Behind the Look With Shane Hurlbut ASC
November 12th, 2020

Shane Hurlbut, ASC has more than 30 years of credits which include impressive titles such as the Golden Globe-winning TV movie The Rat Pack, alongside Crazy/Beautiful, Drumline, The Greatest Game Ever Played, We Are Marshall, Terminator Salvation, Act of Valor, The Babysitter, and Rim of the World, among many others. In addition to his production experience, Shane founded Hurlbut Academy, an online education platform for filmmakers. He sat down with RED to talk about his approach to the art and science of creating images:

Question: What’s your process for working with a director?

Hurlbut: Directors have so many things going on, especially once production starts, so early on, I get in sync with their creative vision for the project by asking questions and getting feedback. For example, on one of my first meetings with Rim of the World director McG, he described the tone as “a beautiful travelogue, coffee book, where if you went to each image, you would see the whole path of the children’s journey.” Getting to those words through our discussion set me free – it put me on my creative path and I got with my team, told them this, and we went to work figuring out the details of how to create it.

How do you break down the script?

Everything starts with the script. When reading it, I have a methodology. The first time, I simply read to see if I’m passionate about telling the story, to see if it resonates with me. The second time, I read it to highlight the message. Then, I ask myself how I can highlight that message and what scenes in the script bring this out visually. I do this by developing a lookbook and presenting it to the director. I go online and find images for the book – using creative online services like Shotdeck. Plus, I’m always grabbing imagery on Instagram. I also have reference books – I used to sit in Arcana and Hennessey & Ingalls for hours! Or you can go to Amazon. Once I gather all the images together, I put them into Keynote or PowerPoint, or whatever you want to use to prepare it on, and organize them by categories: Mood (emotion), Tone (color throughout project), Lighting, and Composition. At the end of the day, our true job as artists is to deliver emotion and this is what you want to showcase in your lookbook.

Do you use any apps to help track colors when building different palettes for a project?

Not really. I follow still photographers. It’s almost part of my daily routine. I go on Instagram and flip through it, as well as Facebook, and see what grabs me or inspires me. I take pictures of whatever creatively inspires me for references and save them so I have access to it easily – using the folder feature on my iPhone to organize them.

How do you communicate your vision to all the different departments?

That happens in preproduction. Without this process, it’s like shooting from the hip. I like spontaneity but at the same time, I like to have a great plan. I try to educate as many people as possible with the lookbook. Usually during prep, I’m looking at locations, listening and trying to get up to speed with everyone there. Then at the early production meeting with all the departments, I bring the lookbook, get a big monitor, and put it to sound and do a big presentation to share what this project is going to look like. And this inspires people! Your biggest job is to be an inspiration and motivate people to deliver their best to get the director’s vision. The most difficult part of my job is to effectively communicate that vision.

Is there a secret to maintaining consistency?

What about camera tests?

With the lookbook and vision solidified with the director, I like to do a lot of tests – new and old lenses, specific camera tests, filters, etc. My job as a cinematographer is to really go down the rabbit hole, to design and develop the look of a project for the director to exactly match his or her vision. For each test – which also looks at color atmospheres, various directional light – I take detailed notes. I go deep testing 6K, 5K, 4K; testing different character POVs; testing for night exterior or shady daytime … everything depends on the particular story we are telling.

How do you evaluate your tests – is it more intuitive or technical?

It’s a balance of art and science. When it was film, the balance of artistry and science was attached to the emulsions and lab processes – it was simpler tech and more art. But with digital, there is so much we need to know about what the camera can provide that I’m absolutely all about the “anal tech.” The process of doing tests has to be scientific because when you get into the color bay, that’s where the artistry and creativity can flourish, and then all the tech is locked in and now you’re able to achieve the look and be collaborative.

Do you use your DIT to help organize all this info? PT 2

Advice for Filmmakers:

After I’ve done the lookbook, seen locations and built shot lists, then I sit down and describe the light for each scene, and log that into a Look Document spreadsheet. By doing that, you really start to see the arc of the film and that’s powerful.

Shane Hurlbut participated in a live, interactive interview as part of RED’s Behind the Look Virtual Cinematography Series on DATE. The above Q&A is an excerpt from that conversation.