Hotshots are among the most elite firefighters in the world. Director/Cinematographer Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann spent six years training and running shoulder-to-shoulder with them into the most devastating infernos California has ever seen. The result is the extraordinary Hotshot, a raw, first-person perspective documentary shot with unprecedented access on the fireline and fuelled by terrifying and stunning footage, all captured on RED.
“There’s a phenomenon called the fire bug – and I caught it,” Mann explains. “It’s very hard to describe, but everybody who’s actually witnessed wildfire knows this experience and how it connects to our DNA. It pulls you in.”
Mann wasn’t looking to make a film, and certainly not one about wildfire. His girlfriend, though, happened to be a hotshot and almost inevitably he was exposed to her world.
“One day, we woke to a fire just outside our house and I finally got a front row seat to what looked like the end of the world,” he says. “It was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I mean, you can't take bad images of something that looks like the Apocalypse, even just running out there with an iPhone. It looked like Godzilla.”
He found himself compelled to go out and capture it again and again. His motivation was not purely one of primeval fascination. It was to document the group of men and women who endanger their own lives to put wildfires out.
“What compelled me to keep going out is that the hotshots might just have the most interesting job in the world,” he says. “Yet a lot of people think they’re just out cutting hiking trails and don’t recognize the work that they do. They don’t get well paid. Even their agency calls them ‘forestry technicians’, not firefighters, which erodes their morale.”
It was a culture that Mann recognized from his own experience as a former professional athlete. “These people are in incredible shape and have a level of fitness that's hard to comprehend. The first time I hiked with them to a fire, it absolutely destroyed me. I had never actually quit on a workout. They’re not only overcoming the physical burden of hiking hills laden with gear and in heavy protective clothing, but often doing so in extreme heat while inhaling smoke.”
Because they work deep into the forest, hotshots are “as elusive as Big Foot,” Mann says, “doing the most challenging work, far away from eyewitnesses or cameras.”
He adds, “They share this secretive, fight club culture – they don’t like talking about it. It’s sort of sacred. At the same time, I’m seeing this incredible culture that’s disappearing. To my mind, how can you not tell this story?”
How RED fuelled Mann’s obsession
For Mann, the cinematography was the story’s anchor point.
“I was obsessed with not settling for mediocre imagery. You see some of the most incredible stuff out on the fireline. I wanted it to look like a movie. I wanted to look as cinematic as possible. I know it's going to sound contrived, but the reality was, once I switched to filming on RED, it opened up the imagery and the potential of what I was able to capture.”
He had started out shooting with various cine-style handheld cameras getting what he felt was incredible footage. Then he tried RED. “The quality of the pictures was night and day,” he says.
“Despite what we think about fires, they tend to be pretty dark environments, so if your camera is not good in low light, your pictures won’t look very good. Plus, there are just so many unpredictable things that can happen on the fireline. A sudden flare-out and your picture is overexposed.
“So, when I finally built up enough courage to bring a RED to that crazy environment, those big flare-ups that used to ruin my footage were recoverable.”
Mann says that there can be fewer more hostile environments on the planet to take a camera and every single one of them went down at one point from the heat. Except for RED.
“Even my GoPro failed in the heat. My iPhone went down every single time, but for some reason the RED cameras just never did. Yes, its fans were going constantly, and there were a lot of times we got hit directly by water drops from helicopters or from hoses spraying in the super chaotic atmosphere, but they never broke once.”
In his Jeep, Mann kept two RED bodies ready for action. On a fire operation, he would leave one behind partly to travel light and partly “in case something went wrong. I didn’t want to lose both cameras.”
In his backpack along with the RED, he’d carry six V Mount batteries – enough to last 24 hours of continuous shooting – PPE, a fire shelter, and two gallons of water.
“Sometimes you go up the hill not knowing where this thing's going to lead. These guys might end up chasing the fire eight miles away from the road and there’s no way you're getting back to charge batteries or anything.”
He also carried a full range of DSLR lenses “plus Zooms for versatility” and at night he chose fast Cine Primes.
“During daytime, I always tried to get the highest quality, highest resolution imagery, so I’d take RED HELIUM 8K. For night operations, I’d be going with RED GEMINI 5K every time. The pictures were so good shooting with the GEMINI in low light that it looked like two in the afternoon, not two in the morning.”
