Recently, I pulled off a high-value commercial on a budget, and now I’m going to share it with you. Three weeks ago I was selected as the director for a national commercial campaign for Case Tractors. It would be my first solo directing gig after signing with the Bandito Brothers one month ago. In the commercial world, an advertising agency is hired by the client, which in this instance is Case Tractors. They are contracted to come up with the commercial concept and once approved the Ad agency approaches different production companies with a roster of directors that match the concept idea of the spot.
Assembling the Filmmaking Team
Assembling the correct team is critical, so I called on four of my Elite Team members; Mike Svitak and Darin Necessary camera operators extraordinaire, Dave Knudsen the rigging guru, and Julien Lasseur, an HV intern who is in training to manage media.
I brought Mikey Svitak 3 days early to get DP experience. His mission was to gather a variety of shots and the results were truly beautiful, well composed, and perfectly exposed.
To pull off this very ambitious one-day shoot, I needed the right Elite Team producer and Assistant Director who was Greg Haggart and Bobby Phillips, respectively. Greg had produced “Act of Valor” and “The Last 3 Minutes.” He has an amazing ability to stretch the budget and put everything on the screen. Bobby was the AD on “Act of Valor” and the Navy Swimmer Spots; both are filmmakers through and through.
Canon 5D Mark II
To keep our shoot compact and nibble, we turned to the Canon 5D Mark II. I knew we needed a lot of coverage when the weather was just right as it was tornado season and they are very unpredictable. Our vision was for the spot to be golden and beautiful and we did not have the budget to shoot all of those moments on film. The film was saved for slow-motion coverage of the wheat field and the combined harvesting so that it looked elegant and fluid.
This would juxtapose the stock footage that was time-lapse shots all over the world of growing population and traffic. The stock footage was gathered by Voyager creative and I had the job of sifting through a thousand select shots to find those 4 to 6 hero moments that delivered the creative impact. Once they were found I started to create images of the combined harvesting that would match the moment and flow of the stock shots.
I wanted them to be woven through the spot like a tapestry, not just cut together in one clump. The feel had to be seamless showing that as the farmer harvests so does he feed and fuel the world. The concept was following one kernel of wheat that we see in the beginning.
Working with Real Farmers
We had to think creatively to budget this one-day shoot. Instead of shooting one long day, we divided it into 5 days because it was harvesting time and we had to be very respectful of the farmers that were letting us into their world and giving us the opportunity to film these beautiful machines. To pull this spot off we would have to put into action what we did on the Navy Swimmer spots where we shot it as a play in real-time capture.
I knew I could ask the farmer to do a few shots that were more like camera setups but most of it had to be done without impacting his daily operation. So, I felt that impacting him a little each day would be a far better approach than one long day where we would have to shut everything down. Small and mobile were our catchphrases to move where ever he was harvesting. By the time I reached Oklahoma to location scout, 3/4‘s of the fields that I had selected had already been harvested. The weather was right and they had to go. They were not going to wait just for a commercial. So capturing it in real time was our only option.
As a director/cameraman, it is critical to pick the correct tools for the job. I felt the 5D was perfect for getting in there and we also rigged a 7D to a piece of speed rail to get a slow-motion shot of grain coming out of the auger from the combine. A 24mm Canon L series was mounted and wrapped in a Ziploc bag, blasted, and let free fall into the bed of the truck.
We rigged 5Ds and 7Ds in several tight and unique angles to deliver the elegance of the machine. We rigged one in the thrashing reel mechanism. The camera spun around in circles as the grain was cut.
Film was used on a telescopic crane mounted to a camera car that could track along with the combine and stay out its way. The crane we used because of all of the dust was the Chapman Hydroscope. You can completely submerge the whole crane and the head and at the end of the shoot day, the technician’s just needed to hose it off.
So, here is how it played out. We rigged 5Ds on the combine in very tight interesting spaces in the morning before they headed out to the field. This was done over 2 days to lessen the impact. Then on the big shoot day we used the 5Ds again with the farmer in the field in the morning and then hopped on the camera car in the afternoon when the light was lower and rocked out stunning shots of 4 combines harvesting wheat.
Small Footprint, BIG VISION
Our big shoot day had a crew of 20 members. Our 4 other shoot days were done with 4 crew members. Small footprint, BIG VISION.
Case had given us 4 different farmers to talk and we needed to find the right Custom farming team. Farming has changed over the years, so now the person who owns the land doesn’t harvest his crops. He pays custom farmers, called “cutters” to come in and do this work. We worked with the cutters.
I met Rick Ferris who has been a custom farmer for over 50 years. He starts in Oklahoma and makes his way all the way to Montana by mid-December harvesting all sorts of crops. He had done some BBC documentaries in the 90s and hired foreign exchange students from Ohio State to help in his business. When I heard that I knew he was the guy. He was an educator and could explain what he does day in and day out and would also understand what we were trying to do.
Pulling from my farming roots
I grew up on a 250-acre farm as a child and I have to say it was probably the best training I could have ever had for cinematography. I watched my Dad use common sense, think quickly on his feet and be able to fix anything.
