Lighting the Way: Shane Hurlbut’s Illumination Experience Tour

Shane Hurlbut, ASC has worked as director of photography on 19 feature films (such as The Greatest Game Ever PlayedTerminator: Salvation, and Act of Valor) as well as hundreds of commercials and music videos. He also blogs prolifically about cinematography on the popular website, Hurlblog, that he runs with his wife, Lydia. This fall, the cinematographer is passing on his experience to aspiring moviemakers in his Illumination Experience Tour, comprised of workshops and masterclasses, from September 14 to November 16, 2014.

Traveling to 25 cities across the U.S., the Illumination Workshop is an introductory day-long class on the fundamentals of cinematography, covering lighting, the look and feel of different cameras, and conveying emotion through camera movement. The Masterclass is more advanced, taking place over a second day and only available in nine of the 25 cities (such as Brooklyn and Los Angeles). In the Masterclass, Hurlbut guides moviemakers in running their own set and achieving specific looks.

The first thing that struck me, entering the Hyatt Regency’s conference room in Irvine for Hurlbut’s first workshop on September 14, was the sheer amount of equipment stacked around the room: cameras, bounces, and filters. The second thing was that the room was lit exactly like a set, dim except for a few white lights directing attention to the middle of the room where Hurlbut stood: the star, director, and cinematographer of this show. His voice was loud and crisp over the microphone clipped to his ear and he paced the room, animated and energetic, waxing about the importance of lenses and lighting.

The workshop contained about 50 attendants (primarily male—there were only two women in the group), though each table was equipped with three to four monitors, so that participants could see what Hurlbut’s cameras captured right in front of them as well as on a massive projection screen at the front of the room. Hurlbut started the workshop with what he called a light study, setting up an actress in the middle of a circular track as he demonstrated how each slight shift of light placement around her changed the mood and tone of a shot. He broke down scenes from his own previous films, discussing the rationale behind his choices, and recreated the lighting and camera set up from a scene from John Stockwell’s Crazy/Beautiful (2001).

Although Hurlbut has primarily worked with bigger-budgeted features, independents need not worry—the workshop covers techniques for achieving a high-quality look with lower budgets. Audience members have the chance to work with everything from Blackmagic cameras to DSLRs, and take on different roles on a camera and lighting crew, from camera operator to focus puller. (Participants could also speak to the various representatives from lighting companies in attendance.)

After taking the workshop, I spoke to Hurlbut about his belief in foundational cinematic education, his own early influences, and the shots he’s proudest of over the course of his career.

Hurlbut using a SmallHD on-board monitor on set.

Hurlbut using a SmallHD on-board monitor on set.

Jonathan Chen, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What inspired you to teach this workshop? Why is the education of film important to you?

Shane Hurlbut (SH): My parents were both educators. And I’ve been at the forefront of pushing all this disruptive technology to its bursting point, pushing the limit with small format cameras, as well as cameras that no one really considers cameras in the movie business. That kind of stuff really excites the hell out of me. It’s trailblazing, like having a machete in the Amazon and hacking my way through it. You’re exhausted at the end of the Amazon and, all of a sudden, you look back and there’s a superhighway of young filmmakers following. After I did Act of Valor and shot it on a Canon 5D, which everyone told me it was impossible, it sparked this fire inside me.

This is a unique opportunity to hop onto this content creation goal. Now people have the ability to create films from their backyard but there’s really not much education behind how you do that. You now have the device, but you don’t know how to use it. My wife and I felt that there was a void there. Smash cut to five years later and 1.8 million followers over the world, and we’ve built a brand. The brand is not just about education; it’s about challenging myself as an artist, too. Everyone tells you that you can’t do both and well, when somebody tells me that, I’m going to do everything in my power to do both. I’m very passionate about cinematography and leading young filmmakers, and being that lighthouse, that beacon.

MM: What process goes through your mind when you set up a shot?

SH: Reading the script. Mapping out the emotion of the characters. Understanding what their arc is. And then I try to attach different emotions. I attach camera motion to the character, as well lighting emotion. This last film I did, Fathers and Daughters with Gabriele Muccino, was Amanda Seyfried’s character’s story. We looked at hand-held and we felt that it wasn’t conveying the right emotion, and we then thought Steadicam. And then I thought, my god, what if we used the MōVI? It’s a film language that nobody had ever really seen before. It’s been used in little short films and gimmicky shots, but we shot the whole movie on that thing. So whenever Amanda is on the screen or any of the characters involved in her life, it’s all shot on the MōVI. And it has that liquidity to it, but it’s not hand-held, it’s not Steadicam, it’s somewhere in the middle.

You set these rules in place and the lighting is done the exact same way. It’s based on the character and what she’s going through. If the scene is deep or depressing, I don’t necessarily make the lighting depressing. I actually make it joyous and bright and gold and beautiful to kind of counteract the story.

I call it an emotional breakdown. So I will attach specific camera emotions to each character: when the camera is locked down, when it should be hand-held, when it should be static. Then I create what I call “the look,” which is a document with each scene described in the way it is going to be lit, what the mood is, what the tone is. All of these documents are sent out to all of the department heads so everyone is on the same page. That way, if we’re going to go with a really golden light, they can match the wardrobe to go with it. All these things play into creating one film.

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Participants experiment in various crew positions at a workshop.

MM: What was your own training like? Was it mostly formal or on sets?

