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It Came from Above – Shooting a Documentary in the Field

  • April 7, 2019
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
It Came from Above – Shooting a Documentary in the Field

I wanted give an introduction and story before Bodie’s post. Bodie Orman came to me from the Panavision Assistant program. He learned from the best at Panavision/Hollywood. Bodie was a loader on several commercials and “Act of Valor” after leaving Panavision. I quickly noticed that he had an eye, a sense of style and I wanted to pour gasoline to ignite this passion. On “Act of Valor,” I wanted to challenge him and put Bodie on a critical helicopter shot on San Clemente Island. He rocked it out! Bodie’s job description quickly expanded to loader, 2nd AC, media manager and operator. Hurlbut Visuals is all about recognizing and supporting upcoming talent. When I see Bodie’s 5D footage on this Joplin trailer it makes all of us proud. Take it away Bodie.

This summer, my phone rang and my friend, Erica Tremblay, was on the other end of the line. She asked if I would join her in a journey back to her hometown, Joplin, MO, to help her film a documentary that she was directing. On May 22nd , the town had been hit by an EF5 tornado that killed 160 people and destroyed much of the city. Some of Erica’s friends did not survive the storm, and she was determined to go back and tell the stories of the people who had survived. She asked if I would come on board the project. Her passion for the film made it an easy decision.

After we decided on the look of the film, it was time to pick out the camera package. We knew the stories were going to be amazing and we wanted the imagery to be able to carry the weight. We also knew that we would be on a tight schedule and would be on the run in a destruction zone. We needed the right tools for the job.

We left Los Angeles with 18 checked bags. We packed two Canon 5Ds with cinema glass, an HPX-3000, and an Aaton 16mm camera. The plan was to do beauty b-roll with the Aaton and 5D, and shoot interviews with the HPX, due to its ability to run on multiple P2 cards without interruption. Initially, I didn’t think the 5D would be the best camera for the run-and-gun interviews due to the 12-minute cutoff time. That didn’t last long…

We arrived in hot and muggy Missouri with a van full of gear, and chests full of excitement. We didn’t know what to expect and all of our hearts dropped the moment we saw the devastation site. The tornado was a mile wide and it left a scar right down the middle of the city. It was like an atom bomb had gone off in the middle of town. That was the moment that I knew we had to do everything in our power to tell the stories of these people who had lost everything. Now, it was personal.

Immediately, the HPX started giving us problems. The p2 spanning was an issue, and gave us pause. We were working out of the back of a hot van, and viewing dailies each night became a stressful chore. It didn’t take long for us to relegate the HPX to b-roll duty, and bring up the second 5D to interview. We finally found our stride with the two 5D’s as our main, tried and true interview cameras. The images were amazing, and if we ran into someone who talked for more than 12 minutes, we would just tailslate the 2nd clips. No problem. It was go time.

Our days went like this:

5am– the Director and I would set off into the destruction zone to shoot b-roll with the AATON.

8am– We would meet the rest of the crew and head out to the first of several interviews with the two 5D camera setup. Meanwhile, the field producer, Bernard Parham, and B-unit Director of Photography, Lee Peters, would head off into town with the HPX to mow down the b-roll.

6-7pm– With interviews wrapped, the crew would head back to the hotel for some R&R and the Director and I would hit the streets with the Aaton, once again, to get more of that beautiful b-roll.

Our interview setups consisted of one 5D with a zoom that I would change from medium shots to close ups throughout the interview, and another 5D with a wide fixed lens capturing the subjects in their environments. These tended to be outside, in the summer heat. Overheating of camera bodies became an issue from time to time. A little shade and powering them down when we could let us keep shooting throughout the hot afternoons.

By day eight, we were exhausted, physically and emotionally. My whole perspective on what is important in life was forever changed. But we had hit our rhythm as a team and everything flowed beautifully. We came in and out of each interview with confidence, knowing that we had nailed it.

Documentary filmmaking has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. But at the end of the shoot, I was proud of the images we had captured, and saw the importance of documenting this terrible tragedy. The project is now in the final stages of post, and I am excited to see the final product.

What are some of your experiences in shooting out in the field?

Take a look at the trailer…

Follow the progress of the project here.

Stop by our Kickstarter to throw a buck at the post costs.

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