He was a genius. There was not much he could not weld, cut, rig, or mickey mouse together if we did not have the money for that specific part. He had to react quickly to whatever mother nature threw at him. I learned from one of the best about how to use this life experience to my advantage as an artist.
Working on a Budget
For example, I needed an aerial shot. The budget was $140,000.00 total which we had divided into 5 days. On average, a normal commercial shoot day costs at least $180,000.00, depending on the concept. How do you do this aerial with no money? Enter the CDC (crop dusting cam.) Darin Necessary’s son is a pilot who knew a friend that he went to school with in Dallas that was also a pilot.
We had him rent a plane, which gave him flying hours along with getting us this amazing top-down shot at 500 feet of the combines at sunset, with their long shadows moving across the field and the dust being side-lit. It was awesome.
We rigged a Canon L series 24mm lens straight down just outside the window on the wing strut. We rigged a Canon L series 35mm right next to it and then a Canon 50mm L series on the landing gear. A few hose clamps from an automotive store, some tape, 1/4 20 baby pins, and some rigging ingenuity by Dave Knudsen and Darin Necessary and we were off.
This shot cost approximately $700.00 total. If we had rented a helicopter and a gyro-stabilized head it would have been over $7,000.00. That is why I love Greg Haggart. He saw that shot on my boards and made it happen when I thought it wouldn’t be possible. The tricky thing though was to rig the cameras so that I could reach them out the small window in the Cessna. When I got in the co-pilot’s seat, I realized that I needed a specific tool to assist me in this endeavor.
Low Budget Aerial Cinematography
It was the 5/16 inch Allen T-wrench that would give me the added length to my arm and also be able to grab the gears on the back exposure wheel to change the stops as the light changed, as well as turn the cameras on and off to save batteries and hit the record button. We had one fancy on/off switch but we went for old school, less to fail once we were airborne. It worked perfectly. I had a 6.5-inch Marshall monitor with an Anton Bauer battery back to gauge my exposures. I ran 3 different BNC cables from the cameras to the cockpit.
Then I would insert the different camera cables into the monitor to check the exposures and to make sure they were recording. It was difficult to see the flashing red light with the sun blinding me up there. Now, this all worked great on the ground because I could reach and turn every knob and button.
Once in flight, it was a different story and I had no idea how powerful the windspeed would be. Chad the pilot said he could get our speed down to 50mph. I had put my hand outside a car going 50 before so I thought it won’t be bad. Well, I had to use all of my strength to stretch out and reach the controls. Just when I would get ready to hit the record button a gust of wind would come and blow my arm back. It was difficult but the images speak for themselves.
Learn Your Lessons
One thing we knew would exist is some harmonic vibration, so we would have to stabilize in post, along with image sharpening. I have to say, the 24mm Canon did not resolve the way that I hoped. So in the future, I will try the 21mm Zeiss to assist in this CDC approach. Another mistake I made was my guessing about the tilt down on the two longer lens cameras, the 35 and the 50mm. I thought they needed about a 15-degree tilt up. I got the shot but 2 seconds was all I needed.
Hindsight being 20/20, I would have rigged all of them to the body of the plane with some rubber rigging pad to take out the vibration. Lesson learned. I’ve never done anything like this before.
Shooting with the old Kowa glass was also a first for me. I had tested the lenses but not with sunsets and the gorgeous fields that we had to work with. One word. WOW!! Their flare and contrast ranges were beautiful; warm and slightly muted. I felt it fit the spot perfectly. I shot the farmer with these and the opening sequence, then match the look in our color suite with the other cinema primes and Canon glass we used.
Thinking outside the box with CamRail
We kept on thinking out of the box with our camera moves with our very limited resources during the first 3 days. How can you dolly the camera over some railroad tracks? Enter the CamRail system from London. This worked very well even with the heavier cinema primes. It pinched the dolly mechanism a bit but it made for a very smooth move with all that resistance. Oh no!! No wedges or apple boxes, well 2 Pelican cases and some 4X5 WW IR NDs will work perfectly for wedges. I love this platform and its liberating spirit. Remember, it is not the camera, but the person behind it.
Looking for mentorship in the film industry? Schedule a 1-on-1 meeting with Shane Hurlbut, ASC today! This is where you can get expert advice from an industry professional on your career or a particular project.
About Filmmakers Academy Cinematographer Mentor Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Director of photography Shane Hurlbut, ASC works at the forefront of cinema. He’s a storyteller, innovator, and discerning collaborator, who brings more than three decades of experience to his art. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, the International Cinematographers Guild/Local 600, and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Hurlbut frequently joins forces with great directors: McG’s Netflix Rim of the World and The Babysitter, plus Warner Bros. We Are Marshall and Terminator: Salvation; Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed and Act of Valor; and Gabriele Muccino’s There Is No Place Like Home and Fathers and Daughters. His additional film credits include Semi-Pro; The Greatest Game Ever Played; Into the Blue; Mr 3000; Drumline; 11:14, which earned Hurlbut a DVDX nomination; and The Skulls. Notably, his television credits include the first season of AMC’s Into the Badlands.