Mostly he shot handheld, but occasionally he would use RED KOMODO on a gimbal for a smoother stabilized shot.
“Once I switched over to RED, the imagery was just so sharp and clean. I was blown away by how well they performed and how well they took the physical abuse. The images from RED were so spectacular.”
Even though Mann had filmed wildfires for four and a half years before he started using RED, the only footage he used in the final documentary was RED.
“I threw out over four years’ worth of footage just because the RED material was so much better. It ended up comprising about 98 percent of the footage in the film.”
Those years were hardly wasted though. In that time Mann gained a greater understanding of fire behavior and built a shot list of must-have imagery.
“There is a learning curve to understanding fire and learning how to be safe and also knowing what your limits are,” he says. “Over years you realize when you're safe and when you're not safe, and then you can push the boundaries a little bit.”
He likens the task to professional wildlife photography in its mix of planning, skill and luck to be in the right place at the right time.
“Any wildlife photographer who has filmed lions in the Serengeti will tell you it took them many months of planning and patience until they finally caught that one kill they were looking for,” Mann says. “With fire, there's just so much out of your control; the odds of you being in the right place at the right time are stacked against you. It took almost five years for me to get good at it.”
Solo post operation
Documentary productions tend to have high shoot to edit ratios and Hotshot was no exception. He says, “You might shoot a thousand hours and only keep you 10 minutes, which was certainly the case here.”
Mann was the film’s sole postproducer as well as director and cinematographer, a solo operation dictated by the unpredictable subject matter.
“There's no way I'd be able to coordinate a crew when you get fire alerts at literally any time of day. And there were times when I might be out on the fireline for a week straight. It’s something you can’t plan for.”
During extended trips like this he would offload REDMAGs onto portable hard drives in the back of the Jeep. Back home, he offloaded the data to RAID drives, accumulating some 32 terabytes worth of footage.
Postproduction took the best part of two years as he gradually filtered the massive vault of imagery to find the very best shots.
“Once I started shooting with RED RAW and converted to an 8K workflow from ProRes, the postproduction actually sped up. It was a huge surprise, but I finished my edit a lot faster than I thought that I would.”
The dedication to authenticity stretched to spending hours attempting to accurately recreate the sound of fire cutting through a landscape.
“I had bodycam footage from a GoPro, and while the sound quality was not usable, it was a good reference point to remind me of the eerie sound a fire makes when it is generating its own wind.”
He says he listened to the audio over and over again to pick it apart and identify different sounds that he could match with it.
“In any sound effects library, the recordings of fire will be the same crackly or wooshy noises, but that's not what fire sounds like in real life. If you close your eyes, wildfire can sound like the waves crashing. So, for a lot of the sequences in the film I used sounds of the ocean. Trees exploding sound more like canon fire. Accuracy is important because the one thing that firefighters point out when they watch the film and when they talk about their experiences is what it sounded like.”
The money shot at dawn
Mann travelled with hotshots to hundreds of wildfires seeking all the elements he felt he needed to complete the film.
“You might go to 10 fires and not get a single one of the things on your checklist,” he says. “You’d just get big flames again, again, and again. Then finally, you get that one piece of the mosaic that paints the final picture.”
What was the one shot that proved the hardest to get? As odd as it sounds, it wasn’t of a thousand-foot fire tornado but of a man falling asleep at dawn.
“This single shot encapsulates everything about hotshot culture,” says Mann. “It was 5 a.m. and these guys had been up for three days straight, fighting fire and saving dozens of homes. They are exhausted and this one guy is just sort of sitting in the forest, nodding off, and you hear the birds start to chirp. His hair is long and gnarled, his beard is greasy from all the sweat and the soot and the carbon they've been eating all night.
“It was almost biblical because it speaks to the sheer rigor and depth of their work. To me, it’s the shot that makes the film because it connects the audience to their story in that moment.”
Mann doesn’t consider himself a documentarian, “Hotshot doesn't play like a documentary,” he says. “It feels more like a narrative film. I much prefer scripted and being able to take the time to craft the imagery.
“Obviously this subject matter dropped into my life, and I resonated with it so deeply that I just had to keep going out there and keep going until I sufficiently told that story. What I'd love to do now is move on to narrative film. There are a few projects that we're starting to develop.”
Hotshot is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu and Google Play.
Our heartfelt thanks go to Gabe Mann for his generosity in allowing RED to share his story.