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How to Shoot Sports Action Cinematography Part 1

  • December 15, 2020
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
How to Shoot Sports Action Cinematography Part 1

“My brother and I had it kind of tough growing up. Clemson has given me the opportunity to change my life — my coaches, my teammates — these men are my brothers, too.” —Ray McElrathbey, Safety 

The magic of cinema evokes emotion through feeling visceral moments that put you in the headspace of the protagonist. A compelling narrative speaks to the human condition in such a way that we not only relate to it, but we empathize directly with our hero’s plight. So, when I first picked up the script for Safety by Nick Santora for Disney+, I was absolutely captivated by the true story of Ray Ray  McElrathbey

Ray McElrathbey on Safety Disney Plus
Still of Ray Ray from behind-the-scenes Safety, FilmIsNow

Ray’s story is well known across the Clemson campus as well as the sporting world for its underdog affect — but not just in the traditional sense. Ray wasn’t up against some Ivan Drago antagonist like you would expect in some blockbuster action flick, but rather, he faced something much more real, and closer to home for many. 

At the beginning of Ray’s story, he fights day in and day out for a spot on Clemson’s storied football team. Every ounce of his energy is invested in securing a spot. As Coach Simmons warns, “Now Ray, these scholarships are yearly. You perform on the field, you perform in the classroom, and if you don’t, they take that all away.” This alone is more than enough pressure for most athletes. 

But life has a way of throwing curveballs. Battling addiction, Ray’s mother was sent to a drug rehab facility leaving his 11 year old brother Fahmarr without a guardian and facing a future in foster care. However, doing the honorable but unexpected thing, Ray took custody of Fahmarr. 

Safety Disney Plus
Still from Safety, Disney+

Now, imagine, you’re 19 years old and a first-year student, you’ve just begun your dream of playing for Clemson University, but now you have this huge responsibility of caring for another human being. While most college students are focused on schoolwork and partying, among other things, Ray juggled his schoolwork on top of maintaining his scholarship and being a father figure for his little brother. 

Careful, this trailer will give you goosebumps…

Did you feel that? 

Safety is so much more than a football movie. In fact, the game of football is secondary to Clemson’s campus ecosystem where everyone really is like one big family. And it’s this aspect of football programs that are often only tangentially covered in football movies. Football organizations are composed of coaches, teammates, trainers, and others — the unsung heroes — that oftentimes go above and beyond for their brothers and sisters in arms, and yet, we rarely ever hear of these heart wrenching, inspiring stories. 

Fortunately, we had Ray with us as a consultant to guide us along as we captured significant events in his life. He also worked with his onscreen counterpart, the talented Jay Reeves, to help him understand his predicament as well as Thaddeus J. Mixson, who played his little brother Fahmarr.  

Still from Safety Disney Plus
Still from Safety, Disney+

Now, Ray’s story might not be entirely shaped by the gridiron itself, at least not to the same extent of his responsibilities as a brother and father figure, but every time he’s on the field, he’s fighting for their future. And that’s exactly the feeling we needed to recreate. 

Authentically capturing sports is essentially impossible without the environment of a stadium full of screaming fans. Take the film Rudy (directed by David Anspaugh). They shot it during the halftime of a real Notre Dame game in order to obtain that authentic game-day feeling. 

And that’s exactly what we wanted to do for Safety. Although, I’m not going to lie, saying we were ambitious would be an understatement. That’s because our goal was to shoot 59 setups… in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds

In Part 1 of this 2-Part series, I’m going to take you through my collaboration with our amazing team, both on the field and off. Then, in Part 2, I’m going to show you how we pulled it off. It was no simple feat, but with our incredible team, we were able to get the job done! 

Fahmarr Safety Disney+
Thaddeus Mixson behind-the-scenes Safety, FilmIsNow

Not only did we have to work out how the cameras wouldn’t shoot each other, but we had to do so while capturing 3 plays and a kickoff. 

This was no easy feat and we invested the lion’s share of time into prepping down to the finest detail. Keep reading as I show you examples of the shot list, blocking schematics, and camera configuration for the halftime sequence. Luckily we had some Disney magic on our side! 

As we alluded to above, football is only an aspect of this movie. But, still, when there is football, it’s really good — it’s well choreographed and planned by Mark Ellis, our football coordinator, and executive producer, in a way that you really feel like you’re in the game. I wanted the audience to feel what’s at stake both on and off the field, to feel the pressure. 

