I seek adventure — whether that be shooting surfers in Costa Rica surrounded by bull sharks and crocodiles, hiking the snowy Andes while documenting blind, wounded veterans en route to the summit of South America’s highest glacier, or filming snowboarders in waist-deep powder in the Wyoming backcountry.
But 2015 proved to be a different kind of adventure. My production company, Trine Films (www.trinefilms.com), and I embarked on a feature-length documentary about the world-renowned sculptor James Surls. (I’ve made one other feature in my life, but this was my first for Trine Films.) At 72, Surls is an extraordinary artist who creates large-scale bronze, steel and wooden sculptures for installation around the world. His art and his life are ruled by an intriguing paradoxical philosophy and an almost storybook love for his wife, Charmaine. We wanted to capture all this on film. Around the time discussion of the film began, Surls agreed to a commission for Singapore’s famous Botanic Gardens as part of the country’s 50th anniversary celebration. The development, creation and installation of that piece — the paramount work of his 45-year career — became the backbone of our movie.
Most of the time, we followed Surls with at least two cameras and a sound operator. Even though this was a skeleton crew, it posed a challenge for Surls and his family to feel natural and comfortable, especially with camera rigs watching them as they ate their cereal. Eventually it seemed like every time we cut the camera and turned away, the most profound and authentic moments spilled out. This was a huge issue. We wanted to capture the essence and philosophy of the man and his family, but we weren’t getting what we needed. Something had to change, and it had to change fast.
Just like a sinking blimp heading straight for a jagged cliff, we started dumping our excess equipment, down to the bare bones. Shoulder rigs, tripods, monitors, follow focus, dollies, booms — almost everything went. Yet the cinema cameras were still too cumbersome and conspicuous. I pulled out my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. It was light, it was unobtrusive and it was nothing like the cinema camera rigs we’d been lugging around.
As if by magic, in front of the OM-D, Surls and his family started to loosen up. They were no longer as intimidated. We stopped losing those gold-nugget moments we so desperately wanted.
The OM-D’s built-in, 5-axis image stabilization allowed us to use longer lenses without a tripod and get tighter and more intimate shots, bringing out the heart of Surls and our other subjects. Not only did the smaller cameras help, but also stepping back a few feet so we were just on the periphery of their bubble made us flies on the wall.
We would normally have lights, windows scrimmed off, wireless monitor setups, dollies and jib arms for a specific shot — and then, in the classic artist cliché, Surls would change his plans. It forced us to adapt and become more nimble with our production techniques. We had to be lightweight, ready to move — another issue that was solved by embracing the OM-D family.
Our crew essentially became a Special Forces tactical camera unit. When we were shooting art installations, I would even wear a tactical vest stuffed with micro 4/3 lenses, extra E-M5 Mark II bodies, batteries, cards, bounce boards, mics and adapters, on me at all times. I never could have carried that many full frame lenses and not be crying the next day in pain. So the advantages of the micro 4/3 form factor and lens options were really a no-brainer.
I used mostly Prime lenses when I was shooting with the E-M5 Mark II, mainly because I needed that extra exposure latitude for the non-lit environments. But I also wanted the buttery bokeh effect that those primes do so well. My favorite lenses that I used the most were the M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8 Premium, the M.Zuiko 25mm f1.8 Premium and the M.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 Premium. I can’t believe they were so small and yet so sharp and fast. Having a combination of these features coupled with a very interesting subject led to a year full of hard work but a satisfying accomplishment.
Overall, I learned a lot in the process of making this film — mainly in the realms of directing and working with people, and learning better how to make them feel understood and safe, while still getting what I needed on camera.
Alas, not all things can be captured on video. Even though some moments are as elusive as a snow leopard, those moments that we can and do get make it all worth the effort. I’m very happy with the end result. We hope for the documentary to debut at film festivals in summer of 2016. It’s called The House, The Hand, and The Hatchet and you can see the teaser trailer here:
Award-winning filmmaker and Olympus Trailblazer Austin Lottimer has worked on numerous independent film projects, music videos and documentaries, in a variety of roles from key grip on an HD feature film to commercial editor to director of photography. He and his brother started Trine in 2014. They had previously caught the attention of Olympus cameras by winning the Olympus PEN Your Short 48 Hour Film Contest at the 2011 Vail Film Festival with their short “Running Colors.” Austin was thereby introduced into the Olympus Visionary Program, which he is still a part of today.