ICG writer Jon Silberg locks and loads (up with information) at Shane Hurlbut’s weekend long HDSLR Bootcamp

For the last 18 months, you’ve no doubt heard the production refrain from cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, ASC (Terminator Salvation, Swing Vote, We Are Marshall) about the Canon 5D MKII being a primary filmmaking tool. Hurlbut has shot a short film (The Last Three Minutes), and an upcoming Warner Bros. feature, Act of Valor, with the 5D. And through his relationship as DP/director with the commercial production company, Bandito Brothers, he’s shot and directed a number of 5D spots, including national campaigns for International Harvester and the Marine Corps. His company, Hurlbut Visuals, has also invested in some five dozen Canon 5Ds to use on productions, along with a full complement of the lightweight HDSLR grip equipment that many vendors have been lining up to produce. Clearly, he has a vested interest in seeing more and more hybrid-shot projects come to market, both from a business standpoint and out of his sheer passion for sharing what he believes is a true revolutionary new technology.

This past August in Los Angeles, Hurlbut had the chance to show just what kind of a game-changer hybrids really are at his HDSLR Bootcamp, a two-day (weekend) event that was well attended by film professionals, as well as professionals in related industries, like advertising, animation, and commercial still photography. The participants (myself included) spent nearly 12 hours each day learning about the cameras and putting their newfound knowledge into action.

And the man of the hour did not disappoint, announcing that when he first put (the Canon 5D) into his hands, he knew “it was going to change everything. It was the first time that I ever saw anything look and feel like ‘digital film’” he announced. “It had a noise level that felt like grain, and a softness that didn’t have that nasty plastic sharpness of HD. It looked absolutely beautiful.” And Hurlbut was quick to remove any qualifiers, like the 5D’s low price tag. “I don’t care what they cost,” he insisted, adding that of all the camera systems currently available, the only one he’d rather shoot than the Canon’s HDSLR system is film.

Here’s how the weekend shaped up: Day one was an intensive breakdown of the Canon 5D and 7D by Hurlbut and his “elite team” of technicians and camera assistants, sharing all the tricks and tips they had learned over their many jobs together. On the second day, we split up into small groups and were given cameras, lenses, lights, locations and actors, and about four hours to shoot (four-page) scripted scenes. No job titles or responsibilities were assigned. After shooting was completed, the groups were shown a series of various products designed for HDSLR cinematography from a number of participating vendors. Meanwhile, a team of editors cut the different sequences together in Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 Suite and the edited sequences were brought into a Quantel Pablo color grading system. That evening, with all in attendance, the work was displayed via 2K projectors on a 25-foot screen and graded via the Pablo.

There’s no doubt day one imparted a ton of technical information. Camera assistants touched on the quirks of the cameras, various settings, and the complement of lenses (from Canon as well as other manufacturers). Roberto Schaeffer, ASC and The Camera House donated some PL mount glass, originally to be used for the now defunct Dalsa digital camera systems (repurposed for Canon HDSLR use), with the movement and throw that allows for follow focus. Many manufacturers are scrambling to create mounts, matte boxes, and viewfinders to counter the HDSLR’s ergonomic issues. Key grip Dave Knudsen demonstrated grip equipment designed for these cameras, and a team of data technicians demonstrated the methods Hurlbut’s group has developed for efficiently moving data from cards to multiple hard drives, as well as the labeling methods they’ve come up with to maximize efficiency.

In fact, throughout the Bootcamp, Hurlbut took pains to stress that the HDSLR footage he showed attendees did not come from a one-man band. “You cannot treat (the HDSLR) like it’s just another camera,” he said. “Or it will take you out! You have to understand that this is really a still camera. It’s not a motion picture camera. We can turn it into a motion picture device but it takes an understanding of the equipment and the process.”

He noted that in at least two of the Bootcamp stations, “we showed (participants) how if you do not use an AC, you are dead! The 1st assistant, who has always been an essential part in the production, becomes the quintessential person (in an HDSLR workflow), and the production’s most important ally. That’s something I’ve tried to get across in the Bootcamp. When I do projects with Bandito Brothers, my ACs are all paid above-scale because of the added skill sets they bring along. My media manager, first assistant, and second assistant are sometimes asked to wear multiple hats, and it’s damn inspiring to work with these (Union) crews.”

