Shana Hagan, ASC: The Visual Aesthetic

WiM member, Tara Jenkins chatted with Shana Hagan, ASC. Tara is a Freelance Cinematographer, a Local 600 AC, has an MFA from USC in Film Production.

She is a writer and content creator at American Cinematographer and the ASC.

For over 25 years, Shana Hagan, ASC has shot Oscar and Emmy-winning documentaries and scripted projects with such distinguished filmmakers as Michael Apted, Rory Kennedy, Paul Feig, Jessica Yu, Jay Duplass and Lauren Greenfield. She is a member of the ASC, the DGA, AMPAS, BAFTA, ICG, ATAS and the IDA.

Shana’s documentary work includes the Academy Award-winning Breathing

Lessons, Academy Award-nominated WALK RUN CHA-CHA and 21 Sundance Film Festival selections including Close to Home, Generation Wealth, Queen of Versailles, Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, and Shakespeare Behind Bars.

Shana’s scripted projects include two seasons of Somebody Somewhere for HBO, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and two seasons of Fox’s Welcome to Flatch.

In May 2019 through the US State Department’s American Film Showcase, Shana traveled to Ethiopia to teach two 4-day Master Class Workshops to young Ethiopian filmmakers. In the fall of 2019, Shana was a mentor at Newport Film’s inaugural Documentary Cinematography Lab in Newport, RI. Shana also enjoys mentoring through the ASC, the ICG, AMPAS and her alma mater LMU. She’s been on panels and guest lectured at USC, LMU, CalArts, Emerson, Chapman, NYU, Canon and AFI.

Tara: What got you into filmmaking?

Shana: As a kid, I loved to look at the world through a camera. My business card is a photo of me holding my first camera! I was very interested in documentaries and movies as they transported me to new places and told me fascinating stories. I was moved by the still photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Frank and learned the power of storytelling through images. I went to film school at Loyola Marymount University and discovered the work of cinematographers I admired: Vittorio Storaro, John Seale, Haskell Wexler, and Allen Daviau (who later became a mentor).

And though I never met her, I admire Brianne Murphy, ASC, as she was the first woman to shoot a major studio feature (Fatso in 1980) and also the first woman to be invited into the ASC. She was a trailblazer and paved the way for women in the industry. Without a doubt, her hard work has made it possible for me to do what I do today.

Tara: Can you talk more about the importance of mentorship?

Shana: When I was at LMU, I had a short film that had won a couple of awards and my professor said, ‘I really want you to meet Allen Daviau because I feel like you would really benefit by knowing him’. It took me like six months to get up the courage to call him. This is long before emails, long before cell phones. My professor gave me his home phone number. I finally called him, and he was so generous. That first call was an hour long and he was just like, ‘you can ask me anything’. Over the years, it just became a really beautiful friendship and mentorship.

I think he believed in me before I believed in myself. Now, I really try to pay it forward. Allen was just one of these guys who, for no other reason except to pass along knowledge, helped me discover my own voice. That was what really helped me become my own cinematographer. So, I honestly find really great joy in doing the same for others. It’s not telling people how I shoot, you know, ‘this is the way to do it’. It’s encouraging them to really find their own voice. That’s the joy about filmmaking– we all have unique voices. We all see the world differently. There’s so much to gain from passing on the knowledge to the next generation. It’s important to me.

Photo by: Elizabeth Sisson for HBO / “Somebody Somewhere”

Tara: What is your artistic/developmental process when preparing for a film or TV show?

Shana: I love prep– it’s where all the conversations about story, character, and tone get sorted out. I often spend hours with directors sorting out shot lists and approach– all with the intention of boiling it all down to the essence: What’s the story we are telling here? Once I’m clear with the story (and tone and characters and arcs), I find that this informs every other aspect of my job. I really love discussing all the ways we can help tell our story– from wall color to lighting approach to our camera package and the visual aesthetic (and all the rest). I love to be as prepared as possible so everyone is on the same page come Day One.

PHOTO BY: Diane Becker, Fishbowl Films / “Inventing Tomorrow” in Monterrey, Mexico

Tara: How does your documentary work inform your narrative work?

Shana: Right out of film school, I was working as an assistant editor. My mentor Allen Daviau used to tell me “If you want to shoot, shoot.” He encouraged me to tell everyone I met on jobs that I really wanted to shoot and also to shoot anything I could get my hands on. Slowly, but surely, I tarted to get more doc work. I shot a film on the weekends, while I was Assistant Editing at National Geographic. That film ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, 1996).

I started to shoot mostly docs after that for about fifteen to twenty years. When I started doing scripted work, one of the first projects I worked on was Parks and Recreation. That was one of my first scripted episodic shows as an operator, and I was hired because of my documentary work. Really, the direct correlation between what I’ve learned in documentaries, and what I bring from that experience to my scripted work, is knowing where to put the camera to be the most efficient to cover a scene. In a documentary, you get one chance to come into a room, assess the room, and figure out where you want to be to have maximum coverage and also the maximum impact for a scene.

I learned how to use natural light to your advantage, not to fight it but to use it to help tell the story. That honestly is probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from docs and bring into the scripted world. In my scripted work, I’m often not bringing units into the room. I love for the operators and actors to be able to move freely in the room without being impeded by lights. I feel like I bring that observational quality that I have learned and appreciate from my documentary world into my work in scripted content. Being unobtrusive and having a small footprint allows the actors to feel the most comfortable. It makes an actor feel super comfortable to just have the freedom to move where they need to rather than hit a mark and stop there. To me, it’s all about trying to make an environment as natural and believable as possible to allow the performances to shine. I like making things look and feel as realistic as possible as I think this helps the audience relate to the story and characters in a meaningful way.

