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Double-Daring Lensmen

Specialty Shooters Tempt Fate, Garner for Elusive Footage

By Mark Smith

Behind-the-scenes of a Hansaplant bandage commercial.  Photo: Bob Carmichael  Start your engine! The Pikeís Peak International Hill Climb.  Photo: JSP Broadcast Inc.  Getting close to the action: A tornado in Harper, Kan.  Photo: Martin Lisius  A Norbert Sport rig helps Mike Hess shoot extreme sports.  Photo: Mike Hess
Behind-the-scenes of a Hansaplant bandage commercial.
Photo: Bob Carmichael
Start your engine! The Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb.
Photo: JSP Broadcast Inc.Getting close to the action: A tornado in Harper, Kan.
Photo: Martin Lisius

A Norbert Sport rig helps Mike Hess shoot extreme sports.
Photo: Mike Hess

Depending on what type of gig a shooter has, he or she could unwittingly find himself or herself in a nerve-wracking or downright scary scenario. If you lens corporate projects, you’re probably fairly safe. But if you’re on an ENG shoot, who knows?

However, the thrill seekers are another breed. They shoot cars that go zooming by them at 100 MPH, and skateboarders who might be speeding if they went that fast in a car. They might do it in all sorts of crazy weather, possibly when pulling themselves up the sides of mountains while hoisting a heavy camera. Among other things.

Would you or I do it? Probably not. But they not only do it, they do it often, with gusto. Sometimes, they even dedicate their careers to acquiring specialty footage. What makes these guys tick? Read on.

Tellin’ It on the Mountain

Companies that offer specialties don’t necessarily ignore other profit centers in the markets. That thought has not been lost on John “Sandy” Santucci, owner of Denver’s JSP Broadcast Inc. While its corporate division shoots various projects, JSP also focuses on sports production. “The more extreme, the better,” he says.

Covering sports in the Rocky Mountains often means conquering its rugged terrain, as JSP’s crew did during the production of the annual Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb auto race. It debuted on Altitude Sports and Entertainment this fall and is now in national distribution.

The shoot is difficult, mainly due to scaling the majestic mountain, which reaches 14,100 feet into the sky. Starting at 9,300 feet, JSP placed its camera setups at various positions along the 12.42-mile narrow, steep and slippery mountain road course. JSP relied on the Sony EX-1, XDs and Z1Us for the shoot. “We had six cameras along the course: One at the start, two at the finish line and others at various junctures along the course, plus the all-important helicopter shot,” he says. “When you have a race car zooming by at more than 100 MPH, it can be tough to get a sharp image.”

An important asset to the production was the use of an aerial camera, in this case a Sony XD Cam with a Cineflex mount, setup by Angel City Air of L.A. The copter followed most of the racer’s runs; also key to the production were a myriad of POV cameras, including more than 100 GoPros and Contours, mounted inside and outside several cars at various angles.

Getting an overhead shot of the ìPikeís Peak finish line.  Photo: JSP Broadcast Inc.
Getting an overhead shot of the “Pike’s Peak finish line.
Photo: JSP Broadcast Inc.

Once camera locations were secured, crews then dealt with the given hazards of the production: the unpredictable all-season weather; the constant 30- to 40-MPH winds at the finish line; and the other issues, such as dirt in the cameras and on the lenses. “It’ll be nice to not have that problem next year when the entire road is paved [which has been far from the case] for the race,” Santucci says.

Safety for the crew is a primary concern, so camera positions are chosen with utmost care, though a car could roll or slide off the course; but so far, it’s all been good. “Those positions allow for great long shots, too,” he says.

Already, it’s time to think about next year’s event. “This is second oldest motor sports race in the country – and definitely the highest,” says Santucci “Hopefully, 2012 will be our first year to shoot it in 3D. We’re working with a few networks to partner with us.”