The DP then compared the idea of a one-man-band HDSLR workflow to frequently heard statements that professional-looking (HDSLR) results can be achieved without lighting. “That’s the biggest disservice that you can do to this camera,” he announced. “The camera can take advantage of available light but you need to shape it, configure it, conform it. Just like if you’re lighting for film, the light needs to be shaped and manicured to bring out its best qualities.

“If someone wants to try to make a movie as a one-man band,” Hurlbut concluded, “then they’ll find out the truth the hard way. What I wanted to give everyone who came to our Bootcamp was the instruction and tools they need to work successfully with these cameras and one of the things we repeat many times over was that it requires a top notch crew.”

Voices From The Front
By Jon Silberg

Having reported on $200 million studio pictures on down to zero-budget YouTube shorts, I will admit to being impressed by Shane Hurlbut’s HDSLR Bootcamp, which ran the last weekend in August at Alternative Rentals Digital Cinema, in West Los Angeles. I say “admit” because the cinematographer’s approach to teaching people about HDSLR filmmaking transcended just talking up his beloved Canon 5D MK II as a cinematography tool and veered into some broad proclamations about the future of filmmaking. Whether you agree with his assessments or not, it’s hard to argue with Hurlbut’s passion or with the quality of images he projected on the facility’s 25-foot screen.

The Bootcamp was well thought out. The first day went into a great deal of depth about camera settings, picture styles, the pros and cons of the various lenses available, audio recording, data capture and storage and more. The second day, when we all received cameras and lenses, and were divided into small groups, provided hands-on experience with pre-set lighting, actors and a large array of grip equipment. Participants with decades of experience, and those who’ve never been on a set, all derived some benefit; I had a chance to poll a diverse set of attendees about the event, and here are a selected group of voices from the HDSLR front lines.

Lane Nakamura works in animation and post-production for commercials at L.A.-based Duck Studios. He wants to shoot live-action plates to composite animated characters into. “The 5D is an exciting format and it was a great opportunity to learn from the pros. I was very interested in learning about how to set up a client-friendly environment, like a video village, using the outputs from these cameras. The best part was being surrounded by professionals who know their craft; not only Shane, as we had a cinematographer in our group and other high-level professionals from other aspects of production.”

Chuck Minskey, cinematographer, Local 600 Member. Wanted to see how Hurlbut is using the 5D. “For me as a director of photography, I thought the first day was great. I really learned about the camera – what makes it work, and its strengths and weaknesses. I appreciated that the (instructors) went through all the menus one by one so you could figure out what setups would work best for specific situations. I loved seeing all the mounts and the grip equipment and the different lenses. I loved learning that the camera just naturally heats up. It’s not anybody’s fault. You’ve got to be prepared for that. The second day was all about shooting. I didn’t like that as much because it felt like work!”

Gianluca Bertone, currently enrolled in UCLA Extension certificate program in cinematography. Learned about the program from Local 600 member Vincent Laforet’s popular online blog. Laforet is a commercial photographer, DP, and director, and a Canon 5D advocate. “I liked shooting under the different lighting setups that were provided. And it was very interesting to see the work projected on the big screen. I really like the quality of what we were able to do. I enjoyed learning about all the different lenses available and the camera settings on the first day but for me the actual shooting was the best part. Practice is always the best thing.”

Mary Gonzales, 1st AC for 25 years and ICG member. Concerned about staying on top of new technology to keep relevant in her current position and also advancing. “I’m trying to move up to operator and you just cannot find low-budget operator jobs without knowing this equipment. This is what those kinds of projects are shooting on and generally you need to own it yourself in order to be considered for the job. The first day was the most valuable for me. I had the steepest learning curve. There was a lot of information about the menus and the cocktails (Hurlbut and his team) have worked out. That gave me a base to start with, and I can experiment with all the menus from there. The shooting was something where I have a lot of experience so I tried to keep my group organized and on track. The technology (in this industry) is changing so fast that it’s vital to always re-educate. I realized that when I was working on According to Jim (2000) and we went from 35mm and dollies to high def and pedestals. You’ve got to constantly adapt.”

Photos by Ryan Strong Fritz