Director of Photography Franklin Dow discusses his personal involvement in the documentary Evelyn and the complex camera rig he built especially for the film.
Evelyn is remarkable in its nuanced approach to the question of suicide and grief, resisting all simple conclusions and resolutions — an achievement that required the innovation of the film’s Director of Photography, Franklin Dow. As director Orlando von Einsiedel, his friends, and his family hiked down mountains and valleys for several weeks, Dow was in charge of filming them. But walking backwards across difficult terrain with a camera was out of the question. To get around that problem, Dow built an entire rig from scratch; it is safe to say Evelyn wouldn’t be as affecting and immersive as it is without this completely original set-up.
In our interview, Dow describes his ongoing relationship with the film’s director, the process of capturing people at their most vulnerable, and the fascinating details of the complex camera rig he built especially for the film.
7R: You’ve worked with Orlando von Einsiedel before, but how did you get involved in this project? Did you have any qualms about it before doing it?
Franklin Dow (FD): I had a few observations, because of the challenge of the director as protagonist, and how that would work. But we’d worked together as a film team for a long time, and we’re like a little family ourselves. I think that level of trust between our film team is crucial. I don’t think I’d be able to make a film like this unless we had that.
We decided from the beginning that it had to be verité. We didn’t want a film that would be all interviews with some cutaways of them walking. It was so important to me that we took the audience on the journey with the family — that you’re really there, and that you could see their faces and the subtle emotions that they go through. You can tell so much just from looking at someone’s face; they don’t need to be saying anything; the emotion is just there on their faces.
It’s obviously, in a lot of ways, the most difficult film I’ve ever shot — not just logistically, but also being that close to the director and delving into his family in the way that we did was very tough.
7R: The film’s subjects are very vulnerable on camera. Sometimes, they try to hide their emotions, but they never really manage. Was that something that you all agreed on early on, that the subjects just wouldn’t hide from the camera?
FD: Yeah, it was. Orlando knew and could trust that we weren’t going to shy away from anything, and that it was going to be done with respect. Part of that was the way we designed the camera. It was a backward-facing camera, because I couldn’t walk backwards for six hours a day! I designed it to sit inside a backpack in the shadow. The subjects very quickly forgot that there was a camera there because there wasn’t someone staring at them from behind a camera. The actual camera itself is hidden. I think that was really important that the family was able to just go on that journey and experience it. And we were able to capture that.
7R: Did you film the entire trip?
FD: Yes. From start to finish. I was filming everyday. It was intense! It was the kind of film — you never really left it. Especially because of the fact that we were moving and staying all together in places after each day, and this kind of personal story never stops.
That was another thing that we talked about early on: it was important that we did capture everything, and that we didn’t have to rely too heavily on sit-down interviews. Obviously, there are some in the film, but we didn’t want that to be the backbone of the film. We wanted the backbone of the film to be in present tense, in this kind of verité style with them on the walks, or at dinner, or wherever they might be.
7R: There’s a moment in the film where Orlando addresses the camera and says that he’s been using his role as director as a way to ask questions and avoid being asked questions himself, to avoid confronting things. When he says this, he seems almost reluctant to admit it, because it’s obviously hard for him. For you, as the person who was doing the filming, did you have to find a balance between doing what Orlando was asking you to do, and filming them all — including Orlando — confronting their emotions?
FD: I wouldn’t say we directed him in any sense. It was more a question of being there and capturing that journey as it happened. I think if you go into a documentary with a fixed idea of exactly what the film is going to end up being, and not wanting to deviate from that… It’s not the way we make films, anyway. You have to feel it out, to a certain degree.
I guess the point is, we needed to create a safe space in which Orlando and the rest of the family could go in any direction that they needed to go or felt like going, and didn’t feel like they had to shy away from anything or do anything for the sake of the camera. And part of that was the way in which we filmed it. Another part of that was the relationship between all of us. I don’t think I could have done this with a director I didn’t know very well, or a sound recordist I’d never worked with, or… It just wouldn’t have worked, for me anyway.
7R: Could you tell me more about how much preparation you did and how you worked out a way to film people without having to walk backwards the whole time? It’s such an important part of the film and we don’t even see it.
FD: It’s a very complex, time-consuming set-up, logistically. But it’s something that, to the audience, looks very simple, and it’s very immediate. It doesn’t look too affected, I don’t think. But the journey to get to that point was quite tricky! I’m not a super tech-y DP; it’s just that the equipment I needed to shoot the film in the way we wanted to shoot it didn’t exist, so we had to kind of build something. I guess we had the parameters, which were: having a small footprint, being as unobtrusive as possible, and it was also very important to me that we could see their faces as much as possible, because that’s where the emotion is.
So then you’re like, “OK, I need a camera that can film backwards, that can film for hours and hours on end, walking over different terrain…” I knew I had to rely on small cameras, because there’s also the weight restriction. So we ended up mounting a small camera gimbal to a kind of hiking backpack, which I then had to build suspension for because the camera gimbal is supposed to be held by hand, not attached to a backpack. Your arm is actually an incredible stabiliser; when you take that element away, it doesn’t work, so we had to build suspensions.
Then, we had to work out the electronics of it, so that everything ran off a central battery — because you don’t want five batteries all running out at different times. And then, my wife built a rainproof cover for the whole thing, which was amazing. It meant that we could keep the camera and all the kit in the shadow of this raincover. It also meant that we could film in any weather, so there’s parts of the film that are filmed in difficult terrain and under the rain, which I think is quite an achievement.
Then, we built a second camera rig for forward-facing things. Because the other thing we wanted to do was create a sense of Evelyn’s presence in the film, as if he’s kind of with you on the journey, and that plays out in the way that we used the drone and the POV. It was important for us to capture the environment, so you go from these kind of macro shots of the environment that they’re walking in, to these very expansive wide shots, and all of that kind of helps tell the story.
There are technical things like, I had to rely on autofocus and exposure, which is a hideous thing to have to do! But that technical sacrifice was well outweighed by the benefits of what we were able to capture with that set-up. In a couple years’ time, the technology will have moved on, and it will be a lot easier to do, but we had to work with what we had! And I think it worked alright.