What’s Expendable In Movie Making?

by | Sep 17, 2014 | Essays | 0 comments

What’s Expendable In Movie Making?

MathersHeadShotSmExcerpted from the James Mathers column One DP’s Perspective in the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter September 2014

Safety on the set has been on everyone’s mind since the tragic death of Camera Assistant, Sarah Jones.  Various locals of IATSE, in particular, the International Cinematographers Guild, have been very proactive in stressing vigilance over any unsafe conditions.  There is no excuse for the Devil may care attitude that led to Sarah’s very untimely passing.  No life or limb is expendable in the name of making movies, but cameras are getting to be another story.

Now that high resolution Digital Cinema cameras are becoming so relatively inexpensive, and the image quality is reaching the standards of feature film acquisition, some cameras may begin to be thought of as expendable.  From GoPros to DSLRs, small and relatively inexpensive Digital Motion cameras have become the go-to capture devices for shooting action sequences.  Of course, “crash cams” are nothing new; since the early days of action movies, less costly Eyemos and ARRI IICs have been built into bunker-like metal protective crash housings, but they are large and quite heavy.  Today’s crash cams are light weight with a small form factor which offers significant advantages.

PaulHughenI recently had the chance to chat with one of the masters of shooting action driving sequences, Paul Hughen, ASC, (pictured).  Paul’s 2nd Unit DP work on many such memorable sequences includes Fast and Furious, Bourne Legacy, and The Fantastic Four, to name just a few.  On a recent assignment shooting action sequences for Expendables 3, he related how he used the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.

Together with First Unit DP, Peter Menzies, they settled on the BMCC in part because of it’s ability to shoot in RAW mode which was more closely able to match the First Unit’s use of the RED Epic.  The small form factor allowed Paul to attach the cameras with minimal rigging, making it easier to hide in the shot from the other cameras’ POVs.  According to Paul, “it became the workhorse of the Action Unit.”  (Pictured below: A bevy of BMCCs rigged for an action shot on Expendables 3)



Knowing that they would be rigging the camera in precarious positions on boats, tanks, trains and trucks, cost was definitely also a factor.  In the end, they only lost one camera, which was mounted on the bottom of a free falling elevator.  Although the camera was completely destroyed on impact, they managed to pad and tape in the SSD memory well enough to save the shot and use it in the movie.

You might think that the small cost of such cameras on these big budget productions would mean a lot more would be destroyed.  But according to Paul, a bigger factor is how close the Director wants to get to the action.  The one lost Blackmagic camera on Expendables 3 compares to 5 film cameras that were destroyed on Fast and Furious.  You might also think demanding Directors on such adrenaline fueled big-budget features might imperil the safety of the crew, but Paul also set me straight in that regard.  Just because they demand it, doesn’t mean they get it; safety is paramount.

It’s up to seasoned pros in the action unit including the 2nd Unit Director, Stunt Coordinator, and DP’s like Paul to figure out safe ways to achieve the desired shots.  Such shots will simply not be attempted if they are too foolhardy and dangerous.  Paul explained the process like this: “A safety meeting is held on the set at call time. It brings all the crew together in a circle and the Assistant Director goes into quick details of what the day entails, and each stunt is analyzed.”

“During the safety meeting the Assistant Director will often times ask the Director for any comments on the shot and the safety of it. Special Effects will detail any explosions or rigging that needs mentioning. The best and safest viewing location for crew is pointed out and there really is no flexibility in that regard. Stuntmen are stationed at each camera to ‘pull away’ an operator from the position if danger should present itself.”

“Oftentimes a decision is made at this time to lock-off a camera instead of having it manned. This camera quickly becomes a smaller, less costly version that meets the basic need to achieve the shot. These cameras roll first, and as the Camera Assistant steps away from it, the AD does not roll all other cameras until that AC is clear and there is no danger to him or anyone else in the area.”

Camera insert cars always require an extra level of caution and coordination simply because the camera and associated cast and crew are also in a moving vehicle.  I was reminded of these issues as I recently took the mandatory safety training course organized by the Contract Services Administration.  They are an entity set up by the major studios to collectively see after labor management with the unions and guilds that make up the Industry’s work force.  Part of this effort is to ensure that these employers are providing workers adequate safety training for any job they might be expected to perform.

