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It Came from Above – Shooting a Documentary in the Field

I wanted give an introduction and story before Bodie’s post. Bodie Orman came to me from the Panavision Assistant program. He learned from the best at Panavision/Hollywood. Bodie was a loader on several commercials and “Act of Valor” after leaving Panavision. I quickly noticed that he had an eye, a sense of style and I wanted to pour gasoline to ignite this passion. On “Act of Valor,” I wanted to challenge him and put Bodie on a critical helicopter shot on San Clemente Island. He rocked it out! Bodie’s job description quickly expanded to loader, 2nd AC, media manager and operator. Hurlbut Visuals is all about recognizing and supporting upcoming talent. When I see Bodie’s 5D footage on this Joplin trailer it makes all of us proud. Take it away Bodie.

This summer, my phone rang and my friend, Erica Tremblay, was on the other end of the line. She asked if I would join her in a journey back to her hometown, Joplin, MO, to help her film a documentary that she was directing. On May 22nd , the town had been hit by an EF5 tornado that killed 160 people and destroyed much of the city. Some of Erica’s friends did not survive the storm, and she was determined to go back and tell the stories of the people who had survived. She asked if I would come on board the project. Her passion for the film made it an easy decision.

After we decided on the look of the film, it was time to pick out the camera package. We knew the stories were going to be amazing and we wanted the imagery to be able to carry the weight. We also knew that we would be on a tight schedule and would be on the run in a destruction zone. We needed the right tools for the job.

We left Los Angeles with 18 checked bags. We packed two Canon 5Ds with cinema glass, an HPX-3000, and an Aaton 16mm camera. The plan was to do beauty b-roll with the Aaton and 5D, and shoot interviews with the HPX, due to its ability to run on multiple P2 cards without interruption. Initially, I didn’t think the 5D would be the best camera for the run-and-gun interviews due to the 12-minute cutoff time. That didn’t last long…

We arrived in hot and muggy Missouri with a van full of gear, and chests full of excitement. We didn’t know what to expect and all of our hearts dropped the moment we saw the devastation site. The tornado was a mile wide and it left a scar right down the middle of the city. It was like an atom bomb had gone off in the middle of town. That was the moment that I knew we had to do everything in our power to tell the stories of these people who had lost everything. Now, it was personal.

Immediately, the HPX started giving us problems. The p2 spanning was an issue, and gave us pause. We were working out of the back of a hot van, and viewing dailies each night became a stressful chore. It didn’t take long for us to relegate the HPX to b-roll duty, and bring up the second 5D to interview. We finally found our stride with the two 5D’s as our main, tried and true interview cameras. The images were amazing, and if we ran into someone who talked for more than 12 minutes, we would just tailslate the 2nd clips. No problem. It was go time.

Our days went like this:

5am- the Director and I would set off into the destruction zone to shoot b-roll with the AATON.

8am- We would meet the rest of the crew and head out to the first of several interviews with the two 5D camera setup. Meanwhile, the field producer, Bernard Parham, and B-unit Director of Photography, Lee Peters, would head off into town with the HPX to mow down the b-roll.

6-7pm- With interviews wrapped, the crew would head back to the hotel for some R&R and the Director and I would hit the streets with the Aaton, once again, to get more of that beautiful b-roll.

Our interview setups consisted of one 5D with a zoom that I would change from medium shots to close ups throughout the interview, and another 5D with a wide fixed lens capturing the subjects in their environments. These tended to be outside, in the summer heat. Overheating of camera bodies became an issue from time to time. A little shade and powering them down when we could let us keep shooting throughout the hot afternoons.

By day eight, we were exhausted, physically and emotionally. My whole perspective on what is important in life was forever changed. But we had hit our rhythm as a team and everything flowed beautifully. We came in and out of each interview with confidence, knowing that we had nailed it.

Documentary filmmaking has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. But at the end of the shoot, I was proud of the images we had captured, and saw the importance of documenting this terrible tragedy. The project is now in the final stages of post, and I am excited to see the final product.

What are some of your experiences in shooting out in the field?

Take a look at the trailer…

Follow the progress of the project here.

Stop by our Kickstarter to throw a buck at the post costs.

Author: Bodie Orman

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38 Comments

  1. I have found the solution to run and gun interview shooting is timecode lock boxes on each 5d fed to the audio input. The boxes are locked by the audio team at the beginning of every day. We use simple time of day for the timecode format so a producer or director can easily make notes for the editors just by looking at the current time on a watch. No slating required. An AC is now freed up to other things.

    In post, our Avid editors easily extract the timecode from the audio channel and sync everything up without much difficulty. I know Avid isn’t your post platform of choice but maybe we can push for similar functionality on a CS5 update.

