steps and go back and shoot drone if we missed it to cut into the sequence or just wanted more time to interrogate the landscape.
A lot of thought went in to how and when to use the drone so it didn’t feel gratuitous and so that it added to the work we’d done with the terrestrial sequences rather than replacing it. Some of the landscapes are breathtaking and I think the drone was the best way to see them. The drone is also an interesting tool in that it is essentially controlled by satellites and various algorithms which make it particularly poetic in this case.
Jon Shaw ACS shot the underwater sequences with a RED Dragon while I was filming with the C700 and drone from the boat. Again, it was all about planning the shots so that he could pick up where I left off and vice versa. The director had done a lot of research about where the cables might be and we weren’t even sure we’d find them when we went on the driving trip as nobody had ever filmed them before and coordinates for where they are aren’t exactly public knowledge. We got lucky on the second dive though and it was pretty incredible how much the underwater footage matched some of Paglen’s earlier work photographing cables in the United States.
We only really filmed one master interview with Paglen at the very beginning of the project. After that they were mostly in-situ as we felt that was more descriptive. I used a lot of different practical lighting for many of the interviews. The master interview was pretty traditional with a soft Creamsource key and some bounce. After that I used everything from diffused LED head lamp for some night shoots, some LED camping lanterns for another, the LCD screen of a DSLR and the screen of a laptop to light another. The LED screen for the DLSR light had a photograph of Pine Gap on it that Trevor had just taken so it projected an eerie orange glow on his face while talking about mass surveillance. With every interview we had chosen the filming location carefully and we wanted to connect him to the landscape he was in.
I had some involvement in post-production. The editor, Francisco Forbes, did a brilliant job and really understood how to pull the camera angles together to make the scenes look seamless. I only really chimed in when there might be a different shot that could be put in to round out sequences. I sat in on some of the early viewings and I was brought in before picture lock for a day or two to make sure we hadn’t missed anything or in case there were other shots I remembered that could work better. But really, I had complete trust in the post crew. I had shot itall in C-Log so there was plenty of dynamic range for the grader to play with.
Definitely my favorite sequence is from the very first shoot we did in the Nevada desert. It starts with a drone shot of Paglen in his van driving down a dirt road which ends at Area 51 or Edwards Air Force Base. It’s an Air Force Test Centre so at night time there are often weird and wonderful lights flying around the desert. There are also a few random conspiracy theorists driving around looking for UFOs so the whole scene around there is pretty weird. Paglen finds a good place to set up his telescope to try and take a photo of a spy satellite he’s been looking for. He goes on to explain that for thousands of years, when people looked up at the night sky they’d see stars and constellations and now it’s also inhabited by spy satellites and space junk.
I don’t think we would have done much differently. The process of making it was fairly organic in that it started as an idea that grew into a feature documentary. I think it turned out the way it did because we went with it rather than forcefully try to make it a film.
Tom Bannigan ACS has worked in documentary for theatrical and broadcast, and earned a number of awards including a Gold Tripod for work on Foreign Correspondent story ‘The Oasis’ in 2020.