In our continuing coverage of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II superstar movie “Act of Valor” we present an article written for MovieMaker magazine by Hamish McCollester. We’re posting with MovieMaker’s permission – thanks guys!
ACT OF VALOR
LEAP OF FAITH
Shane Hurlbut, ASC, helps change the way action movies are shot
by Hamish McCollester
You may not recognize all of the actors in the feature film, Act Of Valor (actofvalor.com – releasing nationwide, February 24, 2012 from Relativity Media). That’s because the men you see on the screen portraying Navy SEALs aren’t all actors. In fact, many are real Navy SEALs. And their presence adds an authenticity to the movie that few Hollywood productions ever achieve. But that’s just the beginning of what makes this film so notable.
The movie is also the first major motion picture release that was shot primarily on Canon 5D Mark II DSLR cameras, instead of traditional 35mm motion picture film or expensive digital cinema cameras. What makes that fact even more remarkable is that most audiences will never know the difference, even when watching the movie blown up on the giant screen at their local multiplex.
The quality of the imagery is only part what gets Shane Hurlbut, ASC, so excited. “As an audience member, you should not sit back and say, ‘Wow, the cinematography is amazing,’ says Hurlbut. “You should just be in love with the story.” A renowned Director of Photography with a long list of Hollywood credits to his name, Hurlbut is one of the first cinematographers in the industry to openly embrace the DSLR format as more than just a limited-use “B” or “C” camera. “What I’m doing differently with this camera system is using it as my A, B, C, D and E camera,” says Hurlbut. From the moment he first got his hands on a Canon 5D in February 2009, he was impressed by the imagery it captured and how well the footage could hold up on the big screen. That, coupled with the camera’s low cost (about $2300) and small size immediately intrigued him. “It was a game changer. I knew it was going to change the way we made movies.”
When Act of Valor directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh of the independent feature and commercial production company, Bandito Brothers, approached Hurlbut to be the Director of Photography on the project, he thought he might have the perfect opportunity to explore the possibilities of DSLRs. “Every story is told with a specific tool,” says Hurlbut. “And you pick that tool based on what will help you tell the story the best.” After reading the high-energy script by Kurt Johnstad (a co-writer on the Spartan War movie, 300), and knowing that McCoy and Waugh were going to get unprecedented cooperation from the Navy during the production, Hurlbut was convinced that DSLRs would be the right tool.
The directors were also enthusiastic about the idea. Since they had already been experimenting with the cameras on short films and commercials, they knew about the cost- and time-savings that the format could provide the relatively modestly budgeted independent production. “Never before has a camera system had such a ripple effect across the boards,” says Hurlbut. “You’re using less power, less lights, less generators, less vehicles, less crew. Those cost savings allow you to put your limited resources into other areas.”
After watching Act of Valor, it’s clear that at least some of those resources were put into increasing the quantity of cameras that were used to shoot the movie’s pulse-pounding action sequences. “Our camera truck housed 15 Canon 5D Mark IIs, two Canon 7Ds, two Canon 1D Mark IVs,” says Hurlbut. Additionally, there were four traditional 35mm motion picture film cameras that were used in the production. The footage from the latter accounted for only about 25% of what ended up in the final edit of the film.
But it was the DSLRs that set Hurlbut free, allowing him to capture the action in a way that wasn’t previously possible, thanks to the cameras’ nominal size and weight. “The first thing that we did was not treat it like a normal camera,” says Hurlbut. “We didn’t want to just rig it to stuff. We made (the camera movements) liquid. We did things that you can’t do with regular cameras. The sky was no longer the limit. It was the stratosphere.”
The end result for audiences is that they get all the thrills they’d expect from a big Hollywood action movie, coupled with the kind of dynamic, point-of-view shots that define modern first-person genre computer games. When a Team of SEALs jumps out of an airplane at 30,000 feet, the audience leaps right through the cargo door with them. When the warriors splash down under the surface of the water, the camera submerges seamlessly. When a soldier raises their assault rifle to draw a bead on a bad guy in a close-quarters raid, the audience gets to look right through the sights as the kill shot is fired.