A Man for All Elements

No one can call Martin Lisius faint of heart; nor is watching his productions for those concerned about their tickers. That’s because Lisius, founder of Prairie Pictures’ StormStock in Arlington, Texas, is a storm chaser extraordinaire. And unlike many of his brethren, he’s not concerned about being pigeonholed. “I specialize in extreme weather,” Lisius says. “That’s about it.”

Interviewing one of the Pikeís Peak drivers.  Photo: JSP Broadcast Inc.
Interviewing one of the Pike’s Peak drivers.
Photo: JSP Broadcast Inc.

The Texas resident lives there for good reason: “I’m pretty sure that it’s the only state that has hurricanes, tornados and blizzards,” he says.

Chasing the worst weather imaginable actually requires keen forecasting skills, so Lisius analyzes raw data culled from the Internet and uses forecast models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to prepare about 100 tornado forecasts a year to determine where he can find a supercell (a storm system producing thunderstorms with rotating winds sustained by a prolonged upward draft that may result in hail or tornadoes) that might hit anywhere from Texas to the Dakotas.

super cell
A so-called supercell captured in Upton County, Texas, in 1999.
Photo: Mark Lisius

“That’s where I usually shoot,” Lisius says, adding, “I also look for large damaging hail, torrential winds and hard rain.”

Filming Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Photo: Mark Lisius
Filming Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Photo: Mark Lisius

It’s those tornadoes and supercells that he likes best. “Hurricanes are relatively easy to forecast, once they approach the U.S. coastline, to within a couple of days of landfall,” he says, “and blizzards are relatively easy, too; I just have to look for a upper-level storm system moving toward the West Coast of the United States, toward the Rockies and onto the Plains States.

To capture phenomenal weather events, such as Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008, and (of course) Katrina in 2005, Lisius employs various cameras. “When I want something beautiful, it’s the Arri 35-3. But I sometimes shoot with the Sony PMW-EX3 because it’s dependable and has a fairly light-sensitive 1/2-inch chip,” he says. “For lightning, I use the Arri or the Sony HVR- Z1U. It shoots superior lightning images because it’s a CCD camera; the newer HD cameras usually feature CMOS sensors, which are horrible for shooting lightning because of their rolling shutters.”

While Lisius – who notes that he captured the first-ever tornado on 3D this past June in Nebraska – focuses on a narrow niche, he serves an expansive clientele of spot, film and doc producers who work with clients such as Allstate and ABC News, movies such as An Inconvenient Truth and The Devil Wears Prada, and various IMAX features.

He’d be remiss, of course, not to mention his much-needed “raincoats” and cases from manufacturers such as Kata and Porta-Brace. He sure couldn’t live without them. “What I do is like shooting in a shower with a camera for five or six hours,” Lisius says. “That’s shooting in a hurricane. It’s almost like being underwater.”

Following a storm, snow covers the roof of this mountain home in Utah.  Photo: Mark Lisius
Following a storm, snow covers the roof of this mountain home in Utah.
Photo: Mark Lisius

A Specialty With More

While Lisius sticks to extreme weather, Bob Carmichael, director/DP of Denali Productions in Boulder, Colo., has honed his focus on the wonders of the great outdoors – among other things.

While his productions featuring nature’s wonders and vastness are intriguing, they also can be frightening. He has “expert-level experience in the water, the mountains and the air,” he says, and was “on the ground floor of pioneering adventure mountaineering and rock climbing work, shooting in the vertical environment,” placing booms on “air stations” that accommodated cameras mounts, tripods and even boom arms.

Denali Productions
More behind-the-scenes footage of Denali Productions producing a bandage spot for German client Hansaplant.
Photo: Bob Carmichael

Carmichael started acquiring footage in the 1970s when he produced an early rock climbing video for U.S. TV; in 1979, he produced a film about extreme skiing in the Grand Tetons, marking “the first time that that sport was introduced to the American public,” he says.

Speaking of film, another marquee moment occurred in 1989, when Denali shot the open to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – with an Arri 435 – from 2,500 feet up the southwest buttress (or “The Nose”) of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.