The Team

What makes a great movie is not only exceptional talent on screen, but the creative forces behind the scenes. The visionary force behind Safety is the director Reginald Hudlin. Reggie’s known for modern-day classics like House Party, The Great White Hype, and Marshall. So, I knew this project was going to be in amazingly capable hands and elated to help him achieve his vision. 

A look behind the scenes of Safety

Working on a number of sports films, I’ve met quite a few gurus of the genre. That’s why I was beyond thrilled to join forces once again with Mark Ellis. Mark and I understood how each other worked and could anticipate one another’s moves as if we were already long time professional athletes. And our producing team brought the talent and experience to pull this thing off from Mark Ciardi, Bryan H. Carroll, Kyle Convissar to Jordan Feagan, David S. Grant, and, of course, Campbell G. McInnes

And by my side, I had my trusty team — made up of the usual suspects: my A Cam operator Chris Moseley and B Cam Ronin operator Jason Robbins, who together with a huge team that made up the camera department, came together in one coherent and mobile force and worked in perfect unison both on the field and off.

The Concept

The concept began with Reggie’s storyboards. He sent me these amazing storyboards that I felt really put you inside the game. Think about it. You’re on the field with over 83,000 screaming Clemson fans in the stands. A sea of orange and purple encircling you. It’s a powerful visual.  

But since we planned on filming at a real Clemson game during halftime we were only allotted 7 minutes and 20 seconds to capture all the big game footage with real fans in the stands. This was all the NCAA gave us and we wouldn’t get another shot. It was 59 setups to move the story forward in a short period of time. 

Our job was to replicate a significant game in Ray’s career, Clemson’s season-opener against Florida Atlantic. In this career-defining game, Ray makes 4 huge tackles to help Clemson start their season off with a win. 

Clemson Death Valley stadium

Challenge accepted. 

Now, to be honest, this was a daunting task. But luckily I have quite a bit of experience in this area. I have done this with many of my films including Mr. 3000, We Are Marshall, and Drumline.

However, there’s a stark contrast between Safety and these films. In Mr. 3000, we filmed in Miller Park, where we took to the field during the 7th inning stretch, and we did this elaborate steady camera move that followed the big home run hitter for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Mr. 3000 clip
Still from Mr. 3000

We start on his feet and move up his body, then do a 360-degree wrap around him and see 35,000 fans in the stadium. From there, we push in as the pitcher throws the ball and he cracks it over the fence. That was awesome — and fairly easy. But it was only one set up in 45 seconds -barely long enough to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” But, with Safety, we had 7 times the time for nearly 60 times the setups.  

Are you seeing the common thread here? We were given a fixed amount of time to capture critical sequences with thousands of fans. You can’t have the big game without your crowd of screaming, adoring fans. There is just no replacement for that energy and in some cases, you can’t buy it and you can’t bottle it, it has to be the real deal.

How We Prepared for the Halftime Sequence

A quick disclaimer, if you haven’t already, now’s a good time to go watch Safety on Disney+. It’s okay, I’ll wait… OK, are you back? Good! 

When it comes down to it, though, all of my prior experiences were simple compared to Safety. At first, I was like, how are we going to pull this off? I had to almost prep more for this 7 minutes and 20 seconds of shooting than for the rest of the entire movie! Overall, I had only a total of 6 weeks to prep, and 2 of those weeks were spent solely on this one day of shooting. That works out to 4 weeks to prep the rest of the movie instead of the typical 6-8 weeks I’m used to. So, ultimately, much of that time was focused on this one sequence. 

I took Reggie’s storyboards and broke them down into blocking schematics. That way, we could figure out where the camera had to be in order to get the shots.

The storyboards illustrated the opening kickoff where Ray is featured making a big tackle. Take a look at the examples below. 

Safety storyboards

In the cell above you can see where we begin and below is the ensuing tackle a few cells later. 

Want access to every storyboard, blocking schematic, and shot list? In our premium lessons, we take you step by step from A to Z! Learn more about our courses today!  

Safety storyboards Disney Plus

In the next play, Ray takes the field on defense. It’s here when he reads the running back. Through Ray’s POV, we notice some telltale signs from the running back — the same kind you’ll see in baseball when a batter steps up to the plate and goes through his rituals of tapping the plate and taking a few practice swings. It’s an indication that he’s about to swing for the fences. The same idea rings true for football. 

