Nikon D4 / 16mm f/2.8 lens / F/4.0 / 1/800th second / ISO 1250
Sitting at my desk in middle of an edit, I heard my iPhone buzz with an incoming call. I picked it up and saw a curious number from Tokyo. I had no idea who could be calling me from Tokyo, but answered anyway. My life seems to contain this recurring theme in which the coolest opportunities almost always begin with a random, out-of-the-blue phone call. It’s rare … but it has also happened enough times for me me to know that no matter where that strange number comes from, you better pick up because who knows when opportunity will call next.
I was flat out floored to discover that I was speaking with a team at the K&L ad agency that represents Nikon globally. They said they had a project for me, but first I had to fill out some NDAs. I hung up, filled out a bunch of documents written in legalese, and e-mailed them back as PDFs. Thirty minutes later, I was back on the phone with K&L and the creative director, Gen Umei.
Nikon, Gen said, was launching a new camera but they couldn’t tell me what it was called. They referred to it by a code of numbers, which ostensibly would help prevent any secrets being leaked out into the tech geek world. They asked if I was interested in shooting still photographs and creating a film that would help launch the new product. They described in great detail all the new technical attributes of the camera, which sounded light years ahead of its time.
But the part I’ll never forget was when Gen said, “Corey, we want to empower you to do something special. We want to give you a big, blank white canvas and let you create whatever you would like.”
This was one of those moments that all artists and creative people dream of. Except for the fact that I had to produce something that illustrated the new still and motion feature sets of the Top Secret Camera, I had complete freedom to tell any story I wanted.
After hanging up with the team at K&L, I sat back in my chair at my desk and took in the magnanimity of what had just happened. I had been plugging away at shooting motion projects for a few years at this point, but still really didn’t know what it meant to be a director. And while at a surface level having the freedom to do whatever I wanted sounded amazing, it was also partially horrifying because I now had to come up with a compelling idea for a story completely from scratch. This pressure was something I was familiar with from my work as a photographer, however. The client, no matter who it is, doesn’t want to hear excuses. They just want you to deliver. Period.
I spent a few days thinking about what I wanted to do, and eventually arrived at an interesting concept that could be described by a single word: “Why.”
What that meant was that I was interested in finding three prolific adventure athletes who were the best at what they do, and getting inside their heads to understand what drives them to push the limits every day. Why they do what they do and where the fuel for that fire comes from.
My criteria wasn’t just that they had to be the best athletes; they also had to be amazing people, role models and heroes. I made a list of 10 or so people, roughly in the order of my preference for who I would want to work with on this project. I was delighted to only make three phone calls to my top three choices, all of whom said yes. This A-list of athletes included Alex Honnold, one of the boldest, most gifted climbers of all time; Dane Jackson, an extraordinary whitewater kayaker and part of the Jackson dynasty of kayaking; and Rebecca Rusch, the “Queen of Pain” and one of the most driven mountain bikers, male or female, in the world.
I never went to business school, but suddenly I was the in position of being the “CFO,” so to speak, of this production’s budget. I was given a flat amount of money to make everything happen, and had to weigh the cost-benefit of every single decision that would get made in order to stay within budget. From the get-go, I decided that because this was such a unique opportunity I didn’t need to make lot of money. I was going to spend as much as was necessary to create something powerful, special and that I was really proud of. To me, that’s all that mattered.
In the process of conceptualizing the film, I started conversations with each athlete about where, when and what we would shoot. I really wanted to capture the authenticity of their spirit and passion, so I asked the athletes about what location would best represent who they are as athletes. But, especially with Alex and Rebecca, I had persuade them to lean toward other locations that would meet certain logistical challenges such as the time of year that we had to work with (winter), as well as my own filmmaking needs as a director, such as locations that had a certain and varied aesthetic. Through those conversations, we decided to shoot Dane in Veracruz, Mexico, with its high-flowing rivers, waterfalls and jungle setting; Rebecca in Moab, Utah, for its beautiful red slick rock; and Alex in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, where he was genuinely interested in free-soloing a specific rock climb called Equinox (5.12c).
I knew Veracruz would be the most logistically challenging location due to the fact that it’s in a wet jungle in a relatively dangerous country. And if I had it my way, I would’ve preferred to shoot Veracruz last in order to allow myself time to become familiar with these prototype cameras in the less committing locations of Moab and J-Tree. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my way on this one point. Due to schedule conflicts, it would be vamos to Veracruz first, which made me slightly nervous.
Actually, there was a big part of me that was nervous about this whole thing. I’d been shooting still photography for major campaigns for over two decades. And since the launch of the Nikon D90, I’d been creating motion projects, too.
But the scope of this production seemed to be a whole new level of commitment.
And it wasn’t until I landed in Veracruz, and met our client from Nikon, that I was informed that we were going to be helping to launch the D4, Nikon’s flagship camera. That’s when the commitment just went through the roof.
If you had asked me what it means to be a director before I got that fateful phone call from Tokyo, I probably would’ve jokingly said something about sitting in one of those black namesake folding chairs, wearing a scarf, smoking cigars and having craft services fed to you.
What I didn’t realize back then was that I had been hired not just to be a still photographer and a cinema photographer, or camera operator. Rather, I had been hired to be a director. Through trial and error, what I began to learn was that being a director at the highest level means you are responsible for every aspect of the production, from creating a solid concept, arcing a story, selecting talent, managing logistics, choosing shots, deciding how many cameras to use, and hiring a production team. The director chooses a team of tough-as-nails professionals, and then plays the role of quarterback, calling all the shots.
