Cinematographer / DP Shana Hagan ’89 has had a busy awards season. Fresh off the heels of last week’s Sundance Film Festival, where two projects she filmed had their premieres, she’s headed to the Oscars on Sunday, February 9, where “Walk Run Cha-Cha”—another film she DP’d—is nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject. Hagan talked to us about her most recent Oscar nomination, the 17 (!) films she’s had at Sundance, and how she keeps the creative juices flowing.
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination for “Walk Run Cha-Cha.” How did you get that job, and what was it like to work on it?
The director Laura Nix and I had worked together on “Inventing Tomorrow,” a documentary about high school students who enter a major science fair with solutions to combat climate change. When she asked me to work on “Walk Run Cha-Cha” with her, I jumped at the chance. She’s so creative and collaborative—exactly the type of director I like to work with.
The film focuses on Paul and Millie Cao who fell in love as teenagers in Vietnam but were soon separated by the war. Years later they finally reunited in California. Now, 40 years later, they are rediscovering themselves on the dance floor. Their dance studio is located in Alhambra, California. Paul and Millie’s story is so inspirational and uplifting. One big challenge that was fun to solve was how to film the dance sequence that appears in the last five to six minutes of the film. We wanted to give it a cinematic and “dream sequence” feel, so I used a SteadiCam to create a floating, fluid feeling to the dance. I like to say that the camera was the third dancer in that sequence. We had the couple rehearse the dance steps over and over so I could choreograph the camera moves carefully around them to get the best angles and shots. Paul and Millie are not full-time professional dancers, so having them perform the dance in segments for multiple takes was difficult. They really nailed it, though.
It’s my third time going to the Oscars. The first time was for a project I DP’d called “Breathing Lessons,” which won Best Documentary Short Subject in 1996. It was such an honor and I’m really excited to be going back again with “Walk Run Cha-Cha”!
You’ve worked on a whopping 17 films that have premiered at Sundance, including “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” and “Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business” this year. Why do you think you’ve had so many films there?
I think it’s partly luck and partly the types of projects I gravitate toward. Shooting documentaries in cinema verité with a hand-held camera is my specialty. I like to choose jobs that let me tell incredible stories with the camera, and I pour my heart and soul into my work. Maybe that emotional attachment comes through in the final product, I don’t know. I’m also fortunate to have worked with many directors who are telling great stories—folks like Jessica Yu (“13 Reasons Why,” “Fosse/Verdon”), Lauren Greenfield (“The Queen of Versailles,” “The Kingmaker”) and Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, “Twenty Feet From Stardom”). And Sundance is all about great stories. I’m grateful that so much of my work has been shown there.
Camera technology has changed so much since you started film school. How do you keep yourself abreast of innovations?
I’m all for using new equipment, but only if it helps support the story. The SteadiCam we used for the final sequence of ”Walk Run Cha-Cha,” for instance, was the right tool for that part of the story. There is so much new gear out there. Every camera does pretty much the same thing with the film plane / image sensor, focus, iris, zoom, shutter speed, ASA—they just have different ways of capturing the visuals. If you’ve got a solid mastery of the basics of cinematography, new cameras are just new tools for accomplishing the same goals. Each time I’m asked to use a new camera, I read the manual, ask friends and colleagues who’ve used it, go to my favorite rental house to play with the camera a bit, shoot some tests if I can. Then I just go for it.
In what ways did your LMU education contribute to your success?
The support of my LMU professors helped me launch my career. One of them, Bob Epstein, introduced me to a DP who later became my mentor, Allen Daviau (“E.T.,” “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun”). Ian Conner was also an influential and incredibly supportive cinematography teacher who first told me how much he enjoyed my work. He gave me the confidence to pursue it as a career and I’m forever grateful for his support.
Also, in my days at LMU, I loved that all students were responsible for making their own films. If there were 30 seniors, there were 30 films being made, so there were a lot of opportunities to get experience. Working on my own film taught me so much about what I’m good at and what I’m NOT good at. And crewing on other people’s films was an excellent way to learn how to be a DP, or a sound mixer, or an AC or work in the art department. I got to work with different directors on different genres with different cameras and film stocks. I got a ton of experience before I graduated.
Have you ever had slow periods in your career? If so, how do you navigate them?
I couldn’t get anybody to hire me to do camera when I first graduated. My first job after LMU was with ZM Productions—they did all the behind-the-scenes filming on Steven Spielberg’s films. I’d done an internship with them, and after I graduated they offered me a post-production job as the Assistant Editor on “Hearts of Darkness,” which is about the making of “Apocalypse Now.” It was an incredible learning experience—almost like finishing school. I learned in the edit room how an editor crafts the footage into scenes, what kinds of shots are needed to tell the story efficiently and with emotional impact. That job and another post-production job at National Geographic still inform my work as a cinematographer today.
During that time early in my career, I filmed whatever I could on weekends. I felt down sometimes that cinematography wasn’t my day job, but my mentor encouraged me to shoot whatever I could whenever I could to keep that creative spark alive. And he reminded me that I would and should learn new things from every job, even so-called crummy jobs. I tell the people I mentor now the very same thing. You never know who you’re going to meet on a job—maybe somebody who could be your next collaborator or mentor.
My mentor also told me if you’re not working, go to a museum, see a movie, read a book, go for a hike or a walk. His point was to stay engaged creatively and to find inspiration in the art and the world around you.
What do you wish folks had told you when you were first starting out?
I’ve been shooting for 30 years now, and I truly believe perseverance is 99 percent of the game in this industry. Skill and talent count, of course, and it’s really important to have access to the people and institutions who can hire you. But none of those things matter if you don’t show up and do the work. Stick with things and find a way to keep your creative fire lit. I love what I do and I’m so glad I stuck with it.