BTL Screening Series hosted a special screening of Act of Valor late last week followed by a lively panel discussion with key members of the camera department. Inspired by true events, Act of Valor is set in the secretive world of the most elite, highly trained group of warriors in the modern world – the Navy SEALs. Combining stunning combat sequences with up-to-the minute battlefield and filmmaking technology, the film uses active duty SEALs and their families to create a narrative story grounded in real-life experience.
In 2009, when the film was only an idea, Bandito Brothers co-directors, Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh set out to draft Shane Hurlbut to shoot the movie. The cinematographer had just come off Terminator: Salvation and didn’t want to repeat himself by doing another action picture. The directors however, envisioned an action film like no other – one that immerses the audience deep into visceral, heart-pounding battles using an unprecedented blend of real-life heroism and original filmmaking.
“Their vision was so fierce,” shares Hurlbut. “Their idea was to use Navy SEALs and their assets.” The directors wanted to “reinvent the action genre.” The cinematographer bought in. “We started on this mission. How can we do it differently? How can we not do it in a Hollywood version? The way to do it was with a little still camera looking through the eyes of the Navy SEALs.”
Hurlbut had done webisodes shot with a helmet cam for an alternative marketing campaign to “fire up the fan boys” leading to the release of Terminator: Salvation. He saw how these small cameras could move and how immersive the action was when using them and realized, “We’ve gotta have this. This is where it’s at.” That was March of 2009 and the Canon 5D had just been introduced the previous November. “We were literally earning while we were learning on this movie,” Hurlbut continues. “We’d pick up a camera and nobody knew the menu. Nobody knew what it could do. Nobody knew what was possible with it.”
Hurlbut gives credit to his crew for the trailblazing work done on the film. Striving for excellence pushed them to make the discoveries needed to turn “a little still camera into a moviemaking machine.” Hurlbut elaborates, “Once they had done that, and that was about day six, we started to get aggressive shooting this movie. We really started to understand the power of this platform.”
The camera crew included 2nd unit DP and B camera operator, Rudy Harbon, 1st assistant cameramen, Darin Necessary, Marc Marguilies and Derrick Edward, underwater cameraman, Andy Fisher, and loader/second assistant camera Bodie Orman. “These are the guys that made it happen, shooting 75% of this film on a still camera,” reveals Hurlbut. “I call them my elite team. They are a filmmaking force.”
The company had fifteen Canon 5D cameras, two crash housings and two 435s as well as Canon and Nikon lenses. “That was the recipe to keep up with the Navy SEALs,” says Hurlbut. “We also blew up a lot of cameras.” In one shot, the underwater A camera was kicked and the housing flooded like a fishbowl. Despite the camera being waterlogged and ruined, Hurlbut pulled out the card and dried it out. “Sure enough, a couple hours in the sun and we popped that card in [another camera] and everything was perfect,” says Hurlbut.
At a mere 2.5 lbs. the greatest strength of the 5D was to be able to move like no camera has been ever been able to move before. The low cost of the camera also allowed the low-budget production to have multiple cameras and to replace any damaged ones as easily as going down to the local Best Buy. The downside of the camera included moiré issues that had to be painted out and rolling shutter issues. Also, with the particular sensor on the camera, finding focus was very tricky. The assistants had to re-teach themselves how to pull focus. They could not lay marks down; they had to feel the distance. Hurlbut confirms that, “Working with the 5D, the most important person is the focus puller.”
The daily routine for the assistants when they rolled in would be to setup for the shoot. “We would build these 15 cameras in pretty much every configuration you could imagine, so it was like a gun rack,” says Orman. “There was no down time once the shooting began. Shane would ask for a configuration and it would be in his hands instantly.” The assistants created a new protocol for tracking the cards, identifying which cards go to each camera, and renaming the EOS file inside the cameras. The team also discovered the camera’s native ISOs were 160, 320, 640, 1250, 1600.
According to Hurlbut, the camera crew had to be extremely versatile. They didn’t just perform their normal job description. Three units were shooting, so they not only had to pull focus, but also had to operate, download cards, clean the gear at night and pack it up to go to the next location. When the company was shooting, it was intense. One 28-page sequence should have taken three weeks to shoot, but the company had six days to capture that footage. The full action sequence of taking down the yacht was filmed in four hours. On the same day they also filmed a nine-page interrogation sequence and a scene with “hot babes frolicking on the deck” before they ended their shooting day in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Adding to the excitement, the camera crew was embedded right into the middle of the action, which included rounds of live ammo. Assistant cameraman, Darin Necessary, joked that they had to add Kevlar vests to their list of equipment. Fisher, their underwater cameraman, filmed with bullets raining past him in the water. “We found him in the forest in a Zen pose. He was completely shell-shocked,” reveals Hurlbut. “But he came back and jumped in the water again. Everything about this experience was different.”
The company had a 48-day schedule, shot over the course of twelve and a half months. The budget was $11.25 million. They shot in 12 states, five countries and on four continents. The production was like a well-executed military operation. With the platoon style of shooting, they started taking everyone, everywhere. There were many advantages to the method of shooting. For example, with such a small and nimble crew, the company was able to travel to locations in Cambodia with their eight-camera package in the overhead bins. They easily passed through customs and then shot a whole action sequence in a market full of 15,000 people who never knew that they were there.
The crew would prep for one week, shoot for a week, and then travel back to Los Angeles. Things would happen – like the nuclear sub breaking – and they would be down for three months. In between shoots, the crew would come up with different types of rigs, or a different way to make the camera move. “Darin would go back to his shop and start fabricating brackets, and little clamps, and all this stuff,” explains Hurlbut. “It was such a collaborative effort that every time the camera came out on the next leg of the shoot, it was a different animal. And every assistant had to relearn the whole process, because the gear was literally evolving as we shot the film.”
Besides shooting 75% of the film on the Canon 5D, 20% was shot in 35 mm and the aerial footage, which was 5% of the total was shot using the Sony F950.
As for working with real SEALs, the crew found them to be consummate professionals. They did what was asked of them and more. In addition they treated the cameras like their guns. “Watching them move, was like a ballet,” remarks Hurlbut. “You felt like these were real action heroes.” The camera crew had to virtually “dance” with them during the filming. And although the filmmakers wanted an immersive experience, they also wanted to give the audience geography and keep them informed as to where the characters were during the course of the action. “So much of action pictures is very tight and you don’t know where you are,” comments Hurlbut. “It’s confusing for the audience. ”
To get a finished look for the film, Hurlbut worked with the military scientists from Dark Matter. They took all of the 5D footage, completely stripped every compression element off of the H264 codec, then through a proprietary process added grain. “So the 5D has grain. It has structure. It doesn’t have compression. You don’t know whether it is 35 mm or 5D because we textured the whole film,” reveals Hurlbut. “When you see it on a DCP, it has grain for the first time. This technology is so new. This is completely ground breaking.”
Hurlbut concludes, “What I loved about my crew more than anything is every single one of them was not just a technician. They were filmmakers to the core. That is so important when you are a cinematographer and director, surrounding yourself with people that have a mission, a creative idea, and all the wonderful gifts that they bring everyday.”
For more information on the BTL Screening Series, visit: http://screenings.btlnews.com/