Scott Duncan puts ALEXA into action
When networks and ad agencies need someone to capture the grace of Olympic athletes, African Wildcats in their natural habitat or the raw power of extreme sports, they call on director/cinematographer, Scott Duncan. Duncan, originally from the Virgin Islands, makes his home in the unlikely location of Iowa City, Iowa. With frequent travel to each coast on projects with his production company Other Films, he feels this Midwest landscape is a perfect place to call home. Duncan spends most of his time traveling and creating his own custom brand of imagery for a diverse range of projects and clients from commercials and promos to show opens and music videos. Duncan has filmed for Purina, IZOD, Phillips, Van Heusen, Miller Genuine Draft and Land Rover as well as network television shows including SURVIVOR and NBC Sports.
Other Films operates as a full-service media production company, complete with professional production teams and film crews. Duncan’s editors and post houses deliver complete packages to advertising agencies, television networks, marketing firms and film studios. He prides himself on bringing a vision to his sports and adventure work and to projects that calls for abstract imagery, dynamic slow-motion elements and breathtaking landscapes.
For the opening to the NBC program, director/DP Scott Duncan relied on his ALEXA to capture the jaw-dropping feats of the action sports competition.
The switch to digital cinematography has been a gradual evolution for Duncan. When ARRI first introduced the ALEXA camera, Duncan was ready. “The majority of my work is still on film. My ARRI 435 is an amazing workhorse and my SR II (Super 16 camera) is still wonderful, especially for high-speed shooting I think that's the reason I've bonded with the ALEXA. ARRI did the research before they came out with this camera. It has the versatility; the simplicity and the functionality that makes it like their film cameras. And all that really applies to the kind of world I work in."
Duncan’s work involves collaborating with clients’ concepts in both controlled environments on sets and in the unpredictable situations of real world action to create the exciting spots and show opens that populate his reel.
"With an agency," he explains, "we discuss the ideas and feelings they want to get across and then I storyboard 'anchor points' for the piece. So for a 30-second spot, I might have two to four of those anchor points or 'glue shots,' as I call them. Then it's more like documentary work. I have to think on my feet and react quickly to what snowboarders are doing or to the way the wind's blowing in a field or the clouds are doing their thing. You have to be able to get the shot when all those types of elements are working together to create a scene that will ultimately make the viewer feel, 'Wow, what an experience!' As long as you have the 'glue,' you can make the most of those special moments and cut together the kind of story the client expects."
Duncan recently delivered a series of show opens for NBC’s, RED BULL SIGNATURE SERIES. These pieces are designed to give viewers a glimpse of the action: motocross, snowmobiling, crashed ice, skateboarding and skiing. "The important thing," Duncan says of these opens, "is that they capture the feeling of the sports with all the craziness and the aggressiveness that's a part of it."
Whether working with a 435 an SR II or an ALEXA, this director/cinematographer is often filming handheld, so his equipment has to be simple, intuitive, ergonomically designed and well balanced. "I knew I'd have to do some work digitally," he says, "clients were asking for it and there are certainly some advantages. I didn't like the images and I didn't like the way some of the other cameras felt to work with. I was really worried my art form was going to go away, but then ALEXA came along, I embraced it. I like the way it's designed. I like that I can get some long lens action and focus without straining my eye."
The one thing it lacked in his estimation was high-speed functionality that he uses all the time to capture the poetry of events that happen in the blink of an eye. "From the first day I got the ALEXA, I was asking for high-speed," he recalls. "And then as soon as they were developing that [functionality], I got to beta test it. Shooting it at 120fps was really as nice as using my SR II. It's as easy for a film shooter to use and it's great for shooting sports or animals or anything you want to really show in slow mo."
Of course, the feel and handling wouldn't amount to much if it weren't for the sensor. "I'm really impressed with the latitude," he says. Duncan, who normally works with colorist Siggy Ferstl at Company 3, Santa Monica, says the two have been very impressed with the range of picture information they have to work with when grading ALEXA imagery. "I think we've pushed some of this material to all ends of the spectrum and gotten great results," he says. "To represent the sport Crashed Ice, for example, I shot a lot of backlit ice particles and crystals at high speed. It took a tremendous amount of latitude to hold information throughout the frame but we had everything we needed to keep a really crisp, clean look. The shots came out beautifully."
The camera must be rugged in order to keep up with Duncan. "I travel a lot," he says, “and I take my cameras to extreme environments. I was recently shooting in Moscow on some freezing cold nights. Weeks later, I was in the Malaysian humidity that comes at the end of monsoon season, then over to Africa, filming in the back of a Land Rover tracking wildcats, giraffes and elephants. The last thing I need to worry about is my camera not working. And it's always performed beautifully."
Duncan attributes his success in this genre to elements deep within his personality. "I have a passion and competitiveness that is part of who I am," he sums up. "I love the excitement and the variety. Ultimately, for this kind of work, you have to trust your instincts. I know, if I go for it hard, it's going to be right."
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