How Crew Relationships Help Filmmakers Boost Creativity and Success
Today is a very exciting day as it is the first release of the Into the Badlands trailer for Comic Con. I wanted to share and show you what I have been creating over the last six months. Here is a glimpse of what we have been filming. To better understand how we accomplished this, I’m going to be breaking down some of the relationships on set, including that of the key grip and gaffer.
I work all over the world with different crews and I love collaborating with these creative technicians. Many times you are forced to not bring your key crew members because of budget, location and issues with availability. I have learned so much about this process over the years and wanted to share how I integrate new key technicians and their respective crews to deliver the most impact and creativity.
Who Are You As An Artist?
I look at how I came up the ladder in the Hollywood system, and my road was unique. The Hollywood system for a DP is to start out as a film loader, then move to 2nd assistant, then to 1st, then to camera operator, then to 2nd unit DP, then to DP. I made my way up the ladder on the lighting side, not camera. It is a way that is being more and more accepted, but I was one of the first to do it. I was a grip truck driver instead of a loader, I was a Best Boy Grip instead of a 2nd assistant, I was a Key Grip instead of a 1st assistant, I was a Dolly Grip instead of an operator, and I was a Gaffer instead of a 2nd Unit DP. This style of learning and creating has given me many strengths. Therefore, I have put more effort into learning the art of composition and everything camera. You have to use your strengths and understand where you are weaker when selecting your crew. When I worked with Herb Ritts for over six years, one of the things that I learned about this man was his skill to fill in the blanks. What he could not do the best, he surrounded himself with people who excelled in that skill. It made him an icon, who was loved and delivered amazing work.
Surrounding Yourself With Crew That Fills In Your Blanks
When you look at yourself as an artist, it is challenging to say what your weaknesses are. I guess pride gets in the way. I try to push past that and identify them, so that I fill those key crew positions with people who can make me shine. Filmmaking is a team effort, a collaboration of creative individuals who bring their unique style, elegance and expertise to the project. You do not want to extinguish this. You want to throw gasoline on that flame. Coming up on the lighting side, to be honest, my operating of the wheels was always a challenge but my operating of handheld is on point. The years of experience with creating subtle camera moves that an operator is so accustomed to is just not there. I know that I enjoy bleeding edge technology, whether it is a camera motion system or a camera that just came out of the factory and no one has used before. Knowing that this trailblazing will be going on and that there is only so much I can cram into my head technically, I surround myself with at least one person who is an zen camera operator or a walking manual on whatever the trailblazing will be as a way of setting myself up for success on set.
How To Work On Location
In analyzing my strengths, I always look at who is available in the city where we will be doing production as well as the special requirements of the project. I am strong on the lighting and grip side so I will look to hire a local gaffer and key grip to help the budget. It is not always possible to bring my key LA team, as much as I love working with them. Let’s use Into the Badlands as an example and the weaknesses that we will have. The producer asked me, “How many key people would you like to bring in to New Orleans?” I looked at what we would be doing on Badlands – new camera system no local in NOLA had used and a new motion system that no local had used before in NOLA. OK! I will need to bring in a MōVI tech who not only knows the MōVI inside and out but also has to learn every aspect of the RED Dragon. I will need to bring in an amazing focus puller, so I can light the way I love to light, which is always wide open at a t2.0. I will need to bring in an incredible operator who is not only skilled in the MōVI but also understands character emotion and deep feeling.
Additionally, I have a fight unit that is simultaneously shooting on different sets that I have pre lit. To set myself up for success, I will need to bring in a 1st assistant who can pull focus amazingly well and knows the inside and out of the RED Dragon. I will need to bring in another MōVI tech who can provide the skills that this unique unit will need, and I will need to bring in a 2nd Unit DP who understands my style and how I light so that together we can deliver a united vision of light and camera. This unit has to be stealth and small, so the 2nd Unit DP has to be an incredible operator as well. If you notice, I am asking people to multi-task, in a business that doesn’t believe in multi-tasking. I believe that the best technicians are the ones who aspire to not only do what they do best, but to push themselves to always learn and expand their skill set. This is essential in picking the crew that wants to trail blaze. It is a very select group that has the mindset for this. When you find them, hold on as tight as you can. They are a different breed, one that I love. They are like the SEALs with a specific mind set.
This is how I made my decision on my triple threat of a crew. I asked the producer to bring in three for Main Unit and three for Fight Unit. He told me they were budgeted for only one distant hire. Well, that all changed once they realized the scope of the TV series. Six distant hires all ready to rumble.
Where Did You Come From?
I know that I came from the lighting and grip side, so I am very strong in that way. Understanding all the lighting instruments and what they do is second nature. I can run power if I have to, I can set C-stands, I can rig lights. You name it, I understand it. So when the producer asked me if I wanted to bring down my gaffer and key grip, I told him no.
Here is my advice: really understand what you are good at, exploit that, build a relationship with the locals. This approach benefits production and will gain you so much good faith and amazing new crew relationships. Local gaffers and key grips hate when the LA gaffer and key grips come in and they are reduced to a glorified Best Boy to arrange the crew and organize the shoot. I view it as a unique opportunity to find incredible local talent and use this talent with a crew that has worked together for years. You have the dedication of a gaffer’s and key grip’s crew, which means they will go the distance and on the 14th hour they will still find energy and expertise. I found a gaffer and key grip in NOLA who both have amazing technical expertise along with a crew that will go the distance. This is an example of using my strengths with lighting and grip to be decisive about choice, where to place units, set frames, and choose diffusion so that I do not have to upset the balance of the local crew dynamic. I know that many times in local markets LA technicians are forced upon the local crew, but by working with production to help with their budget, I am using what I am strong in to make this decision.
