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5 Life Lessons That Took Him From Farm Boy To Hollywood DP

By September 12, 2014 Storytelling 11 Comments

16 min read

When you look back on your personal journey, what are the most important decisions that got you where you are today? If you take a moment to really think about that, the answer is often one you totally didn’t expect. 

And perhaps more importantly, as you move forward, what are those decisions that you can make, those things that you can choose to do, that will make all the difference?

I got a chance to sit down with renowned cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and ask him about his path from a farm in upstate New York to the sets of multi-million dollar blockbusters.

Shane is a real deal Hollywood DP. Think Terminator Salvation, Act of Valor, We Are Marshall, Need For Speed, and so many more.

This is a world I know almost nothing about. I mean, we just celebrated shooting out first short narrative at the same time Shane was color correcting his latest feature, Fathers & Daughters. This guy has a library’s worth of knowledge he could teach us.

But what few of you probably know is that Shane grew up on a farm. Much of his boyhood spent on a tractor in the wee hours of the morning long before school started.

FARM

So how does a farm boy working the fields all day find himself getting dropped off in Key West, ushered into a small Zodiac thats headed into the Atlantic, with nothing as far as the eye can see. Then all of a sudden – boom! – a 600 ft nuclear sub blasts out of the ocean, he’s hopping in, and three days later winds up in the horn of Africa.


ZODIAC

As Shane wrapped up that story he asked the somewhat rhetorical question “How many people have experienced that?” Not many, that’s for sure.

And that’s what I wanted to explore on the call. How did he get here? And what were those decisions, those defining moments, that have made all of the difference on his journey? And what has he learned along the way?

What I found out will certainly surprise you.

Sure, Shane is exceptional at what he does. That’s certainly no secret. But beyond his ability to craft with light or push story through every decision he makes, there’s something far greater he can teach us.

So little of his success has to do with his ability to light or shoot.

Here are the five biggest things Shane has learned on his journey.

1. Run, Don’t Walk. Have An Unstoppable Work Ethic

While he didn’t realize it at the time, like many of us don’t, Shane has two remarkable parents. They were both educators that held down 2-3 jobs and fought hard for change in their community. They certainly inspired him. But they also taught him something else from a very early age.

“Growing up on the farm, it was an amazing experience. My work ethic was kind of embedded in me as a 12 year old. I was expected to get up 5 am, I was expected to get my clothes on and get out on the tractor, and either plow the field or harvest the field.And then after that I get back off the tractor at 7am, I would come in and eat breakfast and I would hop on the bus and go to school.

“After school, I was back on the tractor. Most of the time I was eating while I was driving, or plowing or harvesting, and if I was studying, my dad welded a book mount on the tractor so I could study and read at night.

“This was my life from 12 years old to 18. So, it’s like that kind of energy and that kind of work ethic is what drove me to go from a farm boy to a cinematographer in a very short amount of time.”

Later on, when Shane worked in a grip house, it’s this work ethic that landed him his first feature work.

“I was on a movie, this really bad b-movie called Phantasm 2, and I got that based on being at the rental house. Someone came in, one of the producers, saw my work ethic, he happened to be there making a deal for this company to supply the lights and the grip for the job and the guy said, 

Who’s that guy? He’s running all around, he’s doing so much work, who is that?”

This guy from Boston, his name’s Shane.” He came down and talked to me.

He said “Would you like to drive the grip truck on this movie?

Those of you who’ve met Shane know he’s one cool dude. His passion always overflowing, and his energy unstoppable. Few people carry an intensity like Shane, one that surrounds him in everything he does.

It’s this commitment, this intensity, that made all the difference in Shane’s journey tracking down his number one passion, his wife Lydia.

2. Choose And Fight For Who You Surround Yourself With.

It’s often been said that you are only going to be as good as those you surround yourself with. For Shane though, he was willing to lay it all on the line to be next to one very important person. And that decision has made all the difference.

“My parents were lower middle class, they didn’t have a lot of money. They offered to pay for my education, which was so amazing to not hit me with monstrous bills after trying to get out and get a job. But i did not want to spend that hard-earned money that I saw my dad my mom work 2-3 jobs, and come home at 11 pm and turn around and get back at it at 5am and continue on this journey… I didn’t want to spend that in a way that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. 

“So I thought ‘Let’s go this small little college and see if a spark happens.'”

“And it did. And out of that spark came another spark. And that was my wife, and my girlfriend at the time, which was Lydia. She decided to go to Boston and I remember going into the guidance counselor, walking right through Herkimer, graduating Summa Cum Laude, one of the highest positions in the class.

