Shane Hurlbut, ASC was “absolutely captivated” by the true story of Ray Ray McElrathbey when he first read the script for Safety by Nick Santora for Disney+.
A drama inspired by the story of the former Clemson University football safety (played by Jay Reeves), Safety is directed by Reginald Hudlin (Marshall, Academy Award-nominated producer of Django Unchained) and produced by Mark Ciardi, PGA (Secretariat, Miracle) and Gordon Gray (Million Dollar Arm, The Rookie). Aided by his teammates and the Clemson community, McElrathbey succeeds on the field while simultaneously raising and caring for his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson).
As director of photography for sports-centered films like Mr. 3000, We Are Marshall and Drumline, as well as Act of Valor and Need for Speed, Hurlbut is no stranger to the challenges of filming high-stakes action sequences, but Safety presented a entirely new set of hurdles for the veteran cinematographer.
The script required several carefully choreographed football sequences executed in a packed stadium, all of which had to be captured during the halftime of a real Clemson University football game. Despite repeated pleas to the NCAA to extend the halftime period, the Safety crew had exactly seven minutes and 20 seconds to obtain the coverage they needed for the film.
“Authentically capturing sports is essentially impossible without the environment of a stadium full of screaming fans,” Hurlbut notes on the Hurlbut Academy website, where he details the meticulous planning and preparation that went into the shoot.
The shoot included five cameras on the field, thirteen cameras throughout the stadium, 185 extras, and 45 crew members and players on the football field. Special stunts were choreographed to pull off four separate scenes in seven minutes and twenty seconds: run down to the field from the top of the hill, perform the plays, and get off the field. All in front of 83,000 die-hard Clemson fans.
Working closely with football coordinator Mark Ellis, Hurlbut used detailed storyboards to develop the shot list, blocking schematics and camera configurations for the sequences, which depict the discovery of a “tell” in the opposing running back by Ray’s little brother, and the subsequent retooling of the team’s defensive audible, dubbed “Fahmarr.”
“We didn’t use any cuts, instead, the camera pans to tell the emotional story,” Hurlbut recounts:
“We’re on Ray’s POV. He sees the running back tug his jersey. We go into an extreme POV of the tug. We whip over to Ray off of his POV and into a closeup, and Ray calls out, ‘Fahmarr! Fahmarr!’
“He starts moving while calling it out and we pan — and in the foreground is a linebacker. From there we pan back to Ray, who settles in for the play. Was Fahmarr right? Will this work out? Just as the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, Ray makes a big tackle where the offense loses major yardage. And it was all thanks to Fahmarr’s observations — something that wouldn’t have happened if Ray hadn’t decided to take care of his brother while working through a tough first year as a rookie Safety.”
To ensure that the sequences could be shot within the allotted time, Hurlbut had four days to run practice drills with the camera crew:
“The whole time we were going through the sequence without the camera gear, we were seeing how quickly we could do it — both how quickly the players could run through the plays, and how quickly we could get onto the field and move around with all of this stuff and see if we could get it in the designated 7 minutes and 20 seconds. The first one was 17 minutes. The second run we got it down to 15, and then we got it to 12….The task became whittling that 12 minutes down by 4 minutes and 40 seconds. So, we started to integrate the cameras. But as we integrated the cameras, instead of going down, our time went up. So, we went from 12 minutes back up to 15!”
From principal photography through final delivery, Safety utilized a complete DaVinci Resolve Studio workflow incorporating an innovative digital asset management (DAM) system on set built around Blackmagic Design’s switchers, recorders, routers and monitors.
The process they developed was simple and could be managed by a single on-set operator. When production cameras rolled, they automatically triggered Hyperdeck Studio Mini recorders on the DAM cart to record simultaneously, with matching time code, creating immediate playback footage. That same video feed was graded live on-set with DaVinci Resolve, allowing video village and remote creatives to view only colored footage rather than raw, uncolored imagery. Thus, color corrected playback was available right away, with dailies available twice daily both on-set as well as remotely, when uploaded to secure cloud services. Live images and recorded shots were immediately available throughout the set via ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K switchers and Teranex Mini SDI Distribution 12G boxes. Audio was handled by the Blackmagic Audio Monitor 12G.
This workflow meant that on-set decision makers, such as the director and DP, were able to make notes on clips that went through the DAM cart directly to editorial. Even script supervisor notes were added to metadata and immediately made available to editorial. Camera original shots were downloaded from storage cards directly to high speed RAID drives, which were then delivered to nearby post-production facilities multiple times a day.
Hurlbut appreciated the ability to provide clear communication all the way to the studio level. “We were able to track all metadata coming out of the cameras and put that right into our RAID system, send shots all the way up to Disney and keep everyone on the same communication level, with same day dailies that kept the studio feeling very connected to the film,” he commented.
During the finishing process each team member was working from the same raw data set, which ensured seamless collaboration between departments. When color was applied to a shot, for example, editorial was prompted to update, and was able to see new color changes immediately.
“We knew when somebody was coloring an image, we knew when somebody was editing something, we knew when visual effects were putting in a shot, we knew when sound design was coming in with a whole new track,” Hurlbut said. “It created one communication channel where everyone could see it all live.”