Now I would like you to meet the crew behind this amazing project Into The Badlands. I also wanted to express how proud I am of all of them and how much they have helped me deliver Director David Dobkin’s vision. In the most difficult of locations, under the monumental stress of not enough days or money, against all odds, they have been kicking ass and taking names.
Meet the Crew:
My Electric Team
The Amazing Electric Team. Sean Finnegan is the leader of this Motley Crue, ha ha. He is the one with the Big Gulp Ice Coffee in his hand. HA HA!!!! One of the best gaffers I have ever worked with. Thank you for all that you have brought to this project and to all the electrics. Thank you for all the hard work, long hours and commitment to absolute excellence.
The Electric Rigging Team: A rare siting. These gladiators, powered by the endless energy and expertise of Joe Paolucci, have rigged in the most obscure and difficult environments on the planet. Joe is the guy with the shirt on his head. HA HA!!! I asked the Navy SEALs why they would have a training facility near NOLA and they said, “It is because it is one of the worst environments on the planet.” I think this says it all. Thank you amazing rigging team for all that you do. Joe and his team work so well with Sean. Again, hiring a team that works very closely together will help you deliver more on screen. Their shorthand communication with one another and forethought of “I know Sean will need power here” has saved me. Thank you rigging team for seeing the future and keeping me on schedule.
My Grip Team:
It takes a lot to surprise me and it takes a lot to wow me in the grip department. Walter “Bud” Scott reminds me of how I first Key gripped.
One word cements this man – “Unbelievable.” His mind and forward thinking nature are extraordinary. The arsenal of all his special rags, flags, rigs and modifiers has changed the way I light. This is huge and what I am talking about. When you find a creative individual like this, you want to hold him or her tight and throw gasoline on the creative flame. He has worked with tons of huge cameramen and shares his knowledge to help. Thank you amazing grip team for all the hard work, endless 12 x 20’s for days and taking my vision to the next level.
A huge thanks to Chris Strong and the Grip riggers. You have impressed me so much with all the limitations that have been pushed on you, but continue to deliver everything that I ask and with so much passion and expertise. I cannot thank you and your team enough. Notice that there is no picture of them. I could never find them. HA HA they are always rigging the next location.
My Camera Team:
Where do I start with this man? On Fathers and Daughters, I was asked to use as many locals as possible. I interviewed this operator from Pittsburgh. His resume was so impressive that I wondered to myself, “This guy lives in Pittsburgh?” John “Buzz” Moyer has changed the way I shoot, lens and tell stories. That statement alone is what I am talking about. Surround yourself with the key players that will make you shine and change you as an artist, for you to continuously grow. He has embraced every wacky ass rig and the MōVI, which takes a skilled professional to master. It is not as easy as all the videos make it out to be. The way we are using it is truly revolutionary. It is not about this one shot, cool trick or gimmick. It is literally changing the way you shoot, block and move the camera, based in emotion, time savings and putting much more punch onto the screen. So much more than converting and going about it the way it has always been done, which we now call Legacy mode, anything on a dolly or a fluid head. HA! HA!
This man is someone you bring with you wherever you go. I have to say he is the best focus puller I have ever seen and a key person in delivering my light and style. Eric Swanek, thank you for all that you bring to our team, as a leader, educator, trailblazer and just a great human being.
Chris Herr is my walking RED manual, my MōVI tech, my amazing Wonder Lad who is my secret weapon. This young filmmaker is a force of grace, intelligence and a God given talent to eat, sleep, and live art and science. It is a wonderful mix. Sometimes he goes full robot on us, but most of the time, we keep a human side to him! This guy handles pressure. He is never flustered, no matter how much I push on him. Chris delivers with elegance and grace under fire. He is my ROCK! And he is 21 years old. I was still in college at 21. This young man is going places.
Don’t let that cabana hat fool you! This man is one of the best-kept secrets in NOLA. Rivaling Eric Swanek’s focus ability, Rob Baird is sharp, an amazing filmmaker, and the dude made student films with David Fincher.
Rob Stenger, my B Camera Operator, was a slot that I was nervous about. The talent pool of operators in NOLA is not what it is in LA. This man has been a Godsend, embracing the MōVI head on and giving skill and grace to this device like I have never seen. You are a rock star, my friend. Thank you for all the amazing imagery you have delivered.
On my “Fight Unit” Director of Photography Chris Moseley is at the helm. Chris and I have worked on many projects together over the years, Terminator Salvation, Into the Blue, many many hours spent with this man. Having him on our 2nd Unit shooting these intense fight sequences, energizing his camera team to deliver incredible quality is why he is so good. He has embraced the look, feel and emotion of this story delivering beautiful imagery to go with what I am creating.
Also on the “Fight Unit” is another veteran of my crew, for nearly 20 years Derek Edwards has pulled focus for me on countless projects. He came with me to Pittsburgh for “Fathers and Daughters,” he has done countless commercials with me and has always been someone I can rely on in every situation. I know that when I have Derek on my team that I can focus on the project, the story and our vision.
Last but not least is Sam Nuttmann. Sam is our MoVi Tech on the “Fight Unit.” Sam has been there from the very beginning of the creation of the MoVi and is one of the best in the business in this technology. To have his vision and knowledge on this team only solidifies knowing that everyday that this “Fight Unit” is going to accomplish incredible looking imagery.
Finally, a huge shout out the rest of the incredible camera team. Thank you for going the distance, putting up with my passion and exacting expertise. Thank you for all the long hours and delivering every day with a huge smile on your face. Love you all.
The Series is finally out. Into the Badlands looks high quality due to the efforts of yourself and your team. Hats off to all you guys.
Thanks so much Ron. Episode #2 is off the chain!