“I gained this massive scholarship that was willing to give me $15,000 a year to go anywhere I wanted. I said “You just get me into the best film school in Boston,” and I went after her. I didn’t go to USC, I didn’t go to any other film school, I just went to Boston because I was chasing a girl.

“Because out of all the 5 best decisions I’ve made in my life, she was #1.”

photo 3

I’ve had the great fortune getting to know Lydia on a  couple occasions  at both NAB and Sundance, and we too have become friends. As Shane gushed on the phone about all the wonderful things that Lydia is, it would be easy to minimize that as a loving husband who appreciates his partner. 

But in spending time with Lydia, she is absolutely a force to be reckoned with. She’s what everybody hopes to find in a partner, somebody who supports you and helps you to become the best version of yourself. And while the Hurlbuts were just getting started out, it was Lydia that supported Shane chasing down his dream.

“She has been the shoulder to cry on, the person that has guided me through the storm, the inspiration for everything that I do, is based on this one woman. She’s absolutely incredible. 

“That whole thing, I go to Boston, we continue to stay together, and then we end up marrying and coming across the United States and landing in Los Angeles.

“She used her job to fund my journey in trying to find myself as a filmmaker. She was making all the money, I was working in a rental house for $3.50/hour, wearing steel toed boots, jeans, and a t-shirt. Without her vision, without her education, without her drive, I never would have started out.”

Lydia 2

I asked Shane about the power of having the right team to surround yourself with.

“It’s finding those people that have that passion and … will give you 280% completely across the board. Those are the kind of people you want to surround yourself with. 

“You want to surround yourself with people that believe in you, that believe in what you are doing and your vision and the art of who you are, and know that what you are doing is also energizing your career and pushing them, and challenging them and building their career at the same time.

It’s so important to really seek those people out and surround yourself with them, and they’ll be with you for a very long time.

But having amazing people around you and pairing that with an unstoppable work ethic isn’t enough to get you into the land of Hollywood Features. You also need somewhere to start.

3. Start At The Bottom.

For so many of us, we want to move right to the top. We want to start out as DP, Director, making our own movies and telling our own stories. Even with our gear decisions, we often don’t take the time to learn the fundamentals on simple cameras and tools – we want to quickly move to the latest and greatest.

But for Shane, nothing was beneath him, and he’d start at the bottom as a way to find his path.

“Getting that job in that rental house and just understanding every aspect of filmmaking and the craft. I went into it loving film and really loving to do the technical aspects of things but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a cinematographer. I mean so many people are ahead of me already, like 14, 15 years old they’re already saying they want to be a cinematographer. I mean I didn’t know I wanted to be a cinematographer until I was like 28 years old.”

And it was that rental house, paired with his unstoppable work ethic, that got him his first feature work, And on this first feature there was a single conversation that still stands out in Shane’s mind, and completely changed his path.

“That quintessential decision to put myself in the rental house, that then got me on that feature, then met Brian Coyne, who was the best boy electric that went to USC film school as a cinematographer, who asked me one simple question as I was running down the stairs, everyone always told me to walk, but I ran, running a flag down to the set that was the crematorium.

“Brian stopped me and he goes, ‘Shane, would you be scared?’

“And I go, ‘Brian, what are you talking about, the key-grip needs this 18×24 flag, I need to get down there.’

“He goes, ‘No, when you’re in the theater, would you be scared when you come to this scene.” Every nook and cranny is lit. There’s no shadow.’

“It was like pow!

“From that point on, every thing I looked at was light and I went from 1988 as a grip truck driver to shooting my first music video in 1991. It was this rocket to Mars kind of ascension because everything was about looking at light and really understanding, okay, this is my path and I am going to take the hill.”

And from here, things really started to move.

“…the journey of me starting out at a rental house and packing grip trucks, and then driving grip trucks, and then moving on to being a grip, and then a key grip, and then a gaffer, and all that stuff and you come up the ladder, and I came up very fast.”

4. Make An Impact. Never Back Down.

Shane went from working on that first feature to shooting music videos just a few years later. One of the early ones was a Donna Summer music video for the soundtrack or the movie Daylight. A week after wrapping he got a call from Universal. Apparently Rob Cohen wanted him to come in an interview for a TV pilot.

He remembers the conversation with Rob going something like this:

“Rob said, ‘I just want to tell you that my whole producing staff went down to the set of that Donna Summers music video and they told me that I had to interview you and to call you and bring you in here because they had never seen a director of photography command a set and run it with a vision like you.’

