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Header image for article Robert Hanna: A Lifetime of Documentaries

Robert Hanna: A Lifetime of Documentaries

Cinematographer Robert Hanna is an Emmy-award winning, veteran commerical, and documentary filmmaker, as well as a longtime customer and friend to AbelCine. Hanna's credits include Carrier, Circus, and A Portrait of Robert Frank. He has experienced several successive technological revolutions first-hand, going from 16mm to high-definition video to 4K digital cinema and beyond.
His current project is Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, a documentary miniseries for HBO shot on Sony VENICE, which debuted in April 2020. In this exclusive interview, Hanna discusses his career and the evolution of technology for documentarians. 

"I went to NYU Film School and worked on a couple of documentaries while there in the early '1970s," Hanna recalls. "One was called And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, about a group of inmates putting on a play at the Queens House of Detention for Men. We shot with a 16mm Eclair NPR, which is about as far back as you can go to have a double-system film camera."

"From there, the Arriflex SR 16mm came out and that was my first film camera that I actually owned," Hanna continues. "I shot a lot of projects with that camera including Ansel Adams, which came out in 1981. When the industry started to go towards Super 16mm film, I decided not to go into it because video was really starting to come along at that point."

Hanna ended up purchasing a Sony BVP-5, which featured a 3-CCD camera head docked to a separate Betacam tape deck. "I thought video was the future, but it was also way too early at that time," Hanna recalls. "Film was still really strong and Super 16 was taking over. So, I just rented Aaton Super 16 cameras from AbelCine and stuck with film." Hanna's Aaton projects included A Portrait of Robert Frank, a one-hour ITV documentary on the famous photographer. 

Hanna also shot some of his smaller-scale projects on Beta SP and DigiBeta throughout the '80s and '90s but remained with film for major productions. "Finally, the Sony HDW-F900 high-definition 24p camera was released, and that was a big game-changer," Hanna remembers. 

Hanna shot his first major high-definition production, Carrier, a ten-hour PBS documentary miniseries chronicling life aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. He chose a Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam for its slow-motion capabilities. The big-budget series was produced by Mel Gibson and released in 2008. Hanna shared an Emmy win for his efforts. 

A few years later, Hanna graduated to a Sony PMW-F5 Super 35mm digital cinema camera. He used it to shoot Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, released in 2015 and executive produced by Ken Burns. "We chose the F5 because I didn't want to have to switch lenses during the shoots," Hanna notes "I also liked the Super 35mm shallow depth of field and the 2000 ISO, which meant I didn't have to light the sensitive verité scenes. I also managed to get the Fuji Cabrio 19-90mm zoom lens."

Sony VENICE on set of Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children

For his most recent project, Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children for HBO, Hanna sought a camera which could leverage his years of film shooting experience along with the latest digital cinema advances. The search ultimately led to Sony VENICE. "This is the first time I've used it and everyone at Show of Force, the production company has been thrilled with the images," says Hanna. "And that's just with the proxies right out of the camera without any color grading. The image is very filmic, a dramatic change from the classic Sony Broadcast look."

“We spent a couple of days doing camera tests at AbelCine in Brooklyn, and then we brought the media back to our office and color corrected it,” adds Jeff Dupre. Dupre produced the series with Show of Force partner Maro Chermayeff in association with Get Lifted Film Company and Roc Nation, and also directed the final episode. Fellow directors included Chermayeff, Joshua Bennett, and Sam Pollard. 

Chermayeff and Dupre also previously worked with Hanna on the PBS series Carrier and Half the Sky. “Compared to the other cameras we tested, we liked VENICE the best,” Dupre says. “While Bob Hanna is generally a pretty laconic guy, he wasn’t shy about telling us which camera he preferred.”

Robert Hanna, Cinematographer

Due to the massive volume of expected material, the production opted to shoot X-AVC QFHD (UHD) in S-LOG3 color, but not RAW. "We did 40 or 50 interviews of two to three hours each," Hanna reveals. "They would have had to create dailies and RAW was going to be just too much material to manage efficiently."

As the project's subject matter was especially intense, Hanna sought sensitive and creative ways to convey the information. "Nobody was really keen on going the reenactment route because you can lead the audience to think a certain way," Hanna observes. "The series was about the cases that were never solved. Leading an audience in any direction would be a mistake - we wanted more neutral imagery." 

Many of the victims were allegedly kidnapped via car so the production sought to depict the crimes impressionistically. "One image that we often don't see in documentaries is a POV captured from a Russian arm mount on a vehicle," Hanna explains. "You see it all the time in features and commercials, but we used it to just give you the feeling of this ominous car traveling around Atlanta."

"We could put the VENICE up on the arm and we didn't have to worry about changing filters because you have remote control of them in the camera," Hanna continues. "We shot at night with the ISO at 2500 on a 19-90mm Fujinon zoom and it was terrific. We set up POV shots passing by a location that evoked the situation described and it was atmospheric."

Sony VENICE on set of Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children

“VENICE provides a rich, immersive look that we love,” adds Dupre. “The skin and color tones are terrific, and it’s great in low light situations.” “We’re very pleased with how the series looks. When it comes to production values, the bar keeps moving higher. The story always comes first, but your film also needs to hit a very high mark visually.”

Atlanta includes a variety of interviews and cinema verité footage. Asked for his general approach to verité coverage, Hanna offers a few observations. "You're constantly trying to figure out, 'where are these people going to go and what are they going to say or do?'" says Hanna. "You see body language and listen to what they're saying in order to find the best angle to film from, often a physically awkward position. Sometimes you just have to go with what you can get. Rarely do you shoot with a prime, except for interviews, even though it looks great. Zoom is what was and is verité."

VENICE on set of Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children

For a good portion of Hanna's career, he's enjoyed a working relationship with AbelCine. "For me, Abel is a source for information," says Hanna. "Anything that goes wrong or something I don't understand, I can always call up and get that information, and know it's accurate. They also have very good relationships with the manufacturers and the whole package of rentals, support, and sales. You really feel like they're behind you." 


All photos by Tahir Daudier.

Noah Kadner

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