Netflix's 'Fire Chasers': Stunning Cinematography Amidst 100-Foot Flames
DP Steve Holleran risked smoke inhalation, heat stroke, and 2,500 degree flames to shoot the brave heroics of CAL FIRE.
As raging wildfires continue to decimate California, cinematographer Steve Holleran has been anxiously following the news. He knows just how capricious these fire paths can be—just months ago, he was there on the front lines, shooting Netflix's docuseries Fire Chasers. His camera bore witness to the relentless danger CAL FIRE crews face as they battle it out with mother nature in an attempt to save California.
No Film School caught up with Holleran to discuss how he managed to capture harrowing—yet beautiful—images of imminent danger, using dexterous rigs, large-format class, on-helmet cameras, and more.
"It was hard trying to create a beautiful image in the midst of this disastrous moment."
No Film School: What attracted you to shooting such a dangerous and unpredictable project as Fire Chasers?
Steve Holleran: I fell in love with the concept of Fire Chasers immediately, because it's a doc, but the way it was pitched to me is that it was going to have a narrative approach. I love when you can take some of the concepts of how you build a narrative scene and apply them to a doc. The director, Julian Pinder, wanted to have all of our work be scene-based and really build characters and spend time with them. That was exciting. He was also really open to exploring things visually. I wanted to get really close to the fire—to personalize it and give it its own character, [which I did] with all the landscapes and open spaces.
NFS: In in the initial conversations you had with Molly, what did you talk about in terms of safety concerns? How did that affect the way you built your rig?
Holleran: It took weeks because we were kind of in uncharted territory. We had a service company on board, Original Productions, but most of their work had been limited to GoPros and Canons in the past—smaller cameras. Julian and I were looking to really maximize the scope of this and give the story a different quality.
I went to my go-to rental house, Panavision, and started working with them to build four or five camera packages for my other operators on the show. We needed packages that were mobile while also maintaining the quality we were looking for. I did three weeks of prep at the rental house, trying different configurations, different lenses, even deliberating on bodies and types of cameras. I wanted to be able to do something slow motion, but I needed at least a 4K resolution to deliver to Netflix.
"I was fascinated by the idea of using a large-format glass, the new Primo 70 Series from Panavision, to open up the landscape and the world of the fire."
I was fascinated by the idea of using a large-format glass, the new Primo 70 Series from Panavision, to open up the landscape and the world of the fire and get really close to the characters while maintaining all this background space behind them. I wanted to immerse the audience in what these characters were going through.
Then, integrating all of it with the safety gear... We did a few days of CAL FIRE training, which involved classroom work, some testing, and then in-the-field practice. We learned how to use emergency fire shelters, these really thick space blankets that you wear in a canister on your back and you pull them out in case there's a firestorm that blows through that you can't get away from. We learned how to use the walkies and how to talk to CAL FIRE and the protocols for getting in and out of fires. We got into fire engines; we got into Black Hawks; we hiked the backcountry five, sometimes 10 miles with crews. There was an extreme amount of learning that needed to happen. That easily took us four weeks.
Our first two weeks of shooting was still a process of asking ourselves: What are the best boots? What are the best masks? The best helmets? Even small things, like gloves, [mattered]. Some were too thick and heavy and we couldn't actually use our touch screens on the Dragons, so we talked to CAL FIRE and got some recommendations on different types of gloves. There was a whole outfitting process.
Holleran: It was the same thing with our vehicles. Getting the gear out there was a challenge, because the fire's always moving, and it's moving pretty fast. Mostly you're in rural, backcountry areas where you don't always have a good eye-line on the fire, and it's hard to link up with the right part of CAL FIRE to get into the fire front, where it's the most visual.
We ended up breaking our gear down into run-and-gun packages that could go into two separate Suburbans, and then we had a sprinter van that went out to the Hills with the rest of our gear that would follow behind us. We'd establish a base camp, almost military-style—a forward operating base. And then we would do strikes out from there to certain parts of the fire to capture footage.