Safety storyboards Disney PlusSafety storyboards disney+

We actually did something similar in Mr. 3000, another wonderful collaboration with Charles Stone III, where the pitcher would bend his elbow in before he’d throw a curveball and Stan Ross (Bernie Mac), our protagonist, saw the tell and told everyone — when they saw it, they started hitting the crap out of those pitches! 

So, coming back to Safety, before the running back would get the ball, he would tug his jersey. Ray’s little brother Fahmarr notices this. The players don’t see it, the coaches don’t see it while watching film, Ray doesn’t see it… but Fahmarr does. 

Still from Safety Disney+
Still from Safety, Disney+

All of a sudden you hear, “He’s gonna run!” Everyone in the Film Room turns their heads and they’re like, “What?” And Ray’s trying to quiet his brother down, “What are you talking about?” And Fahmarr doubles down, “He’s going to run. He pulls his shirt right before he’s given the ball.”  Once they all see it, they make changes to the defense. This is a very significant moment in the film for both Ray and Fahmarr, as the team recognizes Fahmarr for his contribution to the Clemson family. After all their labors, practicing plays, studying film, working out every little detail, it’s little Fahmarr who’s the one to point out Florida Atlantic’s Achilles heel. 

And, so, they create a defensive audible they call “Fahmarr,” named after Ray’s little brother. So, the next time the running back tugs his jersey, they call the audible in anticipation that he’s going to run.

Safety Storyboards Disney+

Bringing the Storyboards to Life

Our goal is always to bring the audience into the game, to have them feel like they are inside the moments as they unfold. We wanted them to experience everything Ray was, feel every tackle he made, and every decisive moment he experiences on the field. So where to start?

Returning to the storyboards Reggie gave me — they were very detailed and had all the angles. The next step was turning the storyboards into a shot list. I wanted to take Reggie’s amazing concepts and nurture them. The goal was to get the audience in the game where the camera felt more like an A to B to C

What do I mean by A to B to C?  We didn’t use any cuts, instead, the camera pans to tell the emotional story. We’re on Ray’s POV. He sees the running back tug his jersey. We go into an extreme POV of the tug. We whip over to Ray off of his POV and into a closeup, and Ray calls out, “Fahmarr! Fahmarr!” 

Still from Safety, Disney Plus
Still from Safety, Disney+

He starts moving while calling it out and we pan — and in the foreground is a linebacker. From there we pan back to Ray, who settles in for the play. Was Fahmarr right? Will this work out? Just as the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, Ray makes a big tackle where the offense loses major yardage. And it was all thanks to Fahmarr’s observations — something that wouldn’t have happened if Ray hadn’t decided to take care of his brother while working through a tough first year as a rookie Safety. 

But let’s take a step back. We weren’t only capturing the game itself, but the atmosphere around the game, like tailgating and pregame rituals. Then, we swooped in and got shots of the cheerleaders and marching band. Below are a few select examples of the storyboards alongside the shot list we crafted. 

From Storyboard to Shot List “Running Down the Hill” 

For context, let’s consider what precedes the on-field activity. Fahmarr is awarded his very own 4 ½ jersey (half of Ray’s 9) by Coach Bowden in the locker room. Now, if you watched the movie then you know it was a journey getting to this moment. This jersey symbolizes that Fahmarr is officially part of the Clemson family. So, this is a particularly emotional moment for everyone involved, not just only for Ray and Fahmarr, but their new family of coaches and teammates. 

Safety Disney Plus
Still from Safety, Disney+

When you go to USC, they run out of a tunnel. When you go to Clemson, the Tigers first touch Howard’s Rock, as tradition, a piece of white flint from Death Valley, then run down a massive hill. But the catch is that players can’t touch the rock unless they give 110%. 

So, think back to the movie when Coach Bowden just presented Fahmarr with his very own jersey. He’s officially part of the team. And he and his big brother get to lead the charge down the hill.

Let’s take a look at a few of the cells in the storyboard. Below we have Fahmarr, Ray, Coach Bowden, and the rest of the team preparing to touch Howard’s Rock. 

