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Iris Ng
An award-winning, trailblazing Canadian cinematographer. Find Films in this program
Iris Ng is one of Canada’s most celebrated documentary cinematographers, best known for her work on the Academy Award–nominated documentaries Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) and Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018), as well as several episodes of the Emmy Award–winning Netflix series Making a Murderer (2015–2018). She’s shot a number of Canadian films with both up-and-coming and experienced directors, among them Ann Shin, Phyllis Ellis, Richard Fung, Jennifer Holness, Tiffany Hsiung and Yasmine Mathurin, to name just a few. Her work turns a critical lens on social justice, marginalized communities and the process of filmmaking itself.

Ng has carved out a name for herself in the industry by crafting images that align impeccably with the themes of the films she works on. In the celebrated Canadian documentary Stories We Tell, more than half of the home-movie footage was dramatized, shot to match images from director Sarah Polley’s own archive of family films. Ng painstakingly tested and amassed several Super 8 cameras to achieve the right look to ensure the footage would blend together seamlessly, and carefully studied the original archival cinematography so she could shoot the same way Sarah’s father, Michael, had. Ng’s efforts were so successful that many audiences believed they were watching actual Polley family home movies, even though Polley and Ng purposely revealed the actors, lighting and cameras on set. The documentary is often pointed to as a brilliant example of self-reflexive filmmaking.

This same dedication to vision and style is evident in Ng’s work on Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, which is another deeply personal documentary. Ng captured the present-day footage with candy-coloured shots to match the lush 16mm cinematography Tan and her friends had lensed as teenagers years before. The resulting footage adds palpable depth and intimacy to Tan’s odyssey film, which celebrates youth and creativity.

This is all part of Ng’s magic touch and the sensitivity and dedication she brings to her documentary work. Raised on classic Hollywood films and inspired by the cinematography of James Wong Howe, Ng set out to make films that were similarly elevated. Her father, grandfather and uncle were all camera hobbyists, so image-making was very much in Ng’s blood.

After graduating from York University’s undergraduate film program, Ng worked for a few years at a high-end camera rental agency to build up her experience. It was during that time she started working as a camera assistant with cinematographer Luc Montpellier, who encouraged her to take the leap to becoming a cinematographer. Ng initially thought she would work in narrative filmmaking but, after being invited to shoot a demo reel with Toronto non-fiction filmmaker Min Sook Lee in the early 2000s, she was hooked on the documentary form.

“I really think I bring sensitivity to the table and the ability to read people and the ability to create a safe space for the director and I to work,” said Ng in a recent interview with the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. Listening intently to subjects telling their own stories is important to Ng. It’s an ethos that has guided the cinematographer well in terms of knowing when to let the camera keep rolling and not be swayed by any preconceptions she might have about a person or situation. “The biggest lesson I received came when I was nine from my art teacher,” said Ng, who was told, “Draw what you see, not what you think you see,” and transposed that directive to her filmmaking.

Ng’s work has paid off: she’s been nominated for Canadian Screen Awards for The Ghosts in Our Machine (Liz Marshall, 2013) and A.rtifical I.mmortality (Ann Shin, 2021), as well as the CBC series Strays (2021–2022), one of a handful of narrative projects Ng has worked on. She was also nominated for a Canadian Society of Cinematographers Award for One of Ours (Yasmine Mathurin, 2021).

Ng’s sensibility and commitment to filmmakers is strong and we at Hot Docs are honoured to screen Shirkers and Stories We Tell in this spotlight program, both stunning examples of her cinematography.

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