Finding America Team Corner: “I like to go down to the lake and step on the ice sheets”

Phil Batta, a filmmaker from Chicago, wears an orange baseball cap and stands in front of brick row houses.In this occasional Finding America Team Corner, we’re introducing talent from the 15 Finding America productions. This Q+A has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Chicago-based Phil Batta is the cinematographer and editor for Finding America production TruckBeat, and worked on previous Localore production Black Gold Boom: How Oil Changed North Dakota.

TruckBeat is a storytelling project about East Tennessee based in Knoxville at WUOT. The team takes a truck turned mobile studio out on the road to report on community health topics in depth. TruckBeat is led by independent producer Jess Mador in collaboration with WUOT news director Matt Shafer Powell.

Professional experience/background:

I am a documentary cinematographer and director specializing in short-form documentaries and cross-platform content marketing to create visually rich media for social impact. My documentary work has appeared on PBS, The New Yorker, UK’s Channel 4, ITN, The Guardian, ABC7 and CNN. Right now I’m directing two documentaries: one is focused on social and emotional programming for black girls in Chicago Public schools and the other film is focused on why youth between the ages of 8-17 are being placed on sex-offender registries.

Has there been a favorite moment you’ve had while working on TruckBeat?

There are two: We needed to shoot the inaugural drive of the TruckBeat truck through the streets of Knoxville after we had the beautiful vinyl logos and design installed. We took the truck out but were not confident that this 1980s news truck could hold her own on the highway; we weren’t sure if she would reach the speed limit. So we mapped a local route to our shooting location. The back roads we took were probably more treacherous than the highway! The winding, narrow, hilly roads of Tennessee really tested the torque. It felt like we were riding a hippo through a grocery store.

My other favorite moment was when Jess and I were sitting in the edit room after a day of filming, trying to cut a one- to two-minute video for the web. We realized that the story we captured had so many great characters and so much nuance that we basically had no choice but to cut a 12- to 15-minute short film. I was so grateful to Jess as a producer for putting together these incredible relationships and paving the way for our production.

East Tennessee community embattled by opiate addiction pins hopes on new treatment court from Jess Mador on Vimeo.


What feels different about TruckBeat to you?

TruckBeat is a bold physical representation of curiosity and community engagement. It’s a huge truck that shows up on the scene and cannot be ignored. Its sheer presence gives a reporting team permission to engage with people in new ways. Yes, reporters are mobile and they can follow the story and show up to your house in their tan-colored 1998 Saturn and make small talk as they walk up to your porch and make small talk about parking and the interesting trees on your street. TruckBeat doesn’t just show up to your house like that, it shows up to your neighborhood and creates a space for conversation among people. It’s a different and much needed model of transparent and bold engagement between reporters and the public in a time when those spaces are becoming less common in the physical world.

What are you inspired by right now?

I should probably talk about a cinematographer or director that I really like here but, this summer I have found more inspiration outside of my industry with long hikes, helping my wife with the garden, and rummaging for treasures in Chicago alleyways.

Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what’s your favorite? Why?

Yes, I love podcasts, especially when I am in the dark edit room doing color correction. I listen to 99% Invisible a lot. It give me permission to ask seemingly obvious questions about my own daily experiences and I enjoy imagining how I could turn those episodes into videos.

Where and who do you look to for video inspiration?

Every week I try to get out to a film screening where the directors, producers or subjects are there for a talkback at the end of the screening. I love being able to talk with really engaged audience members and get immediate answers from the creators about their process and the decisions they made in creating the film. It’s also very informative to see how people misinterpret films. Out of 100 people who were all in the same room for 90 minutes watching the same film, there’s always someone that speaks up who was watching a completely different film than you.

I also love online platforms for films such as Fandor, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and Vimeo because I can take screenshots of my favorite films and compositions to study the lighting and framing.

Lately, I have been really intrigued by the TV shows that shoot with primarily handheld camera work like “Veep,” “Chicago PD,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” because I am interested how camera operators react to and emphasize moments with minimal, handheld tools at their disposal.

What does finding America look like to you, or in your city?

Finding America means fostering meaningful conversations and collaborations between people towards a common goal, an America in which we want to live.

When I go out of town, violence is the only thing people seem to know about my city. The reporting on this issue is serving to isolate Chicago from the world and from itself. Reporting daily death tolls without much context causes people to live in fear. We as storytellers, journalists and filmmakers have a responsibility to connect people through nuanced complex stories at the very least so that folks don’t feel more isolated from each other.

Tell us one random fact about yourself:

In the winter, I like to go down to the lake and step on the ice sheets and flakes that amass along the shore to hear them crackle under my feet.

Follow all of Finding America at our collaborative documentary site,, or with the hashtag #FindingAmerica on Twitter and Instagram. Sign up to stay up to date with Finding America here: