Action Shooters Part 1

"Right over there!" The van veers hard as it rounds the corner. I brace my legs to stay balanced while struggling to hold my camera steady. Rolling to a stop behind the one-story apartment, the van doors fly open and the officers are out, moving rapidly but with stealth to avoid detection. I pop my door and dash quickly to catch up, one eye in the viewfinder and the other on the live scene in front of me, doing my best to stay out of the line of fire. I’ve barely managed to flip the ND wheel when the officers are positioning on either side of the door. It swings open, and I’m wondering whether the Kevlar vest I’m wearing is good for anything more than making me sweat.

While most action shooters record on tape, Man vs. Wild DP Simon Reay likes working with P2 cards because they can take high levels of impact.

As much as I love writing profiles of great filmmakers and cinematographers or the occasional article about new gear for this magazine, my bread and butter is shooting, and lately this has involved shooting nonfiction action shows that follow the travails of men and women who perform difficult and often perilous jobs.

Delivering the in-the-moment action that audiences crave usually calls for a vérité shooting style, which can put crew and equipment in harm’s way. Keeping crew safe and equipment intact demands proper gear and preplanning, and this month, I’ll offer a little of what I’ve learned, as well as insights from the brave and talented DPs of popular shows such as Dirty Jobs, Man vs. Wild and The First 48.

The Panasonic AJ-HDX900 is a popular camera for action shooters because it delivers "a great look for a reasonable price."

One of the best things about this line of work is there’s no real day-to-day routine since every job has its own unique rhythm and pace. For some projects, it’s a matter of jumping in and getting your feet wet, while other projects, like those involving law enforcement and other insular subcultures, often require time spent establishing a rapport with your subjects in order to gain their trust and cooperation.

The Shooters

Before I get into the technical details, I’ll start with a little background about myself and the three other hardy souls who agreed to share their wisdom. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the good fortune to work in a number of amazing situations from swinging in a construction crane high above a new high-rise in Alexandria, Egypt, to helicopter logging in British Columbia to riding with narcotics officers in South Florida.

Much of my last year was spent shooting a History Channel series called, Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy. As the show’s title suggests, we travel the country with our host exploring novel aspects of the American experience. The driving idea was to have Larry take part in whatever activity we were there to document, which ran from relatively safe (learning etiquette from Emily Post’s family and training with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders) to potentially fatal (alligator wrangling in Mississippi and helping out on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz).