Cinematography

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.

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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.

Follow-up: Pulling Focus From the Monitor

Evan Luzi, founder of the popular camera-assistant-centered website The Black and Blue, wrote an article based on my thoughts about camera assistants (ACs) who use monitors to pull focus. He writes that relying on a monitor is a bad habit to learn, and a difficult one to break:

[W]hen you learn to do something for the first time a certain way, it can be very tough to forget. (Not to mention a whole generation of ACs started their careers with access to crisp HD monitors.)

This, however, is no excuse for consistently using the monitor as the crutch. When you are given the tools to pull focus properly in the right circumstances – cinema lenses with witness markings; a solid follow focus or wireless setup; time for marks and rehearsal – you should be measuring distances, marking your follow focus and watching the shot unfold in front of you so you can make adjustments.

"In the right circumstances." That phrase drew criticism from a number of Evan's readers and several acquaintances of mine. Cinematographer Stephen Scavulli comments on my original article:

But a great deal of the time, you either don't get properly collimated lenses, you're pulling off modded or unmodded still lenses, or you have to be flexible for any number of reasons.

I think the lesson you preach is still a valuable one, though. I just think it should be expanded. Know when to use different techniques and tools as the situation calls for it.

Evan echoes this sentiment in a follow-up post, in which he addresses the criticism and backpedals a bit from his previous stance. He argues that certain, less-than-ideal circumstances are "acceptable and encouraged uses of the monitor to aid in pulling focus."

After reading feedback, it's clear that the biggest issue isn't ACs who rely on monitors to grab focus: it's a prevalent on-set culture that regards rehearsals and marks as unnecessary luxuries for contemporary filmmaking.

In my experience, "shooting the rehearsal" ends up costing the production additional time and money, as crew and talent attempt to fix things on the fly. ACs who are involved in productions where they're forced to use, say, still-camera lenses without rehearsals have little choice but to rely on monitors to try to keep things sharp.

I don't think this culture will change until key members of production teams realize they're shooting themselves and their financial backers in the foot.