The courses vary per job classification, and in my case, as a DP member of IATSE Local 600, the Safety Pass Training sessions cover everything from Hazard Communication, Environmental and Respiratory Safety, to accessing fixed camera platforms such as scaffolding and scissor lifts.  This particular class covered Insert Car Safety, and reminded me of the lax attitudes that used to prevail when I was a young Cameraman.  A wake up call came in 1980 when a camera insert car carrying far too many crew members overturned killing two Cameramen and seriously injuring several others including a P.A. who had no legitimate reason to even be riding along.

Then there was the Shotmaker, of which I was an early adopter and frequent user.  It added the complication of a full size crane arm carrying an Operator and Assistant along with the camera.  I was lucky to have never experienced a mishap, but with all the geometric forces at play flying a camera crew on a crane arm while sailing down the highway doing stunt maneuvers, a disaster would not have been a big surprise.  (Pictured below: James Mathers, circa 1986, shooting off of the Shotmaker Camera Insert Car.)


The good news is that technology has come forward that has really made some of our old ways of accomplishing these shots fairly obsolete.    We now have gyrostabilized remotely operated cranes commonly known as “RUSSIAN ARMS.”  Although there are variations today, that is the name of the Academy Award winning system that first put a remote controlled camera or  ‘Flight Head’ on the end of a crane arm.  One  Operator controls the arm and another the camera via joysticks from safely within a camera car.

CraneFly NevadaThese “cars” can range from souped up Mercedes SUVs to Hummers depending on the terrain, speed, and maneuverability required. The arms can really be mounted to just about any mobile platform (boats, bus, train, etc,) and the gyrostabilized head keeps the camera steady even at high speeds over rough terrain.  And with the quality of wireless monitoring, there is really no reason to have a whole crew riding along on the camera insert car; (although Russell Prior, pictured here with his rig, known as Crane-Fly, tells me that he still has to fight off eager, but unnecessary passengers.)

Of course VFX has gone a long way toward making the impossible appear as reality and also making action sequences safer.  If something cannot be accomplished practically and safely, there are innumerable ways that VFX can save the day.  I recently saw a presentation of some new Content-Driven Lighting technology known as the LED Light Box available from Cineverse that could make even simple driving shots a thing of the past.

GravityThe technology was first used on the feature Gravity, and more recently on Gone Girl, as well as on action sequences for the latest Fast and Furious.  It takes advantage of computer driven LED displays and uses them to create motion lighting keyed to either CGI or the background plate that you’ll see keyed behind the subject.

CineverseLEDImagine, for example, shooting a car interior process shot depicting a vehicle driving under street lights and past colorfully lit storefronts.   The background plate video is fed into the computer which drives the lighting to perfectly match color and intensity, even so far as to make acceptable reflections in the glass, all moving in sync with the background.  As the quality of the LED displays improve, I would predict they will start to take the place of the greenscreen, and you’ll be able to shoot the background directly off of high resolution LED displays as if it were rear projection.

I would be remiss in my reflection on the subject of safety if I did not mention an issue which has been championed for years by Haskell Wexler, ASC; namely Sleep Deprivation resulting from long work hours.  He even made a documentary several years ago to explore the subject entitled “Who Needs Sleep?”  It’s hard to argue that sleep deprivation does not, as the late Conrad Hall, ASC put it, “compromise both the quality of our work and the health and safety of others.”  Yet in a harsh economic environment where crew members are dependent on collecting overtime pay, the subject can still be controversial.  I feel that it is an area of legitimate concern, so I hope it gets worked out to everyone’s satisfaction soon.

Even with technology and the various trade and union groups working tirelessly to make things safer, we can never let our guard down.  When we get too lackadaisical about what can inherently be dangerous work is when accidents will eventually happen.  Only the accountants may shed a tear if we lose a camera or two, but human life is never expendable, and the cost is incalculable.  Better to be safe than sorry…and there should never be an excuse to dumb stuff like I used to, pictured here shooting an action sequence hanging off the back of a motorcycle using a pair of video goggles in lieu of a helmet.  I’m lucky I didn’t lose my life or the ARRI camera.BikeCam2



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