“The truth is crew sizes are going down, budgets are going down, and production time is getting tighter. There’s no time to figure things out and create anymore. What this means is you have to be more efficient so you can make time to be creative. Technology helps you do this.” - Shane Hurlbut, ASC.
Every year, it seems like new cinema tech is being released that completely changes the game for film production. On one hand, innovation is really great for the industry. All these new toys unlock techniques that were previously unattainable in the cinema world, which help filmmakers create unique and compelling videos. On the other hand, that new monitor you just bought? It’s out of date now. Time to get the newest one!
Frankly, technology moves so quickly these days that it’s easy to get exhausted and left behind. But the reality is, keeping up with the tech (even without plans to invest) is beneficial to all professionals, especially in the world of filmmaking.
This week we had the opportunity to chat with Shane Hurlbut, cinematographer, ASC member and founder of Hurlbut Visuals. For over 30 years, Shane has been a pioneer in innovative cinema technology, attributing much of his success to always being at the forefront of the latest and greatest. Shane shares with us his path to success, and why keeping up with technology is critical as a Director of Photography.
Check out thehurlblog.com where Shane provides the best industry tips for filmmakers to improve their craft.
Starting From Scratch
“Cinematography wasn’t something on my mind when I was younger. In fact, the only experience I had with a camera was an old Super 8 Kodak film camera that my parents owned when I was a kid. Growing up on a farm in Ithaca, New York, I processed a lot of film because we always had access to labs thanks to the Kodak headquarters nearby in Rochester. But video wasn’t on my mind at all. I was doing everything from sports to DJing at local high school dances and my high school’s morning announcements. People told me I had the personality for radio and TV, and that’s what I pursued.”
“I went to a local community college that offered a radio program on the first year and TV program on the second. After those 2 years, I managed to land a massive scholarship that let me choose just about any college I wanted to go to, so I chose Emerson College in Boston. My goal was to become a producer in the industry, but reality hit when I graduated from Emerson and started going door to door looking for a job, and had every door slammed in my face.”
“Things started looking up after I went back to work at a rental house I had an internship with during college. Productions needed grip truck drivers, and because I grew up on a 300 acre farm driving 30 footers and grain trucks, this was right up my alley. Within 3 months at the rental house, I went from someone packing the shelves of the rental division to working on jobs driving grip trucks, and in another 3 months I was running the rental division. Needless to say, I was moving up really fast in the Boston scene.”
“This wasn’t going to be sustainable forever though. In Boston there were really only 2-3 grip truck drivers, and if you wanted to move up in the industry you had to wait for someone to retire. The local industry was simply too small for this line of work. My girlfriend-at-the-time and now wife Lydia and I decided we’d have more opportunities in the West, so we packed everything we had into a U-Haul truck and Ford Ranger and drove cross country to Los Angeles.”
“I started working at a rental house again, where I managed to land a gig as a grip truck driver on a feature called Phantasm II: The Ball is Back. The first became such a cult classic that they had to do a sequel. I was running a flag in from the truck one day when Brian Coyne, the 3rd electric, stopped me at the top of the stairs of the Crematorium SET and said, ‘If you were in the movie theater watching this scene, would you be scared? Every nook and cranny is lit, there's no shadow.” BAM!!! From that point on everything I viewed was light and I quickly moved up in the industry, going from grip truck driver, to dolly grip, to key grip, to gaffer, to DP all in 3 years.”
“Music videos were where I really stretched out my wings. I started out as a lighting designer on a few music video shoots. Kevin Kerslake, a Director/Cameraman I worked with frequently and one of my mentors, asked if I wanted to DP for him. I jumped at the chance, and started my career behind the camera. I got jobs working as a cinematographer for Nirvana (Come As You Are), Smashing Pumpkins (Cherub Rock), The Rolling Stones. Things were looking up.”
A Big Break
“I was around 25 at the time when HBO started looking for a DP for a feature called The Rat Pack. The director Rob Cohen used me on a pilot before and he wanted to have me on this job. I met with 6 executives at the HBO tower, who were all saying I didn’t have enough experience on narrative work - that I had only worked on music videos. But I went in with a win/win attitude. I told them ‘If you hire me for this project, I'll give you 180%, the best crew in the world and all of my contacts. You will get great production value. If you don't choose me, I'll go back to shooting commercials and be there for the birth of my first child.’ As I left and got to the elevator, they stopped me and hired me on the spot.”
“That feature was the rocket ship that propelled my career forward. I was nominated for an ASC award for the movie, and I was the youngest ever to be nominated: 26. In 2005, I became an official member of ASC.”
