Thanks to our friends over at Blackmagic Design, I recently had the opportunity to chat with Scott Sorensen, the Director of Photography for MythBusters. The conversation ranges from how Scott got his start in the industry and how he worked his way up to the DP position, to why, after many years of utilizing low-end Sony Handicams, the show transitioned to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera for its coverage needs.

So without any further ado, here's our conversation with Scott!

NFS: How did you get your start in the film and television industry, and how did you make it to where you are on the MythBusters’ crew?

Mythbusters BMPCC BTSMythBusters Director of Photography Scott Sorensen (on the ladder) rigs two cameras overhead for a bird's eye view of one of the show's many experiments.

Scott Sorensen: In 2006, I had just graduated from UC Santa Cruz and was working at the wholesale fish buyer at Santa Cruz Harbor. I turned up for my interview at MythBusters reeking of fish. I'm not sure why they called me back, but I got hired as their production assistant. The next thing I knew I was driving across the Bay Bridge in a small pickup full of dead pigs. 

I got my start in the MythBusters camera department when, at the end of 2006, the high-speed camera operator left the show. I was the high-speed/second camera op for around four years. In November of 2010 I started shooting main camera for the show and in January of 2014 I became the director of photography. 

The MythBusters crew is tiny. It's a tight nit group that has worked together for the better part of a decade and promotes from within. I owe where I am now to the generous tutelage of the camera operators I worked under. My good friend Ben Hanson, one of the best shooters the show has ever had, trained me on the job as an operator. Of our camera operators, Will Nail started as a PA and Duncan Clark started as a summer intern. 

NFS: What were you guys using before as B-cams, and why did you opt to switch over to BMPCCs? What made those cameras the right choice for this job?

SS: At the start of this latest season of MythBusters, we wanted to revamp the visuals of the show. For as long as I'd been with the show we'd used Sony Handicams as our primary second cameras. The Handicams are good little cameras- that we did terrible, terrible things to- but they have a very video looking image. We wanted a more cinematic feel- something like a video DSLR but more reliable. 

The Handicams are good little cameras -- that we did terrible, terrible things to.

The idea to use the Pocket cams actually came from Anthony Toy, our director of post production in Sydney. The Pocket gave us the cinematic look we wanted plus ProRes recording, which made post happy. The Pocket cam has become our primary second camera for covering our builds and experiments. 

I have enjoyed filming many of our show openers on the Pocket. When we first got them in, I was very impressed with the look of the Pocket with the MetaBones SpeedBooster. It has a nice shallow depth to it that I feel works well with our more cinematic show openers. 

Mythbusters BMPCC BTS

Mythbusters BMPCC BTS

NFS: There are obviously different types of scenes in the show – interviews, capturing the process of designing and building the experiments, and then the experiments themselves. Walk us through how each of these are filmed, including the basic setups, gear packages etc., and what kinds of factors have to be taken into consideration to get all of the footage you need for a successful edit.

SS: Much of what we film at MythBusters is either a build or an experiment where we take what we built and blow it up. Or smash it. Or sink it. Or shoot it. Or burn it. We'll cover the bulk of a typical build with a Sony PDW-700 and supplement that footage with time lapses shot on the Pocket cameras and high-speeds shot on the Sony FS700. When possible, we'll break out our Kessler CineDrive system for some moving time lapses.

Often times, when we test a myth, we have an idea about what the result will be. Ultimately though we don't know with certainty what the outcome of an experiment will be and we need to be covered. Depending on the size and complexity of an experiment, we'll have between three and ten Blackmagic Pocket cameras and a few GoPros covering an experiment. GoPros are usually closest to danger. In addition, we have a pair of FS700s and our Phantom V12.1 to get high-speed shots and a DJI Inspire One for aerials. 

NFS: What does a typical day on the MythBusters set look like? I assume, like most reality shows, you guys work at breakneck speeds and on tight deadlines. Give us a sense of an average day and of how much footage you capture.

Mythbusters BMPCC BTS

SS: MythBusters is a strange gig in that it's like having a real job. We don't have a typical production schedule, we generally work 8:30-5:30, Monday through Friday. We have around two weeks to shoot each episode and at the end of each and every week, we ship a box of XDcam discs and hard drives to Sydney, Australia to be edited. Per episode, I'll record around 10-15 hours on one of our Sony PDW-700 XDcam cameras. We'll send many, many times that amount of footage shot on our Pocket cameras, GoPros, and Phantom v12.1 high-speed camera.

Today was an odd day in that we were filming an experiment that had no time frame. Something exciting could've happened at any moment... for 5 hours. Experiments like this really burn through media and at the end of the day you could find you have nothing but hours of footage of something not exploding -- or whatever it's meant to do. 

NFS: Is there anything else about the production of MythBusters that you'd like to share with the No Film School audience? Anything particularly unique about the production itself, or something about what it takes to be successful in the television industry?

SS: This October, I'll have been working on MythBusters for nine years. In that time, I have had the privilege to learn from great shooters and builders. Adam and Jamie themselves have been invaluable sources of knowledge. We in the camera department are constantly asking their advice.

The best advice I can give someone to be successful in television is simple. Whatever job you're doing, whether you're a PA or a director, do that job well.

In no particular order, here are a few things I've picked up working on MythBusters:

  • Water will not compress. GoPros will. 
  • There are few camera mounting problems that cannot be solved with the application of butyl. 
  • Whenever possible, maintain line of sight to the subject when triggering a high-speed camera. Sometimes sound isn't fast enough. 
  • Always pack underwater housings with feminine hygiene products. 
  • Eat only bananas before a zero gravity flight. 
  • Do not flap your arms like a chicken around sharks. 
  • The explosion will be larger than anyone claims. Frame accordingly. 

The best advice I can give someone to be successful in television is simple. Whatever job you're doing, whether you're a PA or a director, do that job well.

Thanks to Scott for taking the time to share his experiences with us, and thanks to Blackmagic for helping to put us in touch.