As a young kid, Dave Surber knew that he wanted become a filmmaker. But Surber is one of those lucky people who have turned their passion into a career. He has worked on everything from commercials and television productions to video newsgathering and mobile events; he’s also been the DP on several feature films and just finished working as DP on the Team Nike series, a 12-episode collection of black-and-white shorts about the Nike World Basketball Festival Tournament of Champions. Surber’s resume gives him a unique perspective on what it takes to succeed in the film industry, and today, as part of MAP’s Master Series sponsored by Panasonic, he talks with writer and photograher Jeff Wignall about his journey from making ambitious projects in college to New York City’s pro-video hustle.
“I’ve always had a deep appreciation for cinema, and I grew up admiring filmmakers such as David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Terry Gilliam, to name a few,” says New York-based filmmaker Dave Surber. “Growing up, I collected movie posters and even wrote to a few of my favorite actors.”
None of the stars ever wrote him back, but Surber blames that partly on a lack of foreign-language skills. Both he and his childhood friend Luciano wrote to Robert De Niro, but his pal wrote in Italian and received a signed photo in return. “I should’ve paid more attention in my foreign-language class,” Surber says.
Instead, Surber focused on theater classes in high school, and when the opportunity came to study film in college, he dove in. Today Surber’s professional resume includes commercials, films, electronic newsgathering, mobile events, and studio-style television productions—not to mention working as DP on a feature-length motion picture, The Detective’s Lover. That film was a collaboration between Guerrillastar Productions—an award-winning film and video production company co-founded by Surber—and Running Wild Films.
His most recent projects include working as the DP on the Team Nikeseries—12 black-and-white shorts about the New York City-based team taking part in the Nike World Basketball Festival Tournament of Champions. Surber’s Big City Hustleseries documents the lives of a variety of creative people living in New York City. The first installment, for instance, profiles the daring life of a bicycle messenger—shot at street level using a variety of follow techniques, resulting in some extremely exciting footage.
Recently Surber talked with MAP about his journey from making college student projects to New York City’s pro-video hustle, and what it takes to succeed.
MAP: Let’s talk about one of your earliest films, Bloody Basin. That was your undergrad project, correct?
DS: Correct. Bloody Basin served as my capstone film at Arizona State University. I wrote, produced, and directed it.
MAP: How ambitious was that, in terms of a student project?
DS: For its time, Bloody Basin was definitely one of the more ambitious student films to come out of Arizona State University. I set Bloody Basin in the middle of the desert, thinking that it would make it easier to shoot. Turned out I was pretty wrong about that. Shooting in the middle of the desert has its own difficulties. Over the years I’ve come to realize that all films require a lot of work and are by nature laborious in one way or another. I was lucky enough to assemble a great cast and crew on Bloody Basin—roughly 50 people in all. I even rented a two-and-a-half-ton grip truck from a local rental house for the shoot and flew in a good friend of mine, Regan Letourneau, from New York City, who came onboard as the film’s assistant director.
MAP: You ran into some bad luck in terms of weather while shooting it—what happened?
DS: It rained on the third day of shooting. It rarely rains in Arizona, but when it does, it usually pours. And on this occasion it turned out to be the largest rainstorm of the year. We were filming down in a 50-acre dry wash just outside of Apache Junction, Arizona, and when the rainwater came rushing off the surrounding mountains, our dry-wash set became a series of roaring rivers. We did what we could to preserve the story and finish the movie, but the loss of a day and a half of shooting due to rain meant changing the script drastically in order to finish the film on time. To the cast and crew's credit, we finished the film on time. Unhappy with the forced changes, I returned into the desert a year later and re-shot parts of the film as it was originally scripted.
MAP: Since you began working professionally, you’ve worked in many roles, including director of photography, producer, writer and even actor. Do you have a particular preference?
DS: I most definitely prefer being behind the camera. Usually the only time I act is out of pure necessity. I have such admiration for what actors do, and I am constantly amazed by their craft. But I prefer working as either a director or director of photography on projects.
MAP: How did your company Guerrillastar Productions come about?
DS: Guerrillastar Productions came about primarily from my collaboration with fellow Arizona filmmakers. We’ve made a number of films together under the banner Guerrillastar Productions, beginning in 2002.
MAP: What is your role in the company, and what is the company’s main objective?
DS: It depends on the project, but my role is almost always above the line. Our main objective is to do good work and make good films. We take great pride in all of our projects and strive to make a solid name for ourselves.
MAP: Is The Detective’s Lover your first feature film? What was your role in that film?
DS: Yes. The Detective’s Lover was my first feature film. I was the film’s director of photography.
MAP: How was that film shot, with what gear?
DS: The Detective’s Lover was shot using DSLR cameras. We shot the film over six weeks. It was a long and sometimes grueling shoot, but I’m proud of how it came out.
MAP: What is your ambition for that film?
