All That Breathes: shooting a Sundance-supported documentary with Canon kit

Cinematographer Ben Bernhard explains how he brought the effects of Delhi's rising pollution and social tension into new focus using the Canon EOS C500 Mark II.
The head and shoulders of a bespectacled person looking at a small bird standing perched and alert on a work bench.

Cinematographer Ben Bernhard used a Canon EOS C500 Mark II as his main camera on the Sundance-supported documentary, All That Breathes. Screened at the world-renowned film festival in 2022, it tells the story of two brothers who rescue black kites that drop from Delhi's polluted skies. © Kiterabbit Films 2022

The Sundance Film Festival has a reputation for championing independent films and catapulting them to mainstream success. It's a particularly fertile stomping ground for documentary filmmakers, many of whom are choosing Canon Cinema EOS cameras to tell their stories in vivid and unforgettable ways.

Documentary films shot on the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, EOS C300 Mark III and EOS C500 Mark II were in abundance at the 2022 festival. The compact design, versatility and cinematic image of these cameras made them first choice for a wide range of productions – from Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, Netflix's investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019, to Simon Lereng Wilmont's A House Made Of Splinters, an intimate film about a children's shelter in eastern Ukraine.

All That Breathes was shot on a Canon EOS C500 Mark II and received its world premiere at the 2022 festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category. It subsequently won the 2022 Cannes Film Festival L'Oeil d'Or (also known as Golden Eye) documentary award.

The film, directed by Shaunak Sen, tells the story of two brothers who have devoted their lives to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of black kites from their tiny Delhi basement in India. Set against a backdrop of the city's "apocalyptic air and escalating violence", the documentary is richly layered in its themes and cinematography.

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To achieve the film's mesmerising visuals, principle cinematographer Ben Bernhard routinely employed slow-tempo pans, crane movements, dolly tracking and focus racking with a shallow depth of field to take viewers from one "layer" of awareness to another. It was both a practical and poetic way to explore, as Ben puts it, "the beauty of coexistence in the most polluted of places".

"In general, I try to develop an individual style out of the core of the topic of the film," Ben reveals. "There's no 'Ben Bernhard' style that I put in every project – I try to find an individual style that supports the vision of each director I work with."

Ben explains that when he met Shaunak, they hardly watched any films, choosing instead to talk about how to translate concepts they found in books into documentary form. It wouldn't be a 'nature' documentary, Ben learned, but a film that would tell the story of soaring environmental and social toxicity, and a remarkable family that has rehabilitated more than 20,000 birds.

"Shaunak was also interested in how the organic matter in the earth is shifted and changed by human behaviour, and how new natural habitats are formed as a result," says Ben. "Trying to interweave all of these ideas into an aesthetic was the big challenge."

A film crew stands in a busy Delhi side street capturing the local environment.

Due to the diverse locations – everything from Delhi's busy side streets to the dark basement where the brothers go about their work – the shoot required a real mix of flexible equipment. "We were running all over town and the Canon EOS C500 Mark II was perfectly suited to the job," says Ben. © Kiterabbit Films 2022

A film crew recording in the streets of Delhi, among cars and cows, and next to a smouldering pit of rubbish.

"Delhi is a very intense city," says Ben. "It was my first time in India, and the moment I came out of the airport I hit this invisible wall of heat and pollution. I now understand what it means to not be able to breathe." © Kiterabbit Films 2022

Sundance documentary camera

A crucial tool was the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, which Ben employed as the main camera on the Sundance-supported project. "I originally bought the camera when I was working on Neymar: The Perfect Chaos for Netflix, splitting the cost with another DoP," he explains. "It's just such a versatile tool that enables you to be flexible and spontaneous.

"You can build the EOS C500 Mark II up for a cinematic film set shoot using a PL mount, and the next moment, you can take it all apart and have it super-small and handheld," he continues. "But even when the camera is stripped down, you can still take advantage of internal ND filters, dual slot recording and a Canon Log 2 curve, which all help in a documentary environment."

It was Ben's first time in India, although his visit to Delhi would be cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the end, Ben was one of three cinematographers credited on the film. "Saumyananda Sahi had already shot something during the early stages of the project before I joined," Ben explains, "when the project was still applying for funding. Later he was not able to join the filming as he was already booked for another project.

"Once I joined the project I started fresh with Shaunak and we created the visual language for the film, but the pandemic lockdowns meant that I had to leave after six weeks. However, I was very happy that Shaunak found Riju Das to help finish what we started, and they used a Canon EOS C70 to ensure there was consistency in the image."

A man stands smiling on a balcony next to a film camera setup in this black and white image.

