Music To Film By: Shane Hurlbut on Drumline
Often during the production of a movie, filmmakers strive to plan their work as thoroughly as possible. Storyboards, extensive tests, rehearsals and even animatics aid the team into visualizing what will happen in front of the camera. For cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, he strives to capture the spontaneity of life and breathe it into the structure of a film shoot. "I'm a DP who rarely says no," Hurlbut admits. "It's not in my mentality. I always try to react to the situation, to the actors, where they are going, to the schedule. I shoot much more 'from the hip' and I believe it spurs more 'real photography.'" With only a handful of features under his belt, Hurlbut has already garnered a coveted American Society of Cinematographers nomination for his work on the TV mini-series "The Rat Pack" in 1998. On last year's "Crazy/Beautiful" starring Kirsten Dunst, Hurlbut lensed a film about a troubled girl with a very different look from most teen movies. His latest work, "Drumline" takes us into the highly competitive world of college marching bands, where musicians are sought after like star athletes and the action can be as exciting as a game-winning touchdown. The film is directed by Charles Stone III and stars Nick Cannon as Devon, a talented but cocky drummer who comes to A&T University on scholarship from Harlem. There, he butts heads with drum major Sean (Leonard Roberts) and Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), the band's conductor.
Cinematographer.com sat down with Hurlbut during the grading of the upcoming "Drumline" DVD, where the DP got a second chance to tweak the look of his film before its release to stores Apr. 15th. In this interview, Hurlbut discusses the challenge of bringing the spectacle of marching bands to the big screen while showing the more private moments as the characters fall in love, learn humility and struggle with success and failure.
It seems to me that "Drumline" could have been a script that may have been difficult to visualize its full potential.
The first time I read the script, I said to myself, "This is a marching band movie." I was in Alabama at the time shooting a tourism commercial and I got this call from Tim Bourne, the producer. It had every aspect of a sports film, where the main character comes from behind, David vs. Goliath -- which always works -- but it was about marching bands. For me, when it comes to halftime, I change the channel! It was a script that did not pop in my head. What did, was the vigilance of the producer (Tim Bourne) to give me a tape of marching bands and make me watch it.
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Tim sent me a videotape of performances doing amazing drum cadences. I was running for the phone after watching that. That's when it clicked for me, because it had never been done before. It's a whole subculture that many audiences have never experienced, and I realized that was what was going to fuel the film, why it was so special.
It all came to a perfect culmination when I was in Maui several weeks ago. I'm sitting in a bar at the Hana Resort, which is way out on the farthest point of the island. I was at the bar and the bartender was talking to a local. She told him that she saw the "Drumline" trailer and since she used to play drums in the band, she couldn't wait to see it. That's when I realized how huge this movie could be.
How much prep time did you have?
I was slated to have five-and-a-half weeks of prep but I had four-and-a-half weeks because of the birth of my son. It was a fortunate event, but a burden to prep a movie of this scale without that extra week. Because of that, we prepped 17 hours every day. We'd start at 6 a.m. and scout, sit down at 9 or 10 p.m., eat, watch movies, look at photos, etc. I would color correct the location photos on the http://www.kodak.com/US/en/motion/products/preview/preview2.shtml ">Kodak/Panavision PreView system to get in my head the palette that Charles wanted for the film. We'd sleep for four hours and do it again. It was relentless.
What were you two going for in terms of the film's look?
We had a lot of conversations about Georgia clay when we were going to be in Atlanta in the film. It's such a red color, and there's so much brick and the light is so warm, there's a haze that happens because of the humidity there. I came up with a tea-stained vibe that has a yellow, chocolate, slightly desaturated look for the campus. When the performances happened, I wanted it really super-saturated. To do that filmicly without going through a digital process, I shot > Kodak 5277 which is a more desaturated stock for all the day and night sequences on the campus. Then I shot 5279 for all the performances, which is much more contrasty and colorful. It's the most saturated stock that Kodak makes. That was doing it from an organic process. What we're doing now with the DVD is cranking the chroma up. The whites are exploding more and the chroma is more intense. A & T bleeds blue and gold on screen.
