True Stories of the U.S. National Guard, on HD and 35mm
Director/D.P. Klaus Obermeyer Is a 'Filmmaking Navy SEAL'
Based in offices located on the tarmac at Santa Monica airport, American Rogue has a Lear Jet at its disposal that flies film crews to hot spots in North and South America at a couple of hours’ notice. That helps make producer Lance O’Connor and his team the go-to guys when you need something gone to yesterday – no wonder the U.S. military has a long-standing working relationship with them. The company’s most recent project, helmed by director/cinematographer Klaus Obermeyer, is a two-minute, multiformat documentary-in-miniature commissioned by the National Guard as a sort of PR initiative.
Asked whether his work could be considered propaganda, O'Connor shrugs off the question. "No matter what it is, someone's going to spin it for you," he says. "There are people out there doing this job, and my goal is to document it and show how courageous, brave and amazing these human beings are, for what they do on weekends and to help other citizens whenever floods happen, and whenever rescues need to happen. That’s why it’s called Citizen Soldier. And these are things that have never been documented before. This is the first time they’ve done it. It was a great morale booster at a very difficult time for the Guard people, and it helped them to feel really good about what they do here in the United States."
Watch the video, below, then read a Q&A with Obermeyer about interviewing real National Guard soldiers, using the patented “Klaus Cam” to get impossible shots, and working without a script.
FILM & VIDEO: Talk about the visual strategy behind “Citizen Soldier.”
KLAUS OBERMEYER: It was a combination of acquisition formats. We used HD for interviews and 35mm film for the more cinematic sequences, especially high-frame-rate and night-time photography. The key to telling the story was honesty, but the same time, we wanted to create excitement. We combined high-value cinema footage with really honest interviews with these people and a lot of footage of what they actually do. It was a tough job, given the state of our country right now with what many feel – appropriately, I think – is the misuse of many of these guys. Telling this story at this time was very interesting.
So when you made this, you kept in mind the discomfort that some viewers might feel with military subject matter?
You're dealing with that – but at the root of it, the key was saying, "What is, absolutely, the truth of the National Guard?" Then you assemble it in a way that supports the truth with images that speak to the people you're featuring. A lot of what they do is really sexy and a lot of it is dangerous. No matter what, these are kids who are doing a tough job well. And, in many cases, thanklessly.
What, exactly, was your assignment from the Guard?
The assignment was based on a piece I had done before titled "Enduring Freedom," showcasing the Navy and Marine Corps teamwork. The National Guard saw that piece and said, "We want something that elicits emotion about the Guard and what they do.” They wanted to tell the Guard's story – the true story, with a little bit of history – to create a human-portraiture piece that would serve as a commercial piece for recruiting. In this climate of political sensitivity, it had to resonate as authentic. And because it was going into theaters and demanding that an audience pay attention to something that it didn't want to pay attention to, it was important that they be entertained and not feel that their time has been wasted – that some asshole has taken two minutes of their time to sell them something they don't want.
Were you given a script?
I refused to write a script for this or have any kind of script signed off on. You can't script honesty. The individuals would tell their own stories, not stories we had scripted, and we'd see where their hearts were at. The National Guard had people in mind that they thought best represented what the Guard actually was. I evaluated their credibility, their look, their passion, and their ability to convey it. We went out and interviewed these people. Simultaneously, we fleshed out the stories by making recreations – such as shooting a woman being pulled out of the water. A woman in the Guard had rescued a pregnant woman and had a special connection to her, having had three kids herself. That stuck out as being worth pursuing.
In addition, we had to lure people into paying attention in the opening. There were three lines of copy that defined the film: "For over 370 years, a group of people have stepped forward …." And then at the end, "There are 350,000 soldiers serving you in the National Guard." Those three lines were all we needed to write.
One of the scenes shows an actual deployment of National Guard soldiers to Iraq.
When the soldiers were marching off, somber in the rain, to Iraq, that was the biggest point in the film. It was shot in Kentucky as they were actually assembling to leave, sacrificing 18 months away from their familes and their other jobs. There's a lot of truth in that somberness. It feels right. It's not all pretty. It is an oath and a commitment they make, and it's dangerous. We didn't sidestep the more brutal points of being a Guardsman. We focused on them, and we wanted to be there for the most highly emotional events.
What cameras did you use? And what kind of look were you going for?
The interviews were shot with Sony PDW-F900 HDCAMs. We also used some DV footage shot by actual Guardsmen of events they have covered – Hurricane Katrina or other events where nothing else existed. We used whatever we could get our fists on. And then I shot 35mm motion picture film to create some of the cinema with the helicopter rescues and some of the opening shots and the tank shots. We used film when we wanted to push the visual style. It's a combination of truth and beauty.
Tell me about the camera system you use called the "Klaus Cam."
It's suspended from the helicopter by a cable, and it's gyro-stabilized and controllable from the copter. We developed and patented that based on our need to be able to shoot helicopter aerials that put the camera into the action and distance the helicopter from it. It keeps the helicopter blades from obstructing the view, and keeps rotor wash [turbulent air movement caused by the helicopter blades] off the subject matter. It allows you to put the camera down and shoot, say, a tank amongst trees. Some of the traveling shots give you this visceral, magic-carpet feeling.
What's an example from "Citizen Soldier"?
We used it in the helicopter opening, the overhead shot of the helicopter. There's a Klaus Cam demo on the Aero Film Web site ( ) that explains the camera and shows how it's different. www.aerofilm.tv
How much footage did you have to cull through to create the final two-minute piece?
A lot – probably 100 hours of different material. We had to divide and conquer to get enough crews out so the piece could be an accurate representation. We had teams go up to Alaska and some of the other remote outposts of the Guard. It was a lot to produce, and a complex logistics operation.
What was the most important factor in being able to handle those logistics?
We have a Lear Jet and we're based at the airport. Our offices are actually on the runway. We set up our company to be a resource for agencies that need filmmaking talent that we can put immediately in the air to cover an event with no advance planning. Our jet can be from here to Kentucky in four and a half hours with a crew to cover an event. We'd get up to Alaska in the morning and then hear about a grassfire the Guard was fighting in Kansas, shoot the fire in the afternoon, fly to Missouri for an evening interview and then the next day show up in Texas for an interview and a mock training exercise. We're like a filmmaking Navy SEALs, sitting and waiting.
What was the post-production process like, specifically the digital intermediate?
Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 has done every bit of my coloring since I've been working in L.A. First of all we're friends, but second, he's the best in the business in my opinion. He has been key for me because I like to be on the leading edge, and he's singlehandedly been responsible for most of the looks that have hit advertising. This was a perfect example of how his look and his color helped us reach our goals of creating beauty and truth.