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    • A Lockit box would have been a huge asset. Thanks,Teddy.

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  2. Hell yeah! You’re the man, Bodie!

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  3. Teddy,
    Timecode lockbox is a new term for a mostly post guy (yes, Avid) like myself. Can you point me linkwise to one. Thanks.

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    • Hi, here is the one you need for each camera:

      http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/562544-REG/Denecke_SB_3_SB_3_Syncbox_Time_Code_Generator.html

      The audio guys don’t need one because their recorders generate timecode automatically. Audio department sets their recorder to the timecode you want, plugs in the box to their gear, and it “locks” the Denecke SB3 to their generator. Timecode out is just audio so it can be fed to the audio input on your 5D. They call it a lock-it box. My camera guys just call it the “lauck box” (in the voice of President Bush, see the SNL lock box skit). :)

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      • When I started in the business (about the time Lincoln was president) time code black tapes were “color black” in one location, “crystal” in another. Calling a time code generator a “lock box” is a new one for me, but as in the case of “crystal” and “color black” it doesn’t matter as long there is cheat sheet somewhere.

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      • I don’t see how this could be frame accurate since the 5d’s clock won’t be aligned with the TC generator. Are you just going to the nearest frame or second?

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  4. I found that my sony ex1 held up pretty well in both extreme cold (-40celcius) as well as hot +40c. Not sure how hot Missouri gets though.

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    • We were dealing with temperatures well above 100 degrees fahrenheit.

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  5. Thanks for the blog, Bodie! Let me reiterate, as the producer in the field for this doc, that the 5D footage Bodie shot is nothing sort of stellar. I had my concerns about how well it would cut with the 16mm and HPX footage, but watching the project come together in post has put those worries to bed. The 5D clips look stunning, and they hold up perfectly well against HPX and film from a purely aesthetic–if not technical–perspective. Consider me a DSLR convert–I’ll definitely be seeking out a similar camera package for my next project.

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  6. I’m still surprised that pro documentary shooters have not discovered the advantages of the Sony Alpha (SLT-A33 and A55) for this style of production. Yes, they are APS-C . . . but they offer capable audio, long record times (22+ mins.), autofocus, direct eye-piece monitoring (due to the transparent mirror innovation) and IMHO have improved image quality and compression for the sensor size over the dated 5DmkII. Maybe not for everyone (especially if your doc can afford an Aaton rig), but I’m definitely pleased with the results for my current documentary film as well as for my commercial and industrial shoots. I was a Canon shooter for years, and will still work with the 5DmkII, 7D, and 60D when asked but my preference has shifted over to Sony-land. I haven’t seen rental packages for the SLT’s yet, but you can buy for less than $1000.

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    • Matthew,
      I’m always open to using new tools that might improve workflow/look/budget. I was not as familiar as I should have been with the HPX to utilize it at full potential. There are many tools we, as film makers, can choose from. Knowing how to use said too l and get the most out of it, is important. For me, it’s shooing with film and canon hdslrs. Ill continue to bring different cameras, like the Sony, into my line up.

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  7. At this point I’ve had three small productions that an HPX-170 was the primary camera, an HMC-150 was the “b-roll,” and a 7D with Nikkor AI-s primes was off to the side doing whatever. All three times in post almost all the Panasonic footage was thrown out — replaced by the 7D footage.

    This very afternoon I’m post-producing a short historical documentary for local PBS that is being done entirely with the 7D, Nikkor primes, and a motorized Kessler Pocket Dolly — I didn’t even bother with the drama of dragging along the Panasonics.

    I’ve read all the technical arguments against Canon HDSLRs — you know, the ones that explain why you can’t use them and show charts to prove it. The problem is that the footage looks so darn good, and when regular people viewers see the Canon HDSLR footage they’re always truly “wowed.” It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen anyone “wowed” by any Panasonic Broadcast — including the 3700.

    Additionally, post production software has advanced in a very, very big way over the past five years. “Long GOP” today doesn’t have the same implications it had five years ago. If you know what you’re doing (and that’s a key qualifier) — a Canon HDSLR with good glass and Adobe CS5 really can create magic.

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    • Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for sharing. Hope hat PBS doc went smoothly :-)

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      • Hi Andrew,
        Thanks for sharing. Hope that PBS doc went smoothly :1)

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  8. Last year I shot a 45 minute documentary (making of for a feature film) on a T2i.
    Since we were shooting in Spain, France and Belgium this meant flights to the various locations and limited gear I could bring with me (no slider, no jib …)

    I used a Sigma 24-70 2.8 for most run & gun stuff.
    For shots where I had a little more time, for interviews, b-roll footage and close ups of people, I used vintage M42 photography lenses (mainly a 55mm 1.4 Mamiya-Sekor).

