Although the HBO documentary TheCrash Reel focuses on half-pipe snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce, one of the most riveting scenes shows no snowboarding at all. The film, directed by Lucy Walker, is really about the devastating effects of the 2009 training accident that caused Pearce to suffer traumatic brain injury that damaged, among much else, the former star athlete’s self-awareness.
Cinematographer Nick Higgins recalls his first day on the project, shooting the Pearce family’s first Thanksgiving dinner after the near-fatal accident and traumatic convalescence. Despite Pearce’s diminished coordination and the admonition that a second head trauma could prove fatal, the snowboarder insists he can return to his dangerous sport and won’t listen to the loving family intent on talking him out of it.
“His parents and brothers were staging a kind of intervention,” says the cinematographer, “and we were in their house. It was certainly good that the family was very comfortable with the camera and able to ignore it, but we still had to try to be as unobtrusive as a person with a 25 lb. camera on his shoulder and another with a boom mic could be.”
Walker prefers to shoot with as small a crew as possible, so there was only Higgins and his Panasonic AJ-HDX900 and Walker with a small boom and Zoom recorder. Lighting consisted of replacing the 60-watt bulb over the dinner table with a 200-watt photoflood and turning the dimmer up all the way. “You don’t get more fortunate than a circular table with a light fixture hanging in the middle. Everybody gets lovely, even light,” says Higgins, who prefers in situations like this to be as minimalist as possible. “The house was a converted barn with a lovely array of standing lamps, so we just made sure they were all fired up in the background.”
Although Higgins went through the American Film Institute’s cinematography program, which focuses exclusively on shooting narrative cinema, his professional career has been primarily in the documentary realm, where challenges often come from shooting emotionally charged scenes without a script and with no retakes. This dinner scene, which he covered (as he did all the material he shot for TheCrash Reel) with a single camera, was certainly a prime example. He had to absorb what was going on and try to capture the best shot possible as the discussion got more heated and unpredictable.
Higgins says his best apprenticeship for this kind of work came from the five months he spent with the Boston Fire Department for a Discovery Channel show. “The process was life-changing for a shooter,” he says. “The situation had already begun by the time we arrived and everything was happening very fast. Horrible things were going on. People were injured and dying and their family was trying to find out what condition they were in.
“And there was always one fireman—a chief or lieutenant—who is expected to not lose his mind while the others do,” he recalls. “I would focus on that person. Standing next to someone who’s calm in a crazy situation has a calming effect. And that was important for me because no matter what, you have to hold your shots long enough for them to be useful even though your heart and mind are racing. So in my work, whenever there’s high drama, I channel Lt. Kelly.”
Which is precisely how Higgins kept his mind focused on shooting while the intimate, emotionally charged family drama played out around him.
The cinematographer is gratified by the way Walker lets this scene play out in The Crash Reel. “That scene is six minutes long,” he points out, “with no music and no voiceover. There is one shot when the father hits a bell before the meal begins and everyone at the table just goes quiet for 25 seconds. I’d be surprised if any other contemporary documentary has a shot that lasts 25 seconds. Few have shots that last eight seconds!”
The cinematographer explains that this scene, the first one he shot for The Crash Reel, demonstrates what he most loves about documentary work. “It’s a pure, human moment in time with nothing apart from what happens at that table and nothing to telegraph to the audience how they’re supposed to feel. It’s a scene I hold in high esteem.”