Shane Hurlbut, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland
“I started shooting music videos on Super 8 film and processed my own positive in my dorm room bathtub when I was a student at Emerson College in Boston. Early in my career, I lit still pictures for Herb Ritts while traveling around the globe. It was an amazing experience because the light, shadows and architecture of the world gave me a unique perspective. Movies are entertainment, but they are also an escape from our everyday lives. There are no rules. You have to figure what is right for every picture and try to avoid getting into a rut. Filmmaking is a global form of artistic expression that can make an everlasting impression. I think in our own way, we are all out to change the world.”
Shane Hurlbut, ASC shot his first music video seven years after beginning his career driving a grip truck. That led to an opportunity to shoot The Rat Pack, an award-winning television movie in 1998. His credits include Drumline, Mr. 3000, Into the Blue, The Greatest Game Ever Played, We Are Marshall and the upcoming releases Semi-Pro and Swing Vote.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Shane Hurlbut, ASC
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Where you were born and raised?
HURLBUT: I was born in upstate New York, where I grew up on a 250 acre farm. We grew corn, wheat, oats, barley, red kidney beans and soy beans. My dad was also a professor’s assistant at Cornell University and my mother was a sixth grade school teacher.
QUESTION: What was it like growing up there?
HURLBUT: It was an amazing experience that I draw upon every day and I know it shaped me as a cinematographer. People are always telling me that I react quickly when a wrench is thrown into something we planned and I immediately generate a solution. Crises are a daily experience on any farm. One day it looked like we were going to harvest the crop, and the next day there was a torrential downpour, and we needed a new plan. My dad broke his back when he was 49 or 50 years old while jacking up the side of a building that slipped off the foundation. It became my job to take charge of the harvesting that year.
QUESTION: How old were you then?
HURLBUT: I was 13. I remember the rain was nonstop that year. My dad was convinced that our crop of red kidney beans was lost. I had the idea of borrowing a neighbor’s 4x4 tractor and literally dragging and pulling the red kidney bean harvester through the field. I harvested the beans and put them in the grain bin dryer. That year many farmers lost their crops, so the price for red kidney beans went through the roof. We sold them for $30 a bushel and made approximately $50,000. Back in the 1970s that was a lot of money! My dad was so proud of me that I had taken the initiative and made it work. Taking the initiative became my mantra.
QUESTION: Besides being a farmer, were you a still photo or home movie hobbyist?
HURLBUT: I had an 8 mm camera that my dad gave me when we visited Yosemite National Park in the early 1970’s. As a family we traveled extensively throughout the Americas. In particular, I remember a railroad trip across Canada, where I used the Bell & Howell Super 8 camera to shoot moose and glaciers in Alaska.
QUESTION: Was your mother or father a film hobbyist?
HURLBUT: No. But, I remember my dad telling me that I could flip the film over and use the other side. I tried that and got doubly exposed images. I found that was the first time that I really began to understand how photography worked. Some years later, when I was at Emerson College, in Boston, Mass., I started shooting music videos on Super 8 film and processed it in my dorm room bathtub.
QUESTION: What was your major in college?
HURLBUT: I majored in film and television, but the person who was most influential was my Western civilization and English history teacher. His name was Professor Coffee. He was a vivid storyteller that brought storylines and images to life. That experience stimulated aspects of my imagination that I had never before explored.
QUESTION: We should have asked if you were a movie fan while you were growing up.
HURLBUT: I loved movies. I remember my parents taking me to see Jaws. I had nightmares about that film forever. I remember seeing Star Wars in a local theater and being mesmerized, but I can’t tell you that I was aware of cinematography. I explored a lot of different things.
QUESTION: Did you consider any other professions?
HURLBUT: I almost became a disc jockey because my friends thought I had a good voice for radio and I loved music.
QUESTION: What did you do when you graduated from Emerson?
