For Your Birthday

The first four episodes a new web series I shot, For Your Birthday, have been released.

Each of them are only 5–7 minutes long, so the entire series is a quick watch. This was a fun shoot with an incredible cast and crew—headed by writer, producer, and actor Rachael Wotherspoon and director Molly Ratermann. We faced a few big challenges:

  1. Filming ~28 pages, split into four different episodes, over the course of two days.
  2. Creating a distinct look for each episode while maintaining consistency within them.
  3. Shooting 4–5 actors in a real location (Rachael's apartment).
  4. Working with equipment, budget, and scheduling constraints.

But somehow we managed to get everything we needed, on schedule. Every shoot is a learning experience, and this one is no different:

  1. Shoot with two cameras: I generally prefer a single-camera setup—they can be easier to light for, and they're better for when there's a small crew and I'm the operator—but there's a time and place for multiple cameras. In hindsight, having a second camera would have saved time, provided a greater variety of shots, and helped "save" actors' performances, without forcing them to do multiple takes.
  2. Spend more time focusing on camera prep: The crew and I spent a lot of prep time working out the schedule and determining how the changing sunlight would affect the order in which we film the episodes. I'm happy with most of the lighting we achieved, but I wish I'd spent more time researching a different camera package, particularly one with cinema lenses and a proper follow focus kit.
  3. Use less handheld / frenetic movement: Of course, the crew and I were working under certain aformentioned constraints. My professors in film school taught me that shooting handheld can complicate blocking, rather than save time. That's a lesson I occasionally need to be reminded of. And using a dolly would have added some "grounding," or solidity, to shots while allowing for natural-feeling camera movement.

The hardest scene to shoot was the fight among the siblings in Episode Two. It prompted a difficult but important on-set conversation among the key creatives about how best to portray the intensity of a multi-page-long, dialogue-heavy fight. Thanks to all of us coming together, we were able to figure out blocking that captured each actors' key moments, most of them within a single shot.

I particularly enjoy the first half of Episode Three, where the family members experience a reconciliation. The stationary closeups between the actors, particularly on Robert, really come together. It's a touching moment.

Anyway, thanks for checking out the project! Hopefully I'll have more news to share soon. ☺️

Travels in Montana—I

Or how three guys spent a month searching in vain for wolves in Montana while evading men with guns.


Shit

I'd been assigned toilet duty, so I grasped the nearby shovel, slid it under the pile of dug-out dirt, and repeatedly poured it over the shit—our shit—in the hole in the ground. There were three of us: Me; Jose, a former sniper in the Army who liked to strap an AR-15 with a 30-round magazine to his back; and John, a part-time actor, part-time magician, and owner of a wolf rescue center near LA.

Our shit bucket was luxurious, in its way. We'd stuck a toilet seat to its top before placing the simple contraption in its own, separate tent to shield our asses from the elements.

As I finished covering up the now-filled-with-shit-and-dirt hole in the ground, I wondered how I'd ended up stranded on the top of some hill in the Bitterroot Valley. At least we had a killer view.


Ol' Man River

In January 2016, the owner of a Los Angeles-based wolf rescue center brought me on as the embedded photographer/videographer/reporter for John and Jose's journey to western Montana. Word on the street was, hunters and trappers were decimating the local wolf population. And it was John and Jose's job to scope out what was actually going on, and to try to open a dialogue with hunters about how wolves are very helpful for PTSD-suffering veterans.

The idea was to go undercover, posing as a filming crew that interviews local hunters. There were two factors that made this idea dead on arrival. First, there was our whip, which we affectionately called Ol' Man River.

IMG_0076.jpg

Now, Ol' Man R. isn't the most… inconspicuous vehicle out there. It also didn't help that we carted around a ~$20,000 ATV that no one else owns; the "Beast" drew attention from envious passersby wherever we went.

Second, these are the goofballs who'd be driving Ol' Man R. over 1000 miles to Montana.


Day Three

Driving Ol' Man R. was slow-going, and it took us two days to reach Idaho. I look back at my journal, and the entry for the third and final day of the drive simply says:

[We] slept in. Bought silly hats. Had a trailer chassis collapse. Rode through fog bank. Ate at McDonalds. Ran over a poor deer.

Let's break this down. I've already shown the silly hats, above. Here's footage of how we dealt with a collapsed trailer—it almost started a fire when the tire was stuck in the wheel well—and subsequently purchased a new trailer.

By the time we hit the road with our new trailer, it was already dark. And further up the highway, incredibly foggy. So foggy that we didn't see a deer dash across our path until it was too late. (We pulled over, but never found the deer, so it probably managed to get off the highway.) When we almost literally limped into our hotel in Missoula, we were pretty much over it—and we were only on day three of our outing.