Shooting Act of Valor

We shot the movie on a wide variety of locations, over about a year.  Scott and Mouse originally intended to utilize the 5D’s unique capabilities to capture the intensity of the combat scenes, and use film for the backround parts of the story.  The style of shooting allowed by the 5D fit very well with their style of filmmaking, so they used it more than originally planned, but we still ended up shooting quite a bit of traditional film as well.

Our first major shoot for the movie was on a yacht down in the Florida Keys.  That is a very unforgiving location, in that it was important to make sure we didn’t overlook anything in our preparations.  It wasn’t like we would be able to send someone to go pick up something else we needed.  I had two notebook computers and a couple little USB2 drives, so that I could operate without external power if needed.  This was good because the 120V power on the boat shut off frequently, which would have prevented me from keeping up with the shooting pace.  We only had about ten cards, and half of them were only 8GB.  It has still never been explained to me WHY using UDMA cards resulted in better image quality, but it is clearly true, and discovering that severely limited our supply of cards for a while.  The fastest CompactFlash card readers were only capable of about 10MB/s, and while that is twice as fast as the cameras record to them, I had at least 5 cameras to keep up with.  And I had to be able to cycle the cards back to the camera crew in real time, because we didn’t have any spares.

On the boat, which was a $20 million yacht, I setup it the dining room, which was a circular room right at the front, with a 270 degree view of the Keys, and models sitting in the windows on the front deck.  And I had an array of laptops and drives stacked on the table, trying to get every card backed up to two locations before formatting it.  We would be recording constantly for 30-45 minutes at a time when the SEALs would run their operations, so that was a lot to keep up with.  Shane Hurlbut and his Elite Team operated in all sorts of challenging environments, and their methods evolved as they got more experience working with the 5D.  They have a pretty finely tuned system going now, but we were still in the developmental stages of DSLR filmmaking back then, so there were major changes in how we operated between every shoot, as we learned from our experiences.

That first shoot was also back when we were under the illusion that we were going to keep everything perfectly organized in real-time.  I was listening to a wireless feed from our sound recorder Gene Martin, who was on the other end of the boat.  While they were slating each shot, he would call out the name of the sound file, and I would write all of that down on my log sheet in Excel.  Then when I got the Canon files, I would add the appropriate file name (MVI_0392.MOV) for every camera that was shooting that take, based on the slate info and the onboard audio call outs.  I would then assign a unique identifier to each file based on an 8 character convention that we came up with.  The end result was a log that had the take info, sound file name, and all .MOV names.  This log could be converted into a .BAT file for automatically renaming all of the MOV files with the unique identifiers.  This is all while I was backing up more data from five cameras across two systems.

Between then and our next major shoot, we sorted through all of our data, and determined which steps were unnecessary, or could be deferred.  This is good because there is no way that method would have held up through our next shoot, with two weeks in the swamps of Mississippi.  By this point we had at least ten cameras, but we had 24 cards, at 16GB each.  I pretty much kept busy backing up and logging the footage in an RV a few hundred yards away and no longer tried to track the shooting process in real time.  We got better at labeling the cards since there were more steps between them leaving the camera and getting to me.  This was the first time I got to use my ExpressCard based card reader, which dumped the data to my laptop at over 50MB/s.  So now the USB2.0 drives were the chokepoint in the flow of data, which continued to be the case until USB3.0 drives became available a year later.

Our next shoot was on an island in the Pacific, mostly at night.  I worked out of one of the huts on the set, borrowing power from the lighting department when I could.  The challenge here was turn-around time.  Shooting in the dark, they wanted to review their footage as quickly as possible to make sure the 5D was picking up enough image detail.  This was the first time I brought the HP Dreamcolor display onto the set, and it was commandeered by the camera department, for real time monitoring, before the end of the shoot.  Shane has since become a big proponent of the Dreamcolor displays, as his eye into what the camera is seeing.

The last major shoot was two weeks out in the desert.  By then I had assembled what became known as the monitor cart, which was a Dreamcolor mounted to a hand truck, with a UPS battery at the bottom, both for stability and an hour of unplugged use between charges.  I had another Dreamcolor, connected to a dual processor editing station in my trailer.  I still used notebooks for the initial data dump from the cards, because the ExpressCard reader had no desktop equivalent.  By that point we had almost twenty cameras, and numerous cards floating around, making things all the harder to organize.  But with a reliable power source, I could use faster 3.5inch external drives, and a gigabit network to copy the files around.  And with a full editing workstation and Dreamcolor attached, the directors would come in during breaks and at night to watch my sequences of selects.  That was the closest we came to “editing onset.”

Throughout all of these shoots, I was constantly shipping drives of media back to Lance Holte at our office in LA.  He would ingest it all, finish any logging, and make sure it was securely backed up.  Siobhan would then import the footage into Avid as DNxHD files, and start syncing the different angles to the external audio, so that Scott would have media to work with by the time he returned from the shoot.

One thought on “Shooting Act of Valor

  1. Pingback: "Act of Valor" Workflow and Post Production | Hurlbut Visuals

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