Written by Bob Gillen
“Every (action) shoot brings elements of uncertainty. For me, there are things I can do to increase certainty. And in the case of a rappel shoot, it was scouting. Going to the location a couple of times and looking at it with different light afforded me a strategy to approach the cliff.”
Los Angeles-based action DP/camera operator Lawrence Ribeiro talks about shooting action, and about changes in the film industry. In a particularly challenging shoot, Ribeiro rappelled down a cliff to shoot rock climbers.
Ribeiro did not have stunt riggers for this cliff shoot. “I had rock climbers working with me. Obviously, safety is key. Riggers understand elements of motion as well as the idea of what I’m trying to achieve on camera. Further, with riggers I could have had them control the speed, per my instructions, as I descended.
“In rock climbing, the belayer (the person on the ground doing safety) has those capabilities too, but they are not aware of the minute details required for the overall process we call filmmaking. You can liken this to someone who fights professionally – they have the skills, but fighting for the camera is a whole other thing. Fighters onscreen have to sell the fight to the audience.
“Because I was not dealing here with stunt professionals, the equipment varied. I wanted to run across the side of the cliff, but traditional ropes and the equipment being used changed what I wanted to do originally.”
Balance is Key
“My best option was to shoot while rappelling. This was no easy feat. And I had to factor in the camera I was using. When I’m in these awkward positions I don’t want to fight the camera. Balance is key. When you actually go off the side of the cliff, that’s when things get tricky – you’re going from a vertical to a horizontal position. There are different ideologies and theories out there, but I researched my own way. I talked it over with a friend of mine who worked for NASA, which has been a tremendous resource for me. He helped me with the physics of it.
“There was another more aesthetic and interesting location that we were exploring, but because of the distance between the person at the bottom and the person at the top, I couldn’t hear them, which posed a real problem. Since my hands were full, carrying a walkie-talkie wasn’t an option. And being really low budget, the headsets I wanted weren’t available.
“Sometimes theory is needed and sometimes you need real-world experience, which then I will get from the stunt coordinator. Let me stress, there is no substitution for experience.
“All in all the shots were fine and we even ended up with a couple of gems. Sometimes bad situations bring out some elements that wouldn’t have been gotten unless you go down that path.”
I asked Ribeiro how, in the middle of an action shoot, he balances keeping up with the action while ensuring his “framing judgement” is effective, even innovative.
“Ultimately,” he says, “my responsibility is to make the image interesting whileforwarding the story. Shooting action can vary between DPs, hence the changes of the last few years in our field. The sensibilities have changed, especially since the Bourne movies.
“For me, shooting action is kind of easy, as my eyes are trained to see the potential of each shot with speed. I have an idea of how it should look when I’m in prep and while I am shooting. However, the editor may not see it the same way, which sometimes can be unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes, and I do my part.”
Shooting Comedy Stunts
“I recently did a 2nd unit previs shoot for a comedy. We were shooting stunts, but it was the first time I did it for comedy and the framing is much different because you are trying to make it funny. For action, generally, it’s to put the audience on the edge of their seat, but with comedy, you are always trying to make the audience laugh.
“Garrett Warren was the director (Avatar, Lincoln, Divergent) and he has a mind like Quentin Tarantino, which means, he can just pull shots out of movies and bring that to the table. This was a Disney production,” he says, “so unfortunately, we cannot show photos until the movie is released.
“In this case, it’s very unique working with Garrett, as he is a stunt coordinator/2nd unit director who knows action and is a performer. Some directors don’t always know what they want, so I may ask the stunt coordinator his thoughts. The stunt coordinator is an integral part of the action design so it’s good to get input from him or her to make the most out of the framing and such.”
Supporting the Film’s Story
I asked: How do you ensure your camera work maintains or even enhances the film’s story or a character’s growth?
“In 2nd unit/action,” Ribeiro says, “I may not have the freedom to work the characters’ growth through camera movement or such. That is mainly for the 1st unit. Their job is to make the actors look good and encompass all these other factors too.
“However, I can employ techniques for the vehicles, stunt people, etc. to enhance the character. For smaller budgets I may have to wear both hats, and, as a result, the camera movement could have more range.
Shooting a Fight
“In a fight, for an example, there may be character development in the process of the fight. For example, in the cliché fighting action movie, the lead character beats up everyone in the movie, then at the very end, he meets his match. Duringthat fight he will make discoveries because he cannot do what he did in earlier fights. In this case you will see a lot of character development and it can occur in a matter of seconds.”
The action DP must coordinate how much to use the stunt performer versus the actor. “The actor,” says Ribeiro, “has to react accordingly with emotions, where the stunt person has to react physically. You have to capture both so that editor has the footage to put it together.
“You’ll find that in 1st unit they are masters of movement – in a slower fashion, for example, to push in with a dolly or zoom. The timing and distance is an art itself. With 2nd unit, the camera may be locked off. Then it’s all about the stunt – the performer – and if I’m right in there with the camera, it can be a little erratic showing all the confusion or there’s so much going on that I become a human piñata!
“This is what I meant when the Bourne movies came out. Before, the imagery was a little slower and the audience could keep up. In other words, if it’s too fast, the audience may miss it, especially with quick edits.”
Making It Exciting
Ribeiro is a global traveler who logged 50,000 miles before he reached twenty-one.
“My background is little different from other DPs. I lived and experienced a lot of extreme environments and situations, and as a result I can sometimes bring more culture into the imagery. My job is to make it exciting, not pretty. Further, the truth of the matter is that most 2nd action shots are less than three seconds. That is a fact.
“I recently saw Deadfall, a thriller shot by Shane Hurlbut. There are some scenes in the movie that could potentially be quite static but he was very clever on how he shot those scenes. The shaky cam is over used usually, but his shots were fitting, in my opinion.
“Times are a-changing. What’s happening here is that 2nd unit people, directors namely, are getting their edits into the movie. With Fast and Furious 7, that’s a 2nd unit movie. The 2nd unit crew alone is over 300 people! Further they have sixteen cameras, just on 2nd unit. It’s a massive production.
“Obviously, Fast and Furious 7 is an extreme case, but 2nd unit directors are now becoming more savvy in the contract negotiation process, which means they get their edits in the final picture. You’ll find that very few stunt coordinators are very proud of their work, because sometimes their vision gets lost by bringing in the actors or editors who just miss the mark.
“We generally have our own people who are trained for action from the stunt players to the editor…the entire workflow. And you are only as a good as your weakest link.”.