Time to Get Technical
This post is all about how we shot In The Shadows of the Backstretch. From what gear we used, to how often we shot, to how we budgeted our film.
From the time we were approached by the Martin's with the concept to the time we started shooting was a very small window. The conversation with my wife, Kim, a huge lover of horses, went something like this:
Me: "This horse trainer from Belmont is interested and willing to be a subject of a documentary."
Kim: "We're doing it."
So much like anything Michael Bay has ever produced, we rushed into it without much thought and even less of a plan. I knew nothing about horse racing, only that at one time it had been very popular, but for one reason or another had lost it's share of the limelight to other sporting events like basketball, baseball, and football.
I knew even less about what a horse trainer did and the kind of preparation it takes to get a horse ready for a race. So, with my rig already built out, we got in the car early one morning in March of 2012 and headed to Belmont Park in NY.
My initial camera setup was a Canon 7d on a Jag-35 shoulder rig with a follow focus. The 7d was recording reference audio while Steve O, my audio guy, recorded to a Zoom H4n with a Sennheiser boom.
Arriving on the backstretch, we entered what seemed like a completely different world where horses were kings and queens. They were everywhere. In their stalls. In round pens. Getting their legs hosed outside. Being ridden down the street. Charging around the practice track. And there were plenty of people too - raking hay, tacking horses, hotwalking, hosing legs, washing rags, sweeping floors, riding four legged giants, watching.
That was my first impression of the job of horse trainer. They watch. They watch horses walk. They watch horses trot. They watch horses breeze. I could make a two hour movie of Carlos Martin just watching horses. I definitely have enough footage. I won't of course, because as we continued to shoot day after day, I started to learn what Carlos' job was really about.
Both Kim and I had full time jobs. I was a school teacher at the time, and Kim worked at a research center in addition to being an adjunct at Baruch. That meant the majority of our filming was going to be done on weekends and days off. Fortunately for us, horse training is a 7 day a week job, so we were always able to meet with Carlos at Barn #47 in Belmont on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We were also able to schedule interviews with key players in the film at off hours during the week and weekend. Carlos lived in the area around Belmont and as a very friendly guy, more than one business owner was amenable to the idea of us doing an interview in their establishment.
In 2012, I was teaching computer literacy at a school in South Ozone Park. It was a five minute drive to the Aqueduct racetrack and casino, where the winter meet was held. I found myself there after work any day that Carlos had a horse running. I would shoot discreetly with my Canon 7d handheld, or sometimes with a GoPro (the first version).
Switching It Up
The Canon 7d had very limited audio capabilities forcing us to record sound separately and then sync in post. I was finding this to be quite a hassle, so after a month of filming the documentary I purchased a Canon 5dmarkiii with the money I had won from my feature narrative film, Black Hat.
In addition to the 5d I purchased a Juicedlink Microriggy and a Sennheiser lav kit. Now my rig was starting to grow in size but I was able to record audio direct in to camera, and no longer need to sync anything in post. Having Carlos mic'd was also really helpful in capturing better audio. The man could go from standing in one spot for five minutes, to all of a sudden running down the shed row or bustling over to the practice track without warning. The wireless lav allowed me to pick up his audio cleanly while I was racing to keep up with him, while simultaneously trying to not get flattened by a horse.
To bring it all together I purchased a cheap 7" Lilliput monitor so I could shoot handheld. For interviews we used the 5d as the A camera and the 7d as the B cam. I would estimate that 95% of the film was shot using the Canon EF24-70mm f2.8 lens with a few shots on the EF70-200mm f2.8. I really like the longer lens especially if I needed to shoot on the track where the distance between myself and the horses was greater. Unfortunately I couldn't afford to pay the extra $1000 for Image Stabilization, so the 70-200mm was only good when locked down on a tripod. With the exception of some of the planned interviews, very little of this film was shot on a tripod.
Like most documentaries, there was some traveling involved. We started a small Indiegogo campaign and were fortunate to raise a few hundred dollars to cover our travel expenses. We headed up to Saratoga, staying at a house Carlos rents for the meet. We also took a trip to Massachusetts to speak with Phil Dandrea, author of Sham: Great was Second Best. We interviewed Mr. Dandrea in the paddock at Suffolk Downs before the afternoons races began.
One of the hardest parts of shooting a documentary is knowing when to stop. We could easily have continued filming Carlos for another year or two. At some point you need to assess where you are in your story, assess the footage you have, and make a decision. We spent a good year learning about horses and horse racing, and meeting an amazing family with amazing tradition. Now in the editing process, it's my job to make sure those points come across on the screen.