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The Need for Alligator Skin: Learning How to Lead

 Alligator Skin

 
I started in this business at the age of 22. Straight out of college, I put on the three-piece suit that my Mom bought me. She said that I needed to wear it for my job interviews. I pounded the city of Boston’s pavement looking for that job. I have to admit that I thought I was going to be a Producer. I did not like camera that much and really did not like to light. I was good with numbers and getting people excited about a project. I loved putting things together and delivering far more than the budget would allow.

After three months of interviews, with doors slammed in my face, I totally rejected my dream of being a Producer. I resigned myself to just be a PA and start my journey upward. I went back to the place where I had interned to see if they would hire me. It happened to be a lighting and grip company in Boston called FilmArts. Unfortunately, this placed closed up shop years ago. My good friend, John Cini, was the Rental Manager at the time. He showed me the ropes and got me started as a technician in this glorious movie business. John now runs a company in Boston called High Output, and it is a thriving company that he holds to excellence, just like John taught me.

Where was I? Oh yes, the starting of a career. I got to work quickly filling orders and delivering gear all over Boston and the surrounding New England states. I learned every bit of grip gear, every light. I took them apart, fixed them, etc. It was an incredible learning experience for me. After three months, I started to take quotes and make the deals. This was producing in a way, not lighting. But this gave me the grounding to understand what everything was and how to use it. I not only got to quote the orders, I also pulled them and then drove the truck loaded with the gear to the site. It was my job to keep all this gear safe and to get it returned. If you have the opportunity to experience this, I highly recommend it. I think it is one of the best ways to learn how to be a DP. Why is that, you ask? Because you learn every aspect of what it takes to pull off your vision.

After six months, I was going out on a good number of jobs and realized that I was ready to move up. Moving up in a small market like Boston is a very difficult thing to do. Why? Well, because there are very few jobs available and people tended to stay in the job that they had. I wanted to be a Key Grip, but there were four or five other people that had all those jobs. I realized quickly that moving to Los Angeles was the only way to keep my forward momentum.
 

“Heading to Hollywood with a Ford Ranger, a

Honda Scooter and a Beautiful Fiancé”

In the summer of 1988, my fiancé, Lydia, and I started on our quest for Hollywood. We found an apartment on a prior trip to visit my friend, Gabe Torres, who went to USC Film School. He was living in the same building and set us all up. We furnished the place while we were there that week and got our refrigerator, bed, oven, etc. Lydia had never really seen America. Her family had traveled all over Europe, but had not traveled much in the States. So we made a journey out of it. We took 28 days to travel across the country in the Ford Ranger that my parents gave us, pulling a U-Haul trailer that contained all of our belongings.
 

1998 Ford Ranger short bed

Honda Elite Scooter 1998

U-Haul trailer

 
It was an incredible experience. We mostly camped while traveling across the country because that was all we could afford. Once we made it to LA, we moved into our beautiful apartment and found that the whole place was roach infested. We tried to save money by purchasing a used refrigerator and it happened to have a nice little roach family embedded in it. This family had two months to grow while we packed up our stuff in Boston and began the cross-country trek. To put it mildly, we freaked out. We were exhausted and all we wanted to do was sleep on a bed, not on the ground. We booked ourselves into a Motel 6 and bombed the place, blasting the roach population. OK, we were finally good to move in.
 

“Starting All Over Again”

You cannot be scared of starting all over. It builds character and it starts to form that Alligator Skin that I speak of. Alligator Skin is taking abuse from everyone and taking it in, turning it into a positive and moving forward. It is not letting them take you down to their level. This skin is essential to work in the movie business. It is a ruthless profession. Most people love it when you fail and they bathe in it. Sick, but true.

