FILMMAKING

Miracle babies: the making of a personal project

Before his daughter was born prematurely, filmmaker Giulio Di Sturco had no idea about the world of neonatal intensive care. In a new documentary, he will pay tribute to these medical pioneers.
In a still from a video shot on a Canon EOS C70, an adult hand rests inside a baby incubator, the tiny hand of the baby holding on to one finger.

"When you film intimate moments like this, it's very important you are close," says Giulio. "For example, when I filmed the family holding the baby, they needed to feel that I'm there, that I'm part of the story. They needed to trust me. And that takes time." © Giulio Di Sturco

Giulio Di Sturco was on a beach in Tuscany with his family when he got talking to a fellow holidaymaker. "Your daughter was born premature, wasn't she?" the man asked. As it turned out, the stranger was Professor Charles Christoph Roehr, president of the European Society for Paediatric Research and a world-leading neonatal intensivist and clinical scientist.

The doctor had recognised a dummy Giulio's daughter was sucking as a type designed for preterm babies. The photographer-filmmaker's first two months as a father had been spent in hospital watching over his then-tiny child in an incubator. The professor told Giulio all about his work at the pioneering Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, UK – one of the few NICUs in the world specialising in helping babies born earlier than 24 weeks to survive.

"Foetal medicine is really new – 20 or 30 years old," Giulio says. "Premature babies are called 'miracle babies' because if they had been born in another time, they wouldn't have survived. Incubators have evolved so that now they can maintain temperature and humidity. Until five years ago, treatment was much more invasive. Charles tries to do as little as possible but to help the baby choose to survive." For example, the NICU encourages "skin to skin" contact between the baby and parents – carefully supervised by the intensive care nurses.

Giulio was fascinated by Professor Roehr's work – personally and professionally. As a multi-award-winning image maker, he works on projects that explore cutting-edge environmental and technological changes and their social impacts. In 2017, he photographed Sophia, a humanoid AI robot, and his ongoing series Aerotropolis focuses on cities that exist primarily as airports. However, he wasn't sure if he was prepared for the emotional toll of shooting a story on a subject so close to him. It was the sound on the wards that stayed with him. "The babies are attached to all these sensors that are monitoring them, beeping constantly in the background," he recalls. "Sometimes an alarm goes off and everybody rushes in, but you don't understand why."

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Yet he was also curious to witness first-hand what his daughter had experienced in the first minutes of her life – in France, where she was born, doctors resuscitate newborns behind closed doors, whereas in the UK parents are present. So he decided to spend a week in February 2022 shooting in Southmead Hospital. He has since returned several times, and this was only the start of a project that has become personally important to him.

Filmmaker Giulio Di Sturco stands in blue hospital scrubs, looking down at the screen of a Canon EOS C70 camera that he is holding at waist level in front of him.

Giulio was given medical scrubs to wear while working in the hospital. This helped to put families at ease in his presence as it sent the message he was "part of the team". © Giulio Di Sturco

Choice of kit

A hospital presents many challenges for a filmmaker. Giulio originally considered using a hybrid camera but decided on the Canon EOS C70, which was compact enough to ensure he remained nimble and unobtrusive, shooting handheld, while offering high dynamic range and 4K shooting capabilities. "If you're shooting video, go for a video camera," Giulio remembers being advised. "That was a great suggestion. I removed myself from the idea of shooting stills. I was forced to think like a filmmaker.

"That said, it helped that I was a photographer first, rather than a video maker," he continues. "I'm more flexible, I need less kit to work with. In an environment like this, you can't really shoot in a team. A video maker would be used to having someone on audio, a second camera… I'm a one-man band."

Giulio's kitbag contained two lenses – the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM and the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM. "I'd say 80% of the time I used the latter," he says. "It was perfect when something was happening, like a birth or an emergency. I knew I could easily do a wide shot or a really close one. And then in the moments when everything was steady, I would use the macro lens to focus on the details. The combination of the two was perfect for the job."

A still from a video shot on a Canon EOS C70, showing a close-up of the face of a healthcare worker wearing a surgical mask covering her mouth and nose.

Challenges and opportunities

The hardest part was getting permission from the families to film – understandably, since it's a lot to ask to record such a vulnerable time in their lives. "It's very sensitive," says Giulio. "Charles and the team knew the patients well and had an idea of who might be interested in being part of the film."

The fact that Giulio had gone through a similar experience himself was important. "I would speak with them, explain my story and why I was doing this."

Lighting also presented challenges. Babies receiving phototherapy for jaundice, for example, are placed in darkness under blue lights, resulting in a slightly sci-fi, futuristic atmosphere. "There were about 10 different lights in the room, all a different colour – it was a nightmare," says Giulio. "In the beginning I tried to use artificial lights, but then I realised the lights were part of the story – they tell you this is a hospital."

Emergencies were logistically tricky to film, too. "It's hard to follow, to understand what's going on with the baby, to capture the audio," says Giulio. "For example, one baby removed his breathing tube, so they had to intubate him again. I wanted to shoot the scene in a way that is delicate. I didn't want it to be disturbing for the person watching or the parents.

"There is a strange rhythm to the ward, where days feel like years. Most of the time, nothing happens. Time slows down. As a parent, you're always waiting for bad news, which can come at any moment. I wanted to get this emotional tension on film."

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Interspersed with wider shots showing medical staff at work, Giulio used his RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens to direct viewers' eyes to the babies' tiny hands and feet, with everything else out of focus. "These shots remind you there is a baby there but it's not really visible. You don't have to see everything. You can listen to the sound and you can imagine what is happening."

A still from a video shot on a Canon EOS C70, showing three healthcare workers standing around a baby incubator looking in, with lots of hospital equipment and monitors at one side.

Giulio plans to film at other pioneering NICUs in Toronto, the Netherlands and potentially also Australia, where "they are really advancing research on premature babies and are now doing surgery in utero," he says. © Giulio Di Sturco

Next steps

The film is a work in progress, with more shoots planned at other NICUs. Whether it becomes a standalone documentary or a series, Giulio intends to show a "day in the life" on the Bristol ward through real-time experiences of medical staff, parents and babies, alongside interviews. He then hopes to do the same for other pioneering units around the world.

Although he is still haunted by the sounds of the NICU where his daughter started her life, making this film is a way "to give something back," he says, in publicising their work with this film once finished. "This is a world that I knew nothing about before. It takes incredible people to work in neonatal intensive care. And I wanted to pay tribute to them."

Kirjutanud Rachel Segal Hamilton


Giulio Di Sturco's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to film their video

Giulio Di Sturco wearing hospital scrubs and holding up a Canon EOS C70 with an external microphone attached.

Camera

Canon EOS C70

The first RF mount Cinema EOS camera features Canon's cutting-edge 4K Super 35mm DGO sensor. "The quality you achieve with this camera is important because you know that if you need to crop later, you can," says Giulio.

Lenses

Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM

A professional macro lens with class-leading 1.4x magnification and a variable Spherical Aberration Control to adjust bokeh. "It's not important for me to show everything," says Giulio. "This lens lets me focus in on tiny details."

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

The RF 28-70mm F2L USM offers the kind of image quality you'd expect from a prime lens, and adds an f/2 maximum aperture for more creative control. Giulio says: "This lens gave me the flexibility to choose whether to go wide or close in a hospital scene."

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