When I was a kid, I had a fascination with Halloween. Our son, Myles, has inherited this same fascination. For four years straight, I created a Haunted House on my parents’ farm in Aurora, New York that scared the bejesus out of all of my classmates.
Heads rolled; madmen escaped; limbs were sawed off, vampires sucked participants’ blood and at the end, a chainsaw-wielding lunatic came blasting out of the well-house and scared everyone back to the main house for cider and donuts. I didn’t realize that one day as a director of photography, I would create a similar kind of experience. And it was for a JEEP and Call of Duty commercial.
Watch Call of Duty: MW3 commercial
More than a JEEP Commercial
When Bandito Brothers called and asked me to direct a Jeep job, I was very excited. I was traveling and assumed that it was a commercial. I was all in and quickly found out that it was more than just a commercial.
Smash cut to directing a live ride experience where you are able to create a story which is an obstacle course and the finale is meeting up with a SEAL team that takes you on a mission in the greatest Call of Duty haunted house you have ever seen? WHOA!!! That is different.
I was clear on the Haunted House part but not the experience, until I met with Jim Lewin, Dan Lewin, and Akash Khokha from Heavy Duty Productions. These creatives, along with Kamau Akabueze from Relevent, an events agency based out of New York, quickly described what they wanted to pull off.
Behind the Call of Duty concept
To give you a little back-story first, Kamau, Jim, Danny, and Akash have been known to play video games together online every now and then, specifically firing up various titles in the Call of Duty franchise. A few years back, while working together at another New York events agency, Jim and Kamau planted the seeds of what would become the Jeep Ops Experience when they pitched the idea of bringing other popular video games to life. Such innovative concepts include the “Halo Intergalactic Carnival” and “Grand Theft Auto IV: A Street Musical.” Seriously.
Then, in the Spring of 2011, when Kamau saw the opportunity to present Jeep with the idea of creating a live test-drive experience set within the context of the Call Of Duty video game franchise, he called in Heavy Duty Productions to work with him on the pitch. Once armed with a kickass presentation, Kamau proceeded to dazzle the brass at both Jeep and Activision and sell the idea up the line.
As soon as Jeep green-lighted the project, Kamau officially hired the Heavy Duty guys to create/write the experience, orchestrate the production, and manage all the moving parts from concept to completion. While many of their core skills overlap, on this project Jim and Akash took on most of the production responsibilities, and Jim and Danny tackled the writing and creative direction.
All three jumped into the trenches with Bandito Brothers and me, and we worked closely with them to bring the experience to life.
Building the Call of Duty Haunted House
My first words, when I heard this story, and what we were about to attempt, were “Wow! We are going to scare the crap out of these GAMERS. This is going to be OFF the CHAIN!!!”
The day after the meeting, I realized what an extraordinary opportunity this was—the opportunity to design a course that would be a part of a two-day Call of Duty fan experience known as “Call of Duty XP 2011.”
This immersive event gave enthusiastic fans a chance to experience Call of Duty in a way they had never experienced the game before. After two intense days, the Jeep-sponsored obstacle course located on the 12-acre compound proved to be just the type of experience.
Building from Act of Valor
I realized what a unique and extraordinary opportunity this was. After seeing Act of Valor, they said that I had the job. Never before had they, as moviegoers, been so immersed in an action movie. So, we set out on the mission to make this experience like no other.
My first call was to Ray who stars in Act of Valor as the communications specialist on the SEAL team. I asked him if he felt he could get a few team members to stage the ultimate Call of Duty Haunted House. I told him that the new game was based in Somalia with tons of warlords fighting for control. Ray was all in and got eight more of the Navy’s finest to run around buildings and yell RPG as the Jeeps get cornered in a firefight.
The SEALs swoop in and rescue the participants, bringing them to shelter in a cluster of palates. They tell the riders that they need to help them look for intel, which is a laptop with an orange X on it, in this hot house. Once the brief gets laid down, they move out to hit the building.
With smooth movements and calculated risks, they slide to the door, crash, grenade the entry room, huge explosion, flash and they are in, with lasers and M4s searching the lobby. A bad guy on the steps is taken down immediately. The house goes crazy inside, with people moving around everywhere, loads of refrigeration fans, distant gunfire, and screams are heard.
Two doors present themselves. The SEAL team splits up and the riders split up as well. One SEAL moves to the door with his back to it, and another sweeps to corner the opening. BLAM!!! The door is kicked open and immediately an M4 and the SEAL’s laser finds its first Somalian. BOOM! BOOM! Shells come flying out onto participants. Ears are covered, screams echo. IT IS ON.
The Gamer Experience
Like a well-oiled machine, the SEALs advance, clearing the hallways and rooms like you have never seen. The Gamers are losing it. These guys are the best. They are warriors to the core, with an intelligence that would rival most Harvard grads. This is our team.
Quickly, they shoot three more bad guys and then apprehend two Somalians that surrender. They burst into the refrigeration/back office and meet another AK-wielding pirate. The lead SEALs take him out and yell “TOUCHDOWN”. They grab the laptop, hand it to a rider and then they hook up with the rest of the team in the lobby.
The SEALs then brief the participants that they are going to make a hot extract into gunfire. They will cover them while the participants jump into the Jeeps. They run out and quickly their pace is heightened when the M4 gunfire from SEAL guns and the HELO soundtrack come in from above. This was only one-third of the experience.
The rest was this burned-in, raw obstacle course, designed by John Marshall. He has been doing this for years, but this was his most elaborate design. Together, our Production Designer Robert Fox and his amazing art department transformed a dirt lot in Playa Vista, California into a Somalian fishing village.
