Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Act Of Valor

Last night I had the opportunity to watch a prescreening of Act Of Valor, a feature film shot by Shane Hurlbut, ASC on the 5D and 7D, with some Arri 235 & 435. And I've got to say that this movie has heart. It tells the real story of what life is like for our men and women in the service, showing the struggles they encounter both during their missions and in having to leave their families. While it follows the storyline of the Navy Seals, it does a great job at honoring the sacrifices that are made every day by each one of our military personnel.

If you enjoy an action movie with heart, then I recommend checking out this movie when it is released on February 24th. I was honestly surprised by this movie. I went in having serious doubts about it from a technical standpoint and a talent standpoint. After hearing that there were no "real" actors, I was very skeptical about how well a 2 hour movie could be sustained with the lack of "real" talent. There were moments in the film where the lack of a trained acting background did show through. But those moments were few. It felt like a good episode of 24 where the action pulls you in and you don't want to look away in case you miss something important. But a word of caution - this movie is not for the faint of heart. The "R" rating for strong violence and some torture is well deserved. The violence and torture are not over the top, nor is it celebrated - it is just a part of the lives that these people live, and it is treated as such. (Which is how it should be in my opinion- neither glorified nor demonized). The energy in the packed theater was palpable. As an audience, we winced as we watched a brutal drug lord begin to torture a CIA agent... our heart strings were pulled as the men of the Seals team had to leave their families for another tour... we cheered as the enemy was defeated... and people cried as the credits rolled with a sad but meaningful ending.

Example of 1st Person Point Of View

Throughout this film there are shots that have a first person point of view (POV) - like you might find in popular video games. While I think the intent was to put you in the boots of the Seals, as a storytelling device, I found this distracting. Every time the film cut to a POV shot I felt jarred out of the world I was immersed in. I felt like I was waiting for a heads up display to come on screen telling me how much life I had left, and where my targets were located. But while this was a regular occurrence, it was spread out enough that I was able to get back into the world that the storytellers had created. What I find interesting about these shots, as my wife astutely pointed out, is that even though the visuals take you out of the moment, the sound design helps to keep you back in. The sound design at these points also takes on a POV element, where you hear the breathing of the soldier. So, while the visuals of these POV shots did not work for either her or I, the sound design did.

[SIDE NOTE / TANGENT: At the end of the movie there is a credit roll of a list of names of those who have been lost in service. Out of respect for those people, and their families, please stay seated for this credit roll. I found it disrespectful to see people get up and start to leave as these names came across the screen. These people have made the ultimate sacrifice for us by giving their lives. The least we can do to honor their service is to sit through this part of the credit roll].

We Have Arrived ...
Did you notice anything about what I had to say about the movie, or rather, did you notice what was left out? I didn't comment at all on the use of the 5D & 7D, which was cut together with film. And that is exactly my point. Technology has reached a point where the viewer can no longer tell the difference. If you have a strong story to tell, technology is no longer standing in your way - there are no more excuses. Do I think that digital has replaced film? Do I think that the 5D & 7D are as good as a 35mm print? No, and No. I could tell when a shot went from 5D/7D to film. I saw the rolling shutter issues. I saw the times where there was digital clipping in the highlights. I saw the times where focus was buzzed due to the tough nature of working with the 5D/7D in a motion picture environment. But let's face it, I am only 1% of the viewing audience. (Along with the rest of us who work in this business). The fact that these issues did not take an entire theater filled audience out of the moment says a lot. Furthermore, I was surprised how well the 5D & 7D cut together with 35mm film. No, they are not the same - but they cut together surprisingly well. The story was compelling enough that I found that I had to remind myself to keep an eye out for when the 5D & 7D footage was cut with the 35mm footage. And this was projected on a theater screen where you cannot get away with as much as you can on a tiny computer screen or on your TV.

So, no, on a technical level digital has not replaced film - even when shooting with the Red Epic, or with the Arri Alexa. But technology has arrived at the place where audiences will gladly accept content shot on a 5D and 7D for theatrical release, as it does not distract from the experience. Now I am hoping that Act Of Valor will be shown at Cinetopia - a theater where they REALLY care about how a movie is projected and have some of the latest technology for digital cinema projection. (It is better to critically evaluate a film on a technical level in an environment where you know it has been setup correctly).

Additionally, this movie could not have been made without the 5D or 7D. I have done enough work over the years with different branches of the military to know what a logistical challenge this film had in its creation. If it had to be shot on any other camera system, this film would not have been made - period. (It would have been an entirely different film all together). So not only has the technology gotten to the level where it is widely accepted by the viewing audience on the big screen, but it is opening up the doors to tell stories in new and creative ways that were not possible just 5-10 years ago. So what are you waiting for ...

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot,
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer 
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