Clubhouse Conversations — City So Real

Photos by Jackson James, Zak Piper and Allison Walsh, courtesy of Chicago Story Film, LLC

Interviewer Kirsten Johnson, ASC talks to director Steve James and cinematographer Jackson James in this 57-minute episode about their Nat Geo docu-series, which offers a complex portrait of how cultural, political and social forces are reshaping the urban center of Chicago.

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Shooting the 5-episode City So Real series in 4K, the father-son filmmaking team (pictured above) employed Canon C-300 Mark II cameras paired with Fujinon Cabrio Premier XK6x20 20-120mm zooms, often employing Tiffen Pro-Mist filters for a more flattering look in sit-down interviews.

Below, director Steve James prepares to interview Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot while producer Zak Piper (right) adjusts the boom mic.

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The native of Hampton, Virginia, Steve James was a graduate of James Madison University pursuing a career in narrative feature work before seeing Harlan County, USA. The impact of Barbara Kopple’s seminal 1976 documentary led him into non-fiction storytelling. After making several short documentaries, James began shooting another, trailing the lives of two aspiring teen basketball players in Chicago. The planned 30-minute PBS short expanded into five years of shooting, resulting in the award-winning feature Hoop Dreams (1994). James’ other credits include Prefontaine, Stevie, Reel Paradise, At the Death House Door, The Interrupters, The Music Man, Life Itself and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Jackson James gained experience working with his father, providing additional cinematography on The Interrupters, Life Itself and America to Me, while also operating camera on Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. In additional to shooting numerous music videos (for artists including Ravyn Lenae, Chance the Rapper and Joey Purp), his other credits include the shorts The Night the Sky Fell in New Haven and Antennas to Beyond and the feature Finn & the Sea of Noise.

Interviewer Kirsten Johnson attended Brown University — where she studied fine arts, literature and society — before studying cinematography at La Fémis in Paris, France. She has served as cinematographer on a number of award-winning documentary features, including CitizenfourThe Invisible War and Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Johnson directed and photographed the acclaimed autobiographical documentary Cameraperson, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Her most recent feature as a director, Dick Johnson Is Dead, was made in collaboration with her father and premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Non-fiction Storytelling. American Cinematographer’s feature story on the project can be found here.

Johnson’s extensive camerawork in documentaries also includes the features This Film Is Not Yet Rated; Election Day; Darfur Now; Lioness; No Woman, No Cry; The Program; 1971; and A Woman Like Me, among others.

Here are some additional photos from the production of City So Real:

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