The Confession Tapes: the making of a true crime TV series

Blood stain on the woods of Georgia where double homicide took place.
A double homicide in the American state of Georgia resulted in Buddy Woodall's forced confession and arrest for the murder of his uncle and his uncle’s friend in 2000. From The Confession Tapes, season 1, episode 6: Labor Day Murders. Shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II. © Meena Singh

What would you do if you were convicted of a murder you didn’t commit after being coerced into making a false confession? That’s what cinematographer Meena Singh explored in the true crime documentary series, The Confession Tapes. She takes us behind the scenes of the 2017 Netflix-commissioned show.  

Filmed in 15 cities over 50 days, the filming provided technical challenges Meena relied on her Canon kit to overcome. We caught up with the US-based documentarian to find out how she went about achieving her vision, what equipment she used and how it helped her to create a collection of unnerving and captivating episodes. See the trailer bellow.

A double homicide in the American state of Georgia resulted in Buddy Woodall's forced confession and arrest for the murder of his uncle and his uncle’s friend in 2000. From The Confession Tapes, season 1, episode 6: Labor Day Murders. Shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II. © Meena Singh

We know the basic premise of The Confession Tapes, but can you give us a more granular breakdown of what the series is about?
The Confession Tapes revisits six murder cases in America between the 1980s and the early 2000s. In each case, the accused was convicted on the basis of a confession which they later retracted because, they claim, they were manipulated into believing they must be guilty. The series explores the possibility of giving a false confession, coerced by interrogation and, essentially, mental torture.

How did you get involved in the project?
Kelly Loundenberg, the creator and director, sent me her pitch packet and spoke to me about it – I was on it right away. I loved the idea. That was about six months before we started production.

Was the series commissioned before work started?
No. Executive Producer James Graves connected Kelly with Netflix. She went into a meeting to pitch the show to them, and they loved the idea. By that point she had already been doing research for around 11 months, and was speaking to Larry DeLisle – a man accused of killing his four children after he drove his car into the Detroit River in 1989 – for the episode Down River, the seventh in the series.

As DoP, what were your goals for the cinematography?
I wanted to provide the viewer with the feeling of being interrogated. I wanted to put the audience in the subject’s body for a moment. What would you do, how would you react, what would you say to the police, if you were in this person’s shoes? The show is all about remembering false memory, and how our minds can play tricks on us. As the appeals lawyer for Karen Boes, one of the convicted, says in her episode: "We all have a breaking point." There is a point where each of us will be manipulated into remembering a memory that is not ours. For Karen, who is serving life without parole, it resulted in admitting to killing her 14-year-old daughter.  

Were you aiming to arrive at conclusions about innocence, or was it more about asking questions that can’t be answered easily?
Kelly is very conscious of giving everyone a voice – she does not twist any representation of the facts or the people she interviews. She would rather the audience make a decision based on watching than push forward an agenda with the material.

Each episode uses taped confession as a thruline, so viewers see how they were drawn out.

How did you tell the stories in a way that maintains impartiality?
In all the cases, the confession was taped, and each episode uses that taped confession as a thruline, so the viewer can see how they were drawn out of the accused. That’s interwoven with new footage of interviews with key people that Kelly and I conducted, with the help of our team.

The front of the Supreme Court, Washington DC, on a sunny day.
The Supreme Court, Washington, DC, days before Chris Turner was put on trial for the murder of 49-year-old housewife Catherine Fuller, in 1984. From The Confession Tapes, season 1, episode 5: 8th and H. Shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II. © Meena Singh

How many interviews were there, and how did you go about filming them?
I don’t know the number off-hand, but it feels like at least 50! And it wasn’t an easy task to get hold of all these people – it took a whole research team in LA and some investigating on the ground. We wanted multiple voices from all sides of the case: from the defence, prosecution, witnesses, the jury, the police and interrogators involved in getting the confessions. Kelly and I were keen that all the interviews had the same look, which was quite flat and symmetrical in a space. I would enter a house or office – in some cases we shot on the street or in a café – and make a decision on-the-fly on where the best background would be. We usually had very little time to set up, so having that vision and working fast to make it happen was key, as was having flexible and adaptable equipment.

What kit did you use?
The whole film was shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II with Canon CN-E15.5-47mm T2.8 L S/SP and Canon CN-E30-105mm T2.8 L S/SP lenses. 

Why did you shoot on the EOS C300 Mark II?
I love shooting documentaries on the C300 Mark II for its image quality, for the ease of travelling with it, and the fact that it’s single-operator friendly. The shoot involved travelling from the west coast to the east coast, through upstate New York and Georgia in the States, and up to Vancouver in Canada. We visited 15 cities in 50 days – with a full two-camera package and four people, it was challenging, which made the C300 Mark II the perfect camera in terms of needing to pack lightly and have versatility on the road. Canon’s colour space is unmatched at the price point. Skin tones are fleshed out and well rounded, and the image doesn’t have that oversharpness that a lot of other digital cameras do.

What challenges did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
The whole process was a tough journey, and very emotional. It was hard to nail people down for interviews, to get locations to shoot in, and to get all the B-roll we needed to flesh out the visual storytelling. It was a lot of work, but well worth it to tell these people’s stories.

Two interrogators question Calvin Alston about his alleged involvement in a murder.
Calvin Alston's taped interrogation resulted in his conviction in the Fuller case, at the age of 19. Catherine Fuller, 49, was murdered in Washington, DC in 1984, supposedly by a gang of young men. From The Confession Tapes season 1, episode 5: 8th and H. Shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II. © Meena Singh

Has the experience affected you personally in any way?
It definitely opened my eyes to how desperately our criminal justice system is in need of repair, and how easily a person who gets on the wrong side of the system will be completely swallowed up by it if they don't have financial or other resources to get them out. I’m happy to have been part of this project, because I think the issue needs to be discussed in our society. 

Finally, what advice would you give to any of our readers who want to make a career in cinematography?
Get out there and shoot – shoot as much as you can because you only learn by doing.

To find out more about the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, visit the product page.

Escrito por Jenny May Forsyth

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