    Sound was recorded with a Rode Videomic directly into the T2i, for interviews I used an audiotechnica lav going into a zoom H2 recording in WAV format.

    I had a small tripod but barely used it : most of the time I used my Manfrotto monopod or a small foldable shouldermount.

    the documentary is airing on digital television right now (in 4 12 minute parts) and is becoming available on youtube in parts. Part 1 & 2 are already online (interviews are Dutch spoken, some French here and there).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iv2mi5M9vRc
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRz6t-rFSLo

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    • Forgot to mention that I used a Fader ND from Light Craft Workshop for all the outdoor shots (especially in France & Spain), so I could keep my shutter at 1/50th and aperture wide open when needed.

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      • Pascal,
        the footage looks great, and so does the movie. I don’t understand the language and found myself smiling and laughing all the same. Keep up the great work!

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        • thanks a lot for watching and responding ! I think the youtube encoding doesn’t do the footage any justice, footage is more washed out and flatter than it should be …

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  9. Hi,

    Just wondering what your 5D lens and support systems looked like?

    Adrian

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    • Hi Adrian,
      Thanks for the support! I used cinema lenses with custom machined support.

      Post a Reply
  10. That looks amazing…I really can’t wait to see the final. Great job, it seems like a great story that definitely needs to be told.

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    • Hello Rob,
      These stories are truly amazing. Filming this project has given me a real appreciation for what is important in life. Thanks for the kind words.

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  11. There are five shots of my home starting with the book flapping in the wind ,the dresser, the concrete girl (she`s on our new porch) to the red door….brought tears to my eyes as it`s no longer there. Can`t wait to see your completed version. Job well done…

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  12. Thank you, Bonnie. I am sorry for your loss. I can’t wait to see the finished project either.

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  13. Over heating, at least for me, seems to be a bigger problem with the 7D than the 5. I have found that not holding the camera, but supporting it on a monopod or shoulder rig helps. I also carry spare batts in a cooler. If the unit gets hot. I will trade out for a chilled, not frozen, battery. seems to work for me. Good work, thanks for sharing.

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    • Hi Craig,
      Cooling batteries is a great idea. Thanks!

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      • Using a battery grip & swapping your cards faster (or using 8GB only) also helps a lot.

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  14. This has been quite a season for disasters. Here in central Texas the fires are almost extinguished and the recover has started.

    Great article. Love all the detail you provide.

    Near the top of this article you said, “After we decided on the look of the film”. Can you expand on this? How many degrees of freedom are there?

    What do you put on the slates for a documentary?

    Thanks again,

    Rob:-]

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    • Hello Rob,
      It really has been a year of natural disasters, across the globe. Our main concern with the ‘look’ is that it has a big, feature feel and style. It was really important that the images conveyed a big, cinematic vibe at all times. This is why we put the Aatton 16mm camera into the mix with the 5ds. We didn’t know what we would see or hear once we landed, but we knew we wanted everything to look amazing. I color timed the film with Pete Schwartz at Film Pool to establish the look and color of the film, and will color time the 5d and HPX footage to match. We shot using the cinestyle look on the 5ds. Using Shane’s new viewfinder system allowed me to ace my exposure eveytime, so the 5d footage would be maximized for coloring. His eyepiece leveler system let me do this without slowing me down a bit (it really sped things up, as I could go from studio mode, to low mode, to hand held with just a few twists of the arm.)

      As for the slates:
      We didn’t have a script supervisor, as we were rolling with a very small, intimate crew. Luckily, our sound guy rocked! He would label his sound reel, and let the camera assistant know what to put on the slate so the audio and video would match. Often we used the last name of the interview subject as the scene number, and then slated the individual takes as required.

      Cheers!

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  15. Bodie,
    Terific job! I hope to succeed in what you do best some day in the future. Keep up the great work man.

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  16. Bodie,

    I saw you out there several times, I am a NBC photjournalist and did stories in joplin nearly everyday for the first 2 months, and going back about once a week since then.

    On the HPX note, I use one every day and find them to be absolutely ideal, the p2 workflow for me is very hassle free

    Cant wait to see your final product.

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    • Hello JHarris,
      Would you mind sharing some p2 tips? Our biggest issue was viewing dalies each night and working with spanned clips/cards.

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  17. Hi Shane, I just saw the trailer for Act of Valor (on epk.tv). Looks great!

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    • santoro, thank you so much. This was a huge labor of love for me. Getting thrusted into a new technology that ever told me that it would not hold up on a 60′ screen. Everyone said that I was insane. I have seen this movie 20 times now. Every time I feel immersed, involved and uncomfortable. You are on edge the whole time.

      Post a Reply

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