How They Did It: This Cinematographer Shot and Survived Explosive Wildfires For The Netflix Doc Series Fire Chasers

Exploding propane tanks and live rounds, swirling firestorms, 10-ton airborne retardant drops, invisible fire pits and some of the most explosive fire conditions in a generation.

These made the Netflix documentary series Fire Chasers, for which I served as cinematographer, a dangerous and at times absolutely terrifying environment in which to shoot.

Outfitted with four RED Dragon packages from Panavision Woodland Hills, and a set of large-format Series 70 lenses and Angenieux zooms, my crew and I set out on this 15-week adventure with only an inkling of what we might encounter behind the cameras. We could not have imagined the sheer terror of being surrounded by a raging wild fire, nor the bravery and endurance of the many men and women who work each year to save lives and property at the risk of their own.

To capture the world of California wildland firefighting, my approach was simple: to cinematically immerse our cameras, and thus our viewers, into the heart of the action in novel ways. If I was to capture the real story, it was clear I needed to get the cameras as close to the fire fronts as possible, and shoot in a way that felt less like documentation, and more like a narrative scene. Foremost, I wanted the images to overwhelm the viewer from the screen. This meant getting up close and personal with wider angle and large format lenses, and moving away from long-lens zooms. In order to communicate the tragic destruction so many people face when losing their homes, I hoped the Freefly MōVI stabilizer would capture scenes of aftermath with a still, almost ghost-like quality.

DP Steven Holleran on the set of Fire Chasers

First rule of operation? Be within speaking distance of a firefighter to shoot. In addition, any fire action and aftermath footage would be shot in large-format, to lend scope and gravitas to the insane visuals we were witnessing firsthand. Shooting multi-camera handheld also meant achieving coordination in the field. Utilizing Easyrigs and Serene arms, we practiced what would become a ballet of instantaneous over-the-shoulders, wides and close-ups to capture each moment like a scene.

A huge challenge was mobilization. Never knowing where the next fire might happen, we were always on standby. It all depended on the fire conditions. Getting to location was extremely difficult, whether getting past downed power lines, or up miles of winding dirt roads. We outfitted a Sprinter van and two Suburbans with all of our equipment, including a pre-rigged MōVI and an Antigravity Rig body-mounted jib system, to be ready at a moment’s notice. Firefighters are  exceptionally skilled at getting ready at a moment’s notice. We learned quickly what that entailed.

Before even thinking about strapping on a camera, we had to suit up for fire conditions. This meant a base layer of only cotton underwear as it burns off the skin (while materials like nylon melt, making skin grafts extremely difficult). After putting on massive fire boots, gloves, face mask, helmet, and goggles, we needed to find space for an emergency fire shelter in a bread basket-sized box. We strapped the shelter to our Easyrigs as a last resort to survive 2,000-plus-degree flames that were out-runnable. Added to this weight were two liters of water, half a day’s rations, surveillance, a walkie-talkie, and a Sat phone. Only then could we consider picking up a camera and riding an engine to the fire front. When completely suited up, I estimate I was wearing nearly 65-70 pounds of equipment… in addition to a few extra pounds of mental baggage and fear.

Our next challenge: the physical shooting conditions. Boiling temperatures north of 130 degrees were common, as was wafting dirt and ash, noxious smoke and aerosolized poison oak. Each day we spent hours cleaning the cameras with high-pressure air nozzles, blowing chunks of wood and ash out of the fans and lenses. At times, the dirt and ash became so bad we had to adapt the cameras to rotating polarizer neutral density filters from Tiffen, in an attempt to avoid switching filters in the field. Weight quickly became a massive issue, so we stripped every piece of metal off the cameras, from matte boxes to battery plates. To avoid carrying batteries on the cameras, it became common for us to carry them in our Easyrig side pockets. Dehydration, sun stroke, and exhaustion were constant threats on our long back-country hikes. We even faced trigger-happy rural landowners. (The scariest moment of the whole show for me was probably the time I had a rifle pointed at my head by an angry homeowner, desperate to save his land.)

Our next challenge: the psychological effects. A firefighter on the Soberañes Fire, which took place in Big Sur in 2016, told me my first day that fire moves like water, always seeking the path of least resistance. Like the surf, I came to realize fire moved and adapted based on the topography, wind and weather conditions. This put us all in a constant state of heightened awareness for the unknown.

A car turns victim to one of the fires captured in Fire Chasers

I remember our first real encounter with a raging wildfire—up Palo Colorado canyon off California State Route 1 in Big Sur. We embedded with a group of volunteer firefighters and CAL FIRE (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) on a wooded hilltop in front of a home where they planned to make their last stand. Within minutes, tall strands of fire tore through the wreaths of trees at various points along the hill. We were completely encased in smoke, to the point that I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. Easyrig and RED strapped to my back, I was surprised by the feelings of claustrophobia, terror and complete loss of direction that overwhelmed me. As the wind gusted and the sound of fire rushed over the hilltop, shooting suddenly became an afterthought, and survival a priority. Looking around, I could see nothing. Staying situationally aware and communicating with crew and CAL FIRE members over walkie became my lifeline to sanity. That was not the last time my crew and I would experience that.

Perhaps our biggest challenge of all was the fire itself. An out-of-control wildfire naturally triggers a flight response in most people—or at least it did in my crew and me. Seeing a massive, swirling wall of flame is like staring down a locomotive that’s jumped the track. To this day, I can’t forget our morning at the front of the Blue Cut Fire that broke out in 2016 on the I-15 from a car fire and tore through the mountains in San Bernardino County at an unprecedented rate. We were overnighted from northern California on a flight and driven straight to the front of the Blue Cut to catch it. Tying in with an engine company defending a home at the end of a chaparral canyon, we witnessed an inferno of flames tear across our flank from the south, east and west, cutting off our only escape route. Sheltering in a small path of dirt next to a pig corral, we all watched, firefighters included, as the 100-foot-tall head of the Blue Cut Fire ripped across the canyon and towards our ill-fated, off-road Suburban strike vehicle. Moving at 30-40 miles per hour, the fire chewed through the landscape as propane tanks off-gassed, and flames raged from the few unlucky homes nearby. Our vehicle burned to the ground in a matter of minutes, containing lenses and an assortment of expensive equipment and personal gear. We were lucky.

A burned Panavision lens is another casualty of Fire Chasers

As I stowed my cameras, hung up my boots and removed my helmets for the last time, I realized shooting Fire Chasers had taught me not only about filmmaking in extreme environments, but about natural disasters and their effect on the people who fall victim. We witnessed selfless bravery, and a magnitude of destruction which is difficult to describe in words. In the end, I hope my visuals in this series lend true scope and life to a world rarely seen. MM

Fire Chasers is available to stream on Netflix starting September 8, 2017. Photographs courtesy of Netflix and Steven Holleran.

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