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Below are some excerpts from an interview that Shane Hurlbut, ASC had with Musicbed at NAB 2017.
Shane Hurlbut, ASC: Being a leader is a very difficult thing to do and some days, I am very good at it and some days, I am not. Those days are the ones that I try to learn from. I think the best way to lead is by building your team up and telling them how amazing and strong they are. When they do an incredible shot, I am the first one to tell everyone on set – in my booming voice – that was unbelievable. I am always giving the director feedback as well. You know the director and actors hear my passion. During my last movie, this actor and his assistant came up to me and they said:
“You know, Andy loves how passionate you are. He loved hearing you say that the performance was unbelievable when you played it back on the monitor.”
You want to do the same thing with your team, really support them and be there for them and build them up. We are all collaborating together and that’s what is so important. It is not just you making the movie; you’re making it with hundreds of individuals. Trying to inspire them and fuel their passion and understanding is a huge part of being a great leader.
Musicbed: How is it different working on set with union rules vs. working on a non-union set? Do you have any tips on working with the unions?
Shane Hurlbut, ASC: The last picture I did was filmed in Prague and was all non-union. The reason we were in Prague was to take advantage of non-union, the tax incentive, and the low exchange rate so our dollar went a lot further than it would have in the United States.
What the union does, more than anything, and why it’s so beneficial is that it sets a standard. I’m an ASC cinematographer. There is a standard that is set for members inducted into the society. It is the same with the unions. It’s the standards that they set and the training that they provide that sets members apart. After all, what technicians do and what we all do is a craft, right? I started out as a grip truck driver, packing grip trucks. I then became a grip, a key grip, a best boy electric, and then a gaffer.
You study your craft in that way while you move up the ladder. That’s how the union builds a great foundation. Now.. were the individuals in Prague unbelievable? In the non-union sense?
The Eastern European element was unbelievably powerful and they all treat themselves as artists, which I absolutely loved. Sometimes, I feel that those of us in the United States tend to treat ourselves as technicians. In reality, we are in a field that’s called art and science. We always want to be thinking of that. Sometimes, science plays a lot more into it, and sometimes, the art plays more into it. What you really want to do is think of yourself as an artist … even though you might be a 1st, 2nd AC, or a loader or a grip or something. Artists – that’s who I love to collaborate with.
This whole union / non-union thing is always a sticky situation.
Shane Hurlbut, ASC: Both of my parents were incredible educators. My Mom was a 6th-grade school teacher. Her students were at that perfect tipping point to shaping a wonderful human being.
My Dad was a Professor’s Assistant at Cornell University in agronomy so he took all of the grad students and taught them how to farm and how to cultivate the crop and how to be able to create hybrids — all this advanced stuff.
One day, I found my dad lying in the middle of the field. I was driving the tractor and I looked over and thought, “What’s going on with Dad?” I ran in there and he was literally dying. He had accidentally poisoned himself with a crop that he created.
He was breeding different hybrids and this one was poisonous. I had to literally trache him with a Bic pen and rush him to the hospital to save his life. I was 14!
So this was our life. He was always creating these crazy crops and he’s like:
“I wanna make this corn plant that has 24 ears and grows 15 feet tall.”
This new crop had a base like a tree and that’s the thing that ended up almost killing him. It was poisonous to touch when it pollinated. So… he didn’t know he was this mad scientist.
Every day, I saw how my parents shared their knowledge. I believe that is why this spark happened when Lydia, my beautiful wife, came up with the idea that I needed to share all of this innovation. She told me that I needed to share what I was doing in Hollywood so it’s not this magic and curtain that you never see behind. She encouraged me to start to share the knowledge of being a filmmaker, being a storyteller.
I had this massive AH HA! moment when I started to share the knowledge and saw how much we were getting back in return. That’s what was absolutely awe-inspiring and what really drives me, as a storyteller and an artist shooting movies and commercials. The filmmakers around the world that ask questions and share what they are doing to make a project come to life is what inspire us to do our very best every day.
Musicbed: The Illumination Tour was incredible! The next question is… where do you find inspiration for your visuals? Are you referencing other filmmakers or what? What’s your take on that?
Shane Hurlbut, ASC: One thing I don’t really like to do is when I’m coming up with a concept and a look for a movie I don’t really like to dive into:
“Ok let’s make this look like… No Country for Old Men… mixed with another picture.”
I really don’t try to do that. For inspiration, I really turn to still photography. I have over 700 reference books and I sit there and turn the pages in all these reference books.
Check out Designing the Visual Landscape of Deadfall.
I was recently interviewing for a feature project and I pulled up Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke White and Vivian Maier.
These were artists in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s – all women. I like to pull inspiration from female photographers because they connect with the audience on a much more emotional level…
I pulled my favorites from black and white shots from the ’30s and ’40s for inspiration with a contemporary film.
This is what really inspires me.
It’s not just the look of what it is now. It’s pulling from historical photographs and the emotion of a photograph and how that makes the audience feel that’s really what I resonate with. I turn to still photography and if there’s some kind of a cool shot or something that was done that I wanted to show the director as some inspiration, then I’ll embed that in the Keynote.
Most of the time, it’s all from still photography and also looking at works of art such as the classics of Caravaggio, Monet, and Rembrandt, the way they capture the light entering the room, and the contrast. I’m always trying to look at those for inspiration as well.
Musicbed: That’s such a helpful piece of advice because I feel a lot of filmmakers can get wrapped up referencing other filmmakers on Vimeo and you end up emulating their style (as opposed to creating your own).
How does your role differ from something like the short film, The Last 3 Minutes, to a film like Fathers and Daughters?
Shane Hurlbut, ASC: It actually doesn’t differ at all. My role in The Last 3 Minutes was a wonderful collaboration with Po Chan. She wrote and pitched this script to me. I thought it was a perfect example of using the power of the Canon 5D. Once we started on that collaboration, she did a lookbook to show everything we would do on a feature film. That film was all about emotion and Fathers and Daughters was exactly the same. It was all about an emotional roller coaster ride where you’re going on this journey with peaks and valleys. You want to be able to love and you want to be able to cry… you want to be able to be scared, be frightened like you are on a roller coaster.
So Po’s work was very much in the mindset of, “Yes, this was one single POV style of shot that morphed from one to the other,” but with Fathers and Daughters, it was very much about how Gabriele Muccino did not want you, as an audience, to breathe much. He wanted to immerse you so there was no exit strategy for your emotions.
You are immersed in the emotion. The emotion that the characters that Aaron Paul and Amanda Seyfried were immersed in were swirling around you and the way the camera worked so that you could not get out of that emotion.
We can talk about amazing shots and beautifully choreographed moves, but when it’s all said and done, if that thing that I just described tells the story and takes the performance from the actor and emotionally connects to your audience, then that’s why you do it.
You don’t just do it because you can do it.
It’s very important to understand that just because we can move the camera around and spin it around and do all these things, it’s not necessarily the right way to go about it. It’s the story that drives the camera, the story that drives the lighting, the story that drives the composition.