The ride started at a K-rail checkpoint where the participants think they are going for a short test drive. All of a sudden, the wheels come off and they are sent into a hot zone to acquire intel about the enemy. Foot to the floor, 0-60mph, the Jeeps blast down the road to a flaming car that blocks their way.
Detour, WOW! A 50 caliber strapped to a Datsun truck quickly approaches that engage the Jeep. A quick turn to avoid it and the gunfire ensues. Punch it into 2 hairpin turns. Rangers running.
Next, the riders are in the cultural center of the Somalian fish market, Fish Mongers selling their wares. Deep canals that take participants into a firefight with the warlords and Rangers, grenade & RPG explosions, troop movements.
The Jeeps climb up a 25-foot hill, then blast down subterranean under sea containers. Gunfire is everywhere. They climb another hillside and then plummet into a lake that is about 36” deep. The JEEPs tear this course up and preform flawlessly.
While this is going on, the driver is getting instructions from OVERLORD on coordinates and the location of the intel. This was the middle of the experience. The beginning and end were briefings, jocking up, then getting de-briefed and stripped of gear.
Take a look:
At Hurlbut Visuals, we put two members of our growing BTS crew, Hayden House (HV Rental Director) and Matt Macar in the line of fire to document this amazing alternative marketing concept. Then, I called on many of my Elite Team members, our HV cinematography interns, Kevin Anderson (HV Rental Manager), and several followers on Twitter to help me pull this all off – in ONE DAY.
The Schedule and the Day
The schedule for the day was to shoot the interior in the morning with the SEALS, then move out to the course to shoot in the afternoon, when the light was best. The best-laid plans…
That was quickly changed by a Maxim event that forced us to go down in the afternoon while we watched these strong men carry dummies through the obstacle course and the Haunted Hot House.
So, Elite Team Mike Svitak, my co-D.P., and I had to harness the power of the Jeeps on the track in ONE HOUR. Dave Knudson, my Key Grip, had a Jeep rigged with eight cameras to whip around and tear it up. Operator Andrew LaBoy loaded eight contour cams in the Jeeps to get the participant’s reactions to the experience.
Cinematography interns Derek Johnson and Danny Garcia and Kevin Anderson were driving over 5D cams, OTS of bad guys & Rangers. Matt Short came in and got into the middle of the Warlord firefight. Nick Rios, one of our Twitter followers, came all the way from Houston to help us out. He slammed on long lenses and grabbed tight coverage of wheels, etc.
Jalal Pashandi was inside the Jeep to capture the rider’s POV. Garret Curtis was down by the canal, grabbing shots of the Jeeps plowing through. Freddie Fernandez (Cinematography Intern) was positioned at the guard booth that details the dialogue that ensues once OVERLORD changes the Jeep’s mission.
Joseph Jang was on the OTS of the burning car as the JEEPs made a quick detour and finally Elite Team member Julien Lasseur was just out of harm’s way when the SEALs ran out and the RPG explosion went off at sunset. This was a rush! Mike Svitak commanded our Platoon perfectly getting them in just the right position to pull this feat off in an hour.
Ready for Action!
We were all spent and this was just the rehearsal. Now, we have to do the live version on Friday and Saturday for 9 hours. We do this ride after ride, Somalians falling, SEALs running and breeching, shooting. Stunt players that Troy Gilbert, our stunt coordinator, orchestrated perfectly every time.
435 riders on Friday. 560 on Saturday. Six riders per convoy. 10,000 rounds of ammunition fueled the gunfire, 20,000 gallons of propane and three highly trained Special Effects technicians helped the chaos creator himself, Dan Cangemi, to bring the grenade and RPG explosions to life.
Forty role players gave us the cultural flavor of Somalia and a kick-ass production staff headed by Elite Team Producer Greg Haggart. Kat King was the production manager who had to make monetary sense of all the craziness and her right-hand woman, Sheena Dolce, coordinated it. Twelve stunt drivers took the riders on the thrill ride of their life.
The wardrobe was so important and Mikey Dewinter pulled off the impossible with our limited funds. They had to look legit and he delivered in spades. Mikey was even able to transform my daughter, Kyra Hurlbut, and her best friend, Bella Salvatierra, into Somalian Fish Mongers.
Sound design is so important in a Haunted House, as well as during a ride experience, so we were given all of the sound effects from the new game. Fernando Raigoza was our sound editor on Adobe Premiere Pro, cut together different tracks for all of the locals.
The fishing village had Somalian bartering. The firefight was filled with AK and M4 gunfire, ricochets, explosions, yells, etc. The entrance to the building had distant gunfire and more yelling and ricochets. In the Haunted Hot House, you heard screams, fans, chains, barrels pounding, Somalian whispers, and distant gunfire, which added to the ambiance.
The Bottom Line
Now the ring leader of all of this, Kamau Z. Akabueze, was the creative at Relevent that orchestrated this interactive experience for JEEP. Nothing like this had ever been done before. The participants had to endure a five-hour wait. When they returned, the first words out of their mouths were that it was worth it.
Looking back at the carnage, the long days of coordinating, rehearsing, blocking, story changes, curve balls, and monitoring smoke levels, we realized we endured it all.
I cannot thank everyone enough for helping me bring this baby to life. This is the future, to immerse a consumer in your product in a way that they never thought possible. This was the hit of the event. The paintball courses laid dormant, the zip lines were ghost towns, but Camp Tread had a line around the block.
- Cameras: Canon 5D, 7D & Contour
- Memory Cards: Hoodman RAW
- Lenses: Zeiss CP2s, Canon, and Leica R mount
- Rigs: HV Man Cam, HV Shoulder Cam, HV Chipper Cam, HV Low Cam, HV Helmet Cam
- Remote Focus: Bartech
- Lighting Monitor: HP DreamColor
- On-Board Monitors: SmallHD DP-6
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.