For this film, I hired two very talented DPs, Dane Henry and Rex Lint, who are two close friends of mine that sharpened their skills as cinematographers while working for Vail Resorts. Shawn Corrigan joined the team as an amazing first assistant. Chris McNamara and Tommy Thompson, two of my climbing buddies, joined to help with rigging ropes. My wife, Marina Rich, played the position of hair & make-up as well as catering, while Blaine Deutsch, who ran my office at the time, produced the whole thing.
Part of being a director is making decision based on budget. How will I spend each dollar? What is the wisest way to spend each dollar? One of the decisions I made, which I knew we would live or die by, was choosing not to hire an audio engineer to be in the field with us. That was a really tough call. Audio is essential, and without great audio, you don’t have a piece no matter how good your story is or how good the visuals are.
Instead, I decided to put my money into purchasing equipment that would help us move the camera and create really dramatic, never-before-seen shots that would ultimately showcase the D4’s feature set best. I splurged and bought a 15-foot jib arm, a longer slider, and some time-lapse motors, all of which would showcase both the camera and the athletes by allowing us to create more compelling visuals.
I also made the decision to bring along a remote-control helicopter pilot, Mike Hagadorn. Today, moving cameras with RC helicopters is a common technique that you see in many motion projects, but in 2010, it was pretty rare, especially considering that we were going to fly a heavy D4 body with lens.
I sat down with Blaine, our producer, and we talked about a schedule: How were we going to shoot these three locations in two weeks? Again, this was all trail and error, but we finally came up with a schedule that, at least on paper, seemed like it might work. Our formula was very simple: We would travel one day, scout and prep the next day, and shoot for two days after that. We created shot lists and planned down to the hour. Somewhere in those two days, we knew we’d need to carve off half a day to do the interview with the athlete, because the interview, though the least commitment in terms of time, would actually be the most important element of all. Those interviews would ultimately drive the whole film.
What equipment would we need? How many cases / bags would the gear fit into? How would we pack it? What unique challenges would we encounter in each of the three locations? In many ways, this was all new to me; in other ways, it was all extremely familiar.
At this moment in time, I felt like I was taking everything that I had learned in my life as a photographer/creative individual/business person/athlete and pushing it all to new extremes. I was pushing myself and what I knew in a way that I had never before experienced—all before even setting foot on location.
So this was what it meant to be a director, I thought. I suppose I could learn to love this …
I rappelled down a rope tied to a bridge, positioning myself mere feet from a raging waterfall and just below its lip. Any moment, Dane Jackson would come exploding through the frothing turbulence and I would go on to capture this still image with a prototype Nikon D4 and fisheye lens.
After shooting this still photograph, I switched gears and set the D4 in video mode while Dane set himself up for another drop down the free-falling rapids. And I was able to capture a sequence of Dane that ended up in the final version of WHY.
I was learning to juggle the roles of director and DP, photographer and camera operator, all at once—these worlds of still and motion combining for me in a way that felt new, exciting and cutting edge.
I ascended back up the ropes and put on my director’s hat (figuratively; I didn’t have an actual hat). Thirty minutes later, we were rigging the heavy lifter Freefly helicopter with a D4 to capture an aerial video sequence.
A representative from Tokyo watched what we were doing and started to squirm uncomfortably. It was hot as hell and we were being eaten by mosquitoes, but he seemed particularly agitated.
“Corey, can I ask you something,” he said, pulling me aside. I’ll never forget the way he said this next line: “Um, do you really think it’s a good idea to put a prototype camera”—there was only 9 of them in the world at the time—“on an RC helicopter and fly it over the water?”
Once again, this was another learning experience of becoming a director, but my go-to instinct was to put on a poker face and say, “Oh, yeah, absolutely. This is no problem. We do this all the time!”
In my head and heart, I knew that was a baldfaced lie, but managing clients is a huge part of it. But more than coddling clients, the reality is that you have to be willing to take some risks to do anything worthy, if not great.
Mike, our RC pilot, made two great passes over Dane on the river, but on the third pass, Mike pushed the helicopter a bit too hard with an overly aggressive move and lost control. The representative from Tokyo gasped, and I swear his heart nearly leapt out of his throat as he saw the helicopter dive-bombing toward the pool below the waterfall. Even I saw my whole directing career flashing right before my eyes in that moment of chaos. Mayday! Mayday!
Fortunately, Mike regained partial control of the helicopter and with some tactile maneuvers was able to crash land in the jungle. He really saved the day with that move! The D4, thankfully, was completely fine, and the helicopter, despite some minor scratches, was back up and flying the next day.
Over those two weeks, I found myself emboldened by all the trial and error, the successes and even those near-misses. I was gaining my footing as a director, finding that delicate balance between being completely responsible for each and every sequence, but also having utter faith in my team and trusting them to execute their camera movements at the highest levels possible. Not being overbearing, but also taking responsibility and owning the whole thing. Not getting sidetracked by shots that didn’t reinforce the story we were trying to tell. Not wasting resources on things that didn’t build that main storyline. Finding my voice and footing and being able to articulate to my team what my vision was, and how to execute that content from an aesthetic, visual standpoint.
I wanted to create WHY to profile three of the best athletes in the world, and find out why they do what they do. But what ended up happening is that, through this experience of directing WHY, what I really ended up learning is who I was, and what I would become.