As a group, documentary cinematographers shoot a wide range of subjects and in all situations imaginable. For extreme cinematographer Scott Duncan, however, finding himself in the middle of the unimaginable is the norm rather than the exception. Scott made his mark shooting sports for NBC’s Gravity Games and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, as well as CBS’ Survivor series, and has since traversed the globe, each project seemingly more extreme than the previous.
In one stretch from August through November of 2002, Scott’s work brought him to Afghanistan, Namibia Africa, the Fiji Islands, Sydney Australia, Brazil and Alaska.
Frank Dellario caught up with Scott to discuss the recent NFL Films’ project “American Postcards” a series of vignettes that serve as a tribute to the military service personnel working and fighting overseas in Afghanistan.
FD: How did you get into shooting such interesting subjects, extreme sports and eventually Afghanistan?
SD: I started out as a still photographer, having been into photography since I was 10 years old. The work grew out of my passion for life and all the things I love to do. I love people, nature, athletics, adventure and travel and all the visuals. While in college at the School of Visual Arts (in NYC) I flew myself out to Colorado and began shooting snowboarders. It kind of took on it’s own momentum and soon I was actually being paid to photograph and film the things I love while still attending college. Getting to a level of creative control and instinctual shooting came much later.
Shooting sports and action is how I trained myself and disciplined my work style. Filming sports trains you to take guidance from your instincts, react to the moment and capture the most fleeting action. My passion is just about visuals and telling a story in pictures. That ‘s why I love to do title sequences, because I get to interpret my vision on an entire film or show.
FD: Tell us a little bit about the NFL American Postcards job. What’s it about?
SD: American Postcards is a tribute to the Service Personnel working and fighting overseas in Afghanistan. It’s a series of short stories, highlighting individuals and their lives.
FD: Normally you shoot sports events, how’d you get this gig?
SD: I have worked with Phil Tuckett, head of NFL Films Special Projects, on several other documentaries over the past two years. There, they create films outside of the football world while still utilizing their enormous high tech post facility. Phil Tuckett and NFL Films share with me many of my visions and passions and the project was a natural collaboration.
FD: What did you think when you found out you were going to Afghanistan?
SD: Instantly I thought of the people I would see there, and the world that they live in, how it is so completely alien to our American Experience. I was very excited, and I knew I would see and learn things that I never could learn from a newspaper or book.
FD: What was shooting like?
SD: When our plane came out of the clouds, we could barely see the airstrip through the dust storm and still we landed. The moment we left the plane I could feel just how different this place was to anywhere else I have been in the world. It is the closest I have ever come to being on another planet. Absolutely everything I looked at, saw or heard was like nothing I had ever experienced.
I have to say, every minute there, I don ‘t think I ever felt so alive in my life. Every moment was so intense, from the raging dust storms, intense heat, cold nights, the physical destruction of the place juxtaposed with the beauty and strength in the faces of the people. I never stopped shooting. Besides the motion picture shots, I think I shot over 5,000 still images in two weeks.
FD: How dangerous was it?
SD: With the Taliban still a real threat, and thousands of unexploded land mines, it’ s a war zone as real as you can get. We didn’ t have to carry guns because we usually had an armed service person with us most of the time, but I did have to get used to shouldering the camera with a bullet proof vest on.
FD: What was it like working with the military?
SD: I felt like I was part of a global operation. It was amazing to see the US military at work. Even better it was great to meet the individual troops. We forget the military is just made of real people. When you hear about “troops” overseas you think of mass bodies of people, faceless soldiers. But each and everyone is so unique, professional and highly dedicated.
FD: The dust in Afghanistan is as fine as talcum powder I hear. What kind of problems did that cause?
SD: The first few days we tried to deal with the dust like you would in any other normal dusty situation. My first AC, Samson Chan, worked incredibly hard to keep the equipment happy but quickly realized it was impossible to fight off the dust. After going through a case of canned air in 2 days it was obvious that was not the answer. Instead we just learned to accept it and work with it. Our team slipped into this interesting mode where we were reduced to the most basic needs of production. Our priorities were simple: get shots, drink water, eat eZone Bars.
It was definitely the worst place I have ever taken my cameras for an extended period of time. The dust there is relentless. My primary camera, the Aaton XTRprod, was put through so much abuse.
It was almost like the camera was on a suicide mission, at any moment I knew I could finish it off. I knew the whole project could end at any moment, the military could stop us, a bomb or land mine could stop us. I just knew I had to make the shots happen, whether or not the camera survived, and it did.
FD: What other creative and technical challenges did the environment pose?
SD: Extreme heat, 110° during the day to 50° at night, as well as poor roads and traffic that made no sense. I’m not even sure what side of the road they drive on over there, it’s completely wild in that way. You had to use your instincts all the time and be very flexible. Each day was completely unpredictable, anything could happen.
FD: You shoot with several cameras, including an Aaton XTRprod. Why is that?
SD: I shoot with 5 motion picture cameras and 3 still cameras: Aaton XTRprod, Photosonics 1VN, Arri SR2 HS, Arri IIC, Arri 35-3. Each camera gives me a different visual result. It’s kind of like having many colors of paint around, I can mix things up a lot.
FD: You’re shooting in war torn Afghanistan, then you come home to the states to shoot the friends and family of those soldiers. What was that contrast like?
SD: From my perspective, it just made it so much more real. I came from the surreal scenes in Afghanistan to the homes of their family in the states. I felt like I was in the middle of a very personal drama, seeing both sides of the story, but not really being able to share all that I saw with either side.
FD: You’ve won four Emmys for your work shooting sports events. Tell us a little about those jobs.
SD: For all the Emmy winning jobs, the results are largely due to the executives like Dick Ebersol, who trusted me and gave me 100% freedom of expression. The success of the projects that ultimately were awarded cinematography Emmies were a result of a close collaboration between the producers and myself. Sure the shots were epic, but they had to be used and interpreted properly. Lisa Lax was the force behind “The Ironman”, making the visuals really stand out. David Michaels helped create “17 Days in Sydney”, pushing the visual envelope as far as he possibly could.
The same goes for the nominations I have received. For instance with CBS “Survivor”, Mark Burnett has given me complete creative freedom from the beginning. And I think that is the common denominator in the visual success of any project….collaboration and freedom.
FD: Where do you want to go from here?
SD: When I first discovered cinematography, I noticed Saul Bass’ work and how completely artistic and creative one can be and still have a job. I have slowly been incorporating my own personal artistic visions into my professional work. I want to keep the diversity happening; the documentaries, commercials, features, main title sequences, I want to keep doing it all.
Most of all I want to keep living life, learning and challenging myself in the world. My job is almost like my hobby but I work hard and always have fun. I have had great experiences working with places like HBO, NFL, SEG and NBC. These clients have given me a great amount of visual freedom, trusted me and my ideas, and place a high value on my visual production quality.
For more information on Scott Duncan and his work, visit www.scottduncanfilms.com.