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Spotlight | Southeast: Tales from Two Cities

Two Southern producers tell their stories with different approaches and timelines.

By Tom Inglesby


Producers tend to be different in how they approach their work, their stories, and their passions. Here are two that followed different paths to get very different stories out to the public, one in a feature, the other in a television documentary. Both worked hard and long, and both hope the results will get a message across to others.

Special Delivery

Spotlight-MIAmiAt Trailblazer Studios in North Carolina, Emmy-winning documentary producers Monica Lange and Bonnie Cutler-Shear developed and created Twice Born, a three-part documentary series for PBS. The series spotlights heartbreaking and life-affirming stories from inside the world’s leading fetal surgery center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Lange served as producer/director and Cutler as co-producer/editor.

During the 14 months of filming, the Trailblazer crew was embedded at the hospital, capturing moments, conversations, and procedures that have never before been shown on television. It is the first series to be granted access inside CHOP’s Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment and its Special Delivery Unit. The title refers to the center’s procedures that allow doctors to operate on fetuses.

“The idea to do a documentary about fetal surgeons had been in my head for several years,” recalls Lange. “When the right funders came along, I put it out there, and they bit right away. It took 10 months to get the hospital to agree to do the series, to negotiate access, and for the lawyers to work out all the details. We were also working on our contract with the network at the same time. It was a major commitment on the hospital’s part, and on ours.”

How does a documentary crew deal with a long timeline when the events that are the basis of the program cannot be regulated? Lange says, “We were not on site all the time, but we made ourselves available on a moment’s notice during the 14 months. At one point, we spent 19 days in a hotel near the hospital waiting for a baby to be born. We had crew on call to be at the hospital and ready to shoot within 45 minutes—day and night—during that period.”

The Trailblazer crew filming a fetal operation at CHOP.

The Trailblazer crew filming a fetal operation at CHOP.

Twice Born follows several families from around the country as they learn about medical challenges facing their unborn children, assess the options of prenatal surgery, and make decisions once their options are clear. Intimate medical consultations, decisions, and celebrations are part of each episode. The show also gives viewers a look at CHOP’s world-renowned medical staff as they navigate surgical team meetings, patient consultations, operating room drama, and their own sometimes-complicated home lives.

“We had a very small crew,” notes Lange. “A cinematographer, soundman, and I were the ones shooting, and we had a production assistant/media manager with us who stayed in a ‘bunker’ that the hospital provided us as a kind of base. There were two cinematographers, Erin Harvey and John Rotan, involved during the 14 months due to scheduling demands.”

A long-term project can make investors and the network nervous. Lange explains how they overcame that problem. “We did running post over the course of shooting so that the network could see what we were up to. It also helped us to figure out story: what we had, and what we needed. All the post-production happened at Trailblazers back in North Carolina. In addition to the editor, Bonnie Cutler, we had a graphics person, four composers, media managers, and post-coordinators. Later on, a sound designer/mixer and online editor became involved. Editing and finishing took about 14 months.”

Over the three-part series, viewers share in several touching stories: Lesly, a young, single mother, journeys to CHOP from California because her baby has developed an aggressive tumor in utero that threatens its ability to breathe or eat; Shelly and Bobby travel from Massachusetts after learning their baby has spina bifida, a debilitating condition that causes a range of problems including impaired mobility, hydrocephalus and a number of other lifelong challenges; Tina and Brion journey to the center from their home in Texas, seeking hope for their unborn twins diagnosed with the rare and dangerous twin-twin transfusion syndrome; and Geneva and Reggie travel from North Carolina after their unborn child develops a life-threatening urinary tract obstruction.

Benjamin Michel, DP, follows one of the actors while filming MIAmi. The rig and small form factor of the camera helps in tight quarters.

Benjamin Michel, DP, follows one of the actors while filming MIAmi. The rig and small form factor of the camera helps in tight quarters.

“We filmed in the OR many times, including during fetal surgeries,” Lange says. “We observed the same precautions as the surgical staff. Most of the vérité shooting was done with the Sony F55 shooting in HD mode. We used the Canon 5D Mark III for the interviews. We only lit the interviews. The vérité was shot with available light.”

