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American Cinematographer
Feature Article
Racing Along The Waters Edge
February, 1996

american cinematographer

Racing Along The Waters Edge

Filmmakers Mark Trumbull and Gary Maynard visit 48 states on a wild mission to create a travelogue film about waterskiing. -- by Mark Trumbull

WHEN WE FIRST BEGAN PLANNING our film The Water' s Edge, everyone we talked to told us the same thing -- that we needed a mountain of equipment and an army of people to complete such a project. The doubters couldn't believe that it was possible for two guys to travel through all 48 continental states, in two months, filming waterskiing.

Gary [Maynard] had been carrying this marathon waterski adventure around in his head for years. "I have always admired Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer, and I was convinced that we could do the same with waterskiing that he did with surfing," he says.

Gary approached me to: co-produce and co-direct this unusual film with him. I was originally scheduled to spend the summer filming a documentary on industrial pollution. So on the one hand I had exposure suits and toxic waste; on the other, bikinis and waterskiing. Which would you choose?

The biggest problem, as always, was the budget. We were barely raising eyebrows, much less our production budget. Even after hacking out every "non-essential" expense, we still calculated the cost at between $250,000 and $500,000. We had less than $50,000, forcing us to dump the second units, all the camera rentals, the grip truck, the generator, the lighting kits, the camera car, the Steadicam, and sound equipment, along with everything and everyone else.

We looked at what we had and decided that Gary's handheld Sony DAT recorder and Sennheiser shotgun could provide "wild yet sync-able" location sound, and that his modified Bell & Howell 16mm could do our 72 fps slo-mo. My Seven Jib, dolly, sticks, and Russian-made 35mm MKA-8M camera, along with a few odd lenses (18mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 25-250mm zoom) would have to do the rest.

Our budget limitations made our film stock options, well, limited. Even with fake student IDs we couldn't afford the stock we'd need. That meant that the next thing to go was our comfortable shooting ratio of 10:1. It also meant roll-ends and re-cans. These decisions were the turning point for the project: we went from looking at all the ways we couldn't do it to looking for ways we could.

Our film stocks of choice were daylight-balanced stocks, 5245 and 5297 (natural choices, since waterskiing is one of those outdoor sunny-day-type activities). Here on the East Coast, productions that use roll-ends and re-cans go more for the "Can we light it with one inky?" high-speed tungsten stocks. Rich Kalinsky from New York Raw Stock Exchange assured us that he had all the 5245 and 5297 re-cans we could use at a price we could afford. A few rolls of 5296 for the odd interior shot rounded out our 35mm ammunition. The cheapest 16mm we could find was the Fuji 50D and 250D from Studio Film and Tape.

We had no idea how we were going to intercut the more mellow colors of one with the more saturated "in your face" colors of the other. But we also knew we didn't have much choice.

Our next big challenge was finding a lab. We called around to all the usual suspects and got less than overwhelming support, until we talked to Guffanti Dailies. Lab manager Lou Cangiano and his staff became like uncles to us.

The Waters Edge was as much of an adventure to film as it is the film of an adventure. During our preproduction planning, Gary -- a pitbull with a telephone-- had contacted the film commissions of every state and requested a small mountain of literature. Then he got the addresses of everyone in the country who'd ever even seen a waterski. We printed off letters until I thought my mail merge program would explode. From the responses we received, we started sticking pins in the map and connecting them together into an increasingly mind-boggling route.

By the time we'd finished principal photography, we knew the names of every little town in every county in every state. It was like working for the Weather Channel. We never did get our locations exactly nailed down. Actually, of the 100-odd locations where we filmed, only about 25 had been pins in the original location map.

After completing our extensive preproduction planning, it was time to remove the rear seats from my Suburban, load our gear and set off for parts unknown. In the best tradition of independent filmmaking, we had no script, no stars, and no crew. What we did have was 50,000 feet of film, 61 days, pockets filled with credit cards, and most of America waiting to be explored.