It was an extensive process. It ranged all across California, and we had to be mobile at all times, because sometimes we'd have to get onto airplanes, and other times we would drive equipment. It was a whole game of splintering crews and sending operators to different places, all the while trying to maintain a cohesive look, because fire happens fast. We found the most dynamic parts of the fire were usually the first or second day of the burn, after which it's sometimes so deep in the backcountry you can't even get to it, or it's controlled in the sense that it's burning in a direction where it's not consuming homes or any sort of property.
"I wanted to get really close to the fire—to personalize it and give it its own character."
NFS: How did you manage to maintain that cohesive look between the various formats and fast-paced situations?
Holleran: The director and I wrote a playbook that broke down the visual style, from compositions to camera movement to the way multi-cam situations would work in our scene-based approach. I pulled all kinds of references from films and documentaries that matched what we were going for. I shared it with our crew. We constantly talked about it. I would give direction in the field 24/7. A lot of the maintaining of the look also involved going through dailies and watching what the other operators were doing, and keeping that in mind when I was shooting.
Holleran: One thing that really helped was that I dedicated two cameras to specific uses. The A-camera, which I always operated, always had a large-format, 20-to 80-millimeter zoom on it, which allowed me to get close and to punch in really quickly to maintain that scope of the large format. Then, I had the B-camera built on a Movi. I only used the 14-millimeter Primo 70 on there. That was a dramatic camera, so it would be for aftermath footage, where we're tracking through a burned forest or a devastated neighborhood. The idea there was to always have a tool where we could communicate this massive scale of destruction.
The other two cameras that my operators were using were similar: Dragons with Angenieux zooms that were really lightweight and allowed them to move around really quickly in and out of cars. Then, at a certain point, we started tossing in some GoPros.
NFS: I noticed you had some GoPros mounted to firefighters' helmets.
Holleran: Yeah, some of the creatives were really interested in seeing the perspective of what it's like to actually be a firefighter. We used helmet cams and GoPros featured on some helicopter work as well.
"We went from shooting what appeared to be a normal fire event to a really dangerous one in a matter of a minute. We were trapped for a good half an hour in heavy smoke with 100-foot flames burning all around us."
All in all, I think we captured the aesthetic I was going for. I also learned a lot about what it's like trying to shoot fire in the first place. Everyone had to do so much learning on that front, from the logistics of running a production to actually trying to create a beautiful image in the midst of this disastrous moment, where you're more worried for your life than you are about shooting an image.
NFS: Was there ever a particularly dangerous situation you found yourself in? How did you navigate it?
Holleran: Yeah—the Blue Cut fire, which broke out in San Bernardino County, from an engine fire on I-15. It was a really fast-moving fire that burned 60,000 acres in less than a day. That's pretty quick by California standards.
Holleran: It was super hot. It was the time of the year where fires burned really intensely, and it was moving through some dry chaparral area in backcountry San Bernardino. We had flown down the night before from another fire in NorCal, and straight away in the morning, our fire chief guided us to what would soon be the head of the fire front. We were up in this valley, on a single-lane road with one entry point and one exit point, tied in with an edging crew that was defending a house. We were in a horse corral area, which was just soil—no vegetation to burn. In fire theory, you're generally safe in an area like that, or you're also safe in an area that's just been burned, because there's no fuel for the fire to consume.
But what no one expected was the fire front to break off into multiple heads and encircle this little area we were in. This thing basically just blew up and split around us, and cut us off from being able to leave.
NFS: That's terrifying.
Holleran: Yeah. And then the fire [caught on] one of our Suburbans, which we'd been told was a safe zone a few minutes before. It all happened really fast. We went from shooting what appeared to be a normal fire event to a really dangerous one in a matter of a minute. We were trapped for a good half an hour in heavy smoke with 100-foot flames burning all around us. The fire burned somewhere around 2,500 degrees, if I remember correctly. Just the air there was at least 130. It's so hot, it boils water coming off the fire hoses, and boiling water will actually mist down onto you. Our car literally melted before it even caught on fire.
