Act of Valor: Reinventing the Action Genre
- February 22, 2012
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
When Scotty Waugh and Mike “Mouse” McCoy, the incredible directing team at Bandito Brothers, asked me to shoot Act of Valor, I was excited, especially after listening to their unique vision for the making of this movie. I was ALL IN. The idea of reinventing the action genre was our mantra. To be able to immerse an audience in a 3D experience that was shot 2D; to capture POVs that felt like you were in an intense first person shooter video game; to move a 2.5 lb camera in ways that you have never seen before. These were the ideas that started to swirl in my head after our initial meeting.
We viewed the tools that were available to assist us to tell this story. I had just completed a web series for Terminator Salvation, where I used the Canon 5D as a helmet cam. The members of the Resistance were getting blown up and carrying the camera around broadcasting back to base in hope of help. None arrived. What I learned from the web series was the versatility of this little still camera and the unique ways it could move. I immediately started to push the ISO, create picture styles and test the resiliency of the camera. It held up and with the right care and glass, a 60’ screen was headed the 5D way.
What is so inspiring about Scotty and Mouse is that they’re fearless; they go for it and believe someone will be there to catch us. This fearless quality was what brought out the highest level of creativity. Scotty’s role is to remain true to the story, and we worked on a shooting style and a visual landscape that would last and hold the audience’s attention. When the SEALs were hanging with their families, shooting the breeze, or getting briefed, we shot 35mm motion picture film. When the bad guys were planning and conniving, it was also film. When the SEALs went into operational mode, we were all 5D, no matter whether it was a wide shot or a close-up. Aerials were going to be a huge part of the scope of this film. Together, we chose what would be best for the story, and that was the Sony F950 with Cineflex housing. It would give us hours of shooting time without having to reload every 10 minutes and provide the ability to showcase the Navy’s impressive assets.
We had unprecedented access, which made the movie extraordinary. Mouse was all about the back-stories, what got the characters to this point. He was very conceptual, and I truly believe helped get the best performances out of the active duty SEALs. He is also an incredible action shooter. He is a DP is his own right, and we divided up to take on the huge work load in Stennis, MS as well as El Centro, CA. Mouse and Scotty just inherently know where to put the camera when shooting action. We collaborated together in this unique hybrid of action storytellers, and I think the film’s beauty is just that, STORY. Without this, our action would just be a lot of M4 fire.
With the visual style for the film set, now we had to figure out how to do this with a very limited budget and crew. Coming off of Terminator Salvation, where I had probably 190 lighting, grip, and camera crew members working alongside me to bring that film to life, we had maybe 80 total in all departments. Most of the time it was an Elite group of 5-10 people making the movie. We coined the term “Elite Team” because each filmmaker was so versatile and talented; they learned to do five jobs, three below their pay grade and two above. Coming up with a small footprint, while keeping a BIG vision was paramount. I cannot think of any other camera platform than the Canon DSLRs at that time in 2009 that could deliver it all. We moved out like a SEAL platoon, and this was our recipe for success.
The scope of this project was twelve states, five countries and four continents. Greg Haggart was our amazing producer. He could find ways to get money from a stone and quickly adjusted to our unique shooting style, which effected the budget on every line, in a good way. When we would head overseas, he would arrange for a liaison in whatever country we were going to. I would take at least two of my Elite Team members with me. This was absolutely crucial because when we would land and then go to the camera prep and open up our cases, the crews from foreign lands would look at our 5D package like an alien spaceship had just landed.
Traveling with our 8-15 camera DSLR package in our overhead bin space was impressive. Panavision Primo primes, Canon L series, Zeiss ZF, and Leica R glass were used in every aspect of filming. We landed in Cambodia and walked right through customs with our cases. Immediately off to the rental car where Mouse would drive and be on the lookout for our location list. Greg Haggart would be navigator, set up casting, book hotels, and buy craft service, etc., while Scotty and I would discuss story details, view casting tapes, submit camera, lighting and grip orders, as well as book our rocking cuisine for the evening. This movie was so different in every way. If a location worked better than what had been written in the script once we got boots on the ground, then we would change it. The story was constantly in development.
I would say that Cambodia was one of our favorite locations that we visited. It was doubling for the Philippines. It was too hot politically over there when we were filming, so we opted for Phnom Penh. Wow, what a location! The people, culture, and the food were terrific. Moving from there to Kiev, we were pleasantly surprised to find one of the best production crews and gear pool I have ever worked with. Thank you Radioaktive Productions in Kiev for delivering in a huge way for us.
Remember this film was shot in the spring of 2009. All 30fps, a beta test of manual and not much help from anyone that really understood the Canon 5D and its potential. My team of assistants were fearless as well and took this camera that was not made for image capture and quickly turned it into a movie making machine. Darin Necessary was McGyver; there was nothing that he could not fabricate back in his shop to make these cameras function better in the field. Mike Svitak was the menu brains and a very talented operator. He started as a second assistant and ended up operating on some of the most memorable shots in the film. Marc Margulies gave his incredible experience of 20 plus years as a focus puller. With hawk eye accuracy, he took the Canon 5D large sensor and conquered it with sharp images at a 2.8 in an action sequence, not talking heads at a table.
