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Shooting a Real-Life Meth Lab for Documentary ‘Cartel Land’

In a first-person account, director Matthew Heineman writes on MovieMaker Magazine about finding and shooting a real-life meth lab deep in Mexico for his harrowing war on drugs documentary, Cartel Land.

Explains Heineman, “For months, I had dreamed about how I wanted to shoot the meth scene, and the whole time, I envisioned shooting it during the day or in a trailer-like building. But, when we got there, the last rays of light were falling beneath the mountains in the distance. The head chef – a small, fiery man – started showing us the lab. And that’s when I realized that the lab wasn’t what I had seen in Breaking Bad. Instead, it was outside, hidden amidst a dense forest of trees, in the pitch black.

“That was a big problem since I don’t shoot with lights (nor would they have allowed me to use them because darkness was the key to operating a mobile meth lab and not getting caught). To keep us from tripping over the dense brush, the head chef, surrounded by big burly men with assault rifles, used a flashlight to show us the way. And it was with this flashlight that I lit the scene. We were shooting the film with the Canon C300, which is really incredible in low light. In Mexico, I only really used two lenses: the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 and Canon 24-105mm f4. Using just the flashlight, I was able to keep the ISO between 4,000 and 5,000 with the extra stop on the 17-55 in order to get an image with very little noise.”

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