"We Are Marshall" Cinematographer Breaks New Creative Ground in "Act of Valor"

Edited by Tony Rutherford from Multiple Reports

When "Act of Valor" places real-life Navy Seals in major acting roles for a complex action drama, a familiar face to fans and viewers of the "We Are Marshall" movie will notice a familiar name in the credit: Shane Hurlbut, director of photography, who came to the "Valor" set shortly after completing "Terminator Salvation" for McG. "Act of Valor" had been selected from a variety of proposals for which the U.S. Navy would extend full cooperation. Those conditions included not costing the Navy any bucks and not delaying any operation in the field. One scene allowed photography of one of five small nuclear subs; the film crew had to act instantly on the available GPS data and had 45 minutes to complete the task.

Shane Hurlbut came to the set with the idea of shooting the full throttle scenes using the then newly available Canon 5D, a small lightweight digital camera that he'd used on some "Salvation" sequences. During crucial action scenes, the filmmakers had 12 cameras running simultaneously. The 5D impressed by its image complexity and richness as well as its versatility.

“It gave us the ability to have all the cameras in the right places on the budget that we were handed,” says Hurlbut. “It could morph as big or as small as we wanted. We could put it into a crash housing and drive over it. We could mount one in a tree. I had a guy in the water in the underwater housing; I had one on a techno crane flying over on the side.

“It was less about creating a particular look than it was about letting the audience sit back in their chairs, grab hold of those armrests and go, whoa,” says the cinematographer. “When our guys are jumping out of an airplane at 18,000 feet, you will feel like you’ve just jumped out of it too.” Hurlbut refers to the camera setups he improvised for the film as his cinematic guns. “We built a variety of different cameras from the 5D, each with a different application. What we called the stripper is very small. We were able to do tons of photography with just that stripper, mostly intimate scenes with the U.S. Navy SEALs in the back of the pickups or storming the yachts.”

One of his most effective and dramatic innovations is a helmet cam that places the audience in the boots of a U.S. Navy SEAL mid-mission. “It gave us the ability to be one with the men, looking through their eyes,” he says. “Helmet cams have been around for a while, but with a camera that weighs 25 pounds or more, the utility was limited. The 5D was small enough that we could use it to provide a truly immersive experience.”

Co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh made a daunting, dangerous decision. Even the veteran cinematographer wasn't prepared for the ultimate action reality show --- live fire, which for the SEALS is a regular day at the office. However, in a prior seven minute swift boat documentary, the directors had filmed with live fire.

Despite their background as stuntmen, Waugh and McCoy discovered live fire was unlike anything they’d done before. “It adds an intensity and a level of respect for what you’re doing like nothing else in the world,” says McCoy. “We had 3,000 rounds a minute coming out of one mini gun. It adds a charge and energy to the film. Everybody’s on point. If you get it wrong, people die.”

But the visuals justified the risk, says Waugh. “It’s a different flame thrown out of the barrel. It actually throws out farther. And I think everyone handled their weapons differently, knowing that they were holding something that could kill people. It’s not like any Hollywood film you’ve seen.”

The choice took their director of photography by surprise. “When they told me, I said ‘what do you mean live fire?’” recalls Hurlbut. “‘Well, that’s where they shoot live ammo.’ ‘So, where am I going to be?’ ‘You’re going to be right there. We’ll give you a flak jacket and you’re going to be fine.’ And I’m like, ‘what about ricochets?’”

Hurlbut soon saw for himself the realistic quality live fire gave to the battle sequences that could not have been matched by blanks. “There were some serendipitous moments during filming. A gun might jam so someone had to reload. You can actually see the bullets fly. It is really visceral. It was nice knowing U.S. Navy SEALs rarely miss.”



Adapted from Relativity Media Press Kit for News from  & Promotion of "Act of Valor"


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