SH: My training was basically getting in there and doing it. I started as a grip truck diver, working on this low-budget horror film in 1988 in Los Angeles and worked my way up the ladder. By 1991, I had met this director-cameraman at the time called Kevin Kerslake and he was shooting these videos. I met him around the same time as I met Herb Ritts, Joseph Yacoe and Daniel Pearl. These four artists really shaped me as a cinematographer, filmmaker, and storyteller. Kevin Kerslake was just one of the most experimental cinematographers I had ever worked with. Daniel Pearl was just the most ballsy. Joseph Yacoe was all about beauty, and Herb Ritts was beauty and composition. I was his lighting director for almost six years. I lit almost every still he ever did from 1991 to 1996.

MM: So mentors have played a big role in your life. Are you trying to give back, in a way?

SH: Yeah, the influences were kind of all over the map, these underground artists-slash-music video directors. It was in the seedy grunge era of the time. Daniel Pearl had done Michael Jackson videos, these epic music videos back in the ’80s and early ’90s that are everything you ever think about, like, oh my god, “Billy Jean” and these epic monster music videos. And then you go to like Herb Ritts, who was one of the top fashion photographers in the world and Joseph Yacoe and I worked alongside him. Joseph Yacoe and I shot all the commercials for Herb Ritts when he was a director. It was this wonderful training ground.

MM: How do you integrate your role as cinematographer with all the other roles on a set?

SH: Every project is different depending on how the director wants to unite everyone on the cause. I’ve had people that are very involved with the actors and the performance, and the cinematography is my responsibility. And there are other directors that are completely involved in every aspect of it. It’s a mixed bag. Need For Speed and Terminator were 11 months [of shooting,] and something like Fathers and Daughters just four months. Each film is its own experience.

What I try to do is get as much out of the director as I possibly can. Sometimes a director is willing to talk in the van while we’re out location scouting, or a director wants to schedule a meeting where we talk it through, or a director wants to shot-list the whole movie with me. In regards to Swing Vote, I sat for two weeks in a diner in Laurel Canyon with Josh Stern, shot-listing the whole movie. With Gabriele Muccino on Fathers and Daughters, he embedded his whole shot list into the script itself, so everyone understood how the movie was going to be lensed and could immediately schedule based on that.

Try to be as proactive as possible as a cinematographer. Sit down and talk through the vision, and immediately go out and grab scrap and reference material and put that in front of the director to make sure you’re completely speaking the same language. Then unite the team, share all that information, share all the photos, share with the production designers, hair, makeup, the key players who are going to band together to create the one vision.

MM: Many of our readers are young filmmakers on low budgets. Any advice for how they can work with top cinematographers?

SH: Like I said, I worked my way up. I didn’t necessarily work with top cinematographers in their field. This is why the Illumination Experience is unique. If you’re taking the masterclass, you’re going to be working side by side with me. I will be guiding you, pushing you to the breaking point. Messing your lighting, and showing you shortcuts and tricks to increase your speed. Building the fundamentals and setting the rules of how lighting is built.

So how do people go out and work with high-end talent cinematographers? You just have to start at the bottom. As much as everyone wants to fast-track this stuff, you gotta start at the bottom and learn how to do everything. Look at David Fincher. That guy started out shooting all the models for Star Wars and lighting them and understanding mood and tone and all that stuff. He’s just as good a cinematographer as all the guys he hires. He started by doing smoke machines, doing miniatures, and lighting them. It makes you incredibly productive on set when you know how to do everything. If you don’t know the playground, how can you really start?

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Hurlbut, second from left, on set.

MM: In the workshop, you show how much work goes into setting up the perfect lighting.

SH: I think the light study is the epicenter of the whole course. [Participants] have never looked at light that way. I analyze where the light is, what the quality is, and it blows their minds.

MM: What are some shots you’ve been proudest of?

SH: In Terminator: Salvation, when Christian Bale hops into the helicopter and goes up in the air, and the bomb goes off, and we go around the helicopter inside and around and see him at the controls and we pull back, and then the whole thing crashes and rolls over and he unclips himself, and he gets out and we go all the way out and turn the camera from upside-down to right-side up. We follow him out and we wrap around him and then a terminator attacks him. That shot is kinda epic.

In Fathers and Daughters there is a four-and-half-minute shot of the fight that Amanda and Aaron Paul get into. It is absolutely gut-wrenching, you can not take your eyes off of it. There’s no escape. The way we shot it, you never take a breath. And that’s what the art of cinematography is. Using the right lens and the right camera motion and the right lighting, so that at the end of it you’re exhausted, you’re crying, you’re completely spent, because the camera would not let you out. The choices you make are so important. Subtle changes in the background changed the whole mood of one shot with Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful. Lighting her in a specific way to make her not look beautiful made him saying “I love you” so much more powerful.

MM: You can take so much time to just get that one little effect. Your advice is for young cinematographers is to start at the bottom and do everything. Any final words on that?

SH: Go out there and shoot. Find your eye, find your voice, your filmmaking soul, what you love to do. And just practice. But at the same time, try to get involved in everything you can, get on sets, and work with as much gear as possible.  It’s so important to know those tools and know where the edge of the cliff is. It’s OK to jump off of it when you know exactly where it is.

MM: Gotta know the rules to break them?

SH: You do. Kevin Kerslake taught me, man. He was so into breaking rules. He convinced me, after shooting a Smashing Pumpkins video, to go into my bathtub and create our own film lab to process the negative we just shot. We shot with a stand for three days and it was all on me to make sure I was turning the reels at the right speed. That’s ballsy stuff. I learned from him and Daniel Pearl to be a risk taker and just put it out there. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen. You could be brilliant or you could fail, but at least you tried. MM

For more information on Shane Hurlbut’s Illumination Experience, visit illumination.mzed.com. Attending a workshop costs $349 and a workshop+masterclass costs $1,249. Pictures courtesy of Hurlblog.

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