"We loved the kites," says Ben, pictured here. "But they would often feel threatened when I was pointing a 1,000mm lens at them and they would start swooping at me. In the end, I had to add netting on the balcony I was shooting from to give me some protection." © Kiterabbit Films 2022

Lens choice: from telephoto to macro

The cinematography for All That Breathes has been singled out for high praise. Ben used a combination of vintage lenses and Canon L-series primes and zooms, choosing photography lenses rather than cinema ones in order to reduce size and weight.

"I used a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM with a Canon Extender EF 2x III to film the black kites in the sky," he explains. "But when I was filming the brothers in their operating room, space was very limited and I ended up shooting with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM.

"Sometimes I'd add 1/8 or 1/16 Black Pro-Mist filters to the lenses," Ben adds. "New lenses can give you the perfect picture, but I like to break down the digital look of modern cameras. Having good equipment gives more control, though. I could start with a high-quality image and then become creative as I tried to find the 'poetic' look I wanted to achieve."

A video still showing a figure crouched in the foreground, looking up at two birds in an enclosure.

The Canon EOS C500 Mark II's 5.9K full-frame CMOS sensor enabled Ben to exploit shallow depth of field effects and create a more immersive image. "It really helped when I was in the cage with the raptors," Ben says. "I like to improve the cinematic quality of scenery and bring some life into the picture, so we also used lights and mirrors to create beams of light, and smoke to help build the atmosphere." © Kiterabbit Films 2022

One of Ben's favourite parts of the shoot was when he was filming inside the cage on the roof of the bird sanctuary. "I was in there with all of my equipment, surrounded by several dozen black kites and eagles. It was quite intimidating," he says. "But after a few days they accepted me – and more importantly, they were totally relaxed with the EOS C500 Mark II. This was key to being able to show the individuality of the birds.

"I had the EOS C500 Mark II mounted on a huge jib arm on a dolly. I moved it around all over the cage and the birds didn't move an inch. At one point I got so carried away looking at the monitor as I was pushing the camera that I ended up with a kite in the matte box. I just hadn't seen it in the picture. The bird wasn't fazed though, which shows how much they accepted the EOS C500 Mark II as one of their own."

A person films a bird in flight and others perched within a rooftop enclosure.

"The birds grew to accept me in the cage, but of course at some point when filming you get excited and forget about where you are," reveals Ben. "Sometimes I would turn around and be 20cm away from the beak of a raptor." © Kiterabbit Films 2022

Figures stand at the top of steps with birds swooping all around against the sky.

Ben says the Canon EOS C500 Mark II's 4K 50/60p recording option was useful for filming action sequences. "Everything was happening so fast when the birds were swooping, but the ability to shoot slow motion helped a lot." © Kiterabbit Films 2022

Camera features that made a difference

One of the Canon EOS C500 Mark II features that Ben found particularly beneficial for the action sequences was the three second pre-recording option. "We loved that," he enthuses. "It was such a handy tool for filming the birds flying – in fact, for filming the animal segments in general."

With pre-recording enabled, the EOS C500 Mark II continuously records three or five seconds of footage to its temporary memory. Then, when you press the REC button to start recording, your clip will also contain the pre-recorded video and audio.

It's a useful feature for filming unpredictable subjects such as the fast black kites and monkeys that Ben encountered. "Without pre-recording, you would run out of cards very quickly if you need to be constantly rolling to capture a moment," he says.

While many of the scenes were shot from a tripod setup, Ben took advantage of the EOS C500 Mark II's 5-axis Electronic IS when shooting handheld. "If you had to run behind animals or protagonists or whatever, and be spontaneous, the internal stabilisation really helped a lot."

A close-up of the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP lens attached to a Canon EOS C500 Mark II camera.

First shoot with the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP

DoP Ian Murray reflects on his time shooting with Canon's new high-end cinema lens, which he paired with the EOS C500 Mark II.

Below is the official trailer for All That Breathes, courtesy of the producers and cinematographer Ben Bernhard.

Achieving the film's memorable look

Ultimately, it's the cinematic images of All That Breathes that will live long in the memory of audiences. Ben is enthusiastic about the EOS C500 Mark II's "lovely" Canon Log 2 curve, which provided 15+ stops of dynamic range and a solid foundation for colour grading. "I made a custom LUT and loaded that into the camera so the director could always monitor the image using a preview of the final look we were working towards.

"Of course, the full-frame sensor, combined with the camera's small size and flexibility, helped to achieve what we were looking for, and let us capture all the different characters of our protagonists," he concludes. "With all of this setup and patience, we were able to make a bird cage full of sick and injured birds look like a painting."

Marcus Hawkins

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