Common People, Dramatic Stories

In Florida, two college students collaborated on MIAmi, a narrative feature film that follows the interconnecting lives of four young adults living in different neighborhoods of Miami, Fla. Tony, played by Greysun Morales, is a high school senior trying to figure out his next step in the midst of a rocky relationship with his mom. Laura (Laura Di Lorenzo) is a recent college graduate who has moved back home in the face of scarce job opportunities. Riccy Carabeo’s Juan is a telenovela actor balancing the comfort of local fame and aspirations for a greater career. And Marvin, as acted by Antonio Gonzales, is a through-and-through “Miami Boy” trying to become a rapper. All are learning what home means to who they are in a Miami where drugs, crime, and sunny beaches are all part of its complex nature.

“The idea basically came together after realizing I wasn’t seeing any content in film and television that represented what I knew to be the reality of living in and interacting with the city of Miami,” explains Yesenia Lima, the producer. “Moreover, what I saw typically portrayed about being a Hispanic-American also didn’t line up with what I knew to be my experience and that of many others. So, given an opportunity to make a film, I knew I wanted to talk about those things and share an opportunity with others to join in on that conversation.”

Yesenia Lima, producer of MIAmi

Yesenia Lima, producer of MIAmi

The film was shot on location around Miami with the help of local businesses such as Guayaberas Etc., The Bar Coral Gables, and Books & Books. All post-production work is being done with the assistance of University of Central Florida’s School of Visual Arts and Design and Orlando Public Library’s Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center.
Freelance director of photography Benjamin Michel wanted more creative expression than his first career path, drawing and painting, would allow and decided to begin pursuing film. “Film incorporates everything that I like about art,” Michel admits. “I became fascinated by images and how capturing images, especially moving images, can be such a powerful avenue of self-expression.”

Michel earned a bachelor’s in Film from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and has been shooting films for seven years. At UCF, he met another film student, Yesenia Lima, with whom he has worked on a few projects over the years. Lima currently is obtaining a master’s degree in UCF’s Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema program. MIAmi was written to serve as her thesis film. When it came time to shoot MIAmi, Lima asked Michel to be the film’s DP.

“We had a production crew of 12,” recalls Michel. “They all had set positions but played multiple roles. We utilized two Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras for two-camera setups or splitting up into small teams to cover separate scenes or locations. During and after principal photography we had some 2nd unit photography done. Our principal camera was the Blackmagic Pocket but we also shot select sequences or segments using the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (2.5K model), Nikon D7000, Canon EOS 7D, and the Sony PMW-F3. While there were multiple actors throughout the film, four were the main characters we focused on.”

Benjamin Michel, cinematographer and DP on MIAmi

Benjamin Michel, cinematographer and DP on MIAmi

MIAmi was to be a feature film and therefore the two principles wanted it to have a “film feeling.” Michel acknowledges, “We wanted a filmic look where the viewer can’t tell that it was shot digitally. We thought the footage had the right feel and texture, and would help the film, which is about common people with dramatic stories, look more raw and real.”

Michel used a Zacuto support rig with follow focus, a Sony V mount external battery for power on the A camera, several Pocket Cinema Camera batteries for the B camera and a small HD monitor. This small setup combined with the camera’s small form factor helped him shoot some of the film’s important scenes in the city of Miami.

“There were many times where we had to be in and out of a situation quickly, or we were in a public space and we didn’t want to attract much attention,” Michel notes. “We didn’t want people stopping and asking us what we’re doing. For some of our more guerrilla-style shooting, the small form factor camera came in very handy. It was really discreet and it helped us keep a low profile when we needed to. It also handles low light well, changing digital noise to a film-like grain. This was helpful when we shot night scenes in the city where we utilized the ambient lights around us.”

Whether using small footprint cameras to be less intrusive and more creative or larger units to get the best possible control over the shoot, producers and cinematographers all over the country have more choices than ever before to find a way to express their passions.

April 9, 2015