Safety storyboards Safety Disney PlusSafety Disney+

This is an essential moment. So, we start low but pull back to reveal the immensity of the stadium with the looming Video Scoreboard overhead. 

Safety StoryboardsSafety Disney Plus

Safety Disney Plus
Still from Safety, Disney+

After they all touch Howard’s Rock, they run down the hill with the whole team behind them. The Clemson flags go out onto the field and they have flag holders that spell out “Clemson” and all the fans go, “C-L-E-M-S-O-N!” Safety Disney Plus

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Adapting the Storyboards into Blocking Schematics

After working out all of the shots on Reggie’s boards, I created a massive blocking schematic of the entire football field where the players would be, where they were going to run, and how the cameras were going to ebb and flow while embedded into the sequence. 

Below are our blocking schematics for halftime, along with our storyboards and the final result from the film.  

PG #1: RUN DOWN THE HILL  

We begin our halftime sequence by running down the iconic hill in Death Valley. In the schematic, notice how we show all the movements of what’s taking place. They’re actually similar to a football playbook. 

Safety Blocking Schematic 1

Remember, this is one fluid motion from Point A to Point B to Point C, and so on. Our Ronin 2 pushes the team down the hill while we have Steadicams both pulling with Fahmarr and Ray down the hill and to the sidelines, while the other captures their profiles. Meanwhile, as you can see in the schematic, our cameras are going down the hill but also working towards their next setup. 

Notice how we work from the original storyboards and translate all that to our blocking schematic. 

Safety storyboards

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PG #2: FREEZE FRAME

We go right from the beginning of the game to the ending for our freeze frame moment. This is one of our biggest moments, so we surged off that excitement coming down the hill, and swept right into this touching scene where Ray scoops Fahmarr up and putting him on his shoulder. 

Safety Blocking Schematic 2

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Still from safety
Still from Safety, Disney+

PG #3: Game Day Florida Atlantic

From here, we go immediately into our first real play with Clemson’s defense and Florida Atlantic’s offense. At this moment, Ray is on the sidelines, so we get coverage as him as well. 

Safety Blocking Schematic 3

Safety storyboard

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Still from Safety, Disney+

PG #4: Game Day Florida Atlantic

We quickly move into the “Keller Hit.” 

Safety Blocking Schematic 4

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PG #5: Game Day Florida Atlantic

We quickly set up for the next play where Ray and Keller come out of the huddle. This is our big moment where Ray spots the running back tugging his jersey. Ray yells, “Check Fahmarr!”

Safety Blocking Schematic 5

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Safety storyboards Disney Plus

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Fahmarr! Fahmarr!

PG #6: Game Day Florida Atlantic

This is where we prepare for our big hit moment. We switch out our stunt Ray for the “real” Ray with the ol’ Texas Switch technique. 

Safety Blocking Schematic 6

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Still from Safety, Disney Plus
Still from Safety, Disney+

PG #7: Game Day Florida Atlantic

In this setup, everyone bolts into position to get ready for the kickoff. The Clemson Tigers are kicking off to Florida Atlantic. After the ball is booted, the receiver catches the ball and we move into a POV shot.

Safety Blocking Schematic 7

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Still from Safety, Disney+
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Still from Safety, Disney+

PG #8: Game Day Florida Atlantic

The next schematic shows Ray running down the field and preparing to make a big hit. 

Safety Blocking Schematic 8

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Safety storyboards Disney Plus

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Still from Safety, Disney+
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Still from Safety, Disney+

PG #9: Game Day Florida Atlantic

Here we capture Ray hitting the receiver and then capture the subsequent celebration of Ray and his teammates. 

Safety Blocking Schematic 9

Safety Storyboard

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Still from Safety, Disney+

Going From Classroom to Field

We allotted 4 days for training. So, we called in all of the operators, football players, and everyone associated with halftime, and met at a high school that we’d taken over in order to use their practice field. This was also the time when our plan would be unveiled for the producing team. 

Everyone sat at their desks as if they were in class. With the white boards, I named each play a different number. The camera teams weren’t named alphabetically (like A, B, C) but rather numerically (1, 2, 3, 4…). It kind of went against the grain, but I felt that it was better for the sequence to number rather than letter them.

safety bts
Photo credit: Steve Swisher.

