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We wanted to talk about Fire Chasers. This was a captivating documentary that showcased the fury of the devastating California wildfire in 2016. How does feel looking back on that journey?
Having over a year to look back at it now I think that it was a learning experience. Technically we tried a lot of new equipment and brought a lot of innovative new gear out there that I haven’t really tested in that environment before. Definitely put some film making gear on my chest in the sense of trying to shoot a documentary like this in such a dynamic environment.
On a personal level, it was a life changing experience. I grew up in California in San Diego and I’d seen some of the big fires down there from a distance which stopped us from going to school for a week from ash and what not. People lost their homes, but I never seen it up close up like this. To see not only the ferocity of the fire and how quickly it moved and how big it is and how loud it is, that was terrifying and at the same time really captivating. It’s a moving, breathing force when it’s moving through the landscape and I haven’t visualized fire in that way.
The second part is really the human element and what it does to peoples’ lives. We saw pure tragedy, which really was really put into perspective being a Southern California person. It also taught me a lot about filming with multiple cameras and fast changing dynamic environments. I definitely carry it with me wherever I go especially on future projects. I just did another documentary following 3 chefs through France and ironically I used some of the things I learned on Fire Chasers. I’m grateful for my time out there and also very wary of these environmental disasters due to climate change.
How did you prepare to immerse yourself in that kind of environment not so much of the physical aspect of carrying the gear but in preparing to film something so unpredictable?
Well on a technical level we knew we were delivering 4K to Netflix, so we went with Red Dragon for many reasons. The 6K available and slow-mo capability, its form factor, which made it lighter than the Varicam or the Alexa, which we weren’t allowed to use.
We spent weeks building and rebuilding the cameras and prepping at Panavision trying to figure out what was going to be the best on the fly build for each camera. I had 2 operators plus myself. There were 3 of us filming. The B camera and the C camera were kind of floating with me shooting various coverage of moments.
I really wanted to shoot the whole thing large format, and I winded up shooting my camera and the 4th camera large format. The 4th camera we built as a MoVi camera specifically to live with it the whole time. I had done a lot of Movi work in the past and I knew that was going to be the easiest way for me to get stabilized footage out in the field. I wanted to capture all the aftermath and the establishers with the MoVi to get this ghost like quality to them verses the traditional hand-held document feel.
That camera lived as a D camera the whole shoot and that was with a 14 mm Primo from Panavision, and I also had a 20-80 mm Primo zoom on mine which is also large format and I ran that for almost the whole show.
We were carrying a ridiculous amount of fire safety equipment: suits, helmets, goggles, gloves, strap phones, fire shelter, water, snacks, and big boots. These all had to go on over a cotton over layer and we were putting the camera over that. The camera weighed around 20-30 lbs. so I used an easy rig set up to carry the system. This was really for back support.
Filtration actually became one of the most difficult parts of the entire project. It became such a challenge. Thankfully because of Mark Bender (Tiffen’s West Coat Sales Manager), who took the time to help us in the second part of filming. We didn’t have the hands to change filters on the fly and there were so much dust, dirt and smoke in the air that pulling the map box and the filter out was just out of the question. There was no way to clean the filters and get the shot while paying attention to what’s happening around you. The network was worried about that, so I talked to Mark and he’s like I have the perfect solution with two Tiffen MRT’s (Multi-Rota Tray). We took the front box off the map box and we just flew those Rota Pola’s in the front of the lenses which allowed us to control our neutral density right there.
Thank god Tiffen was there because I pretty much exhausted every other option and didn’t really know what to do. I was able to filter my camera with traditional ND’s, but the other guys that were running around and you never knew where you had to be. You could be floating on another side of a house or a hill with no one to help carry the box of filters. Putting it in his pocket was difficult and made it really easy to break them. Thankfully we ended up going with the MRT’s, and it worked out quite well to be honest.
It’s probably the perfect filter in terms of dialing in your density- Is that how you used the Rota tray on a daily basis?
Yeah that’s exactly how we did it. The MRT was such a useful tool for my operators because they just didn’t have the background or the time to be switching filters out and think about ND on the fly. They came from more of a reality background with SLR’s, so setting them up with something really simple like that was really critical.
