Q&A with DoP Torsten Lapp
Author: Canon Editor

Torsten Lapp is one of the Directors of Photography of the documentary Reality Winner and has worked on the film since late 2017 / early 2018, determining the visual cinematic style of the film.  The film follows the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner, who leaked a top secret document about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections to the media. 

Over the five years of production, he has been using his beloved Canon EOS-1D C, an EOS 300 Mark II, EOS C300 Mark III, EOS 5D Mark IV, EOS-1D X Mark II, EOS R, plus various prime and zoom lenses.

Canon was able to interview him about his experience with the equipment on this project.

Torsten Lapp with his EOS-1D C camera

Torsten Lapp with his EOS-1D C camera in Corpus Christi, Texas, and an important film scene he filmed of Reality Winner in prison in Lincolnton, Georgia using the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM + EXT 1.4x.

Hi Torsten! Can you share a bit of your professional background? 

I have been filming and producing documentaries for more than 30 years, but my original degree was in photography. I also studied politics, law, and psychology for a couple of years, which is very helpful in my field and for myself. I’ve done a lot of different work from short to longform and theatrical documentaries, but also advertising jobs and personal art projects. I’m still doing a lot of photography, especially when I travel.

My biggest passion are investigative documentaries and sensitive stories. It’s my eternal fight against the injustices of the world. I’m always on the side of the powerless. The fight of the 99% against the 1%, I guess. That’s why I’ve traveled into war zones like Afghanistan and former Yugoslavia. I want to share and amplify the voices of victims and expose wrongdoing.

DoP E.J. Enríquez with the Canon C300MK3

The key image which was used for the poster was filmed by E.J. Enríquez with the Canon EOS C300 Mark III.

The cinematography in "Reality Winner" effectively conveys the emotional and political aspects of the story. Can you share your approach to visually capturing the complexities of Reality Winner's case and the larger themes of government secrecy and whistleblowing?

Reality Winner shows the story of a young woman who is deeply moved by injustices in the world and when she worked at the NSA, she felt compelled to make the misconduct she witnessed public. She saw information about foreign election interference that was suppressed, hidden, and she didn’t want that to be her job anymore. So, she made it public. Unfortunately, the media organization that received her document didn’t protect her as a source.

In the film we have very different protagonists. I wanted to show Reality as the victim of an extremely harsh prosecution, but also her personality, who she is as a person. The camera capturing her is very still, calm, and often like a magnifying glass for her emotion.

Her counterpart is the prosecutor who you see holding a speech at the end, which I filmed with multiple different cameras and from a variety of angles. That way I could capture the full impact of his carefully orchestrated presentation. It was merciless, relentless, and that comes across unfiltered in that key scene.

For Reality’s family and supporters, I chose a verité approach. I used handheld cameras to follow their fight for democracy. That moving personal camera was a visual style choice, which also allowed me to be close to the action without disrupting it.

Through the verité scenes we are showing the power of the judiciary and the state in a blunt, unvarnished, undisguised look at the machinations of the power apparatus.

What specific techniques or visual choices did you employ to immerse the audience in the documentary's narrative and help them connect with the subject matter on a deeper level?

For the verité work, I prefer small, powerful cinema cameras like the C300 line or cameras from the Canon EOS R system. I use fixed focal lenses and many ND filters in order to focus on the most important person in the respective scene, almost always with a large open aperture.

I want to focus the viewer on a specific person or moment in each scene and take away distractions. My goal is to hone in on the truth and emotion of every single image.

Reality Winner family members

Documentary filmmaking often involves capturing real-life events and subjects. How did you balance the need for authenticity with the artistic aspects of cinematography in this project?

I don't ever want the camera to distort and tamper with the truth. The situation we find ourselves in should be supported and documented in an artistic way without altering the story.

I want to make reality clearer and don’t conform to clichés where poor people look poor, or victims like victims. People should go into battle with their heads held high. The camera shouldn't threaten them and it shouldn't obscure the view. It should show respect.

The camera and the people behind it, they become the connecting link of the person standing in front of the them. We are allies. I'm of the opinion that if I stand for something, I can stand behind. Not as a mouthpiece or to make an activist film, but with respect, compassion and openness. You shouldn’t risk being used, but you can still be an ally.