With that, we sat all 160 people composed of players from both teams, and together we went through it all. So, for example, I go, “OK. This is ‘Fahmarr’ play,” and we went down the list. And after we got through all of it, I’m like, “Alright guys, what do you think?” And it was crickets. Everyone was looking back like deer in the headlights. 

So, afterward the executive producers approached me, and they said, “Shane, this seems like you’re going for too much. We love your passion and we love what you’re trying to pull off, but this is a little unrealistic. You might want to lower your expectations.” 

Those aren’t always the words you want to hear, BUT I always listen to the producers since they’ve obviously been in these situations before. However, I also felt very comfortable with my team. 

So, after the blocking and schematic meeting, we went out onto the field, and we went through everything without any cameras or operators. We just had Mark Ellis and the 2 football teams run through all of the plays, and I said, “Just watch them, then, do it again, envision where you are — and do it again — envision where you’re going to move.” That was our first day. We had a 3 hour meeting and then we went out and watched them on the field for 3 hours, and that was it. These players are running through plays one after the other, and you have to respect such amazingly talented athletes. 

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Director Reggie Hudlin works with actor Jay Reeves on the set of Safety. Photo credit: Steve Swisher.

Troubleshooting: Acclimating Players & Crew

For the first half of the second day we took the operators and they didn’t have any Steadicams, MōVIs, Ronins — nothing. They just started to get inside the game and move with the players; and there were times when the operator was coming across sideways and the play tripped them up. So, these were all the things we needed to work out before strapping on all the equipment. Because I didn’t want crewmembers, like the MōVI op, getting tripped up and going down in a heap. 

So, for the sake of safety, we had to figure out where they were going to go and what they were going to do. Was it going to be safe? And to ensure we weren’t colliding with these camera systems that could hurt the players, as well. So, we had to consider both sides. 

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Director Reggie Hudlin working through a scene with DP Shane Hurlbut, ASC and 1st AD J.D. Taylor (who was AWESOME!) Photo credit: Steve Swisher

And the whole time we were going through the sequence without the camera gear, we were seeing how quickly we could do it — both how quickly the players could run through the plays, and how quickly we could get onto the field and move around with all of this stuff and see if we could get it in the designated 7 minutes and 20 seconds. 

The first one was 17 minutes. The second run we got it down to 15, and then we got it to 12. And we all thought, “OK, 12 minutes feels real.” And then it went to the executive producers who call up ESPN and Clemson and the NCAA, and ask, “Can we have 12 minutes, not 7 minutes?” 

This request was forwarded up the chain of command. Eventually the NCAA responded, saying, “Hey guys, this is a competition and we can’t give one football team the edge. So, you have to do it in the designated 7 minutes and 20 seconds.” This is during the time when the teams would be going into the locker rooms and before the bands come out. I initially didn’t even consider all of what went into a halftime, so this was another great learning experience — and once the NCAA finally laid it out for us, we understood what they meant. So, we had to make it work. 

The task became whittling that 12 minutes down by 4 minutes and 40 seconds. So, we started to integrate the cameras. But as we integrated the cameras, instead of going down, our time went up. So, we went from 12 minutes back up to 15! 

We started to get frustrated, and of course, everyone’s looking at me. And they said, “Shane, remember we told you, this is too big for its britches and we can’t pull it off…” And I said, “Guys, this is Day 2. We have 2 more days to finesse this. Let’s just get busy.” 

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After this point, we could see where the angles were starting to really play, and what were the tackles, where did we want to do them, and where do we hide the cameras — because, again, this is a ballet. 

Luckily Mark Ellis did an impeccable job with the athletes in their mini football camp. Practice and repetition is the best way to integrate efficiency. With each rep, we painstakingly ground down more and more time, and got closer to that 7 minutes and 20 seconds. 

Now, if you want to find out how we executed our Halftime Sequence, with all 59 setups, then you’re going to have to tune into Part 2 of our series. In that lesson, we’ll breakdown everything from working with the size of the crowd, the equipment we relied on, and how we dealt with problems in the moment and overcame them. I’ll just mention our communication system went down temporarily. 

And if you haven’t already, what are you waiting for? Go and check out Safety streaming now on Disney+!

Learn how to prep like a professional with of our latest How To Prep Like a Pro Volume 1! We also recommend our Script to Screen: A Cinematographer’s Guidebook and Blocking and Lighting SUPER COURSE


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