Was there anything on this film that you'd never done before?
I came out of this movie learning how well Kino Flos work with black skin. I wasn't a big fan of Kino Flos in regards to lighting people before. I liked them for lights you can put in shots, hide in a corner or put in a difficult place to work. In this film, I used them everywhere. That was the one thing that I did on this film that I've never done before. They light African-American people beautifully. A white face takes the light so differently -- it just doesn't look as good -- but black skin will have a sheen to it. You see that Kino Flo as a top source reflected in a face, and it gives an amazing quality to it.
get to know each other
How did you light the scenes in the band room?
The ceiling was low, the walls were white with murals on them, and there were blue seats and a black floor. Charles wanted it to look as real as possible and this is where they practiced. I had to figure out how we were going to make this work with any kind of contrast. We played Kino Flos everywhere. We'd take the ceiling tiles out, pop the Kino Flos in and go. I also did some tests on 5277. 5277, to me, is the ultimate stock because if you want less contrast, you expose it normal. If you want it to be contrasty, you overexpose it and it gives you the exact color rendition of 5274. It's the ultimate stock because if you overexpose 5274 it goes to hell in a hand basket. Same thing with 5279. If you underexpose 5277 it looks beautiful, it's desaturated and we see into the shadow areas. If you overexpose it, it becomes bold. What a great stock when you're on a schedule that is so reactionary and so impromptu. I would rate the film all different ways. For the hallway and the band room scenes, I would overexpose it a stop-and-a-half because even though the light was everywhere and flat, it made it fall off faster and more contrasty. I think those band sequences have balls to them even though it's just overhead fluorescent lighting. There are still deep blacks and the murals are blowing off the walls.
How did you light the early morning try-outs?
One of my favorite sequences that we did was that dawn sequence. We didn't use one light, it was all shot at dusk and dawn for four days. I didn't even use a bounce card, I just let it all happen. I shot it in 77, exposed normally. With my metering technique for any kind of dawn or dusk sequences, I put the ball up to the sky and that's what I expose at. It gives you full latitude to really crush it down and make it really dark. Once you take that 77 and bring it down, there's an amazing quality to it. The AD Doug Torres worked with me and we scheduled it to so we were in the same area and could do those scenes.
Typically, how many cameras would you use to cover the band performances?
For all of the band performances, we were shooting with four, six, eight or nine cameras. We had to allow the band that was used to playing an entire song and let them play it that way. We had to react to what they did and because of that, it would be real, like we were experiencing it from an audience perspective. We shot from the sidelines and end zones with dollies going back and forth, catching the action. I would send one handheld guy to grab little bits and the Steadicam would go around a couple of times. It was crazy, we would knock band members over, trip people in the process and collide with Sousaphones!
With so many band performances, what was done to distinguish each of them?
Each performance had to be different somehow and we went through different gestations of the shutter. For the first game, the whole performance took place at night, so it was different in that regard. We also made it really hot, so the mercury vapor lights falling down on the band members are blazing. I wanted that performance to be more in Devon's head, so we did more close-ups and we got much more in the game. We were with him and other characters, following them during the performance.
In the second game, there is a battle in the stands before the performance against their archrival team Morris Brown. Both bands are firing music back and forth and we shot Morris Brown with a 45-degree shutter. We shot A&T with a 100-degree shutter. Morris Brown seemed much more electric, which was perfect for the script. You could see that Morris Brown had it going on and A&T was lame in comparison.
When they did the whole performance on the field, we went with a 45-degree shutter for Morris Brown because this was the nemesis. That was a day game that needed to have blazing sun, but it was so overcast. Fox allowed me to go back and digitally fix 64 shots in that sequence. It helped, but overcast is overcast. There is only so much you can do with color saturation. Because there wasn't the hot edge of sun; you don't notice the shutter as much.