Rudy Harbon was my B camera operator as well as 2nd unit DP. He was essential in keeping the aesthetics of the film and exposures consistent as well as adding an intensity to the South Side Slayers, their handle on the walkie, in El Centro, CA . Bodie Orman rounded out our crew as the only loader on the project. While we shot film on three units, he ran between them. In Stennis, Bodie was running a magazine to the Pursuit car/crane, and he stepped in a massive fire ant hill. Within seconds they were stinging the crap out of him. Mouse turned to him in a very direct voice, “You are going to have to lose the pants.” When Bodie got to our 40 mike missile set up, he asked where the film was for him to load, I just looked down and said, “Where are your pants?”
Every day the rigs would evolve; the crew would never settle for good enough. They wanted excellence. Imagine working on 30 commercials, and every day you came to work and you had never used this camera system before. I describe it like being punched in the face, hit in the head with a shovel and buried alive every day. That was what it was like making AOV with this still camera.
The film took almost two years to complete, but only 48 days of principal photography. We would prep for a week in LA, then fly to our location, scout for a week and then shoot for a week. When we went to Stennis, Mississippi in August of 2009, I thought, “Why Stennis?” They said that it would double for the Costa Rican jungle, and it was a live fire range. “What, LIVE FIRE, what was that?” This was Scotty and Mouse’s concept from the beginning. They wanted to be real and authentic. This is how the Navy SEALs trained, and there would be no substitute.
This live fire brought about an intensity and focus, not only when viewing the film as an audience member, but for our shooting style as well. You had to be on your game, no room for mistakes. It was awesome seeing those SWCC boats round the corner at 30 knots and then start unloading mini guns at 2300 rounds a minute into the bad guys’ vehicles. Swiss Cheese was all that came to mind as we walked up to the trucks after the malay. While all this LIVE FIRE was going on, we were all in helmets and flack jackets. But the hero of this whole live fire exercise was my trusted underwater assistant, Andy Fisher, armed with only a swimsuit, a water noodle and a 5D AquaTech shallow water housing. He captured some of the most immersive angles while bullets literally flew over his head and hot shells rained down. BRAVO!!!
I wanted to thank all of the vendors that believed in us to deliver this groundbreaking film. Richard Schleuning at Zeiss was there at the infancy of production, supplying us with three sets of ZF primes that we then adapted the Nikon mounts to Canon. These sets were essential in our ability to put cameras in harm’s way again and again – mini gunfire, explosions, submerges, etc. Brian Valente with Red Rock Micro was crucial in giving us the necessary bits and pieces to build our unique rigs for the movie. Dan Donavan at Panavision/Hollywood, along with his amazing team of lens experts and fabricators, gave us the film cameras and their wonderful Primo Primes to take the Canon 5D to new heights in quality. Evan Green and Tony Blue at Paskal Lighting supplied lighting and grip gear so that I could create this unique palette. Tim Smith and Jung Ahn at Canon supplied us with a beta version of manual as well as 2 cameras for production, and Scotty Howell at Cinemoves supplied all of our 30’ and 50’ technocranes, always with the attitude of how can we make this better.
I also wanted to thank all of Jon Guerra’s electric crew and Dave Knudson’s grip crew for going the extra mile every day. As Dave said, “This trail blazing shit is exhausting.” My amazing camera department that never said die, as well as the technicians across the world that made this possible – you were an intricate part of making this movie shine bright. Thank you. All of this awareness of this film would never have been possible without the amazing marketing engine that is Relativity Media; they knocked this out of the park.
I think the power of the Bandito Brothers did not stop at production. Jacob Rosenberg was the brains behind the post production process, which evolved with us. His visionary quote sums it up perfectly, “We use the best tool to tell the story, no matter what it is. If an iphone puts you there, then that will be our choice.” We were like a united 12 cylinder engine. Mike McCarthy and Lance Holte were essential to the media managing, creating a workflow etiquette that would become the benchmark for all 5D footage captured to date. Using the unique abilities of Adobe’s CS5 to unlock more information in the highly compressed h264 codec was one of the most liberating things for me as a cinematographer. Once I saw what Jacob and his amazing team could do with our footage, we took even more risks with exposing the Canon 5D footage.
After we completed our color correction process at Laser Pacific with Dave Cole, we then put the finishing touches on the film. We brought in Cinnafilm and their Dark Energy Tower to do something that no other plug in or de-noise software could perform. Ernie and Lance supplied us with the hardware and software to take this movie to another level. Because we had shot so much mixed media from shot to shot, I needed consistency, a look that would be delivered on the DCP (Digital Cinema Print) as well as the Fuji film prints, and this was the Cinnafilm de-noise and texture management system. Imagine being able to strip all 5D compression off of the image, then add film grain to every inch of DSLR footage that matched the film grain in the movie. If I shot 5201, I would mimic that grain structure on the day exteriors. For night exteriors, I shot 5219, and Cinnafilm was right there with the exact grain texture.
This film was an experience of a lifetime. It changed the way I shoot. It expanded my creativity to view things differently, through another lens, a very lightweight, portable, nimble tool that became one of the most powerful arrows in my quiver.
I wanted to end with an intimate inside look at the crew, gear, SEALs, and a style of production that I believe will change how movies are made. As Mouse said, “The chains have been moved forward,” and as an artist, my eyes have been opened.