The 8M's padded case was quickly abandoned for the much more practical "wedge it behind the driver's seat" storage method. This method was working great until we stopped one rainy night after driving on a bumpy back road in Arkansas. As I opened the Suburban's back door, the camera, with our workhorse 35mm lens attached, did a nearly flawless back-gainer out of the truck. "Was that the camera that just hit the cement?" Gary asked. "Yeah," I replied, "but I think the puddle broke the fall a little." We brought it inside, dried it off and ran off a few feet of film. The camera was fine; it hadn't even jumped a sprocket hole. After that we were much more careful; we wedged it behind the seat and put something heavy on top of it.

The production schedule we'd worked out called for filming in the wonderful afternoon light (I was looking for sidelight and interesting shadows on the water). We had planned to follow up a productive afternoon's shooting with a nice dinner and then some bed rest.

The mornings would be for pickups, and the unfavorable light of midday would be for traveling to the next location. The reality was driving into the setting sun and on into the night so we could try to catch a few hours of sleep. We substituted aggravation for the nice dinners; most of our meals were Gatorade and those little sandwiches you find in the refrigerators at truck stops (my personal favorite was the Dixie Bell chicken salad available at finer truck stops throughout the South). Mornings became a time for Gary to set up the next day's location using the phone at the motel; you never can get a cellular phone to work in the middle of an Indiana cornfield that's bigger than Rhode Island.

The only times left for filming were those prime hours between 11:00 and 2:00. Needless to say, I was not pleased.

There's something about cleaning and properly maintaining a camera that loses its appeal at 2:00 a.m. after a 19-hour day, so we didn't do it. The 8M handles this sort of treatment better than most cameras. I think the secret to this is the design of the magazines. The 400' vertical displacement mags are simple two-roller, two-sprocket affairs which incorporate a film channel and the pressure plate. We found this setup to be very gentle on the film. We had very little emulsion dust, virtually no film chips, and our negative was never scratched. We also had very few camera jams (four or five in all) during the entire trip. Feed and take-up loops are formed during the "Zen changing bag" ritual and not during the "We're losing the light!" ritual. All of the film-handling apparatus (except the claw) resides in the mag. After a quick inspection and a shot of compressed air, you're back in business. The whole unit snaps onto the back of the camera body, which makes changing mags a 10-second, one-hand operation. If you get the odd camera jam, the problem is all in the mag. You can pop in a fresh mag, continue filming, and deal with the jammed mag later. This is a very convenient feature when you're at 8000' in a glider over the Nevada desert.

The 8M uses a Russian OCT-19 lens mount. A keyway locates the lens and a rotating clamp holds it securely in place. Its open design makes it easy to check for any of that ubiquitous Moab grit which may leave the lens slightly off-axis. It also has the added advantage of making lens changes fast and fairly foolproof even in clutch situations. The mount and lenses are also convertible to PL or Nikon, making the 8M compatible with other lenses and camera systems. The quality of the Russian lenses still amazes me. These lenses are a byproduct of Cold War spy satellite optics research and, I think, rival any in the world. We ran a quick test before we left and were very pleased with their performance, from wide-open to closed apertures. There was a little bit of vignetting in the corners at maximum aperture, but it wasn't bad at all.

With our schedule and a crew of only two, anything complex, delicate, or maintenance-intensive would have been the end of us. Simplicity and reliability became key factors in our success, and the 8M is about as simple and reliable as you can get. The film advance mechanism utilizes a single claw with an extended dwell time to hold the film for exposure.

We found that this technique delivered a nice, steady image. There is also a single-registration pin option.

However, silent operation is not one of the 8M's strong suits.

Though we've never measured the noise level, you wouldn't want to shoot sync sound in an elevator with an 8M. There is a bamey/blimp setup under development, but I haven't tried the prototype yet.

The 8M also has a matched baseplate and 15mm rails. The rails are compatible with Arri accessories, making it convenient to build a studio setup with readily available components. The matte box is just a hair under 6 x 6, so standard 6 x 6 filters need to be slightly cut down. There are slots for two filter elements, one fixed and one rotating. The 8M camera package includes a nickel-cadmium battery and charger. These simple, inexpensive batteries can run four to five 400' film loads on a charge. The charger does a great job of maintaining the batteries, even if it does buzz like a pacemaker on steroids.