Denali Productions crew hoisted several feet up to capture a rock-climbing scene.  Photo: Bob Carmichael
Denali Productions crew hoisted several feet up to
capture a rock-climbing scene.

Photo: Bob Carmichael

A recent Denali gig involved shooting a spot for Hansaplast (band-aids sold in Germany) via agency Beiersdorf. “For the close-up, we used a Harold Lloyd-type arrangement where we weren’t that high up the cliff,” he says, “but the ground dropped away toward the canyon,” creating a dramatic impression.

“Our pick point for the pulley – or sheave – was about 100 feet up the cliff,” Carmichael says. “Then we ran a static-line through a winch, which allowed me to go up or down at any point much faster than strictly Jumars speed.”

All told, it was a busy, one-day shoot. “We moved from one side of the canyon to another, chasing light. We used a stunt double in the early morning, so our [climber] could be in place for the next set up – 700 feet below the establishing shot. We worked at the ‘speed of safety’ with an experienced eye toward the logistics of shooting in the vertical,” he says. The camera of choice? The Arri 235.

But while Carmichael markets his specialty, it doesn’t define him. “I’m a visualist,” he says, noting other spot shoots for Merrill Lynch, Ford Motor Co. and Cadillac; and the music video “Story” for Maroon 5, which was culled from stills and accented with fashion lighting via Denali’s photoGRAPHICvideo process.

Still, he’s often thinking about his next move on the side of a big rock, especially with an extreme 3D project in development. “We’re constantly innovating to get around with equipment on vertical cliffs,” he says.

Up Close & Personal

Mike Hess did it. Then he retired from it and bought a camera. Now, he’s back at it – at age 52 – and he’s still shooting. Skateboarding, that is. Hess, of Hess Images in Newport Beach, Calif., a former pro skateboarder and the 1978 Hang 10 World Pro-Am’s slalom champion, is skating down hills again; but on this day, he’s shooting 13-year-old Travis Clark, an up-and-comer who Hess is capturing doing an aerial backflip out of a bowl.

“I’ve only gotten footage of three people who have been able to do this in 25 years,” said Hess, who has been shooting skateboarders since he retired from the sport in the early ’80s, these days with a Canon 5D Mark 2 and the Sony Z5U.

Hess also uses a bracket that he helped develop with the K-Tek Boom company called a Norbert Sport that ensures that he shoots “ultimate buttery smooth video,” he says. “It’s hard to hold the camera steady in this sport, but this device makes it easy.

“You can add a sound mic or monitor to it, too,” says Hess, and the Norbert Sport’s compact size and handle “allows the shooter to hang the camera into a skateboard bowl or to shoot any subject that’s speeding above you.”

Mike Hess filming a young skateboarder in a California skatepark.  Photo: Mike Hess
Mike Hess filming a young skateboarder in a California skatepark.
Photo: Mike Hess

While he’s made his name in skateboarding, Hess also is a presence in the worlds of snowboarding and surfing. In the snow, he shoots from under a ramp for those “in your face” shots. “I get as close as a foot from my subject,” says Hess. “Sometimes, I have to move my camera pretty quickly. I use the Norbert when I turn around backwards at 50 MPH or a GoPro with a Norbert Tadpole.”

Hess uses a similar approach on the sand. “When I film big wave surfing in Hawaii for Surfline.com, I use a Sony D5U, sometimes with a custom doubler” that’s made by Century Optics for long-distance shots.

Pipeline shooting, if you’re looking into the ocean, is on the right; the left side is called back door. Hess shoots “hard angles” from land, which are “like shooting into the tube, or straight-on angles for fast action. If I shoot down low, it makes the wave look even bigger. The Sony D5U has a slo-mo feature that’s great for that shot.”

All told, Hess is a man on the move. “Most of the people say that I’m the youngest 52-year-old they’ve ever seen,” he says. “Kids can’t keep up with me so I must be doing something right.”

November 26, 2012