I started back at a rental house called KeyLight with a $1.50 raise. I was making $3.50 an hour in Boston. Now I was making $5.00 an hour. I came out to LA with an extensive wardrobe of shorts, ready to bask in the California sun. On day one of my employment, I was told no shorts, no tennis shoes, only steel toe boots. Whoa!!! OK!!! I complied because I knew that I could make my own destiny here. If I wanted to be a Key Grip, that is what I was going to be. So I quickly moved up the rental house ladder. Within three months, I was offered a job on a feature film called Phantasm II: This Summer the Ball is Back. They wanted me to be the grip truck driver for the film.

Phantasm II
 
The film was directed by Don Coscarelli. It was an incredible experience for me. I drove the grip truck and kept all the gear working. I worked 18 hours a day with a six hour turnaround each day. I worked six days a week for $350.00 a week. Yep, that is right. You do the math. I would be making more by flipping burgers at Wendy’s, but I would not be in the movie business with all this glory. HA HA!!!!

Alligator Skin is formed by sticking your neck out there and making mistakes, having people yell and scream at you. Is this counter intuitive? I don’t think so. “Why are you so stupid? Why would you do that? What were you thinking?” All of these things have been yelled at me at some point in my career. Having Alligator Skin means rising above all this verbal abuse, while allowing it to make you better at what you do. How is this possible? Because you need to learn. You do that by making mistakes, which gets you yelled at. The skin is forming. Let the abuse roll off your back. Be advised that this skin is not achieved if you do not go for it. I have talked about my many mistakes as a gaffer – setting the meter wrong, over-exposing scenes, etc. As a Key Grip, I could have been much more safety conscious. I admit that I made some bad decisions.

My recipe for success was just keeping my head barely above water, putting myself in situations that I barely had the knowledge to pull off. Sometimes I almost drowned, but at the end of the day, I swam.
 

“The Mentor Who Gave Me My Titanium Skin”

I quickly moved up as a Key Grip and became well respected in the business. I was the go to guy with music videos. I must have Key Gripped over 120 music videos in one year. I gaffed over 350 of them and eventually shot over 100.

Daniel Pearl, ASC

Daniel Pearl, ASC

I worked for Daniel Pearl, ASC in the late 80s and the early 90s. He is probably the greatest music video shooter of all time. He not only taught me how to light with balls, he also shared his work ethic, demanding excellence, which cemented me as the cameraman I am today. He was direct, demanded the best, and held you to it. His intensity was equal to hi passion to create breathtaking imagery. I found that contagious, intense and times, maybe overwhelming, but I would go to the end of the earth for him. This was music videos and we would sometimes work 28 hours a day, then go right from that video to the next one without sleeping. At one point, I was up for 72 hours straight. Not smart at all, but this is the glorious movie business. Daniel drove us up to the breaking point and every time it made me better.

How do I lead? I am always trying to be better. In my young years as a DP, I was learning, uncomfortable in my surroundings because I jumped in when I wasn’t completely ready. But this has been my recipe. Jump early and figure it out. At times, I have been abrasive to my crew, impatient and stubborn. I want to formally apologize to all my crew members that I might have offended in any way because of this.
 

“Learning How to Lead”

I just assumed that everyone had come up the ladder like me and that they had that Alligator Skin. They could take it; they would turn it into a positive. But that was not the case and I was foolish to think that in the beginning. You have to find your way and mine came slowly. However, my career happened very quickly. I was a grip truck driver in 1988 and shooting music videos in 1991. In three short years, I had completed the amount of jobs equal to other technicians’ six years.

On Need for Speed, my crew will say many things to describe me – perfectionist, jackass, passionate, talented, hard worker, micro manager, crazy as hell, HurriShane. But I know that love is there with almost every comment. I keep things light and try to make everyone laugh at my craziness. No one is safe from being picked on, including me. I have no idea if I am doing things right, but my crew is amazing and they make me shine bright every single day. So I must being doing something right. Some days are better than others, but my team knows that I hold them under the same scrutiny that I hold myself. They say that this is evident. I expect excellence and if it is not delivered, you will be called out. GOOD ENOUGH is NOT in my vocabulary.
 