HURLBUT: I thought I was going to be a producer. My mom bought me a new suit and instructed me to pound the pavement in Boston looking for a job. I spent three months calling on different production companies. When I started running out of money, I went to Film Arts, where I had done an internship and asked for a job. They paid me $3.50 an hour to load grip and lighting equipment. Within three months I was managing the company and realized that Boston was not the place for me.
QUESTION: What did you do at that point?
HURLBUT: I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 and got a job at KeyLite. One day, a producer who was renting equipment asked me if I wanted to work on the crew for a horror film called Phantasm II. I was the grip truck driver. My path to cinematography went from driver to key grip to gaffer to cinematographer in seven years.
QUESTION: Tell us about that journey.
HURLBUT: A cinematographer gave me a break by hiring me as his gaffer on a 7UP commercial. To be totally honest, I didn’t know how to read a light meter. He gave me another job on his next commercial for Mattel. I made a mistake and set the exposure wrong and we were two stops overexposed on an important exterior scene. He sat me down and talked to me, and then told the client and director what happened. I’ve never forgotten that experience. It was a process of learning under fire.
QUESTION: What was the next step on your journey?
HURLBUT: I was introduced to Daniel Pearl (ASC) in 1990. I began working with him, as a gaffer or key grip, depending on the need. We collaborated on more than 100 music videos in a single year. Daniel taught me how to push the exposure limits in photography and how to experiment with light. He defined the art of cinematography with music videos and I was his protégé. Around that time, I also began working on commercials with Joseph Yacoe, another talented cinematographer and mentor. He introduced me to Herb Ritts, the still photographer who shot covers for Vogue and Vanity Fair. Herb took me around the world to light his portraits. It was an amazing experience that lasted for five years.
QUESTION: Looking back, what did you learn from that experience?
HURLBUT: Herb had an eye for looking at a person’s face and deciding which side was most photogenic. He was a master at using hard light to create 'drop shadows’ under subjects’ chins that defined their face. Herb gave me the basis for lighting faces.
QUESTION: How about working with Daniel Pearl?
HURLBUT: Daniel is fearless in his ability to ride the edges in exposure and contrast. He would push the film to its utmost edge and take you places that are hard to imagine.
QUESTION: What about Joseph Yacoe? What did you learn while working with him?
HURLBUT: I learned the art of subtlety in lighting. Joseph used the technique of underexposure to create elegant images. You don’t learn that in a textbook.
QUESTION: Are there other cinematographers whose films have influenced you?
HURLBUT: I could name different people whose cinematography I admire, but I don’t try to duplicate what they have done. I learn from the ways they think and plan.
QUESTION: How did you step up from being a gaffer to shooting?
HURLBUT: I met a music video director named Kevin Kerslake. He was a director/cameraman who hired me as his gaffer/lighting director. We were doing bigger and bigger projects including four Nirvana and two Smashing Pumpkins videos. After a while he had me shoot second camera. Kevin experimented with everything. We shot a video on 16 mm negative, printed it three times – one over the other – to crank up the contrast and color saturation. We had an amazing relationship from 1991 through 1995, the same time I was working with Herb Ritts.
QUESTION: How and when did you transition into narrative filmmaking?
HURLBUT: I was shooting a music video for a song in the film Daylight, directed Rob Cohen. One of the producers visited the set and told Rob about me. A week later I got a phone call from Rob to interview for his NBC pilot. The pilot never saw the light of day, but we formed a relationship. Rob’s implicit faith in my ability is something for which I am eternally grateful. It gave me a great sense of confidence and inspiration. We continued working together on the HBO movie The Rat Pack (in 1998). I was nominated for an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award for that telefilm in 1999.
QUESTION: Please share a memory from that film.
HURLBUT: I remember a scene with Dean Martin sitting and talking to his wife in a relatively small room. I lit it with an 18K. The light exploded all over the room. Rob and everyone else were wondering what the hell I was doing. Then, when he saw dailies the next day, they could have been a series of George Hurrell portraits. That film was an amazing, memorable experience. After that, I worked with Rob on The Skulls for Universal Studios. That was my first theatrical feature. The Skulls was a story about a secret society at Yale University.