Most of the guys are out there were telling us they'd never seen fire activity like that in their career. So it felt very big and dangerous, and we lost a lot of gear, sadly, but fortunately no lives. That was our most dangerous moment on the show, for sure.
NFS: Obviously, when you're in that situation, you can't think about shooting. You just have to think about surviving. But when you were in situations that were more manageable, how do you maneuver with your equipment around the fire? That must have also been a learning curve.
Holleran: A total learning curve. In a lot of these situations, you'd be in areas where the access was difficult—the roads were narrow and windy, there are lots of trees and brush and hills, and visibility's bad. There's a ton of smoke, there's a lot of vehicle movement, CAL FIRE is there, and local people, police, you name it. There's just a ton of things going on.
It's sometimes hard to identify where the fire is or where the action is and where you can shoot the action safely, especially when you're trying to get close to it. In most of these situations, if you were to shoot from a theoretical safe spot with a zoom lens, you wouldn't even be able to get close enough with the zoom to see it, if you're at 2,000 millimeters on the lens. So it took practice and talking to the fire chiefs that were with us and the firefighters. We learned as we went about the different types of fire and how fire burns in different areas and how the vegetation and the topography and the climate and the wind all affect how it moves and where it [burns].
Holleran: Then, just lugging around all this gear on your body...between the safety gear and the camera, you're wearing 60 pounds. Physically, that took some time to get used to. I think I lost about 10 pounds the first week. Getting in and out of cars, and what was the best rig, and how to modify it as fast as possible, so that you can get good shots from the vehicle, things like that. Filtration was the biggest issue for us, and I had to work with Tiffen for a while until we found the rotating Pola so we could have an adjustable ND on the front of the camera.
It really was trial and error. As we moved along through the show, we got better and better at working with our gear in these situations.
NFS: How long were you shooting for?
Holleran: Probably about 10 to 13 weeks. We did about three to four weeks in pre-production. Ironically, a fire broke out halfway through pre-production near the Hollywood Hills sign. I don't know if you heard about that. L.A. County got it out really fast, but it was burning for a couple hours. It was just this perfect ah-ha moment, like, "We've got to get this!" The director ran into Panavision like, "Get a camera. We've got to take it now." Everyone was running around like chickens with their heads cut off. We were able to get a camera out of the rental house. It was a wild one, for sure.
NFS: What surprised you about the life of a firefighter?
Holleran: The hours are incredibly grueling. Their time on a fire event is a lot longer than I expected. I also didn't know how big the operations were, especially in California, which has a lot of state and federal funding, from what I heard. California is running 4,000-men operations. They're like military ops with a lot of air support and tactical work. Also, I didn't realize how much manual labor went into fighting a fire. I didn't realize the amount of cutting and chopping and digging that they did on the front lines. It was surprising to see how exhausted these guys were. We would shoot an afternoon, leave the fire, and come back in the morning, and the same guys would still be on the fire and they would literally be laid out on the ground asleep as a new crew was coming in to replace them. The forest that had been there 12 hours before was obliterated. It was just stumps.
NFS: That's surreal.
Holleran: Yeah, really, really surreal. It was also really dangerous. Smoke inhalation, the chance to be caught in a fire or burned, the poison oak, the heat stroke...all that stuff makes it dangerous. Then there's all the other things, like trees falling on you or getting hit by a vehicle or angry locals. It's difficult, dangerous work, and I developed much more of an appreciation for the heavy manual labor [firefighters] do because I'd only been exposed to urban firefighting in the past.
NFS: Congratulations on the film you shot, A Boy, A Girl, A Dream, getting into Sundance 2018!
Holleran: Thanks so much. Yeah, I'm pretty pumped about it. It was something else. Just the fact that we did it—shot it all in five hours—it was just kind of a byproduct of time restraints and logistics, and then really big ambitions to do something different. It was like we were that ragtag football team that was kind of pieced together, but keeps winning games, you know?