Pearson on the Art of Shooting Action

Brian Pearson, one of the newest members of the ASC, spoke with me just after he finished working on Life on the Line, a film starring John Travolta and Kate Bosworth that explores the world of high-wire crews who work on the electricity grid despite intense weather.

In recent years, Brian has worked primarily as a first-unit director of photography, but his résumé includes many credits as a second-unit cinematographer on big-budget action features, including I Am Legend and I, Robot. He says his experience in stunts, action and specialty shooting definitely informs his work at the head of a first-unit crew. “I’m very glad I’ve had those second-unit experiences on bigger films,” he says. “They have proven invaluable when you’re telling the action part of a story."

Step Up All In was a dance movie, and the methodology for photographing dance is very similar to photographing action, as they both rely on shooting movement in a dynamic way within the frame,” he continues. “Drive Angry, a road movie, required making the car-to-car work visually exciting for the audience. On Into the Storm, we had to viscerally show the audience what it was like to be inside a tornado. On Life on the Line, action was approximately 25 percent of the movie, which included linemen working atop power poles during some pretty intense storms. The challenges of the film required me to photograph a car crash with multiple cameras and figure out the best way to shoot actors 35 feet in the air on power poles around high-voltage lines.”

I asked Brian about his thought process. “It comes down to analyzing what the shots are. Sometimes, depending on the scope and budget of the film, the action sequences can seem quite complex when you first read the script. We like to start with a solid discussion the beats of the action, which angles are best, and which shots best tell the story. Oftentimes, if we have the resources and time, we’ll develop storyboards or animatics. Once the boards are done, you can very easily start to break down how to achieve each individual shot.”

In action situations, where safety is crucial, the relationship and trust between the cinematographer and the actor can take on additional importance, Brian says. “For Life on the Line, we needed to shoot nighttime storm sequences in which actors were working at the top of the power poles,” he says. “Production was considering shooting this sequence on greenscreen, but I felt very strongly that the wind, rain and interactive lightning would look more authentic if we were able to capture it in-camera, and that it would also be much less expensive than doing it on greenscreen. I felt if we could do it safely in the actual exterior location, it might also be better for the actors and their performances.”

For the exterior scenes on the poles, the production found a controllable stretch of road in Vancouver where they installed about 10 of their own 40’ poles, which were slightly shorter than the average pole. This slightly diminished height allowed them to shoot down from a 50’ Technocrane while still communicating the proper sense of height. “We did some tests with a high-capacity scissor lift and a Condor representing our Technocrane, with a member of our stunt team belted to the scissor lift,” says Brian. “Then, we had John Travolta come to set during the day and, in a calm and relaxed environment, we showed him how we planned to shoot his high-line work during the storm the next night. We took our time and made him very comfortable.

“The next night, when we shot the scenes, we were able to get all the material with John and other actors in the real environment, 40 feet in the air,” says Brian. “Because we took the extra time to make sure John felt comfortable with the plan, the sequence is very realistic and was done safely. That wound up being absolutely the right way to do it, and it made everyone happy.”

Brian’s recent induction into the ASC was a career high point. “I was sponsored by Tom Sigel, Paul Cameron and Andrew Lesnie, all of whom are incredibly talented cinematographers and also lovely people. I feel very lucky and honored to have their support. Being an ASC member has given me a boost in confidence and a real sense of accomplishment. At the same time, I have such great respect for the other members of the ASC that I want to make them proud with my future work and prove worthy of the honor.”






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