The Need for Speed DP Is Heading to New York City to Show Off His Rigs at the DGA Theater

Thanks to his aggressive, you-are-there camerawork on Act of Valor and Need for Speed — as well as his frequent posts on the educational Hurlblog — Shane Hurlbut, ASC, has quickly become known as a pioneer in innovative digital cinematography. Act of Valor was one of the first films to make extensive use of the Canon 5D Mark II, and Need for Speed is the first studio feature to use Canon's C500 as an A camera. 

Hurlbut is visiting the DGA Theater in New York this Thursday, May 15, for The Future of Digital Cinema Through the Eyes of Shane Hurlbut, ASC. Presented by The Studio-B&H and Canon, the evening promises to be a rare opportunity to get an up-close look at a working cinematographer's kit, along with specific film clips showing what the camera's characteristics allow a director of photography to achieve. We got Hurlbut on the phone last week, the day after shooting wrapped on his latest feature, director Gabriele Muccino's Fathers and Daughters, to ask him about his presentation, getting the most out of modest budgets, and why he embraced digital cinema. 

What are you going to be talking about in your presentation at the DGA Theater?

It's kind of my history in digital cinema, which has been pretty minimal. I've shot 17 or 18 feature films, and three of them have been on digital capture. I'm going to show new ways to really connect emotionally with the actors and to immerse an audience. And I will highlight what Canon's [camera] platform does for me as an artist, and how it takes my creativity so much higher than when I was just shooting on film. The way I move the camera, the places I am able to put it for different camera angles, and the amount of coverage I'm able to deliver for a price point — that's the crux of it.

So you don't miss shooting film at all?

I missed it when I first started going into digital cinema. I shot 25 percent of Act of Valor on film and the rest on the Canon 5D. I didn't understand the 5D that well at the time. I knew it was the right tool for the job, but I also knew it would have a steep learning curve. Only after the film was done did I understand the camera and how to finesse it. My next short film, "The Last 3 Minutes," was superior because I really understood the camera. This one [Fathers and Daughters] is the same way with the [Canon EOS] C500. With Need for Speed, I was getting my bearings. Fathers and Daughters is a masterpiece. It's kind of the way I go into everything I do. I jump head-first into a flaming fire pit, burst myself into flames, fail, succeed, fail and succeed, knowing that, at the end, it's going to be something extraordinary. There are not too many cinematographers that would grab a Canon still camera, three months after it was released, and say, "Yes, this could be on a 60-foot screen in 800 theaters."

What was it about the Canon 5D that gave you the confidence that it would do what you needed it to do for Act of Valor?

It's the only camera in the digital realm that even grabbed me. Everyone else had a very un-cinematic look. It was very video-like. It didn't have color depth, it didn't have dimension, it didn't have anything. When I held the 5D, the depth of field and color — where the look was at, it felt more like film to me. I'll keep going back to this every time I discuss what Canon is doing, compared to what everyone else is doing. Canon is trying to create one frame, 24 times. Everyone else is trying to create 24fps [footage]. It's a completely different methodology. I have gravitated toward the Canon platform more than any other camera system. It emulates film exactly how I know it and how it lives and breathes in my soul. 

Now, since you asked earlier: is film dead to me? I guess it's on the cliff, about ready to be pushed off. Seeing what I can do with this camera, and how I can use it in different situations, film is not going to deliver what this camera delivers.

So you're not invested in the romance of film. 

I'm delivering the romance. But with a sensor that actually emulates film. It doesn't try to be something else.

But that means you do like the look of film.

But not the limitations. The size. The costs involved. We would never have been able to make Fathers and Daughters on flim. We were doing 30-minute takes sometimes, to get the actors in the pocket where Gabriele, the director, needed to take them. We were moving the camera in ways you would never be able to move a film camera. When I sat down with the producers on Fathers and Daughters, they said, "We want an $80 million look, and you have $7 million." Well, I can do that. But $7 million is not a lot of money, especially with Russell Crowe as your lead actor. And our cast was unbelievable — Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger. So we were planning and plotting how to do this. The director wanted at least two cameras. I gave him four for the price point. He wanted to do the whole thing on Steadicam. I gave him two Movi rigs on the price point along with the Steadicam. All of a sudden, the camera was moving in ways he never thought was imaginable. The power of the platform is that it's small and compact so you can build the camera to whatever size you want.

So you'll be covering all of this at the DGA?

I'll be bringing along about 39 minutes of Need for Speed, all on DCP, and as I do the keynote I will highlight different aspects of the camera and show how they immerse you in the movie. I'm bringing the rigs I rolled out on Need for Speed and Fathers and Daughters to showcase how I configure the cameras and how I deliver this very unique look. I'll have a helmet cam and the Fist of Fury, which is kind of my C500 version of the Man Cam that I developed on Act of Valor, where you hold the camera out in front of you. I'll have a handheld version and a studio version, so you can see how different configurations let you put cameras in different places. 

A lot of people are like, "Jeez, if you've got this camera you need an external recorder." I've been banging this drum for over two years now, and still people do not get it. External recorders are the only thing you want. Internal recording sucks. Internal requires heat sinks and internal requires pounds and internal requires large. But an external recorder? You can put that thing anywhere you want: on a floor, or in a backpack. You can put it behind a tree so when a car hits it at 90mph, it's safe. All that stuff is huge in regard to immersing an audience. And that's the journey I've gone on. Need for Speed was a big action picture where my camera package was 50 cameras. And on Fathers and Daughters I'm using the same immersive tools, just in a very dramatic fashion. It's wonderful how the platform ebbs and flows.

It's interesting that you find this configuration is ideal for more than action movies.

Before I did Need for Speed, I probably would have told you I'd shoot something like Fathers and Daughters on film. But not now, not with what I've learned. It's been a wonderful artistic journey. Now you can ask me, "Hey, what about a period piece?" And I'd say, "Absolutely." There is nothing this camera can't do. It can deliver any script that comes along.

Shane Hurlbut, ASC, is speaking at the DGA Theater New York on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Attendance is free, but a reservation is required. To register, visit the event's webpage.