Shane Hurlbut, ASC, is one of a growing number of cinematographers tirelessly advocating HDSLR video production. Anyone who's had the opportunity to catch him speaking publicly—and effusively—on the topic can see that this is a man on a mission.
Hurlbut's first introduction to the Canon 5D Mk II was in January 2009, when he used the camera to shoot a series of Webisodes to complement the theatrical release of Terminator: Salvation, which he also shot. "When I took that camera and put it in my hands, I knew it was going to change the way we make movies," he recalls.
Change was exactly what commercial directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy at Bandito Brothers were envisioning when they began production on Act of Valor, a high octane feature-length action film with a cast of active-duty Navy SEALs. It was to be the first film of its kind shot on the 5D, and Hurlbut was the first DP on the filmmakers' list. "When the guys from Bandito Brothers came to me with the idea of shooting an action picture with a $2,500 camera, I was like, 'That's new. That's different. That's crazy. I'm in,'" Hurlbut says. "If we're going to do this, it's gotta be like [the video game] Call of Duty. It's got to be in-your-face, immersive action like you've never seen before. The HDSLR cameras enabled us to do that."
The goal was to put the audience "inside the eyes and mind of a Navy SEAL." Hurlbut is dubious about the cinematic qualities of your typical helmet-mounted lipstick cam; he was more interested in point-of view shots over the barrel of a gun with the sights out of focus and the target in sharp view.
Bandito Brothers had produced several armed forces recruitment films. With the official involvement of the U.S. Navy, Waugh and McCoy constructed the script for Act of Valor out of stories gleaned from casting sessions with actual SEAL teams. Real-life scenarios from the Caribbean to Iraq are weaved throughout the narrative.
Hurlbut likens a day on set to a day on a battlefield. Many of the scenes in Act of Valor were shot during live-fire exercises and training missions. "They're loading missiles into trucks right next to us and firing mini-guns that shoot 4,300 rounds a minute," he says. "This is combat, and we're right there, taking it all in."
At first, Hurlbut was shooting only with the 5D and an early version of the camera's firmware. No 24p. No manual settings. He had to trick the camera into a desired f-stop or color temperature before locking in the video settings. Everything that was shot at 30p was downconverted to 24 through RE:Vision Effects Twixtor, but the program's frame-blending compounded the camera's two biggest weaknesses: moiré and a CMOS rolling shutter. Hurlbut shrugs it off. "With the 5D, you can use your shallow depth of field to take things like moiré and throw them out of focus," he notes. "Does the rolling shutter make everything go sideways when you pan the camera? The Foundry has a program for that."
Even with these issues, the pros far outweighed the cons. Hurlbut considers Act of Valor's Caribbean yacht takedown scene a prime example of the camera's mission-critical versatility: "We went in to shoot this scene in two days—which was unreasonable to begin with—got weathered out, and ended up having to shoot it in one day," he recalls.
Eight cameramen including Hurlbut (aka, the Elite Team) were positioned on the yacht, in helicopters and Zodiacs, each with a standard-issue Pelican case containing a set of Canon lenses, a 5D body, filtration, wireless follow-focus modules, and a mattebox. "Not only did we shoot the yacht takedown, and not only did we shoot the bad guy hanging out with his babes, we also shot a nine-page interrogation scene," he remarks. In total, the Elite Team accomplished an astonishing 267 setups in one 14-hour day.
Production wrapped in January 2010, signaling the start of a full-time postproduction schedule. Waugh and editor Michael Tronik started assembling the footage in Avid Media Composer until Jacob Rosenberg, CTO and head of post at Bandito, introduced Hurlbut to Adobe Premiere Pro (part of CS5). The Adobe software offered the filmmakers native Canon H.264 support and a wider color gamut, as opposed to Apple ProRes, which Hurlbut finds more contrasty. "I don't mind crushing the image down in post, but I want to have that extended latitude so I know I'm getting the most out of my image," he says. After picture lock, the filmmakers re-conformed the cut using CS5 and a Twixtor/CineForm cocktail for the older footage. DPX sequences were exported for final color work by Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3. "I want to trail-blaze with the HDSLR, to take advantage of the medium and not show the camera's hand," Hurlbut comments. "But more than that, I believe in picking the best tool to tell a story, and as a director/cameraman, this the most powerful brush I've ever painted with."