QUESTION: How about sharing memories on other films. Let’s start with Mr. 3000.
HURLBUT: I loved working on Mr. 3000 because my dad was a baseball player in a Triple A league in New Jersey after which he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox. He was a force on the mound with a rising fast ball that I couldn’t catch even when I was 18 years old. That film was an homage to my dad. I invited him to the Milwaukee Brewers Miller Park while we were shooting there. I arranged for him to pitch to Milwaukee Brewers players. It was a very special day for both of us.
QUESTION: Tell us what that means.
HURLBUT: I played college baseball. I got inside the head of the players who were characters in Mr. 3000 and told their stories in a cinematic way. Director Charles Stone, III and I generated different shot ideas that the audience hadn’t seen before. We wanted to show how Bernie Mac’s character read the pitcher. I remember when I was a pitcher in college, I was tipping my intentions of throwing a curve ball to the batter. I would turn my elbow in when I was grabbing the ball in my glove. I might as well have shouted that a curve ball was coming. I used that experience in Mr. 3000.
QUESTION: How about Into the Blue?
HURLBUT: The director was John Stockwell. We had worked on Crazy/Beautiful together. I had never shot a movie on or under water before. Experienced cinematographers informed me that you lose the red layer in light at about 25 feet underwater. John and I decided that we did not want to restrict camera movement with cables for lights underwater. We felt in a liquid environment that a camera could be a helicopter, crane or dolly all in one shot. This became the unique signature for this film. We were filming as deep as 55 feet underwater and then Frank Roman, the colorist, and I injected skin tone during digital intermediate (DI) timing. DI technology was fairly new for feature films at that time, but I had previously used it correcting music videos.
QUESTION: How about The Greatest Game Ever Played?
HURLBUT: Bill Paxton was the director. Rarely have I worked on a film where the director and I felt as if we were one in the same individual. There was a visceral understanding, which resulted in an identical vision for the film. Our reference was 1939 Kodachrome prints. The end result was a rare subtle mix of hard and soft lighting.
QUESTION: We Are Marshall was another totally different type of film.
HURLBUT: The story was based on an actual tragedy that occurred in 1970. An airplane carrying the Marshall University football team crashed in West Virginia and many athletes died. The story details the concern of the new coach and survivors attempt to keep the football program alive. The director was McG. His foremost priority was to be accurate in storytelling, to honor the memory of players and town people that died in the crash. I wore a Marshall University hat, and people would stop me on the street to tell me their stories. It was a searing experience.
QUESTION: How do you see DI affecting the role of the cinematographer?
HURLBUT: DI has the ability to create a look that is not achievable with an organic developing process. Specifically, it is a powerful tool to increase speed, achieve greater control of the image, and bypass the formerly necessary widescreen extraction. It enables me, when necessary, to do a skip-bleach process to get the right contrast for a film and then use DI to saturate the colors. I view DI as one more tool in the cinematographer’s toolbox.
QUESTION: Kind of like what Herb Ritts did with a photo enlarger.
HURLBUT: Exactly, but again I will stress that I do as much as I can to bake the look into dailies. It may be subtle nuances in lighting that no one notices on a conscious level.
QUESTION: We are going to ask you about another recent movie, Waist Deep.
HURLBUT:Waist Deep is a film concerning the car-jacking of a small boy and its effect on his father. The audience follows the father in a desperate car chase and is aware of one thing only: being pursued by helicopters and surrounded by police cars. Vondie Curtis-Hall, the director, and I decided to shoot in Super 35 format for widescreen views of the chase and frame other shots tight from the driver’s perspective. We wanted the audience to feel the father’s tunnel vision where his perspective was limited to windshield, rear-view and side-view mirror during the car-chase sequences. Vondie and I wanted to put the audience in the action.
