Cinematographers: The Importance of Being Mobile
Michael Svitak: “Have a safe flight. Someone from production will pick you up.” How many strange country codes have flashed across the screen of my mobile phone? Who will meet me at baggage claim? Can their vehicle handle the half dozen (or more) pelican cases traveling with me? Weather? Does it matter? These are the considerations of a traveling cinematographer.
The call came in at 6 am PST, but in Montreal, it’s 9, well into the workday on the production of the movie Deadfall. I’ve been hired to shoot a snowmobile chase. My flight departs at noon.
As a cinematographer ready for travel, I keep a weather bag packed at all times on the top shelf of my closet that contains clothing for every climate my person has been tossed into over the past couple of years, from -20 below on a frozen lake in northeastern Canada, to 100+ desert heat of Yuma, AZ (in this case, only four months between the two).
The Traveling Cinematographer
Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of working on shoots in England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Ukraine, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Canada. Not to mention a handful of floats on international waters in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
This post is a continuation of “The need for speed,” highlighting the necessity to prepare to be mobile on shoots regardless of location. The two bags that travel with me everywhere are my weather bag and AKS bag.
Here is what I keep in my personal cinematographer’s weather bag:
*Unless you are shooting someplace very hot
- Patagonia down sweater (this goes everywhere with me)
- Heavy down jacket
- Insulated snow pants
- Snow boots
- Thermal top and bottoms
- Rain jacket
- Rain pants
- I also toss in an extra change of clothes (jeans, sweatshirt, socks, etc)
This may seem quite extensive, but you can accumulate it over time and base it on where you are shooting. It’s one bag you don’t keep light.
On to my best friend on set, my AKS bag:
- Light meters
- Tool belt (as listed in “the need for speed”)
- Tape roll of assorted colors gaffers, electrical, paper
- Allen keys (standard and metric)
- 5′ of 2″ Velcro (both sides)
- Lens cleaning supplies
- Backup batteries for anything requiring them
- 16′ sturdy metal tape measure
- 1 Box 1 gallon Ziploc bags
I am always looking for little bits and accessories that allow me to be more prepared and move faster. These go in the bag too. One item that might stand out is the Ziploc bags. We have tried numerous approaches to protect the Canon cameras from the elements, but the one thing that is tried and true is Ziploc bags. With just a little electrical tape on the lens and the zipper seal in the back, you’re good to roll (but make sure you cut it so the text on the bag doesn’t cover the LCD screen).
Cinematography: The Job
Now, we will return to our story in Montreal. By the time I get through customs and to the hotel, it’s after 1 am. At 7 am, a driver arrives at the hotel to pick me up for a meeting with Shane Hurlbut and Director Stephan Ruzowitzky.
We go through the storyboards and discuss specific shots to accomplish the next morning. The main unit needs to stay on course, but, with a snowstorm brewing, the decision is made to mobilize a second unit and send them three hours north to Saccacomie, Quebec where the brunt of the blizzard should hit.
It’s hard to comprehend how I can be on a snowmobile rocketing across a frozen lake through a snowstorm when 36 hours ago, I was asleep in LA. Eight hours later, I’m thigh-deep in the snow with the camera crew placing two high-speed Arri 35mm cameras and eight Canon 5Ds to capture a huge stunt before lunch.
A pair of police snowmobiles in pursuit must jump over a shallow river to apprehend the suspect. We can’t make any mistakes.
The Bottom Line
Enormous credit is due to the production team and stunt coordinator Jean Frenette for organizing a deft, hardworking crew! We captured the stunt on schedule and safely.
The filmmaking process is a collaborative effort. All the cogs of the wheel are needed for it to spin properly, meaning everyone from top to bottom of the call sheet is hired to perform a specific task. To excel as either a cinematographer or camera assistant means having your equipment (especially your attire) ready and in good working order before the shoot.
Because once the wheel of that machine is in motion, the best way to ensure it is perpetual is to be prepared to react quickly.
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About Filmmakers Academy Cinematographer Mentor Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Cinematographer 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.
Very nice post. So the Arri cams work well in the cold? How about the Canons?
No issues with the Arri cameras. We only had one problem with the canons (out of 10 bodies) and one camera wouldn’t turn on at minus 20 Degrees C the first day of shooting. Worked fine after a couple hours getting use to the climate.
It’s great that you’re talking about all-weather gear. I’ve shot in some extreme places, and in some cases spent more time putting my personal gear together than my camera kit. I also spend a bunch of time packing everything in the right cases/bags–especially when I have a small crew. I’ve lost a lot of shots because of all the crap I’ve had to carry around that has given me either less time, or less mobility.
You mentioned your light meter–any chance Shane could do a blog post about properly using a light meter with the DSLRs for his smaller location shoots?
I just watched Deadfall last night. Loved the snowmobile jump scene, nicely done. That had to be a blast to film.