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The longest days

For the second year in a row, Emeryville, California-based Michael Hoff Productions (mhp) has executed a feat that would intimidate many other prodcos: it relocated a sizeable chunk of its staff to Fort Benning, Georgia to shoot the annual three-day Best Ranger Competition. But this military event isn't a mere tug-of-war or push-ups contest. Instead, it sees two-man teams from the US Armed Forces jumping out of helicopters and navigating complicated courses in the dark. It's not your average competition, and it's certainly not your average shoot.
June 1, 2006

For the second year in a row, Emeryville, California-based Michael Hoff Productions (MHP) has executed a feat that would intimidate many other prodcos: it relocated a sizeable chunk of its staff to Fort Benning, Georgia to shoot the annual three-day Best Ranger Competition. But this military event isn’t a mere tug-of-war or push-ups contest. Instead, it sees two-man teams from the US Armed Forces jumping out of helicopters and navigating complicated courses in the dark. It’s not your average competition, and it’s certainly not your average shoot.

This year, 26 Ranger teams entered the non-stop Best Ranger event to test their communication, organization and adaptation skills – the same skills needed to film the military marvels. Not only did MHP’s teams have to physically keep up with them, they also had to scout stories on the fly to use in the resulting Military Channel series, Best Ranger 2006.

MHP’s teams marched on location in late April with 49 people – about one-third were full-time MHP staff, the rest, including production assistants, an assistant tech director, and several shooters, were freelancers – and a detailed shooting plan created by producer Marlon Singleton. The plan reflects the differences of this year’s 3 x 1-hour series versus the 2005 version – it’s now shot in HD and rather than heavy narration, the editorial focus is on the first-person experiences of the soldiers, says Military Channel executive producer Bill Howard. Howard himself calls the 2005 series a ‘brand-defining program’ for the channel.

A team effort
Five camera crews shoot during the day, when the most fast-paced Ranger events take place. Three or four take over at night. Everyone puts in at least 12 hours per shift so that the 60 hours of continuous events are fully covered.

Working those long hours, MHP wanted to avoid extra weight on its shooters, so each crew is equipped with either a sony HDW-700A or an HDW-730. Each of these HD cams are five or six pounds lighter than the sony HDW-F900 model MHP uses as a back-up. The crews also use an HDV sony Z1, which is smaller than a regular HD cam. The camera choices reflect MHP’s decision to shoot on full 1080i, and best suit their needs and budget.

‘At a day event where we’re particularly strung out, we can have eight cameras running at once since three of the producers have their own cameras,’ says MHP president and executive producer Michael Hoff, who monitors the competition’s big picture and directs crews where to move to intercept plot points using walkie talkies.

Marching to top place
Hoff describes Friday, the first day of shooting, as ‘brutal’ because the events take place at such spread out locations. He describes the first event – the Ranger Physical Readiness Assessment (RPRA) – as a ‘tricked out jungle gym.’ It’s a structured event for the competitors, so Singleton’s plan directs MHP teams to assigned spots. Once the eight cameras are stationed, the crews focus on capturing the required elements. They also get stand-ups with the Rangers once they’ve completed the course.

But even with the best of plans there’s got to be some wiggle room for unexpected issues, like when a camera at the machine gun range has problems. The camera – the Iconix HD-RH1 – had only arrived at MHP’s hotel in Fort Benning on the first day of the shoot. (It’s the beta version, says Hoff, and was still being manufactured until that point.) There are issues with its back focus and set-up configurations, so Hoff calls in another camera to the gun range for back up. Once the Iconix is tweaked ‘we got some very good stuff from it,’ says Hoff, including high, swooping shots, ‘but it wasn’t as bountiful as I may have hoped.’

Despite the crews’ best efforts, they don’t catch every shot they’d like over the three days. Near the end of the rpra, competitor Major Jensen falls on the cargo net and is badly injured. His fall was missed since the filming crews were starting to head to the next location, says Singleton.

Footage of the fall may not exist, but that won’t deter from the tone of the series, says Hoff. The Military Channel wants a verite, immersive, sound-byte driven show, so the MHP crews get the competitors to tell their own story – that’s why senior writer and creative director Shirley Tatum nabs Rangers for interviews in the few minutes they spend in holding areas refreshing between events. ‘When they’re still huffing and puffing and you can see what they’ve just exerted, it puts viewers more in the moment than using a stand up cutaway,’ adds Singleton.

But coordinating the shooters in the holding area after the litter carry event – during which Rangers administer medical aid to a 160-pound dummy body – takes logistics finesse. The event runs late, and while the crews in the holding area and at the litter carry are still filming with the producers’ HDV cams, Hoff oversees the transition between day and night crews at 7 p.m., when the four arriving crews are updated on unfolding stories. Time is of the essence since Hoff says, ‘I have to release the day crews so that I’m not racking up overtime.’ The night crews also have to prepare their equipment for the upcoming road march, the last event of the night.

By 11:30 p.m., the crews (each includes a producer, shooter and sound technician) are at the march – a grueling 18-mile trek that eliminates several Rangers from the competition. The shooters have attached infrared illuminators to the hd cams since the race starts in darkness. They also double shoot with regular hdv cams. ‘We just wanted to cover our ass,’ says Hoff. The footage shot with the illuminators turns out well, though.

Don’t call it a comeback
For the overnight land navigation event, competitors travel through the woods using only a compass, map and flashlight to lead them to checkpoints. As with the road march, MHP monitors them with a gps-based tracking system called dstar. Two filming teams are stationed at checkpoints in the forest until Hoff calls one of them back to the finish line, where another two teams have been filming returning Rangers, their families and military personnel.

Close to the event’s cut-off time, Major Jensen, the Ranger who injured himself on the first day, and his teammate are blazing towards the finish line, although they’re still deep in the woods. Hoff instantly sees the story’s potential: ‘This guy was so banged up, and in the last seconds may get back in enough time to qualify and continue to compete.’ One of MHP’s producer/shooters, who is just arriving for his day shift, is driven out to the Ranger team and runs back with them for their last three miles with his Sony Z1.

Turns out they narrowly miss the deadline and are eliminated, but it’s still a colossal element for the series. While injuries are cues that stories might develop, Tatum insists there wouldn’t be any pathos, drama or sense of courage if there’s not a beginning, middle and outcome with the Rangers they follow. ‘You can’t just go for the gore,’ she says.

Crews head back to Cali
Seems the camera issues at the machine gun shoot were irrelevant, since the event will only be used briefly in the show. ‘There’s limited movement, there’s not a lot of conversation, and it’s hard to see what they’re doing since you can’t see bullets shoot,’ says Hoff. The first of the three episodes will include longer coverage of the RPRA, the helicopter jump, the litter carry and the beginning of the road march. ‘In order to be immersive, we’re finding some of the pieces play better longer,’ says Hoff.

Three weeks after the Best Ranger event, Hoff heads back to Fort Benning for a day to get some pick-up footage, including interviews with members of the first-placed and third-placed teams. He’ll also speak with Major Jensen, who wasn’t up to chatting directly after his incident at the cargo net. The competition is over for the Rangers, but it’s ongoing in MHP’s offices since the series is set to premiere on Discovery HD Theater on July 3, and on The Military Channel on July 10.

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