In Unseen Skies, DoP Tom Bannigan ACS turns his lens toward the lenses watching us, as he follows artist Trevor Paglen and his elaborate and often beautiful attempts to build awareness of global surveillance.
We caught up in the lead up to its screening at the Sydney Film Festival this month (before an Australian theatrical release in 2022) to discuss how you tell a visual story about things that can’t be seen.
How did you become involved in Unseen Skies and what interested you about its core concept?
Unseen Skies first came up in 2018 when Yaara (Bou Melhem - the Director) called me. All I heard was “rocket, satellite, art” and that was enough.
At the beginning (like a lot of documentaries) there wasn’t a lot of funding, so we flew to LA to start filming. It was time critical as Trevor was testing the cube satellite that was going to be launched into space, so it was good to get straight into the story.
I really love some of the core concepts, particularly looking at the infrastructure we can’t see which is used as part of surveillance apparatus (like undersea data cables, satellites and algorithms that drive various social platforms). People don’t often think about the quality of data sets that AI is trained on so for me that was also super interesting.
You are shooting a film about things we can’t see with our eye that can see us. What were the early conversations or thoughts about how you might present this visually?
I think there is an almost Cold War aesthetic to a lot of these unseen infrastructures. There are physical entities that exist around these infrastructures such as air force bases in the desert and utilitarian boxes in the middle of cities that are the data nodes for the fibre optic cables that wrap around the Earth. A lot of these technologies were developed to spy on people or nations so there is a deep background story to where we are now.
There are things you can see which suggest this mysterious world, and Trevor is really the key to unlocking this.
He has a whole lot of process around the art he makes, so following him and documenting that gave us the visual elements we needed to shoot sequences and colour in that world. A lot of the places filmed in, patricianly Nevada, have been home to all sorts of secret military bases (and have massive landscapes), so it was a great foundation for the shoot.
What gear did you select to shoot with, why and what did it enable you to achieve?
We started shooting with a Canon EOS C300 II. At the time it was my go-to camera and it’s super robust and compact. I was also doing audio and it was just me and the director Yaara. We needed to be flexible and fast as Trevor has a packed schedule. This set up got us to a stage with more funding and I added Canon Cine primes and we started shooting with the Canon EOS C700 full frame.
The EOS C700FF and Cine primes gave us more of a cinematic look and the ProRes out of that camera looks amazing. A lot of the filming was done in the twilight, just after sunset so the bigger sensor and faster lenses really helped.
The gear we used opened up the post sunset world.
The only source of light in a couple of scenes was the LCD screen on the back of Trevor’s camera and a laptop in another instance and the footage held up OK. We also used a Canon EOS R for time lapses and at times as a third camera.
There is a lot of drone footage in the documentary and most of the time we tried to sync this with terrestrial footage as well as using it as a reminder we care constantly being watched from above. We used a DJI Inspire 2 shooting Cine DNG which was a data nightmare but I think we needed a bitrate like that to try and get close to the full frame C700.
What were the biggest challenges in filming (technical or logistic?)
At the beginning we had a super small crew – the two of us. Which is good and bad as I think it makes for a more intimate documentary but at the same time it’s a huge amount of work.
We were shooting multi-camera 4K so wrangling was a bit of a punish as well as keeping all the cameras running. A couple of days in Southern California were over 50 degrees so keeping the cameras cool was tricky. We were also on and off small boats a bit, not good for electronics.
We filmed most of this in 2019 - was a super busy year - and a couple of times I flew straight out of Afghanistan to Berlin and London, so it was a bit of head space change.
Another time I’d been in a place called Malaita, a remote island in the Solomons, trekking around on a shoot for ten days. I needed to get back to Sydney so I could fly to LA the next day which involved a day walk down a mountain to the local airstrip which was literally a mud track.
When I got there a massive storm rolled on and the airline lady told me the plane couldn’t land and I’d have to wait another week. If this was the case I’d end up costing the production and the schedule would be way out. I begged the airline lady not to cancel the plane, we chased a couple of pigs and small children off the runway, the plane skidded through the mud and some angry pilots loaded my gear on and off we went. The cockpit leaked water all the way back to Honiara but I made it to LA.
What was it like working with Trevor, and was there anything you observed about him that might not be apparent through the lens?
I have a huge amount of respect for Trevor’s work. It’s really thought provoking and beautifully done. Working with him was great in the sense that everything he does has meaning and is designed to comment and draw attention to social issues as well as larger philosophical ones. It reinforces the notion that imagery can be imbued with so many layers and meanings.
What aspect of the film are you most proud of now it’s complete? And what did you learn through making it?
I’m really proud of the film as a whole. It’s the first feature length documentary that I’ve been that involved in from the beginning, and I think it has some really important messages.
Apart from learning more about the murky world of surveillance and how frightening the social implications of AI can be, I think the biggest take away was how important pre-planning and visualisation is.
Even though it’s documentary and things can change in the blink if an eye, having a strong overall aesthetic and shooting to that makes it more cohesive.
Also, leave more than one day to get from Honiara to LA!
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