There’s all these different parts of the build and pre-production process that I had to go through and think about. I hadn’t really encountered anything like this on my narrative projects so it was a learning experience on so many levels. Psychologically I was really fascinated by the concept of immersing cameras into this world of fire. I think what fire fighters do is brave and dangerous and also very visual. I was excited on one level and I was also nervous for sure. It was the first time going out to the fire for all of us and we were thinking what’s it going to look like, how’s it going to move, where’s it going to be, and how am I going to respond to this when I actually see it?
I did a lot of surfing and dealing with water and that part of Mother Nature in the past so I was kind of familiar with how powerful the natural world can be. I had that to draw on that since I’ve been stuck out in huge surfs and lost my board and had near drowning accidents in the past and kind of learned how to be situationally aware and figure out where the beach was and calm yourself down so you can swim back to the shore. I had that on my side, which I definitely pulled from a few times on the job.
There was a lot of wariness especially when we got into the fire training and they showed us safety videos, accident videos and footage of fires that have been out of control. We saw footage of guys being burned and he showed us how to use these fire shelters which are these space blankets basically where you carry in a pack on your back. They were talking to us about how to get into them when the fire is raging at 30-40 mph and 2,000 degrees and you’re trying to wrap yourself in this burrito foil and fall on the ground. They were telling us terrible true stories and you’re thinking… oh my god I really don’t want to have to use this. Thankfully we never did and we were never even close to using them.
With all that in the back of our heads, once we were out there it was much more of the Wild West than I thought. The fires span a lot of territory and it kind of has a mind of its own so it explodes and dissipates based on weather topography in unexpected ways and times. It’s hard to figure out where it was and what it was doing. Sometimes there were 2,000 guys on the ground and a dozen planes in the air it’s like a war zone. At least it’s what I would imagine it was and a silent enemy comes and that brought a lot of adrenaline and anxiety. That was something we all dealt with on a daily basis, especially the guys who were with me out on the fires. Not having the training and experience to know what’s dangerous, what’s not, that was always distracting you from your job which was trying to shoot.
You couldn’t always focus on the camera work and you had to have one foot ready to move, ready to run and hop in the car. Also, all the other stuff, such as really angry land owners in the back-country we were in didn’t have a good relationship with Cal Fire… They didn’t know what we were doing there. We also had to deal with angry dogs, exploding propane tanks, dangerous footing from hilly terrain and sink holes that you can’t see. There was poison oak that we were getting on our skin and would bother us for weeks. There was a ridiculous amount of elements outside of the filming that kind of came out of nowhere because of the fire novice experience.
What do you think personally is your scariest moment while filming?
There were two moments and they were both with the two biggest fires we dealt with.
The scariest one is the Blue Cut Fire that burned in San Bernardino which came from an engine fire. That was a fire we lost a whole set of filters, 70 ml lens, batteries and an entire Suburban.
We were out at the front with 2 engines doing structural defense on one of the remaining homes, and there is a clearing in front of the house so the area couldn’t burn because it was just dirt. Fire burns through but it split off into different prongs and circled around us as it was moving. The fire moved at a speed and in a direction that no one expected. We actually parked the car right in that area as we thought it was safe. You can’t actually see the car burning in the show but there are a few shots of raging boiling flames running up a hill behind a fire engine… That’s where our car was. When the fire front first hit a house next to us and caught on flames, I just remember looking over my shoulder and this wave of adrenaline went right up my neck… It was a feeling like oh god maybe this is it, I really don’t want to be here right now. I thought about my family and quickly realized I was going to be okay considering it was all of our first encounter with something that big and explosive.
There were a few instincts of mere panic that you had to swallow down and kind of put away in a box. Luckily, we had the fire chief with us the whole time who talked us through it, but it definitely didn’t make being there any better, so that was pretty scary. The other scariest moment was in Big Sur. We were with a volunteer fire crew up on a canyon protecting the volunteer fire chief’s house. We were at the top of this ridge, and it was the kind of place where a training class said never to be… but all the fire guys told us we were going to be fine. We were standing up on the ridge with all 3 cameras on the director. We were shooting this pretty heroic moment of these fire fighters trying to save their own homes and we were literally so smoked out that I couldn’t see more than 2-3 feet in front of me. At one point I looked around and couldn’t see anyone and I couldn’t get anyone on the radio. Again, it was like oh god where should I go to, what should I do here, I’m completely disorientated and have no experience to pull out what I’m supposed to do.