“It’s the most 3D experience you could have in 2D,” says Hurlbut. “Because you’re so intimate with the characters. You’re with them.” However, Hurlbut was careful not to overdo things. “You have to use (the cameras) wisely and subtly. Not gimmicky. You use them only in a way that assists the story.” Often the effort to put the audience right into the fight with the SEALs, resulted in the cameras being destroyed. But given their low cost, the sacrifice was worth it just to get a unique shot. And Hurlbut found himself being very impressed with the overall toughness of the cameras.
“We had one stunt where the Navy SEALs are being chased in this pickup truck as they’re being shot at,” says Hurlbut. “And they finally have to ditch the truck into a river.” So Hurlbut rigged a 5D into a watertight housing and mounted it just behind the driver’s seat to capture a breathtaking POV shot. Unfortunately, after the truck hit the water, one of the stuntmen kicked the housing as he swam out of the submerged vehicle, breaking the camera’s watertight protection. When Hurlbut’s team recovered the camera, it was completely soaked. “We opened up the little door to get the CF (Compact Flash) card out of the camera and water just poured out,” says Hurlbut. “But we just hung the card out to dry in the sun for a few hours. And when we popped it into the card reader, we were able to download all of the footage just fine.”
Throughout the production, Hurlbut became more emboldened to use the cameras anyway he could to capture something completely original. The movie’s generous level of assistance from the military gave him plenty of opportunities. “How many times do you shoot something for a major motion picture, where there’s live-fire involved? You don’t. Ever. But we did on this movie,” says Hurlbut. “I put two cameras into a live-fire range with quarter inch steel plates in front of the CF cards.” This tactic allowed the cameras to literally have their lenses shot out while protecting the precious CF card so that every frame of action was captured right until the bullet hit.
While most indie low-budget filmmakers will never undertake the kind of production that Act Of Valor had, Hurlbut is still convinced that DSLRs are one of the best moviemaking tools available. “This is a powerful platform. There’s nothing it can’t do,” says Hurlbut. “Can the 5D (footage) even hold up for a studio release? Absolutely.” However, Hurlbut cautions that getting the best imagery from these cameras can be challenging. “It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a cinematographer, because it’s not like film. You have to find that right cocktail that gives you the best imagery,” says Hurlbut, referring to the mixture of the camera’s electronic Picture Style settings, lens choices and post processes used.
As a way of sharing all of his knowledge about DSLRs, he has opened an equipment rental business centered around the platform, called Hurlbut Visuals (hurlbutvisuals.com). As the company’s tagline – Create. Innovate. Educate – suggests, Hurlbut’s goal is to shorten the DSLR learning curve for filmmakers of all levels and provide them with the quickest path to getting the best results from the cameras. To that end, he has even partnered with gear manufacturer, Letus, to create a signature line of DSLR rigs and accessories (mastercinemaseries.com) that help turn the cameras into a system that looks and behaves more like a motion picture film camera.
By the time Act Of Valor hits screens, the Canon 5D Mark II and the so-called “DSLR Revolution” that it inspired will be over three years old—nearly an eternity by today’s lightning-fast pace of technology advancement. And the recent releases of Canon’s Cinema EOS camera (cinemaeos.usa.canon.com), as well as Red’s long awaited Scarlet (red.com) has had some wondering if DSLRs have already had their day. But its important to note that a filmmaker could buy at least four 5Ds for the same price as just one of the new cameras. (Canon’s C300 Cinema EOS camera lists for $20,000 and Red’s Scarlet costs about $14,000 with the necessary accessories.) So it’s very likely DSLRs will continue to be appealing to those with limited budgets.
“The DSLR world is just getting warmed up,” says Hurlbut. “No other camera can do what the Canon 5D does… you cannot compete with this camera size and price point.” Given that Hurlbut literally battle-tested these cameras on Act Of Valor, several commercials and other productions, he just may know better than anyone else.
Hamish McCollester is a writer-director-editor-producer-etc. living in Hollywood, CA. His comedy movie, Jason’s Big Problem — one of the first features to be shot on the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera — is available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and DVD. Go to jasonsbigproblem.com and hamishmccollester.com for more info.
(cover photo credit: snap from the shots Hamish sent)