The system runs on 12v DC and an optional XLR cable makes the camera compatible with other battery belts or blocks.

The 8M's simple, rugged design make it capable of doing things that other more delicate cameras can't. Its low cost makes you willing to do things with it that you just wouldn't do with other cameras. We mounted the camera on the truck's outside mirror. We wrapped it in plastic and ran the Niagara River rapids in a jetboat.

We drowned it beneath the roostertail of skiers. We strapped it to a saddle and filmed the Wyoming ridge tops. We baked it in the California desert. The only problem we ever had was when I reversed the power leads while resoldering the connector on a frayed power cord and fried the motor electronics. MKA overnighted us a replacement and we were back in business before Gary got off the phone the next morning.

During preproduction, Gary had gathered together every bit of waterskiing footage he could lay his hands on. We figured out what we liked, what we didn't, and what we could do that was new and better. I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to shoot most of this stuff-- as good an idea as you can have when you don't know exactly what you're going to shoot.

When the reality of our schedule, the number of locations we'd be shooting at, the number of setups required per location, and the size of our crew list finally hit home, I was close to despair.

On location we didn't have time to mess about selecting filters, and our lighting kit consisted of a half-sheet of foamcore buried so deep in the truck that we didn't find it until we got home.

We felt like poster kids for the Available Light Foundation. It became a simple matter of f22 (it was, after all, noon in the desert) or f2.3 ("I don't think 20 footcandles is enough light for the 5245"). We'd have faces moving from f32 to f5.6 with a constant f22 background baking under the noonday sun. We had to deal with the astronomically high contrast ratio somehow: no stock could dig that deep and still hold up. I had a 72 Ultracon filter which I hadn't had time to test before we left, but I was hesitant to use it without having any idea how things would turn out. I had lost hope for the deep shadows, the highlights were going to wash out, and the subject moving from one extreme to another was going to become an unwatchable kaleidoscope -- all was lost.

All was lost, that is, until I stopped doing all of the normal things -- like controlling the light to make the shot come out as I had envisioned it from the idyllic confines of the office. I came to realize that I could never orient the light to the scene. I seldom had the camera angle I really wanted to create the desired effect. I couldn't even orient the scene to the light. I had to design the shots so that they made the best of whatever bad situation we had. We'd talk about our options and then decide to either shoot a wide silhouette, a tight shot with the background washed out, a down angle with both subject and water properly exposed, or whatever. As a result we exposed for the background some times, the subject other times, and sometimes for "that neat-looking rock over there." This gave us the "opportunity" to create a unique visual style for the film which dances your eye around the frame because the "subject" of the shot is sometimes the background.

One of the advantages of this "play 'em as they lay" style was that most of our locations dictated how we shot. Our North Dakota location was in the middle of a lake; everything was shot from in the boat. Colorado had no shore line, so we shot from in the boat and from a dam 60' up. Mississippi was a swampy wilderness; we shot through dead trees along the banks. We also sat Gary in the middle of the river on a life jacket with his head and the camera just above the surface as world champion barefooter Ron Scarpa skied right over him. Illinois was bordered by a cornfield on one side and an interstate on the other. We shot a down angle through the corn, hiding the road as much as possible. Each location, while having a unique set of problems, forced us to employ unique solutions. In the end, this gave the film a sort of wide-eyed innocence which, oddly enough, was what we were looking for anyway.

We became always conscious of the subtle changes in the light and our surroundings. We would drive along and play "name that f-stop." Gary would spotmeter out the window and I would estimate the stop for a given film speed and frame rate. Frequently we would see something interesting, jump out, grab the camera and start filming. The ability to accurately assess the light became critical to our success. Our waterskiing shots were filmed as they happened, without the possibility of additional takes. We would frequently be about one quarter of a mile apart, shooting coverage of a skiing sequence from different angles. We didn't have the luxury of waiting for the spotty clouds to pass. By being constantly attuned to the light, we could switch gears on the fly, splitting ratios as required between subject and background in the changing conditions.