Eventually, the walkie-talkie worked and we talked about pulling back which we did and we actually got in touch with our fire chief who was only 100 feet away but we couldn’t see him. We rendezvoused with him at our meeting point and went back to the vehicles to wait it out. It was too hairy to shoot that specific moment I was just worried someone was going to wonder in the wrong direction and we’d lose them. We are always kind of walking that line of what’s safe, what’s not safe and in that situation we pulled the plug early and I think it was a good call. Nothing ended up happening and we were able to save all the houses. Better to be safe than sorry. Those were 2 real scary moments for me and I would imagine the other guys that were with us too.
How did filming Fire Chasers compare to filming any other documentary films or feature films?
Ironically it wasn’t the most dangerous job I’ve ever done.
I had done a feature the year before that actually ended up going to Sundance called The Land. We were literally in a Puerto Rican festival live event, and we’re filming our actors there in slow motion kind of like a montage moment. To make a long story short we were standing in a gang shooting. Gun shots are literally going off a few feet away from us from a couple rival gangs I guess. That was just terrifying because there were thousands of people there and everyone just hit the deck and people were screaming and throwing children off rides and people were crawling everywhere. I had an Alexa and an easy rig on and it was just really hard to get down and hide with all that gear strapped to you. That was probably the scariest filmmaking moment I’ve ever had.
In that sense Fire Chasers was definitely dangerous. A lot of things in the Indie world, in the doc world, where you are out in elements and the uncontrolled environments, things can happen. You kind of always have to be on your game and always watch your back and be prepared properly. Luckily having these experiences early on where fortunately no one was injured or hurt helped me learn real quick how to be safe and how badly things can go wrong. In that sense I think it was on par with some of the other stuff I did. I think the physicality of this job was a different level. I lost 10 pounds the first week filming just from the hiking and the heat and carrying all the gear. Then definitely coordinating something this large and this expansive with such a large amount of cameras, with multiple teams flying and driving to multiple places. Making sure all the gear landed with the right cameras at the right time… This was all completely new. I’d never done anything that expansive. Narrative work I’ve done in the past was very controlled, whereas documentary work isn’t. However, it was a great experience to have, which definitely required a lot of planning.
Then I was talking about earlier the technicality of building all these rigs and bringing the best cameras into an environment that usually isn’t filmed with these kinds of cameras, that was the other challenge how to put them all together in the right way.
With all the recent news about the fires in Nor Cal what do you have to say about that? Do you think that Fire Chasers will bring more awareness to fire prevention?
Yeah I’d hope so. I hope our show raises awareness about the environmental disasters and really just get everyone thinking about mankind’s impact on the environment. When I was shooting the show last year I was asking some of the fire fighters what they thought the next season is going to look like and they said if there’s a lot of rain it’s going to be a really bad year. In California a lot of rain means we’ll get a lot of explosive brush growth in the Spring and it all dies by the end of the Summer. It’s just dealing with the temperature, so it leaves a lot of extra fuel around for explosive fires. I’m curious to see what happens late in the year in Nor Cal. It’s just really tragic and it’s my hope that doing a project like this has a positive impact, and it gets people thinking about fire prevention so they realize that this is something that is happening right in our backyards.
Maybe the way we build, where we build and how we develop our communities need to change. It’s basically like we’re building our homes in a flood pane, but in this case its fires. I don’t think enough thought goes into that when it comes to fires or hurricanes or floods or any of that… mankind doesn’t seem to make the best decisions. We sadly see that play out over and over and it’s really sad.
I’m hoping the documentary is timely in that sense.
How many hours did you shoot on Fire Chasers?
That’s a great question. We were in a ball park of easily 500 hours maybe more. Between the GoPro’s and the cameras and 15-17 weeks of shooting, it’s an absurd amount of content. They really let us record us much as possible. It was a lot. 150 TB of data or something like that.
We wanted to know what your next upcoming project is and if you’re going to utilize Tiffen gear in that project?
Yeah definitely carrying my experience on the show onto upcoming jobs and narrative documentary, in terms of how I prep, how I approach safety on set and some of the technical things that I learned using Tiffen ND and the Tiffen MRT.
I potentially have a few narrative projects next year that are going to be a lot of multi-cam. There is a lot of action based around, which is another dynamic environment. Obviously it’s fast moving, hot and dangerous and needs to be a shot with a lot of gear. I know I will be pulling on what I learned from this job for those projects. I’m grateful for what I learned and what I was taught on Fire Chasers.
Thank you Steve for your time for the interview. Be sure to check out Fire Chasers which is streaming on Netflix. Be sure to check out Steve’s work at http://www.steveholleran.com/