Need for Speed test crew

Need for Speed test crew

 
I guess my best advice is to never think you are the cameraman and that the crew works for you. I consider myself part of the team, all held equal, and that team is about excellence in every way. I also try to have an open mind. I have shot 19 movies, but I continue to learn every day from my CREW, because I expect great ideas from them to make us more efficient, get more shots, better angles, etc. We make the decision on what is the best course together. Keeping an open mind and inspiring your team to do more than they thought they had in them is paramount. How do you do that? It starts with saying thank you every night over the radio to your team, handshakes, knowing all of their names. Wrapped gifts with a personal letter to each member of your team are nice. I have recently started taking the combined Grip, Electric and Camera teams out for huge dinners and wine tastings. These are cool because it is not always about work. You learn the personal side of your team. VERY IMPORTANT. Then you continue with huge kudos when they make a great shot, hard focus pull, solid rig, great lighting design, fast set ups, etc. Call them out; make sure people hear you praise them. But hold that close; you do not want to over praise. That results in good enough work.

If you do not set the standards high, then just getting by will be what you get. Don’t be afraid to call them out when they make mistakes either. This is very important. There are times when you might have to pull them off to the side and do it under the radar. For some mistakes, this course is absolutely the right way, but sometimes it is important to make a team member an example of what not to do. Mistakes are made and I let the ones that I feel will not sacrifice the vision go by, but when it starts affecting how we are telling the story, you need to intervene. Holding people accountable is absolutely essential. It is a responsibility that comes with this job and doing the best is the goal. I also try to end the day with an overview, what worked, what didn’t and how we can learn from it. This is huge.

Get out there and start to form that skin. Being sensitive is a strength and a weakness. Finding the right level of each is the hard part and you will find that balance. Sometimes this comes naturally and sometimes it can be painfully slow.

Respecting the crew and their excellence is your first and foremost objective. They are there to make you look good. The more you respect them and appreciate all that they give makes going to the end of the Earth for you their only mission. They will Take the Hill….
 

Shane on Marines for Us All

Shane on Marines for Us All

Author: Shane

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46 Comments

  1. stuff they don’t teach in film school…

    just…wonderful.

    Thanks for all you give back.

    (Admittedly, I got a bit “welly” when you mentioned FilmArts (I remember when they locked the doors…), John Cini and the Boston scene….left there 8 years ago and still miss it.

    -BD

    Post a Reply
    • Bob Demers, That is exactly right, this is why you come to the HurlBlog. You are very welcome. I miss Boston and had an amazing time at FilmArts. Where are you now?

      Post a Reply
      • Hi Shane, Moved to Tucson 8 years ago. Unfortunately we are now a desert island in a sea of pro film incentive states, so our production scene is pretty dry. Will soon be spending time in LA, and hope to check out RCR amongst other resources.

        Cheers.

        Bob

        Post a Reply
        • Bob D, We would love to have you and look forward to hooking up.

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  2. Shane…damn…I hope you continue writing more personalized posts like these. This is MUCH more than information, this is knowledge….hits close to home! Thank you.

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    • Scott David Martin, in the survey that many people filled out, this is what they asked for. I am so glad that it struck a nerve. That is what I was hoping for

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      • Yes. I love this post Shane. It is very real world and very informative as I desire to follow in the same direction with my career.

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        • Matt Lynn, thank you so much for your kind words. So many other things than gear to talk about.

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  3. Once again Shane, an absolute amazing blog! Very informative and very inspiring. Thank you for sharing your wisdom! You’re an amazing guy :)

    Post a Reply
    • omar, thank you for those wonderful words of support. Much appreciated.

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  4. Great write up.

    I now have a new destination to send young uns when they ask me how to break in to film.