QUESTION: You recently shot Semi-Pro. What is that film about?
HURLBUT:Semi-Pro is about the 1976 merger of the American Basketball Association and National Basketball Association into one professional league. The director was Kent Alterman. Although this was our initial collaboration we immediately felt a creative synergy.
QUESTION: How did you approach designing a visual style for this film?
HURLBUT: I carefully read the entire script at one sitting. Gradually the basic form of the vision began to emerge; ideas came for composition, color and style. I shared my ideas with Kent, listened to his vision and immediately our minds converged to form a visual landscape. My original idea was 1:85 aspect ratio, to be able to take in the presence of the player on the court, his face and hands in one shot, the ability to capture a frame that takes in the arc of a three-point shot without getting incredibly wide with a Super 35 format. But my camera operator Roberto DeAngelis, who had done five successive films with me, suggested Super 35, and told me to embrace its wide frame possibilities for lensing the basketball court, where much of the story plays out. We shot some tests and Kent and I both agreed this was the best approach.
QUESTION: How much of this film takes place on the basketball court?
HURLBUT: A lot of it. It’s both a sports movie and a comedy. We shot it all in Los Angeles at a fire training facility next to Dodger Stadium. It’s a huge building that we turned into the Flint Michigan Tropics Auditorium. We shot there for 38 out of the 60-day schedule. They cast actual basketball players as five different teams. Will Ferrell is the star. He plays the owner/player/coach, of the Flint Michigan Tropics. He made the money to buy the team with a hit song called “Love Me Sexy” during the 1970s. His players were a bunch of screw ups who got their act together. I came to our first meeting with an idea for creating a look with a much softer 1970s palate, lower in contrast and saturation. The director had seen We Are Marshall and responded to the 1965 Kodachrome effect. Ultimately, the decision was Kodachrome.
QUESTION: How much time do you generally have between reading a script and meeting the director to see if you connect?
HURLBUT: At most three or four days. That’s all the time you generally have to decide how you would approach shooting the film. I have a reference library of around 400 books with photographs that I use for visual references.
QUESTION: How do you decide what film stock or stocks you are going to use? We don’t mean that to be a technical question. Are there aesthetic factors?
HURLBUT: Choosing a film stock is like choosing the right paint for your canvas. For Swing Vote, I chose (KODAK VISION2) 5218 instead of 5229, because we wanted the look to be true to life. 5229 de-saturates the look a bit. It’s like deciding to paint a portrait with oils rather than watercolors.
QUESTION: Tell us about Swing Vote.
HURLBUT: Kevin Costner plays an alcoholic, white trash single parent, who lives in a New Mexico trailer park with his 11-year-old daughter, the primary caregiver. Her school project for social studies is to research the voting process. She registered her father as an independent voter without his knowledge. On election day, he got drunk after work and didn’t show up to vote. His angry daughter decided to sneak into the booth and cast his ballot, but the voting machine malfunctioned. It registers that he voted, but not who he voted for. The story cuts to election night. The Democrats had 256 electoral votes and the Republicans had 254. It all came down to one county in the swing state of New Mexico. They found out the election depended on one vote in one county. Kevin Costner’s character is the one swing voter. Air Force One lands at the local airport with the incumbent Republican president and the Democratic challenger landed in a helicopter. As they battle for the vote, it is an incredible funny political satire.
QUESTION: Tell us what format was chosen to produce Swing Vote and why?
HURLBUT: We produced Swing Vote in three-perf Super 35 format. We used three-perf film to trim raw stock and lab costs.
QUESTION: This is kind of a philosophical question. Are movies pure entertainment, or do they play a role in how we think and how we feel about the world?
HURLBUT: I think in our own way all of us are out to make a difference in the world. After I saw An Inconvenient Truth, I changed every incandescent light that I had in my home to fluorescents. Filmmaking is a form of artistic expression that leaves an everlasting impression.