The next game was homecoming. I shot 74 at homecoming because it reacts so much better to warmth, much better than 79. I slammed on a tobacco filter and let it ride. Homecoming in the script was where Dr. Lee realizes how much pressure is on him from the alumni to change the performances. We wanted to treat that so we were much more in Dr. Lee's head. We wanted to see what he saw. That got watered down in the edit, but that was our vision. If you could have seen the footage that we threw away on that piece -- it was some of the most beautiful photography I've ever done.
There's a shot where I set up a line of 30 Sousaphones, 15 on each side. At 60 fps Dr. Lee comes walking out and we're tracking along with him. You can see what's on his mind. He's going against everything he believes in and knows this is basically to keep his job in the eyes of the alumni. You see this determination on his face and the sun is kicking off the tubas and throwing these slices of light on him as he walks in slow-motion. Then we take him out and we're on the A&T emblem that's on the pedestal he's standing on. We come up and we reveal his head over the top of the podium. He walks up it and we come right up there with him, all at 60 fps. All of that ended on the cutting room floor.
And then there's the last performance, the ultimate "Battle of the Bands."
We had three of the best bands in the world there, and our band was supposed to win. We had to think of how were going to tip the scales photographically for this. For all of the other amazing bands, we backed off and shot them from a distance. They seem impressive, but not so impressive because we're not in there craning and all that stuff. For Morris Brown, we wanted to treat them the same way. From a lighting perspective, they're always the showy guys. They have the fireworks, so we let the lighting and the fireworks be the element for them, letting the camera stay in the same position as we had shot the other three bands. When Morris Brown came out and the lights were turned off, spotlights came on. Petey Pablo came out in the platinum Bentley and I wanted the stadium to erupt with lighting strikes. However, mercury vapor lamps in the Georgia Dome take 10 minutes to heat up. Dan Cornwall, the gaffer, suggested that we shoot it in reverse. You really have to think things through in reverse. We had to work out how the actors would be moving, we had the reverse mags on the cameras and we turned off the lights. That saved a lot of rigging time and a lot of money.
When A&T came out, that's where we got inside the performance. We craned way overhead with a Stratacrane that reached 86 feet out. We swung that all over the place and made sweeping crane moves to make the girth of the band apparent, especially in the choreography when you see all the people running in different directions. Seeing that from overhead is really powerful.
Is it true you and the director actually added to the choreography of the drum battle at the end of the movie?
This was the really fun part. The band had their own drum battle and we changed it a lot. It was good, but cinematically their performance wasn't great because there wasn't any movement. Charles and I didn't want to move the camera, we wanted the actors to move. We had to see them move forward, back, and the routine needed to have an ebb and flow to it. The other bands in the competition had been playing together for years. They were very tight. Our band was not as good, it was made up of people from many other bands for the film. We had to come up with ways to hide that our band wasn't as in sync. We did that by keeping them moving and distracting the viewer. The performance was choreographed in about three hours, only two days before the performance. Everything was spur of the moment like that, which I love. To me, that's filmmaking, because you're reacting to your situation, to your environment. That's what makes it feel more real. When you have all the time to work out the shot, it's going to be this beautiful shot, but sometimes you can get so locked in on that idea that you don't see the forest before the trees. For me, I can't. Everyone who sees my movies says there's something different about it. If I can describe why it's different, it's that I don't put myself in a box.
light for the final drum battle
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After choreographing this performance, how did you shoot it?
There was only money for an audience for two days. We packed 41,000 people in just to see the bands. Tim Bourne & Dallas Austin are such amazing producers, they put together this promotional extras situation which brought OutKast and Mystikal to bring in the crowds. We choreographed those performers to play with the bands. We shot all six bands in two days. We only had the crowd for eight hours each day and they dwindled as the day wore on. All of sudden, you pan up and there's no one there! That was the biggest amount of planning that went into the movie, making those scenes look huge.