    Post a Reply
    • Dwight Hartnett, ha ha. Love it, thanks for the kind words

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  5. Being lucky enough to have worked with Shane and without taking anything away from others in the business, Shane is one of the hardest working DPs I’ve ever seen.

    I can tell you from first hand experience having been down range from Shane’s firing line that he doesn’t ask anything of anyone that he wouldn’t do himself. The amount of labor, love, passion and hard work Shane gives every project, big or small, is amazing.

    I know I’m a better person imside and out having worked next to Shane. I wish I could give back to him more.

    Post a Reply
    • Tim, thank you for all of those kind words, means a lot. Hope to see you soon.

      Post a Reply
  6. Thank you Shane for an incredible and inspiring write up!

    Post a Reply
    • Selvan Ramsamy, you are very welcome and thank you for your support

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  7. What a great post. People so infrequently talk about leadership and management in cinematography. I always say Cinematography is 1/3 creative, 1/3 technical, and 1/3 managerial, and people always forget about developing their management skills!

    Post a Reply
    • Jendra, I completely agree. I am still finding my way.

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  8. Thank you Shane – for taking the time to teach when others would not take the time.

    Post a Reply
    • Blake, you are very welcome. These are the things no one talks about and I think people need to know.

      Post a Reply
    • Baron, you are very welcome. Thanks for supporting the blog

      Post a Reply
  9. Thank you, Shane. Thoughtful, insightful. and (for me personally) timely post. I very much appreciate your insights and your willingness to share with the community.

    Post a Reply
    • Jeff Hanley, you are very welcome and I appreciate your kind words

      Post a Reply
  10. Shane, thanks a million for this blog post.
    I am at a point where my career is not moving forward and a change is essential.
    My wife and I have decided to move cities as there is not enough work where we live now.
    Thanks for making me feel like the decision to move is made out of necessity and not failure.
    Keep up the great online mentorship, there are lots of us around the world who appreciate it immensely!
    Michal

    Post a Reply
    • Michal Wozniak, You are very welcome. This post is really striking a cord. I love that story, never failure, you just have to follow what you love and wherever you feel you will have the ability to make your destiny, that is where you go. No one can stop you. God Speed.

      Post a Reply
  11. Shane,

    My wife and I just moved to Los Angeles two weeks ago from Cincinnati after working for the last few years in Cincinnati as a DP. We’re in our mid-twenties and just made the trek, and every word you shared felt so true to our just starting this journey. I can’t tell you how inspirational, encouraging, and exciting it was to read your testament of love for your then fiance, the craft of filmmaking, and for younger filmmakers like myself. Keep writing, keep sharing, keep rocking out.

    Nick

    Post a Reply
    • Nicholas Matthews, Thank you for the wonderful words, I cannot tell you how much that touches my heart. My finance is my wife of 25 years. She creating Hurlbut Visuals and it was her idea for the blog. It is a team effort. Your wife needs to know right off the bat, it is a difficult life being married to a DP. We travel all over the world, our not at home as much as you would like to be. Lydia is getting through it but it has been very tough on her. I am trying to stay around. She is my soul mate and I want to be with her. Being alone is no fun.

      Post a Reply
  12. Dude this cat from Pasadena named Creighton Bellinger claims he knows you and misses you and your family. He also claims you are a big effin’ stud.

    Post a Reply
    • Luther Hurlass, OMG, Creighton? That bastard. HA HA Yes he knows me and is a rocking guy. My family is great. On vacation with them right now. Give him a bear hug and have twenty beers with him for me.

      Post a Reply
  13. Shane,
    You are most definitely a mentor of mine and you don’t know it. I’m sure this is true for many others as well. Thank you.

    P.S. I hear you were or might be establishing a branch here in Atlanta, Ga. I happened to get Q’s business card (VP of Marketing) when he and a gentlemen from Bertone Visuals stopped by in my vicinity. If so, this is absolutely wonderful and I look forward to meeting you in person someday soon.

