Nat Geo & Samsung

What it Takes with Kirsten Luce

You Ask

A National Geographic photographer, joined by three Team Galaxy Creators for a 'photography meetup' in the storied landscapes of the American Southwest will capture sunrise to sunset on the *new* Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone. But, here’s the twist …you have to shoot the entire piece doc-style on the phone. The whole thing. 100% shot with this phone. You in? (We know Justin’s at least curious and the most tech savvy person out there … so we figured we’d start with you).

We Answer

Internal monologue: We have never shot a professional piece on a phone. So… We’re intrigued. We’re up for the challenge (Justin is up for the challenge). We love working with the team at National Geographic. Out loud conversation: Let’s do this! But just to clarify, EVERYTHING must be shot with the phone? Yes? Yea, right, ok copy that.

In all honesty, this may have been our most difficult project to date. Starting with having to completely rethink our cinematography approach for this story with no ability to link a Director’s monitor. We were on a very accelerated schedule and did not receive the actual phones until mere days before heading out to our location, Arizona. But we like to prep. It’s kind of our thing. So we were prepared with everything we needed to hit the ground running once we received the phones.

Cameraman holding the mounted Saumsung Galaxy S20 Utlra with lens facing directly at viewer

So. Phones. How do we get the most cinematic experience from phones? We know we’ll need to be smooth, we’ll need filters, and it would be cool to have a couple lens options as add-ons. Step 1: Research. Why do most things on a phone look like they were shot on a phone? You can ask Justin for an in depth convo (that you wish you didn’t start) and he will certainly enlighten you. Step 2: Buy stuff. Already being a loyal FreeflySystems customer, we compare then pull the trigger on the Freefly MoVI Cinema Robot (a.k.a. phone gimbal). Now lenses. Moment, the leading 3rd party vendor for phone/drone accessories, has 18mm and 58mm lenses that we’re interested in. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the cases/mounts ready to match these very new phones just yet. Time to get custom. We buy a case with their proprietary mount for the previous gen phone, surgically cut it up, and masterfully mount it to the new phone using nothing but the rarest, highest grade gaffer’s tape. We’re in business. We get a threaded mount, step up ring, some stackable lowcon variable ND filters, a counterweight kit, and finally, FilmicPro software for greater specs control. We are off to the races.

Mounted Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra with lens viewed from the side
Mounted Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra with lens viewed from the view finder or screen side

And for the less tech “story,” we need our talent to highlight the many new features of the phone in a natural and non-salesy way so we had to be up to speed on all these elements as well. Thanks, Justin!

And being a doc style project dictated that our crew be nimble. We were asked to keep the size to around 5-6 people so we needed to choose wisely. Lucky for us, we are a team of Accidental Generalists so most of us hone multiple skill sets and can pivot based on need. Rock god Sr. Editor Rory? Also a camera operator. West Coast Gaffer Tandy? Can also grip and run sound. Assistant Director, Barker? Some days is our Production Manager. It was imperative every one of our crew also be able to pull on their “Alter Ego” to get this job done! Crew … booked.

Onto the next, locations. We knew the piece needed to center around landscape photography in and around the Sedona, Arizona area and we needed to find places that made sense for our Nat Geo photographer, Kirsten Luce. Kirsten is an amazing photo journalist who covers immigration on the US / Mexico border. She uses aerial photography in a very smart way to provide her viewers with a varied perspective on a story many think they already know. By looking at the environment in which these stories are set gives us a clear opportunity to pause and ponder. When you see a solitary person swimming across the Rio Grande from the air, the story changes. The environment very much becomes an equal character, allowing us to really see more clearly the challenges and the scope associated with these events. With this in mind, we thought offering an aerial perspective on Sedona was a great fit for our talent so our amazing production team began looking into filming from a hot air balloon to kick off our story.

collage of hot air baloon and arial canyon photos

From there we built out the remainder of the journey which consisted of a 4 hour drive to Canyon de Chelly located within the Navajo Nation. This canyon, if you have not been, is an incredible wonder of the world. Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful from an archaeological perspective, dotted with a 750 foot spire called Spider Rock, but there has been continuous habitation in the canyon for 4,000 years. Seeing ancient Pueblo ruins carved into the canyon is as equally humbling as it is impressive. We learned, from our calls with Kirsten, that she had recently started horseback riding as a way to unwind and see the world in a different way. This was also a scenario where she tended to use a phone camera over her DSLR. So, a horseback ride deep in the canyon seemed like a natural fit as the second activity for our team to experience together. And story-wise, the change in perspective being down IN the canyon would afford us was a nice complement to our aerial view.