What’s Shane Using?
Artemis Pro - “This is the most powerful tool in my arsenal. Long gone are the days of yore where the Director and DP have to look through the same viewfinder to see the image, swapping out lenses and spending everyone’s time testing out new focal lengths. The Artemis has built-in cameras, sensors, lenses and you can access them all with the push of a button, no need to change any lenses at all.”
Sun Seeker (app) - “My go to resource for location scouting and plotting around the sun. It uses augmented reality to show you where the sun’s going to be at any particular time and day. Every day, I sit down with the assistant director to plot out our schedule, and knowing where the sun will be gives us a huge advantage in being prepared. I can also photograph scouting locations and label them for referencing later.”
Lightweight (tripods) - “I started calling these the s**t sticks and funny enough the name caught on. These tripods can go fairly low or high. When the team’s busy setting up and prepping, I like to snap the cameras onto these just to get a head start on lighting. There’s no need for the big tripods when you’re prepping, and these are low profile enough that they don’t get in anybody’s way.”
Bolt 3000s - “The first time we used Bolts was when we were filming the show Into the Badlands. We went 2½ hours outside of New Orleans to get some grand vista shots of our hero riding on a motorcycle, and we had a helicopter flying overhead getting aerials. My camera on the helicopter was sending video to our Bolt antenna array on the ground that had someone panning and tilting it towards the direction of the helicopter. The director was completely blown away at how I was able to send the video over perfectly.”
“Think about how efficient that made us. Before the Teradeks, you’d have to have a whole RF team come out and mount transmitters which includes spending money to fly them over, operating costs, equipment, hotels. It would’ve been a $12k-$15k scenario. Either that or land the helicopter every time, swap the SD card and playback just to find out it’s over or under exposed. It’s the most helpful tool in communicating my vision and my go-to for everything I do.”
ARRI Skypanels - “Skypanels are just amazing. When you think there’s no other features they can do, ARRI comes out with new updates to make them even better.”
Laser pointer - “One of the most difficult jobs DPs have is communicating the vision. Where should we hang this light? Where should we lay the dolly tracks? I have two laser pointers to do this: one for the night and one for the day. The day one is so bright it can be used in full daylight. Don’t point it at anyone you like on set!”
Why Do I Keep Up With Tech?
“Cinematography is a balance of art and science. You can be creative and artistic with your cinematography, but you’ll need the technology to achieve that vision. We’re living in an era where budgets, time and crews are shrinking while productions demand more from filmmakers. The only way to adapt is by being at the forefront of the movement. In the last few years, we saw massive dimmer boards get vaporized by the rise of smart devices. I can control ARRI Skypanels using Bluetooth straight from my iPad. There’s no need to connect them to a board.”
“I think it’s important to be on the cutting edge whenever you can so you’re always learning and always uncomfortable, because then you’re challenging yourself to use these tools that define cinematography. You do your best work, you inspire others, and you get to teach others. We were shooting a feature in Vancouver recently, and I showed up with my RED Gemini that most of the crew hadn’t seen yet. When I was on Need For Speed, I brought an ARRI Alexa, 18 Canon C500s, 11 Canon 1DC’s and 40 GoPros. I’m always pushing myself out of my comfort zone so I can learn and, in turn, create.”
“Education is also a big part of why I do what I do. When DSLRs started hitting the market, I played a large part in legitimizing the format. It was one of those tools that revolutionized the industry and opened up a whole new world to filmmakers who never had a voice. But what I saw was that these new filmmakers entering the market didn’t really understand the techniques behind filming. They didn’t know how to light, use different lenses or focus. I felt it was my duty as an artist to educate these young filmmakers because I had great mentors that made the difference in my career. Daniel Pearl, ASC, Roger Deakins, ASC and Joseph Yacoe for cinematography and director Kevin Kerslake taught me everything about the importance of experimentation with camera and lighting. So we created the Hurlblog, where we have a wonderful community that’s all about sharing knowledge and helping each other out.”
“I stay up to date and learn everything so I can teach future cinematographers everything I know - to share what my crew and I learn from each feature project. It is a wonderful way to combine the lessons learned on set with the artistic vision of a project. Mentoring is something that I am very passionate about as an artist.”
“I’ve always been a hands-on kind of filmmaker, and I feel that if my assistant needs to know something, I need to know it too. If I don’t know how to change a specific camera setting or load a magazine, I wouldn’t be efficient as a cinematographer. Don’t always rely on your assistants to know everything, and don’t let the tech overcome you. Get out there, get your hands dirty, and always be learning something new.”