Director Blake Vincent Kueny on Keeping Up with John John Florence on the All-4K (and Higher) Red Dragon Shoot
Billed as the first surfing film to be shot entirely in 4K, View From a Blue Moon follows surfer John John Florence and his friends from his home on the North Shore of Oahu to some of his favorite surfing destinations in the world. (Florence is not just another guy with a surfboard — Surfer magazine called him "one of the most dominant pipe surfers of his era," and he's often described as, simply, the world's best surfer.) The film was directed by Blake Vincent Kueny, who had worked with Florence on a previous surfing project, "Done," which received the Surfer Poll 2013 Movie of the Year Award.
Only 23, Kueny got his start in filmmaking at the age of 12 when he made a short documentary of his friends, who were on a Little League World Series baseball team. “They ended up going to Williamsport, PA for the World Series, and I made a self-produced DVD and sold it to all the parents and I realized it was something I liked and could make money at,” explains Kueny. As a teenager, he tried surfing and snowboarding, but a snowboarding injury at 17 led him back to the camera.
For View From a Blue Moon, Kueney and Florence worked with Brain Farm, a production company out of Jackson Hole, WY that specializes in action sports with high-end production values. “They allowed us to be fearless with very expensive cameras because they’ve done it before,” says Kueny. "They really broke down the barrier for us to be like, 'Let's put the MoVI on the back of a jet ski and see if it works.' Not being so scared about being delicate with the camera became very valuable, because we got some shots that I wouldn't have thought were possible before.”
Surfing is one of the most difficult sports to film. A shooter has to be adept in the water — or on a board — and there are boundaries you must abide by with other surfers in the water. Kueny divided the film into sections featuring the locations Florence and his friends surfed in, including Hawaii, Brazil, and Africa. “The number-one goal was to make sure that John did the best surfing ever done,” says Kueny. “I didn’t want the film to have just have one overall kind of look and feel, or mood. I wanted each section to feel like you’re going to a different place, because each location is different and you feel different when you go there. I wanted the movie to encompass each location in a different style, rather than [maintaining] one broad kind of mood and tone throughout the whole thing.”
Kueny says there was a high bar for shooting great-looking footage in Hawaii, since it has been documented by surf photographers for more than 50 years. He researched iconic surf photography in Hawaii and often used the images as storyboards. “There’s one shot specifically that Chris Straley, who’s a surf photographer for Surfing magazine, [took] in the early 2000s,” recalls Kueny. “To me, it encapsulated what pipeline surfing was all about. You have people in the foreground, you have the wave — and the chaos that wave creates.”
For scenes shot in Brazil, where Kueny wanted to capture beautiful colors and culture, the short film "Watchtower of Turkey" was a big influence. Kueny was also influenced by the pacing of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty.
Kueny and his team shot the majority of View from a Blue Moon with the Red Epic Dragon, carrying a minimum of three cameras on every trip. He also did a little shooting with the Vision Research Phantom 4K for high-speed capture, the Sony A7s for behind the scenes, and a little with the Canon EOS 1Ds. In terms of lenses, Kueny liked to use a lot of older glass from Leica and Hasselblad on the Dragon, but also used Zeiss CP2 primes and Canon zooms.
DPs often shoot surfers with long telephoto lenses. During prep, Kueny recalls, Brain Farm said his crew would be able to use their “bad-ass” Angenieux Optimo 30–300mm. He had to tell them it wasn’t going to be enough. “We found an old Canon 150–600mm and Century did a few conversions of that with the gearing to make it more of a cinema lens,” says Kueny. “That was kind of our go-to lens.” During the shoot, the production purchased the Canon 200–600mm f/1.6, gaining image stabilization and reducing the size of the camera rig.
Some of the most beautiful shots in the film were shot from a helicopter, which Kueny used instead of drones. Operator Peter Thompson would sit in the back of the helicopter’s cab, operating off joysticks, and Kueny would sit in the front as a spotter. “We did one week of drone shooting in Hawaii but ended up only using two shots out of the whole thing,” explains Kueny. “There are still a lot of restrictions to shooting with a drone. The one thing I really notice from a drone and a full-size helicopter is just the sense of scale when you’re passing through a landscape. You’re moving a lot faster, [the helicopter is] a lot bigger, and it really captures the immenseness of these locations.”
Kueny shot most of the film in 5K, but from the helicopter he shot 5.5K at 48 fps with 6:1 compression. For interviews or anything on sticks, he shot at 6K. For surfing sequences, he shot almost everything at 96 fps at 12:1 compression. Storage was a big issue, and the production always had two Pelican 1510 cases filled to the brim with 4 TB hard drives to store footage.
According to Kueny, each location had its own challenges. In West Africa, the biggest challenge was just survival, since the crew had to bring in its own water and generators. The nearest gas station was four hours away. In Brazil, the biggest challenge was security. “Hawaii is challenging because you have to jump through a lot of red tape,” says Kueny. “You have to get the FAA for the heli to get approved. You’re dealing with people on the beach and you’re dealing with other people capturing what you’re capturing, trying to run down the beach and say, ‘Hey don’t use that. We’ll buy it so you don’t put it out on the Internet.’”
View From a Blue Moon was edited on Premiere Pro CC. Kueny edited native .r3d files. The color-grade was performed by Ntropic in Santa Monica, CA, on a tight, four-day schedule. Ntropic's Marshall Plante and Trevor Durtschi prepped the film and split it into four sections, coloring simultaneously in the different sections, and Kueny gave it a one pass to ensure the film finally had a cohesive look. Kueny says the color grade was straightforward; he wanted everything to look as beautiful and natural as possible. “I’m very much a traditionalist in the sense of color,” he explains. “I don’t really like to put looks on things. It gets really hard because the waves are all different colors and if you start to change the look of a wave, people start to notice and it throws them off.”
At 59 minutes, View From a Blue Room really represents the cutting edge of distribution. The film had its premiere on November 11, 2015, when screenings were held on the same day in seven locations: Hawaii; Cape Town, South Africa; New South Wales, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; São Paulo, Brazil; Orange County, California; and Paris, France. Since then, the film has been released on digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, Google Play, Amazon, PlayStation and Xbox, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray. “We also created a 200-page book to go along with the film that was edited by Craig Stecyk—a prolific skateboarder who shaped action sports over the past 30 years,” says Kueny. “Also, John travels the WSL [World Surfing League] tour next year, and at every stop he goes to compete there will be a showing and a book tour at each stop. That should sustain the film over next year.”
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