A Conversation with Brook Aitken, Director of Photography

by Gina 08/30/2010, in Contact the Blog

Brook Aitken is a second generation director of photography and frequent user of Sony’s professional video equipment.  Though Brook is almost always behind the camera, he has been involved in film making for globally recognized brands and more recently the award winning documentary, The Cove. And this isn’t just one of those statements when “award winning” means voted “most likely to succeed” by the senior class. We’re talking Academy Award for best documentary, Sundance film festival winner, VH1 people’s choice winner and 13 other international awards.

Brook used various Sony camera models in filming The Cove and was featured on Sony’s professional site, VideON, for his work. I had a unique opportunity to chat with Brook a little bit about his experience working on the film and what advice he could offer amateur to aspiring filmmakers.

Your dad is in the business right? How and when did you know that you wanted to be in film?

Yes my father is an old time filmmaker. He used to drag me off to work everyone in a while and I didn’t really care for it.  It wasn’t until just after high school he put the camera in my hand (Arri S 16mm) that I got the bug.  I was suddenly excited to do what my Dad was doing.  I then enrolled in film school to learn the other side of the art.

It’s a pretty intense film. You’re making a film but at the same, it was almost like a mission to capture the story since so much work went into uncovering this story. How were you able to achieve the artistic angle of shooting the film with the operations and truthfully emotions involved with obtaining the info?

Good question I am still asking myself the same thing.  I grew up a bit of an adrenaline junky not afraid of much and having almost died in one near death accident. I think fear is just a matter of measuring risk and being comfortable with the risk and knowing how much control one has in the situation. I had my passport and a large sum of cash on me at all times & felt I could escape if need be.  I knew I could make my way out of any physical confrontation and had all the plan B’s scenarios rehearsed. There wasn’t too much room for emotions to get in the way  of what we were trying to accomplish. At times we were motivated by the bigger picture of what we were doing and other times we were motivated by the horror of what was happening with the dolphins right in front of us.   It was just a matter of keeping my head about me and focusing on the shot at hand, while keeping the other eye open watching for danger. This allowed our team to work on the beauty shots in our “down time” and to keep it all together in “go time”.

You had hidden cameras, underwater equipment, etc. How did technology play a role in being able to shoot this film the way you did?

Technology was a huge part of the film. We had thermal FLIR cameras, underwater cameras/hydrophones, hidden rock cameras, mini helicopter cameras, you name it. We were planning ahead with what we wanted to do but really having to improvise everything in the field, almost making it up as we went along. At one point we were literally going to the hardware store daily for supplies to rig cameras and built housings and modify existing technologies. Out hotel rooms were like cluttered science laboratories.

What Sony cameras were used and why?

We used the XDCAM 350 series for HD quality and great optics. Also we bought 4 of them so we couldn’t afford that many 900’s with lenses. An F900 was used for a few misc shots in other locations that were controlled and safe. We would mount several XD cam cameras for time lapses in places that were legal like the local fish markets  while using the other two at night on covert missions.  This also served as a good decoy for suspicious police who never knew we were armed to the teeth with cameras.  Many of the smaller cameras were tape based and others recorded to hard drive depending on their use/need.  The hidden rock-cameras had to be able to record for 6-10 hrs  after we planted them and hit record in the cove.  We had them hot rodded out with larger drives and batteries.

What was the most difficult shot to get during filmmaking?

The footage in and around the actual cove was the toughest to get. We had to scale razor wire fences, steep rock cliffs and hide out all night in camo in the bushes. Trying to stay hidden and still work the cameras and line up an unobstructed shot was not always easy.  At times we had flashlights from guards come right across us and other times massive search lights from boats below would scan the area looking for anyone before they did their dirty business in a few hours.

For the beginning filmmaker or film students, what advise can you offer them? If there anything you know now you wish you knew then?

The thing I wished I knew when I was a student was to remember that I know nothing.  I used to think I knew a lot more than I did and I think that hurt me.  I was all charged up with book smarts and scholastic knowledge but I didn’t realize that working on a set or out in the real world was very different.  I am still picking up little tricks or bits of knowledge every time I am on a job so keep open mind open. Try to be a sponge, a very absorbent and eager one.

If you could have any gadget (even not yet invented), what would it be?

My favorite gadget would be “instant playback with hindsight”. Sort of like instant playback with retrospective feedback. I often look at work I have done and think about how I could have done it better.  If I could have fixed this part of the shot or done this differently or light something a little better or how could I miss this or correct that mistake…

** Brook on location in Columbia working on another film.

Great gadget & thank you Brook for sharing with us .We look forward to checking out your future films. You can learn more about The Cove here , visit Brook’s site, and if you have questions for Brook about his film making experience or his Sony cameras, feel free to post.

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