DS: My main ambition for the film was to bring the script to life and to shoot my first feature film. It felt amazing to finally shoot a feature-length film. Up until that point I had worked on feature films, but never at that capacity. Upon completion, it was available for purchase on Running Wild Film’s website, where it’s currently available for download.
MAP: The first episode of the Big City Hustle series is a very interesting look at bicycle messengers in New York City. How were you able to film the main character in such constant motion?
DS: A lot of the tracking shots were done using inline skates. Fellow BCH crewmember Shawn Engler is quite skilled at rolling through traffic, and we definitely put that to use in episode one. My inspiration for BCH came from the photo project Humans of New York—a portrait series showcasing the people of New York City. Each portrait generally consists of a single picture of an individual along with a paragraph worth of dialogue between photographer Brandon Stanton and the subject. When I came across HONY, it inspired me to create a video portrait series in much the same way. However, unlike HONY I wanted to primarily focus on creative types in large cities, hoping to shed light on the many struggles artists face “making it” or just surviving in the big city. Having moved to NYC myself with only a camera bag and a suitcase full of clothes. I feel a close connection to these struggles.
MAP: How did you find subjects for this series?
DS: I had worked with Cesar Makay, the subject of episode one, previously. He’s a great guy and we just thought he’d be perfect for episode one.
Episode one of the Big City Hustle series
MAP: What gear did you use to make that video?
DS: We shot most of the footage using a Panasonic Lumix GH4 camera. Before going into the project, we knew that we wanted to shoot BCH in 4K rather than HD. Even though we knew the series was going to primarily live on the Internet, where HD is the norm, we knew that the Internet was already shifting to supporting 4K video, with services like YouTube offering 4K video streaming. It’s only a matter of time before other video services such as Vimeo follow suit. Also, it just made more sense to us to have all that extra information for the viewer, especially now, as it’s becomes more affordable and accessible to filmmakers. We were excited to shoot BCH with the GH4 when we found out the GH4 could not only capture footage at 4K UHD 3840x2160 at 24p and 30p, but also DCI 4K 4096x2160 at 24p, which we believe lends to a more cinematic look.
MAP: Was the wearable Panasonic A500 used in shooting the film?
DS: Yes. We were excited to get our hands on the A500. We knew it would capture some exciting footage that the GH4 couldn’t. Especially for episode one of BCH,following a New York City bike messenger through the dangerous and congested New York City streets. Using a camera capable of capturing the messenger’s true POV as he dodged in and out of incoming traffic was an amazing thing to have and truly added to the excitement of the piece. We really wouldn’t have been able to capture this type of footage without the A500. Its small size and the fact that it’s wearable allowed the rider to capture 4K footage without slowing him down or, worse yet, without putting him at risk of crashing into something by having to put a larger, more cumbersome camera on him or on his bike.
MAP: So some of the footage in the film was shot by the subject?
DS: Yes. Another benefit to using the A500 was that it’s extremely easy to use and only requires a single operator. We lent the A500 to Cesar, who wore it over the course of a few days. This allowed Cesar to capture some of his daily routines without hassle and interference of a camera crew. It also enabled us to film while he was at work and taking part in an informal “alley cat race” late at night. Such activities would have been hard if not impossible to capture without using a small wearable camera.
MAP: What obstacles did you face while shooting something as fast as a bike messenger in the chaos of city traffic?
DS: Well, getting hit by a car for one! Luckily that didn’t happen, but a lot of the tracking shots had a high level of danger to them, for sure. There just wasn’t a way around the danger of being hit by a vehicle while capturing some of the fast-paced tracking footage we desired.
MAP: How did you conquer these challenges?
DS: Through our integration of A500 footage with inline-skate tracking footage and second-bicycle tracking footage. We also used long lenses when possible, so that we could get in close to the action without having to be in the middle of the action.
MAP: Was this a self-assignment?
DS:Yes. BCH is our project. It’s a collaboration between David Cano, Shawn Engler, myself, and whoever the subject is for that particular episode. Depending on the episode, our specific roles and duties will often change. There is no single auteur of BCH. We strive, as a crew, for a complete and diplomatic collaboration.
MAP: Where has it been shown?
MAP: Can you talk a bit about the future installments of this series?
DS: We are currently working on episode two with Nicholas Gazin, who is the staff art editor at Vice magazine and who also regularly does artwork for the Mishka clothing line. Nicholas was referred to me through a mutual friend. He’s an amazing artist and an interesting subject, to say the least. I’ve been a fan of his artwork for some time now and am excited to have him onboard for episode two. I can’t wait for episode two to come out, and I’ve got to say we’re having a blast shooting it so far. Another way we find artists is through our project-submittal page on our website, for those who wish to be considered for future episodes.
MAP:In some of your other short films you’ve used as many as three cameras running simultaneously, correct? What is the advantage to running three cameras at the same time?