Kirsten Luce wearing a cowboy hat in a canyon and appears to be on horse back, though the horse is not visible in the shot, over a color palette with the AE logo

And then there are the sunrises and sunsets. Everyone loves golden hour and magic hour. But those of us in production also know that depending on them to happen when we need them is a rookie move. There was no time or budget for weather contingency, so we did the only thing we could- create a 2 day schedule where we could capture two sunrises and two sunsets and hope one delivered. 🤞🏻🙏🏼😎🤞🏻 We were able to find some breathtaking vantage points for our photographers to experience these magical times of day, one being the popular Spider Rock Overlook in Canyon de Chelly and the other being the more “local favorite,” a 45 minute hike straight up Doe Mountain in Sedona. The sunrises and sunsets middle perspective rounded out nicely our “sky to floor” story arc, and we wasted no time locking this in with our Nat Geo and Samsung clients.

10 days of pre pro and we had locked our locations, crafted our color palette, shot off our wardrobe selections, figured out the phones, and set a WIP shot list & shoot schedule. Time to fly. And … by the time we were planning our travel, the weather report was predicting rain for our entire production window. Rain. In the desert. Over 300 days of sunny skies annually and we get the freak occurrence of rain. So, Justin, our Production manager and I headed out a few days early to get boots on the ground in anticipation of having some Plans B’s ready. Together we crossed Arizona several times to be sure we put eyes on all our locked locations AND had several backup plans in our pocket as well. We also preemptively captured every time lapse of every sunrise and sunset in preparation for never seeing the sun again. By day 2 on the ground, we were hearing rumblings that the balloons would likely cancel due to weather. Sigh.

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Picture of a rock formation overlooking the canyon
Picture of Jason and Heather overlooking the canyon while Jason takes pictures
Picture of Jason hanging sitting on a ledge overlooking the canyon
Picrture of Jason positioning the Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra on a small tripod angled up from a rock near the ground
Picture of Rory, Heather, and Jason
Picture of Heather from behind looking at a rock formation
Heather and Jason highfiving in the sunset above a Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra mounted on a tripod

As the clients and talent were making their way into town the balloons had officially canceled. Some hikes; also canceled. Schedules were being finessed to incorporate an impromptu night hike before the rain started. So instead of a proper pre pro dinner and meet and greet with the talent and clients, they all came straight from the airport to Doe Mountain where we quickly introduced ourselves, had a safety meeting, and promptly started the 1,000 foot climb to the top for sunset. I have to say, in all my decades in production- never have I seen such a military style Plan B quite like this one. And everyone was a team player. We hiked 17 people up a mountain and still managed to capture some amazing moments from these 4 people meeting for the first time. The one thing we did not get? You guessed it. Sunset. Thanks to the growing cloud cover bringing the impending rain, sunset was a bust. But we all enjoyed a fun hike down the mountain in the dark-- following the light sticks our Production Manager hung to guide the way (we only got lost once 😉).

View from just over someone's head of 2 others hiking on a trail, the middle man is giving a thumbs up
Far off photo of Justin taking a close up of someone's face as she looks over the canyon
Photo of a man taking a picture of the sky from atop the canyon
Photo of Justin laying the ground with his back towards the view shooting into the canyon below him
Photo of the team hiking the canyon trail during the day
Photo of the team hiking the canyon trail in the dark

And when we awoke the next morning, it was pouring down rain. There would have been no balloon and no aerial views to share. So we organized our caravan out to Canyon de Chelly early. And the most complicated component was not making sure all 7 cars made it through wifi barren stretches of countryside, it was that DAYLIGHT SAVINGS had just happened and as we all know, Arizona does not follow it. But … the Navajo nation does. There are few things that have made me feel as dumb as never quite knowing what time it was ANYWHERE, and how it was relative to the people we were talking to everywhere else, throughout this entire trip. But we got there in plenty of time to try for sunset attempt #2. And the skies looked promising. And they held out long enough for us to capture a truly breathtaking view of the canyon. A place where just days before we had scouted and experienced hail. HAIL (It happened >> HAIL VIDEO below).

Justin and Heather looking at a Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone screen together with flecks of snow on Justin's hoodie

Our final day was a full one, beginning with a sunrise at Spider Rock Overlook; the only part of the shoot which remained intact from our original schedule. We arrived just in time to get a gorgeous golden hour sunrise and stayed until rain tossed us out once again. Rain also ruined our hike down into the canyon (it was deemed too slippery) so we lost a little time while our gracious guides got us down safely via Jeeps. And forget Formula 1, these guys and gals were incredible drivers, navigating some of the craziest terrain as we descended to the canyon floor to meet our horses.

