ICG Magazine: Wide Angle, by David Geffner
Even after watching all ten episodes Netflix provided of its reality competition series Hyperdrive, which premiered in mid-August, I didn’t quite grasp what this team of union filmmakers (including DGA Director Patrick McManus, ICG Director of Photography Adam Biggs, DGA First AD Dave Massey, and a large group of Local 600 camera team members) had accomplished. Even after I saw the stunning unit and BTS images from Hyperdrive’s on- set photographer Daniel McFadden, the enormity of the crew’s achievement had yet to sink in.
When did I realize this wildly entertaining hybrid, the likes of which unscripted television has never seen, was truly epic? Not epic as in “compared to a Marvel movie,” or epic as in “compared to a Game of Thrones episode.” We’re talking audaciously epic by any industry standard; we’re talking epic as in laying five miles of cable around the former Eastman-Kodak film manufacturing plant, in Rochester, NY; epic as in rigging some 900 LED light tubes around alleys, dark corners, and a maze of factory piping; epic as in Guild operator Jeremiah Smith strapped into a minivan driving in reverse, and pulling his own focus to keep the racecar (which is doing donuts) in focus and frame. Epic as in creating safety protocols for hundreds of crewmembers across a 120-acre “set,” on which cars are traveling 100 miles per hour, at night.
The moment I truly embraced Hyperdrive’s greatness came after McManus sent me images from a scout he did with Biggs 18 months before the series premiered, revealing the Kodak facility before the filmmakers worked their unscripted magic. Riddled with potholes and aging railroad tracks, fields of gravel, and patchy snow (the scout was in winter), it was as far from the spectacular “Blade Runner meets Grand Theft Auto” look the finished cut (and unit stills) displayed.
That was also the moment when I vowed to never use the phrase “it was great…as far as reality television goes,” again. Hyperdrive looked amazing; Hyperdrive had an amazing crew; Hyperdrive had an amazing safety record – not a single incident despite the high potential for serious injury. Or as track designer and safety advisor Martyn Thake (a man who oversaw safety for the televised IndyCar racing series) told me: “Hyperdrive is a huge leap forward in showing this industry how to keep production crews safe without having to compromise content.”
For me (and hopefully this entire industry), it’s time to lose the qualifiers that are often placed before unscripted television. Hyperdrive is great filmmaking, period. And the same goes for our second November feature on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Director of Photography Jake Kerber and his Guild camera team must wildly toggle between a range of shooting styles and environments – intimate vérité in the practically lit “queens’ workroom,” to elaborate grip and camera “dances” during the theatrically lit and designed “runway” stage. During one memorable runway moment, Operator Jay Mack Arnette II, working alongside Key Grip Austin Taylor, recalls a challenging dolly shot tracking multiple contestants on the stage while pulling his own focus. Operator Jon “Sarge” Schneider was equally tested during the outrageous “Draglympics” segment, and then he bravely stepped out from behind his viewfinder to be transformed by a show contestant (on camera) during the Makeover Challenge.
Kerber says RuPaul, which recently won four Primetime Emmys, including Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, bringing its total to 13 Primetime Emmys in the last three years, fosters an environment in which key collaborators must consistently “adapt to changes on the fly.” It’s a show where the dynamic host coaxes contestants to never “be afraid to use all the colors in the crayon box,” the same bold mindset Kerber says he and his Local 600 camera team apply every day to a show Executive Producer Randy Barbato describes as having “massive photographic challenges.”
Both of these series – Hyperdrive and RuPaul’s Drag Race – along with all the other unscripted content covered in this issue, feel bigger than life; and the union crews who are so dedicated to this world are as skilled as any in the entertainment industry.
That’s just reality.