I was recently hired by ESPN to shoot a piece for SportsCenter called “Redefining Strength.” The piece focused on Jon Feinman, who founded a program called Innercity Weightlifting. The program was designed to help guys get off the streets and present them with a positive opportunity to potentially turn their lives around. Feinman’s gym gives men of the streets hope that there may be a way out. “Redefining Weight” was an 8 day shoot with only a few days of prep. We rented both the camera and the lighting/grip packages from Rule/Boston Camera in the city. I used to intern there when I graduated college so it was really awesome to return and see some of the same people that I used to work with. In terms of the shooting locations, I was able to see a few of them prior to rolling but because of the run and gun nature of this doc style shoot, most of the locations were still TBD. I knew the piece would consist of interviews with Jon and a few of the key members of the gym as well as B-roll of the city and the gang terretories surrounding the complex. Obviously a lot of our shooting time took place in the gym as well.
We rented an Arri Alexa package with Zeiss Superspeed primes for this gig. I originally wanted to go with the Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 zoom as it would have suited the run and gun nature of the piece, but it was unavailable at the house we rented from. The Superspeed kit ended up working out very well other than the fact that we had to stop for lens changes which can sometimes interrupt the flow while events are unfolding. I loved how easily the superspeeds would flare and in so many varying ways depending on the angle/quality of light that was hitting the lens. Sometimes it would be a hard flare with a complete white wash and/or circle pattern and other times the image would just have a subtle milky look. The gym had a huge bank of windows on two sides that created a nice diffused ambience in the room. I rarely ever shot facing away from the windows as they looked great as a background element against the darker tones of the gym and the people that lived in the space. I used a mix of 1/4 and 1/2 pro mist depending on the subject matter and the elements in each frame to give a subtle bloom to the highlights for some shots. The pro mists also helps smooth out the skin tones a bit.
For the interview setups, we keyed mostly with an 800w Joker or used the diffused window light as a key and used the Joker as a way to fill in or wrap the key further around the face. The director was not a fan of backlight so we went without an artificial edge/backlight source. Sometimes the natural sunlight would bounce off the ground and create a subtle edge on the subjects face which we let fly. We also used negative fill as a way to create contrast if we needed it. In terms of the b-roll, we wanted all the shots of the actual city of Boston to feel pristine and beautiful so that they would contrast nicely with the rough feel of the the streets of Dorchester etc. Almost everything we shot of the city was on a slider or jib to give that footage a clean/smooth look. To contrast that, everything we shot in the streets of Dorchester was hand held and much more real/gritty. Ninety percent of the gritty b-roll was shot out of our production van while driving around in gang territory. It made for some close calls at points, but getting the footage was worth it. The blue and red flashing lights of the various cop cars around town flared the lenses beautifully and a lot of that footage made the final cut.
This shoot reminded me again that as a DP, the sun is your best friend. The sun can make or break a doc. shoot like this where you don’t have a ton of tools to emulate a certain angle or quality of light. It’s direction and location were so important during this shoot as we wanted to capture sun rise and sunset at specific locations on certain days. One of my favorite set ups involved a sequence in which a silhouetted, nondescript subject lifts a heavy weight bar symbolically over his head (LEFT). We had to wake up before sunrise to get the correct angle and quality of light entering the window for the shot to work correctly. Shafts of light punched hard through the windows creating long shadows on the floor. We smoked up the gym to give the light some shape and added a few other fixtures for specials and we were ready to rock. I was very happy with the way that sequence looked. For exterior b-roll shots, we did our best to track the sun but it somehow always seemed that we were chasing it. Somedays we shot from sunrise to sunset through some of the longest days of the year. We would drive around Boston and search for elements in the city that would be relevant to our story/message and then hop out of the van and shoot it. Using the Artemis Directors Viewfinder App on my IPHONE really saved the day on this shoot. I could hop out of the van and chose a focal length, lens height and angle without taking any of the gear out of the car. That way we didn’t waste time moving the camera once it was out of the van.
Overall, it was a great shoot and I was glad to have the opportunity to work back in my hometown area of Boston. I was lucky to have fellow east coaster Austin Ahlborg on board as my AC who flew out from LA as well. Sourcing crew and gear in the Boston area was a bit of a challenge, but it definitely put into perspective how lucky we are here in LA to have access to so many rental houses etc. It’s always tough watching the final twelve minute piece knowing how long we shot and how much footage ended up on the cutting room floor, but I think the shots that did make it in the cut where the right ones. It was really great getting to see my work on national television on a network I grew up watching. This piece has been getting some good feedback thus far so hopefully this is just the beginning of my collaboration with ESPN.
Here’s the link to the final piece. Enjoy!