When we shot the drum battle, we didn't have the crowd. I realized this was the one part of the film where the viewer should be mystified, this is where you shouldn't see the crowd. This is where you shouldn't even feel the crowd -- all we should see are the two lines of people just drumming it out against one another. I proposed designing a 50' x 50' light that would fire a toplight down and make everything else fall off to black. You wouldn't know that an audience is even there. However, the special light would cost a
day of shooting. I was told that we would have to bring the production in a day early to pay for the light. Charles and I went back and talked about it. This was the climax of the film so we decided to go for it.
The light was made up of 12 Dinos blowing down through two layers of diffusion and then a big black going around it to funnel the light. We lowered it down 10 or 12 feet right over the actors' heads. This beautiful, warm toplight was two-and-1/2 stops overexposed. It fell off to black very quickly, so this is how we got around the audience. It now made the sequence about the band. We didn't have time to put cameras with flashes in the audience, but we did put flashes in post to give a three-dimensional quality to the darkness and the feeling that someone was out there. We shot this whole battle in one day and I've been pretty flattered that many reviews I've read on the movie compares this sequence to the rap battle in "8 Mile."
How long was production?
Forty-five days was budgeted, but I did it in 44 so I could get my light.
How did you shoot the confrontation scene between Sean and Devon in the
bandroom? The camera goes 360-degrees around them.
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For the stand-off between Shawn and Devon, I knew the energy for it had to be much more tightly wound, like a top spinning out of control. We did that with all different lens sizes: 17mm, 32mm, 50mm, 75mm. I wanted to shoot on a f2 so the background would fall away and the focus would be on the two actors. Rob Carlson, the first AC on the Steadicam, was running around pulling some amazing focus. When the camera came around the back of one actor's head, Rob would have to throw focus to the other actor. The Steadicam operator, George Billinger, was constantly trying to be at the right place at the right time so that when the actors said their dialogue he would be on them.
That scene was lit with Kino Flos. I wanted to treat it as if half the lights in the band room had been shut off. There were three banks of lights in the room and I turned two off. The one bank that was on Shawn's side of the room lit the recording area so that there was more mood to it. We treated the film blue, because I wanted this coldness to it. For the DVD, as they work together; it slowly gets warmer and warmer throughout the band room until it's at its warmest. You see their camaraderie grow subtly with the color.
There's a whole spectrum of skin tones with this cast. Was this ever challenging?
Ernest (Jason Weaver), the character pledging the fraternity -- we called him Velveteen.
His face did not reflect anything. I'd hit him with three stops hotter light than anyone else, and he would suck it up. There was a lot of that going on, but if I lit a scene with all of the characters in it, I lit the area and the actors played in it. With young actors, they're acting goes if they have to concentrate on their marks. With Ernest, we staged him closer to the lights or put something additional on him.
You had never worked with director Charles Stone before, how was the experience?
Charles and I got along so well on this movie. He's a really amazing human being, let alone a talented director. He has this human element that is not Hollywood, it's just him being him. Once we had the look locked in the PreView system, he was off of it. He gave me the responsibility of overseeing the look and wanted to deal with the actors. That's how we worked. He took actors into places I'd never thought he would go and it was great.
Anyone on your crew you'd like to mention?
I had a great crew in Atlanta. David Galbraith was my first AC. He's worked on "October Sky" and "Heat." He had a great energy and definitely had all of his work cut out for him since he coordinated the nine cameras. He assembled a great local crew to pull it all off. George Billinger ("Still Breathing," "Dad, The Angel, And Me") the Steadicam guy, and Paul Varrieur ("Hearts In Atlantis," "Remember The Titans") a local operator, were both amazing. Anytime I work on a movie I like to hire a camera operator who's incredibly experienced and Steadicam guy who is a young whippersnapper. I wanted someone huge like Paul, who knows how the filmmaking process works and what I need to cover the scene. George and I had the energy and the wacky ideas and Paul would put it in his funnel, to filter out what we could really do.
Dan Cornwall was one of the best gaffers I've ever worked with. He saw like a DP and was always putting his input in. He had a great crew behind him and had the intensity to get behind the movie. They were all filmmakers. I didn't tell them how to do anything, they got to think for themselves. For instance, the operators set up their own shots. It was all a collaboration.