Photo of the team setting up and trying to keep warm
Two people standing on a rock outcropping in the distance overlooking the canyon
Hikers looing over the canyon eadge adn filming with the mounted Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Team standing discussion near puddles water
Monesha Lever smiling at the camera with teammate photo bombing from behind her and giving the piece sign
Man looking longingly over the canyon wall

And as if on cue, the sun came out just in time for our horseback riding segment. We had a truncated schedule but amazing weather as the team meandered through the trails on the canyon floor- seeing the White House ruins among other amazing sights. Little known fact, our VP / Head of Production, Monesha Lever, is an amazing rider and pretty much stole the show, IMO. So while the rest of us Jeep'd back up to safety, she rode a horse all the way back up to the ranch with the rest of the cowboys. It was pretty cool.

Photo of Monesha Lever on horse back looking back over her shoulder
Monesha Lever and guide on horse back facing the camera

We covered our third sunset, for safety, but our original one from day 2 was in such good shape we didn’t feel the need to press into it as hard. After three grueling long shoot days fraught with rain, cold temperatures, questionable hiking conditions, constant changing of plans and some of the most limited food options I have ever had to offer clients (Subway or Denny’s, anyone? Then, followed by either Denny’s or Subway) - we called WRAP!

Justin and teammate looking at the camera while justin holds the mounted Saumsung Galaxy S20 Ultra pointing away towards the canyon walls

But there was only one thing that could make all of this seem like a drop in the bucket. And it’s not the one that goes great with a lime.

Corona

By the time we arrived at the Flagstaff airport, the country had gone from zero to 60 on the perceived threat level of the coronavirus. We were told by the President, just days before, that he wasn’t concerned at all. “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” He said that it was going to “wash away,” but the reality was that it had morphed into a pandemic overnight. SXSW was cancelled, Disneyland was closed, and the entire country of Italy was on lockdown. And there we were. Standing in an airport with dozens of people about to board tiny planes to LAX, Denver & Dallas where we would be joined by thousands of other freaked out people in transit. Bartender … methinks another round!

The team boarding an airplane
Monesha Lever standing in front of an airplane

We all made it home. Safely. Healthy. And able to uphold the rigorous post schedule for these cuts. Some pieces were completed by our team remotely, others in the shop. But teamwork made the dreamwork, and together we created stories others would have deemed impossible amidst the chaos. Skillfully shot by Justin and Rory on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Masterfully produced by Monesha. Written and directed by me. And we could not have brought this over the finish line without Megan, Hannah & Tyler to round out our post production and audio team. A big thanks to our good friend and partner in crime, Tom King, and the awesome team at Samsung. To Kirsten Luce and the Team Galaxy Creators: Max Loewenstein, Erika Morillo, and Brian Uchiyama. You are truly some of the nicest and most talented people I have ever had the pleasure of directing. I look forward to following your careers and hope our paths cross again someday. Preferably, somewhere dry and sunny. Maybe we should try the rainforest … eh, eh?

TRAPS OF THE TRADE: LOCATION SCOUTING

Many of you are likely thinking, why didn’t they film the always photogenic Cathedral Rock, Robber’s Roost, or Devil’s Bridge? Here are a few things we needed to consider while finding that perfect location from afar.

#1. It’s winter, so those places didn’t look as picturesque in March as they do in the lush (normally rainy) summer season. And we knew our photographers would never have chosen this time of year to capture those particular iconic places.
#2. It was the beginning of Spring break for the West Coast schools. This means … crowds. We were limited on where to laser focus our location scouting.
#3. What about the Wave? Also a crowd pleaser. But you need to book many months in advance for even the CHANCE to be considered for access.
#4. Why didn’t you play around with astrophotography when Sedona is the 8th international dark sky community as designated by the IDA, you ask? In addition to the rain, there was a full moon. The “Super Worm Moon” to be exact. And the shoot window was locked based on our talent’s schedule.

Night sky = cancelled.

Image of dusk sky

Fun Fact

According to our AD, Barker, the best place to get a pickle … like a full dill pickle floating in a tub of its own juices, along with other dill pickles … is “from the gas station.” and when pressed, were told, “Oh yeaah.. Where else can you put tong to pickle?”

Um. Nowhere, I guess? Fair assumption.