The documentary deals with sensitive and controversial topics related to government secrecy and whistleblower protection. Did this affect your approach to lighting, composition, or camera work, and if so, how?

For most scenes, the light is supporting the real situation as it presented itself. The one exception are the FBI interrogation scenes since we weren’t there when it happened. That gave us some creative freedom. We tried to find a style with the camera to depict the scene without distracting and to draw people into an extreme experience. We also wanted to leave room for the audience’s imagination, to provide space for your own images and emotions. The interrogation scenes are challenging, they require involvement of the audience.

Testimonial Quote

I don't ever want the camera to distort and tamper with the truth.  - Torsten Lapp

Were there any particular challenges or memorable moments you encountered while filming "Reality Winner" that you'd like to share?

The fight, the hopeless of the situation, the prosecutor’s speech to dehumanize Reality really impacted me. I used three or four cameras capture it to also show the machine of the state, the brutality. During the times when the government tried to obstruct our view, we worked hard to get around the restrictions to show the full scope of Reality’s experience and the situation she was in. Like when she was in jail, running outside in a caged area. The people who should be rewarded who have the backbone to stand up for a cause, they are placed in a cage. This is the brutality of the state. In another situation, Reality was transported away in a van with dark windows. I ran up and pressed my camera right up against the glass. That’s a pivotal moment in the film. After a year in pre-trial detention and being silenced, Reality looks right into the camera and nods at me and the director.

The documentary likely features interviews, courtroom footage, and various settings. Can you discuss how you adapted your cinematographic style to suit these different elements of the film?

The interviews with the whistleblowers have a bit of a claustrophobic atmosphere. We filmed people in real situations, in their homes and on their way to work, emphasizing the natural light. But there is dark atmosphere in a dark world. There is a bit of David Lynch in the way we did the lighting and color.

The reenactments are intended to give space to the imagination and for audiences to listen to the original recording of Reality’s FBI interrogation that the director and producer won in a lawsuit. That’s why they are blurry and moody. They are more like an emotional recreation of the scenes.

Sonia Kennebeck, the director of the documentary, collaborated closely with you. Can you describe the synergy between your cinematography and her direction in conveying the film's message effectively?

Sonia and I have been working together for more than 15 years. After such a long time, you know what the other person is thinking and feeling. You are in this together, you want the same thing. You have a similar creative vision and support each other to achieve it.

Reality Winner running in caged outdoor area

Visual storytelling can be a powerful tool for conveying complex issues and emotions. Can you discuss any specific scenes or shots from the documentary that you feel particularly proud of or that had a significant impact on the overall narrative?

I’m proud of the prison scene, where you can see Reality running in a caged outdoor area. It was very difficult to film it, because of the far distance and how rarely Reality was allowed outside. There were numerous obstacles. It was more than 100 degrees outside and we had to wait in a hot car for days. I had to be ready to film at any moment with the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT 1.4x lens in my hands. When we finally got her, I was delighted! I overcame the obstruction with technology.

In addition to our verité work that we followed the story for so long, I’m also very proud of the recreation of the FBI interrogation. The fictional parts. I’m always looking forward to fictional work where I can show my skill and design the scenes myself. In these specific scenes, it’s about leaving the documentary perspective, to be removed from it and enter another layer of time. You can feel that something is changing, that it's not normal or representing reality. Here I can use the images to influence feelings, the emotions that arise to take the audience to a deeper level.

As the documentary is set to be released on VOD, what are your hopes for the impact it will have on viewers, and what do you think audiences should take away from the film, both in terms of its content and its visual storytelling?

No matter how difficult it is, you should never give up the fight. Stand up for your fellow human beings, don't always focus on yourself, but be open to others and support this kind of feeling through the art of images. I want audiences to leave with a positive feeling and the thought, I have seen a good film, I’m taking the experience with me of art that has value and is meaningful. It’s something that enriches me, that’s special. Nothing that I see every day, but something that is inspiring me creatively. Maybe it will give people a push to be creative themselves. That might be the key to draw compassion and inspiration.

Thanks to ProductionHUB for their collaboration on this interview. Read more articles from ProdutionHUB here: productionhub.com

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