    Post a Reply
    • Tyler Dixon, thank you for your kind words. The Real Estate deal in Georgia did not go down well so we have pulled chalks and tabled the idea for now. We were going to do a big education push in Georgia. We will have to see.

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      • That sucks to hear Shane. I hope it does resurface soon and that you guys can get it going. That would be awesome!

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      • I’m sure that if Georgia is in the cards for you, you’ll make it happen. I just wanted to add a +1 to Tyler’s post.

        There are lots of younger guys and gals in Atlanta that are hungry, but having a hard time figuring everything out. It seems that productions in Atlanta are transplants rather than home grown, and it can be tough figuring out how to grow some roots here. As someone who wears many hats, it can be difficult figuring out how to connect when productions pack up almost as quickly as they land.

        We need you! Thanks again for the knowledge sharing. It’s truly made a difference to this writer/director.

        Post a Reply
        • Jared Caldwell, I would love to come, but the Georgia Film Commission made it very clear that they did not want me or to educate any homegrown as you call it, which I found very offensive and at that point did not want to fight an up hill battle with an office that has no vision. Just my two cents. I was all on point to open our doors to a big educational event and bring Atlanta some inspiration as well. Thank you for your support and kind words. I am sad that we could not make it happen.

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  14. Thanks for taking time to write this. I’ve seen the cycle you are describing many times through the years. Everyone highly respected in their field makes it through the hard-knocks phase similar to your story. Then there is that turning point – an inflection point – when you realize your technical skills are far superior to your professional or “soft” skills. You are finally mature enough to realize your technical skills are just a ticket to get in the door, but your professional “soft” skills get you on stage. My conclusion is the world would be a much better place if techncal experts developed more professional skills along the journey and not waiting too late to make a difference. Thanks to my pal Jeff Hanley for sending this along.

    Post a Reply
    • Ken Wells, that is so true. Thank you for your comment.

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  15. Shane,

    Thanks for the shout-out and for sharing your success story. It is rewarding to see how you have flourished, and wonderful that you want to share your knowledge and experience with so many. If I recall correctly, that Honda scooter played a key role in your proposal to your lovely bride. Best to you and Lydia -

    Post a Reply
    • John Cini, You are so welcome!!!ha ha, your memory serves you incredibly well. You were an awesome boss and you taught me so much. I thank you!!!! Cannot wait to come back to Boston. Miss all of you.

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  16. Hello my good sir :)
    First of all I just want to say thank you for the blog. As an aspiring cinematographer, it is great to hear from such an amazing and experienced cinematographer, such as yourself.
    My question is if I am a rising Junior, film production major, at Boston University and am starting to look for internships next summer would you recommend trying to get an internship/job at a company like High Output or get an internship at a big film production company such as HBO? From my internship I am looking for an experience that will help me grow as a cinematographer, especially lighting, as that is what I love the most, or really any aspect of filmmaking, as I really enjoy writing and directing as well. I can move anywhere, if that changes anything.
    Once again thank you for the site and I hope your day is filled with as many smiles and love as possible :)
    (Side note: Really jealous of Emerson’s view of the commons, such a great location)
    Tom

    Post a Reply
    • Tom Bassett, You are very welcome and yes Emerson has a rocking view. High Output would be my choice. That is how I started and it was such good training. Tell John Cini that I suggested it and any help that I can give, I will.

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  17. Is that the picture of the actual uhaul you took? If so it is a little strange. My wife and I are in the process of doing the exact same thing from Chicago that you and your wife to be did. With the same image on the same 5×8 trailer. Small world.

    Just stopped in Albuquerque and it wasn’t quite for us. Passing through AZ right now. LA, here we come.

    Thanks for the kind words and inspiration.

    Post a Reply
    • Matt Williams, you are welcome and yes that was the size we used to cross country and we went through Chicago in 1987 in the middle of a massive storm, scary shit. Make it your own

      Post a Reply

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