If you haven’t heard about the film ACT OF VALOR, you really need to. The 30 million dollar war film stars real active duty Navy Seals and not A-list stars. The film depicts the life of some of America’s toughest, and most secretive, military warriors. And not only did they stretch their budget by going with the Canon 5D Mk. II as their main cameras, but they also shot with live ammo. So when the director calls action … he means it.
It became an obsession to tell this story in an authentic way, and you just couldn’t do that with real actors. It’s an authentic action film. – Director Mike McCoy
The thing about Act of Valor is that you won’t see stars names in the credits. Filmmakers believed that not even stunt men could handle the kind of tough work that Seals are faced with on an average mission, so they petitioned the Navy to use active duty Seal personnel to keep the film real. BIn addition, the Navy Seals train as they fight, with real ammunition. There’s no blanks or high tech laser tag weapons. They guys play for keeps. And so filming was done in the same fashion, with live ammo.
They wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t real and authentic. – Scott Waugh, Director/Producer/Editor
“Shooting live fire scenes is unlike anything you’ll ever do,” says director/producer Mike McCoy, “you’re in there right underneath real guns shooting the scene.” And director of photography Shane Hurlbut agrees, saying that the added dimension of live ammo kept everyone on their toes. “It’s nothing like shooting with blanks, and that kept everyone on edge.”
But in addition to the use of live fire ammunition, the filmmakers chose to shoot the entire film using the Canon 5D Mk. II, making it the highest profile film to date to adopt digital filmmaking with DSLRs as their primary platform. “What makes that fact even more remarkable is that most audiences will never know the difference,” says Hurlbut, “even when watching the movie blown up on the giant screen at their local multiplex. It was a game changer. I knew it was going to change the way we made movies.”
Hurlbut isn’t just saying it either. He’s seen a dramatic ripple effect of adopting the DSLR for location filming. “Never before has a camera system had such a ripple effect across the boards,” says Hurlbut. “You’re using less power, less lights, less generators, less vehicles, less crew. Those cost savings allow you to put your limited resources into other areas.” And that kind of savings, coupled with the flexibility of the 5D Mk. II was a very freeing experience for the filmmakers. Suddenly, they could strap the 5DII to just about anything from helmets of the movie’s Seal stars to close up angles of burned out trucks getting peppers with the live ammunition that was used on the production. And should the camera take a hit, it’s low cost meant it was worth the risk to get shots that other cameras were simply too expensive to use.
But that doesn’t mean it was all guns and roses for the 5D. Hurlbut says that while he’s convinced DSLRs can hold up to a major studio release, it wasn’t without work to get it there. “…it’s not like film. You have to find that right cocktail (of camera settings, lenses and post production) that gives you the best imagery.” And for post production, the producers relied on NVidia graphic processors and a custom written version of Cinnafilm’s Dark Energy image optimization and conversion/correction software to squeeze every pixel of cinematic quality out of them. And the results sure show it.
“No other camera can do what the Canon 5D does,” says Hurlbut, “you cannot compete with this camera size and price point.” And with the 5D Mk. III (X) right around the corner, things will only continue to get better for Indie filmmakers.