PBS Documentary When We Were Shuttle Shot and Graded with Blackmagic Design
Blackmagic Design has announced that the PBS documentary “When We Were Shuttle” was shot with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K digital film camera and color graded with DaVinci Resolve Studio editing, grading, visual effects VFX and audio post production software.
“When We Were Shuttle” is a documentary commissioned by PBS member station WLRN in Miami, Florida, exploring the Space Shuttle Program through six exceptional men and women who worked behind the scenes to make it fly. Through their recollections and personal archives, the film dives into the core of the humanity behind the Program, with a unique, grassroots look at the way Shuttle affected life until the program’s end in 2011. Directed by Zachary Weil and photographed by Kyle McConaghy, the film premiered at the Kennedy Space Center’s IMAX theater in October 2022.
As a child, Weil had always loved spaceflight. Growing up in South Florida he has fond memories of his visits to NASA. “I can still remember going up to the Kennedy Space Center for the first time as a member of the young astronauts club, and I just immediately felt a very strong connection to this place and its history,” said Weil. In 2019, Weil produced a documentary called “When We Were Apollo” for WLRN. The film was well received and the station asked about future projects. “The space shuttle seemed like a very natural segue from this first effort.”
Weil had worked with McConaghy on other projects, and the two had developed a good working relationship. In planning for the variety of interviews and footage they needed to accompany the historical imagery they would use as well, the choice of camera systems seemed clear. “We discussed several different possible cameras, but the form factor of the Pocket Cinema Camera 6K was a huge selling point,” said McConaghy. “We knew we wanted to film many of our subjects in their real life environments and places of work, so to be able to shoot with a stripped down version of the Pocket 6K was amazing at minimizing our footprint and letting us fall into the background.”
“From a handling standpoint, the Pocket 6K is so well designed,” he added. “We were following our subjects around just holding the camera, and looking at the footage, you would think at the very least we had an easy rig or even some more significant stabilization. But the size and weight are pretty ideal for handheld work.”
Though the production was often a “run and gun” style, Weil and McConaghy still wanted as high a cinematic quality as possible, while being sensitive to storage needs. “Aside from the beautiful image and form factor, shooting long interviews with Blackmagic RAW is such a game changer,” continued McConaghy. “We shot at full 6K (6144 x 3456) using constant quality settings Q3 or Q5 and I couldn’t believe how many hours of footage we were able to shoot with just one or two CFAST cards.”
Weil appreciated the small kit in helping to satisfy the vision for the interviews he had developed. “We definitely wanted it to feel like you’re making a very close and personal connection with the individuals that we interviewed for the project,” said Weil. “We were trying to steer away from interview set ups and compositions that look over crafted. We get a lot of our inspiration from documentaries from the 60s and 70s where interview setups were much simpler, where you’d often just have a single camera and you would be relatively tight on the subject’s face.”
“Specifically, it’s a pretty basic strip down set up,” continued Weil. “With the Pocket 6K we also have a one by one panel light that serves as our key, with either a bounce card or some negative fill to even out the light, and then whatever natural light we are able to gather from a window or other source. I think this all goes to our desire for a very basic set up, but also that organic retro documentary look where you just weren’t using as many lights for stylistic reasons as you would perhaps see in a more contemporary documentary.”
McConaghy color graded the project himself in DaVinci Resolve Studio. “Zack and I drew a lot of our look inspiration from the archival material that we collected,” said McConaghy. “A lot of it was captured in either 16 mm film stock, or Kodachrome if it was still photography. So we talked a lot about trying to create and foster a look that was the total opposite of the subject matter that we were dealing with, that being space. Space is a very sterile and cold environment. Our solution was to really go in the opposite direction: shoot and grade our subjects to feel warmer and more familiar.”
McConaghy also appreciated the abilities Blackmagic RAW gives in the grading process. “Post was a dream with the camera,” said McConaghy. “Blackmagic RAW’s highlight retention was great, which helped us dial in a slightly retro look to match the archival material.”
While the subject matter was rewarding for Weil, so was the ability to tell the story under tight constraints. “One condition of the commission was to finish the film within a year’s time,” added Weil. “There wasn’t a lot of time to shoot a little, examine the footage, make course corrections, etc. We had to be streamlined from prep through production, shoot in one large block of time. That’s very hard in documentary filmmaking, but luckily we had the gear and the team, with Kyle, to get it done.”
“When We Were Shuttle” is available at https://whenwewereshuttle.org/, and will premiere on American Public Television in early 2023.