DS:The main advantage of shooting with three cameras is having a lot of coverage where the action and acting match each another throughout an extended take. Continuity between multiple shots within a scene can be a difficult thing to achieve with one camera, let alone maintain. We had had some continuity issues in the past on single-camera shoots and opted to do a multi-camera shoot in an attempt to preserve better continuity from shot to shot. Some might think it’s faster to shoot with three cameras at once, compared to only one. In my experience that’s not necessarily the case, at least not for narrative filmmaking. A three-camera shoot requires a lot more time, lighting-wise. What often looks like good lighting to one camera does not look good to the next camera.
MAP: How did the Team Nike series come about?
DS:I received a call from the director Kellen Dengler asking me if I was interested in joining their camera crew. At the time, he was working for an agency that had been hired by Nike to cover NYC’s Dyckman Street basketball championship.
An episode from the Team Nike series
MAP: You were the director of photography on this series, correct?
DS: Yes, I was one of two DPs. This was a big project that required a lot of filming. It was my full-time job. We shot the series over a few months. I was part of the core filming crew that followed players from Team Nike from day to day. During the championship games a lot more people got involved. It was an amazing experience for me and a truly once-in-a-lifetime NYC experience.
MAP:Whose decision was it to shoot the films in black and white?
DS:It was the director’s decision.
MAP:Where were the films shown?
DS:The series played all summer long on Nike.com and was later compiled onto a disc that was given away as part of a Team Nike Basketball shoe set.
Dave Surber at work
MAP: In a relatively short time, from your school films to your professional work, you went from 16mm film to digital. Can you talk about some of the major differences between using digital and film?
DS:There are so many differences between digital and film, such as costs, workflow, immediacy of viewing— and even working on the footage in post. Digital has come a long, long way since its early adoption. When I took my first film class at Scottsdale Community College, around 1997, we only worked on film. We started off shooting Super 8mm film and worked our way up to shooting Super 16mm film, and then if we were lucky we shot Super 35mm film.
Unlike video, shooting film is very expensive. Not only do you have the cost of raw film stock, you also have the costs of processing that stock film, and if you were planning on editing the footage non-linearly (in a computer), you also had costs of digitizing the footage. Digital video is far cheaper to work with and in many ways easier. At first I disliked working with video because I thought it was lacking image quality, but now it’s all that I use.
MAP:The advent of 4K technology is making big waves in DV. What are the advantages of using still cameras like the Panasonic Lumix GH4 to shoot video?
DS:There are many advantages. For one, the camera is small, nimble, and unassuming. This makes it easier for me to film in areas without drawing a lot of attention. Also, since it looks like a still camera, I can pretty much carry it anywhere without having to explain what I’m shooting.
MAP:Is 4K technology something that excites you as a filmmaker?
DS:Absolutely. It’s only recently that the visual quality of digital video has caught up with the image quality of film, much as it has with still cameras. That’s very exciting to me. Also, if you plan on using HD as your final delivery size, you can shoot in 4K and crop in. This can give you a tremendous amount of flexibility in post.
MAP:Where do you see the future of digital shooting in general, and in particular 4K technology?
DS:Future cameras will have unfathomable image quality, along with ease of use. Used in the right hands, they will become the tools that spawn yet another age of cinema. Take the recent accessibility and use of camera gimbals and drones: A few years ago I never dreamed that we’d have such tools at our disposal. It’s technologies like 4K that are propelling us forward in this amazing age of digital filmmaking.
MAP:Beyond the 4K technology, what features of the GH4 appeal to you as a DP and a still shooter?
DS:The fact that I can quickly bounce back and forth as a pro still photographer and filmmaker using the same camera is simply mind-blowing. For video, I love that the GH4 has zebra lines, focus peaking, and a touchscreen. For photography, I especially love how I can create and save multiple custom looks that can be accessed instantly through a turn of a dial or a tap of its touchscreen. You can really build your “look” using the GH4, there’s just so much image control with it. Most of all, I love the image quality the camera produces for both video and stills.
MAP:Can you talk a bit about the ability to extract JPEG frames from video? This must come as a pretty exciting feature to someone who is both a still and motion shooter.
DS:Since the GH4 shoots progressive video and not interlaced video, each frame of video shot at 4K is equivalent to a single and complete eight-megabyte picture. This means you can capture an event entirely using 4K video and then later pull an eight-megabyte still picture from that video. You can even do this directly from the camera. One main advantage of this is not having to switch between video and stills while shooting, because essentially you’re shooting stills and motion at the same time. Another advantage is that if you’re shooting 4K video at 30p, you have 30 stills to choose from per second. That can come in real handy for capturing a specific or fleeting moment.
MAP:Are there any other happy surprises that you’ve discovered in working with 4K that you think will excite other filmmakers?
DS:I’m not sure if this will excite other filmmakers, but if you plan on shooting a lot of 4K, plan on buying a lot of hard drives!