Glittering waves, Chinatown shrines, and an antique rat trap: making a film about bubonic plague in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century—all shot during a modern pandemic—took our team around the country and deep into multiple fascinating archives.

We used all sorts of fun tools for this one—a spider dolly for gliding moves through San Francisco City Hall, a slider creeping past incense sticks in Chinatown, and diopters on my Sigma Cine Primes for up-close pans of director Li-Shin Yu’s intricate archival tableaux.

“Plague at the Golden Gate” broadcast on PBS’s American Experience on May 24, 2022, and is available to stream on the PBS website.

From the PBS description: “More than 100 years before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and set off a wave of fear and anti-Asian sentiment, an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900 unleashed a similar furor. It was the first time in history that civilization’s most feared disease — the infamous Black Death — made it to North America. Two doctors — vastly different in temperament, training, and experience — used different methods to lead the seemingly impossible battle to contain the disease before it could engulf the country. In addition to overwhelming medical challenges, they faced unexpected opposition from business leaders, politicians, and even the president of the United States. Fueling the resistance would be a potent blend of political expediency, ignorance, greed, racism, and deep-rooted distrust of not only federal authority but science itself. Scapegoated as the source of the disease early on, the Chinese community fought back against unjust, discriminatory treatment.”