“And I said, ‘Woah, that’s cool. Thank you very much.’

“And he goes, ‘I have this pilot and I would like you to shoot it, and the studio doesn’t want you here, and we are going to break all the rules.’

“So I’m like, ‘Sign me up!” I went through the whole process. I interviewed in front of all these studio execs at Universal, and they said,

‘…Why should we hire this guy, he’s barely shot music videos and commercials, he’s never done a narrative story, how do we know he can shoot a story? How can he know what’s over the shoulder and whats eye line, and how do we know he light?'”

As you may have guessed, Shane got that job. And from that he developed an amazing relationship with Rob Cohen. Not too long after, Rob was working on the film Ratpack and again wanted to bring Shane in. And again Shane would have to stand there and defend himself, but this time in front of HBO.  

In true Hurlbut style, everything is an opportunity to make and impact. This scene plays out exactly like you might imagine in one of Shane’s blockbuster features.

“I remember Rob’s like, ‘They don’t want you, they don’t know who you are. They could care less, but I want you.’ 

“So I went in there, I interviewed in front of 6 or 7 HBO execs, and I went in with a simple vision and a simple statement: they will get 180% of my passion, my fire, my intensity, my talent, and all my commercial contacts, all my team wanting to be behind me and support me and do whatever it takes to make this film unlike any other film. Or, if you decide not to hire me, I have my beautiful daughter that is in my wife’s belly, and she’s about ready to pop, and it’s gonna be awesome, and I’m going to be a new dad, and I’ll just continue to go my commercial journey. With my new daughter and my new family, I’ll be fine with that as well.

“I turned right around and walked out the door. I was walking to the door and I’ve never seen 4 or 5 studio execs running down the hallway to say ‘Shane, we love your passion, we want to talk to you more.’

“It was a complete turnaround. It’s just being able to understand that you have to go for it. You have to take risks, you’ve got to believe in yourself and who you are as an artist and just jump off a cliff.”

Check out this short making of video from Need For Speed. Shane certainly loves to make an impact.

5. Follow Your Rhythm. Passion Is Everything.

If we cut back to Shane’s early years, few people know that he actually started out as a DJ. He loved music and he followed his passion. For him, it was just as much about the performance and crowd as it was the music.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew that he loved music, and he followed that.

Starting out as a DJ at 15, he followed that passion into radio and television. And radio and television led him into filmmaking.

“I think passion is absolutely everything. 

“It’s the fuel that stokes the fire. It’s the drive to be able to, even though everyone says you’re going the wrong direction, to continue to go in the direction that you feel your passion is driving you towards.

“To be able to be able to climb the mountain, to take the hill, to jump off the cliff and not know if there is a safety net.

“Passion is everything.

“It’s the one thing that’s the takeaway with every director I’ve worked with.

“They’re like, ‘Shane, you’ve shot all these films and worked with these incredible directors and worked on huge budget film, but you’re shooting with me a Jimmy Dean’s sausage, and you show the same passion and the same fire and the same intensity and expertise of shooting a sausage link that you do hurtling a camera at 180 mph down the road and blowing up cars on Need for Speed.’

“It does not change. I love what I do, and that passion is the love of being a cinematographer and being a filmmaker, and being an educator and a mentor.”

P1040350

And because he has always followed his passion, it’s not hard to understand why he can have such an unstoppable work ethic. 

And when you pair his passion with that work ethic, it’s easy to see why he’ll never back down and that he’ll always make an impact. And who wouldn’t want to be around somebody like that?

By constantly putting out so much of himself, so much intensity, he draws in exceptional people.

And now he’s built a team that not only helps him tackle features, they’ve launched their own line of camera gear, they run an insightful blog that shares his process, and soon, they’ll be hitting the road to share everything they’ve learned with thousands of filmmakers across the country.

It’s called the Illumination Experience Tour. And it starts next week.

It’s everything Shane knows about light and story. And whether he is shooting a huge feature or just chatting on the phone, Shane is one kick-ass storyteller. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to speak alongside Shane at Sundance and NAB and I can say without reservation, he’ll deliver 280% and he’ll make an impact, right away.

We’ll be there in Portland on October 30th.

Find out all about the tour and register today by clicking here. And, for all of our readers, we are happy to offer you $25 off registration with code IETSM25 (expires 11/16/2014).

Share this post with your friends for a chance to win a free seat to any stop on the tour (a $349 value). All you need to do is send off the Tweet below and we’ll randomly choose a winner Monday evening 8:00PM PST.

About Patrick Moreau

I love stories that challenge the way we see things.

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