Tara: You recently were invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers. Can you tell us about the process and if you feel a shift since gaining membership?

Shana: In 2020, I was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers. It’s an organization I’ve admired my entire career. I have read American Cinematographer magazine religiously since early on in Film School. The community of incredible DPs that come from all different aspects of the industry come together to form the Society. I appreciate our focus on education. We want to pass along the knowledge and techniques of cinematography to the next generation of storytellers.

I’ve had a wonderful feeling of validation and a huge boost of confidence since being invited to join the Society. I realize now that sharing my personal experiences with others can help them with their own journeys. I love being a part of the film industry and I feel there’s a great shift towards inclusion of diverse voices in our ever-growing community. I want everyone to know they have a unique, distinct voice that deserves and needs to be heard. The world needs to hear everyone’s voices. So keep at it everyone!

Tara: Tell us an anecdote from working on your recent show Somebody Somewhere.

I love shooting Somebody Somewhere for HBO – we shoot mostly handheld with an observational / caring friend in the room approach. I DP and operate on most everything I shoot. An impactful moment in Season 1 was with Bridget Everett who stars as Sam. Fred Rococo (played by Murray Hill) convinces Sam to sing in front of an audience. Sam reluctantly agrees then proceeds to belt out an incredible rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart”.

We shot the whole song live from start to finish with three cameras – all handheld with specific lensing and zone coverage. At the end of the first take, the scene (as scripted) was supposed to end on stage with Sam taking a bow as the crowd erupts in applause. But once Bridget finished the song, she bows then – still in character -slinks off stage to exhale and process what just happened. Since Bridget was still performing, I needed to be too. I continued to track with her to film the moment the exhausted Sam realized she’d overcome her anxieties to rediscover the joy of performing.

When Bridget was done with the scene, the director called cut. We all knew that moment was special. It’s an important character beat – very spontaneous and very real. I love being able to use my documentary sensibility in my scripted work and in that moment, I just felt it. I wanted to stay with it as long as possible to help tell Sam’s story and to honor and respect the actor’s performance. My goal with the show is that audiences feel what we’re feeling when we are filming it. I hope they feel the love.

Tara: What is something that our WIM members would benefit from learning about your style of cinematography?

Shana: I love shooting handheld. It’s my specialty. From all the work I’ve done over the years, I have a certain confidence in all aspects of handheld. I learned to walk backwards while shooting hours and hours of reality TV on shows like Survivor and The Apprentice. I learned patience and coverage while shooting single camera cinema verite documentaries like The Kingmaker and 63Up, where you are the one and only camera getting everything an editor needs to tell the story. I learned how to manage the physical aspect of it by staying fit and strong and insist on balanced rigs without heavy cages nor unnecessary accessories on board.

I think practice makes perfect if you want to improve your handheld skills. Practice following moving people in real environments. Once you get the hang of it, it’ll become more intuitive and fluid and you will soon be able to add it to your repertoire of skills.

Photo by: Kyle Belousek / “Somebody Somewhere”

Tara: Tell us more about Somebody Somewhere.

Shana: SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE for HBO is a dream job. It’s where my heart and soul sing every day because I’m so connected to the story and characters, and I just love the cast and crew. I get to do my handheld which I adore and our observational/caring friend in the room approach works to engage the audience in a deeply satisfying way. It just works. We have so much fun and we are lucky that we just got greenlit for a third season! I’m grateful that the love we have on set for each other shows on screen. It’s magical love shooting SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE for HBO – we shoot mostly handheld with an observational/caring friend-in-the-room approach. I DP and operate on most everything I shoot. An impactful moment in Season 1 was with Bridget Everett who stars as Sam. Fred Rococo (played by Murray Hill) convinces Sam to sing in front of an audience. Sam reluctantly agrees and then proceeds to belt out an incredible rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”.

Tara: Tell us something unusual about yourself.

Shana: I love to garden. I grow tomatoes, squash, sweet peas and cucumbers in raised beds every spring. I love to tend to my roses, tall purple bearded iris (transplanted from my mother’s garden), and all my native plants. I recently got married and my bouquet was made with flowers from my garden! I’m grateful my cinematography has allowed me to travel the world – to 6 continents and 48 countries – and I can’t wait for my next adventure!

Photo by: Doug Pray / “Agents of Change” in Lima, Peru

Tara: What are your upcoming projects?

Shana: I look forward to shooting Season 3 of SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE. We shoot just outside Chicago to double for Kansas. We also shoot b-roll in the real Kansas after each season to gather footage to use as transitional elements and/or palette cleanser shots to allow the audience to exhale after a tough scene or to set the tone for the next scene.

Two other upcoming projects are follow-ups to documentary films I shot over 20 years ago. One will revisit characters from the 2005 award-winning film Shakespeare Behind Bars to track their lives now. Another will be following the people profiled in the 2001 award-winning documentary Close to Home and will examine how the subjects of the film – now 20 years older – have processed their childhood trauma.

Tara: Who are your favorite visual artists and why?

Shana: Among my favorite visual artists are photographers Robert Frank and Gordon Parks. I love documentary photography and their work is arguably infused with their personal views during the Civil Rights Era. I also love Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. The way he uses a single light source on his subjects is gorgeous. It’s very realistic and sets a quiet, contemplative tone in each of his pieces.

PHOTO BY: Kyle Belousek / “Somebody Somewhere”
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