Talking on the radio between shots helped keep the exposures close enough so that we were fairly sure we'd have something to cut together.

Still, we filmed when it was too bright and when it was too dark. We filmed when ESPN's videocams couldn't even see an image in their finders, and we even filmed barefoot night jumping in Miami. Yes, that's right, we're talking barefoot, jumping, off a ramp, at 43 m.p.h., at night. The 8M's rotating mirror shutter, coupled with the simple optics in the viewfinder, yields a very bright image. The standard viewfinder is rotatable, but the image does not remain upright due to the simple optics. A fully orientable finder is available, but the extra glass necessary for the upright image adds to the weight.

One useful feature that I missed having was either an adjustable shutter or replaceable shutters at different angles; the standard 150- degree shutter was a little too open for most of our fast-paced action.

Much of our filming was done handheld, and the 8M excels at this. The unit's lightweight, compact design makes it possible to squeeze into places you couldn't get into with other cameras. The camera is held out in front of you with your elbows resting on your chest. The optional 500' horizontal displacement magazine rests comfortably on the shoulder. This setup, though presenting a larger profile, is well-balanced and even more comfortable. The new and improved camera motor runs crystal-controlled from 8 to 60 fps and pivots to the front, making it a more convenient handle for handheld work.

Occasionally, we would use the video tap. There are three different types available for the 8M. One is a beam-splitter that permits the finder to be used as well.

The second is a simple device that clamps over the eyepiece. I use the third type, which replaces the finder optics completely and offers the lightest weight and most compact profile. With the video tap connected to a pair of Virtual Vision glasses we found that we had many of the capabilities of camera stabilizing rigs. By decoupling the camera from your eye you can hold it more naturally and float it along the same way you would carry a full cup of coffee.

During a shooting day, we'd leave everything fully assembled -- the head on the sticks, camera on the head, lens fixed, matte box on. I was developing a groove in my shoulder from flopping the 70-pound rig over it. We created what we called our "front box," a five-gallon plastic bucket with a nylon cover with pockets on it originally developed for tradesman's tools. Into the pockets went everything we'd need for shooting at a location: mags, meters, batteries, lenses, sound gear, ASC Manual, walkie talkies, lunch, film changing tent, tools, etc. I'd grab the camera, Gary would grab the front box and we'd go trudging off into the bush, or onto a boat, or into a plane, or onto a horse. You get the idea.

Then, we'd shoot the whole place: establishing shots, interview, skiing shots from shore, skiing from the skiboat, skiing from another boat, slow-motion skiing, cutaways of the boat driver and observer, and anything else we could think of. There were typically between 12 and 20 setups per location, all done in three to four hours from the time we drove in until we had to jump back in the truck and head off to meet some newly found friends.

Dealing with dailies was another big challenge, since we never stayed at any one place for more than a few hours. Once a week we'd overnight the lab a box of film. They'd process it and Rank it to 1/2" tape. When Lou was finished viewing the dailies for problems he'd call my skypager. I'd cellphone back to him with the name of the motel where we thought we'd be staying that night, and he'd overnight the I/2" tape there. The next morning, with a little luck, the tape would be at the same place we were. Nothing to it really.

The Water' s Edge is a film that's as much about the places we went as it is about the people we found there. As a result, during our 61 days of principal photography, we traveled19,000 miles and filmed at over 100 different locations. We came to realize that there is a big difference between "shooting on location" and "location shooting." Shooting on location is like a studio away from the studio. Location shooting is a bit different. You are moving so fast and covering so much ground that it starts to change you a little. You start to listen to country music. You wake up in the morning and can't remember if you're in Wyoming or Utah. You'll refer to the map in terms of "How many inches do we have left on that big blue line?" But every moment is a real moment as you head off into the unknown, trusting in luck and the strength of your own good intentions to make everything come out right.

 

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