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Spotlight: Texas Crew Productions

From the Southwest to the far, really far West, production companies learn they have to go where they are needed.

By Tom Inglesby

Competitors in the Ironman marathon

Competitors in the Ironman marathon, some still wearing their biking helmets, continue the grueling event under the watchful camera of a Texas Crew Productions cinematographer.

Sometimes a crew has to be ready to go even further west than their home state. Emmy award-winning director of photography Terry Stewart established Texas Crew Productions in Austin, Texas, in the early 1980s. His company has covered many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and the Olympic Games. His personal favorite is the annual Ironman World Championship, a triathlon that was held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and aired on NBC.

This was Stewart’s 22nd straight Ironman. “It’s a really challenging day because it’s long; it’s over a huge footprint,” Stewart explains, “and you’re dealing with 2,000 athletes of various abilities. You need to be ready for anything.”

Working the same event for many years gives a producer a chance to look back at the evolution of his art. “Well, 22 years ago, we shot Betacam, and then we supplemented with some film cameras, as the budget would allow,” recalls Stewart. “I’m talking about the mid-‘90s, so we didn’t have all the toys we have now. When we stepped into the HiDef world we thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is going to be tremendous. Pictures are going to be great. We don’t have to really deal with film anymore.’ What we didn’t realize is all the different formats.”

Some Texas Crew Productions camera operators followed the bike racers on motorcycles while others had an easier task, sitting on the corner, waiting for the runners.

Some Texas Crew Productions camera operators followed the bike racers on motorcycles while others had an easier task, sitting on the corner, waiting for the runners.

Some Texas Crew Productions camera operators followed the bike racers on motorcycles while others had an easier task, sitting on the corner, waiting for the runners.

He continues, “To give you a quick rundown of the different cameras that we use to get the footage this year, we have two RED EPICs, two Sony F55s, one Sony F5. We had 11 Xdcam 800s, one Canon C300, and one Sony FS700. We had a GH4 on a (Movi). We had a couple of 5Ds shooting time-lapse. And then for the interviews, we shot a Sony F3 recording on S-log into ProRes four-by-four on a PIX 240i. So add all that up, and the post side gets a little frenetic.”

Texas Crew brought all the footage back to Austin, where editors created the 90-minute program. Luckily, they have the luxury of a five- or six-week turnaround. “Two years ago, we did it in eight days, which was … everyone’s hair was on fire. That was pretty crazy. But normally, we have time,” Stewart says.

During the event, crews often drive in front of the racers to shoot the action. This year, Stewart used a Zylight F8 LED Fresnel while shooting out of the back of a convertible. The F8 can be powered by a standard 14.4V camera battery, which was useful on the road and when Stewart was in more remote locations along the Ironman course. “I really wanted an LED with some punch that could run off a battery,” he recalls. “It’s a huge time saver.”

Again, times have changed. “Back in the old days, I used a Sun Gun,” reminiscences Stewart. “It was just a big light that you had very little control of. We used to put some diffusion on it, just to slow it down a little bit and make it a little more pleasing to the eye. It was very limiting. It took big batteries, and the batteries didn’t run very long, and you had to be really judicious about how you used them. For me, it didn’t look quite right. It was always either too much light or too little light, but getting it right where you wanted was always a problem.”

That was then. “Zylight came up with a light that, for me, is just a great tool,” he says, “They put a battery on it, it’s dimmable, and I get exactly the light I want in a way where I don’t have to rely on an outlet that’s either unreliable, like in Russia, or unavailable, like in the lava fields of Kona. So I’m a big fan of the Zylight, and I keep one with me all the time.”

Available in daylight (5600K) or tungsten (3200K) versions, the F8 features an eight-inch Schott glass lens, which maintains single shadow traditional Fresnel beam shaping with an adjustable beam spread (16-70 degrees) and patented focusing system for spot and flood operations.

The Ironman event is a triathlon: swimming, bicycling and running. The swim starts right around dawn. Contestants swim 2.2 miles, then they transition to the bike for a 112-mile ride, and then they transition to the run, which is a marathon. Over the years, Stewart has shot everywhere along the routes. “I’ve done everybody’s job there, so I think I do have a unique perspective on it. I would say that the swim part is the most difficult. When you’re on the water, you’re trying to pick out a couple of people to focus on from their swim cap with a number on it. A lot of the challenge depends on what the day gives you. Say there are big swells and you’re trying to hold a shot that’s pleasing to the eye while you’re getting tossed around inside of a Zodiac. That’s really a challenge. I would say just for me, as a cinematographer, that one probably was the toughest.”

The pros will finish in daylight—the men around the eight-hour mark, the women around 30 or 40 minutes longer. Then there are what are known as the age groupers. “This is a sport where anyone can go to the start line and run the same course on the same day with the best in the world,” Stewart explains. “The cutoff point is 17 hours, which puts it at midnight. So the sun goes down at 6:00 sharp, and we have six hours, still, to cover in the nighttime.”

He adds, “When it gets dark, sometimes it can be really difficult to find the particular age-groupers that we’re doing a human interest story on. When you do locate them, you try and focus on them as much as possible with tracking shots. One thing that’s helped us keep up with these people is we put trackers on our age-groupers for the bike and the run, so we can deploy our cameras but it’s still surprisingly hard, because it is really dark out there. Aid stations are lit up, but if you’re not around an aid station, it can be pretty lonely and dark out there for a lot of these athletes.”

Stewart look ahead, saying, “When we start talking about 4K, we start thinking about all the problems we’re going to have when we get to that point; it’s a good problem to have. The show looks amazing. It’s a fantastic venue, and we’ve been lucky enough to have been nominated and won quite a few Emmys for photography and for the show itself.”

February 10, 2015