At ease with either verité, hand-held shooting or experimenting with composition and lens choice, Danny Schmidt has carved his place in the environmental film space. We asked him how it all started.
The Director of Photography, Director, Editor and Storyteller, as stated by Danny Schmidt on his website, is always interested in new projects to work, “globally and in my own backyard”, and his participation, with additional photography, in the recent The Human Element documentary, is a good example of his interest for environmental subjects.
The film, which is out January 29, 2019, is an arresting new documentary from the producers of Racing Extinction, The Cove and Chasing Ice. In it environmental photographer James Balog captures the lives of everyday Americans on the front lines of climate change. With rare compassion and heart, The Human Element’s coast-to-coast series of captivating stories inspires us to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.
An Earth Vision Film Production In association with Earth Vision Institute, The Human Element is the kind of story Danny Schmidt has been interested in for a long time. It makes sense to mention it here, as it will be out tomorrow, and it paves the way for the following lines, which take us deeper into the experiences and passions of this Montana native who has worked with some of the biggest names in the space including the Smithsonian, NASA, Netflix, PBS, National Geographic and many more.
The Emmy Awards
Danny Schmidt won an NW Emmy award for cinematography for his DP work on the PBS film Indian Relay and another for best topical documentary for Finding Traction on Netflix. For the last seven years, he has established himself as a dynamic presence in the environmental film space – pairing in-depth stories with stunning visuals. And it all begun by chance!
I’ve been shooting professionally since 2011, says Danny Schmidt. “My path to documentary filmmaking was fairly circuitous. I originally studied science – geology, geography, environmental science – things that got me outside. Then, as I was randomly looking for the next door in life, I found an MFA program at Montana State University that was specifically geared towards people with science backgrounds that wanted to work in film. I applied, got in, worked my ass off (still do) and the rest is history. “
From Running Wild to YOUTH v GOV
Environmental stories may have been the starting point, in documentaries as the one about elephant poaching in Myanmar or Running Wild, but Danny Schmidt has also looked at environmental stories from another point of view, as is the case with The Trial of the Century, the YOUTH v GOV documentary, the story of America’s youth taking on the world’s most powerful government. In 2016, 21 young plaintiffs, ages 8 to 19, filed suit against the U.S. government asserting a willful violation of their constitutional rights. YOUTH v GOV follows this turbulent legal battle as the government and fossil fuel industry take extraordinary measures to get the case dismissed. Legal experts call this case the “most important lawsuit on the planet,” but it’s more than just a legal battle.
Shooting a wildlife documentary is different shooting a documentary as The Trial of the Century. How does Danny Schmidt approach each of these shoots? Is this more run and gun or does the DP have shots in mind for the way the story is told?
“I approach every shoot with one thing in mind: what do I need to do to help tell the best and most honest story possible” says Danny Schmidt and adds “this informs the type and style of coverage we get, how we approach the characters, the locations, etc.”
Chasing a wolverine
Pairing in-depth stories with stunning visuals is the hallmark of Danny Schmidt’s work, and to achieve it a filmmaker has to be able to adapt and explore. That’s why he says: “I love verité, hand-held shooting. There’s something about the interplay between the subjects and the cinematographer that creates the raw feeling of intimacy and access that the audience feels on the screen. However, I also love the opportunity in slower, more controlled situations to take the time to set up shots, experiment more with composition and lens choice, and create a frame that is meant to be studied by the audience.”
Running Wild, the documentary from 2016, is one of the films in which Danny Schmidt invested most, as Director, Producer, DP and Editor. It all started in February 2014, when a remote triggered camera in Utah’s rugged Uinta mountains captured a picture of something no one thought possible in the area: a wolverine. The photograph set in motion a massive undertaking to find the species, under the guidance of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. The wolverine was never found, but the result is a comprehensive survey of wildlife in the range and a model for citizen science projects everywhere. And a film shot beautifully, with wide shots, and a opening timelapse to highlight the isolation and beauty of the mountains.
Working on various projects
Danny Schmidt says: “ I had a talented team working with me on this, a stunning location, and a unique story. A lot of elements came together! We knew we wanted to merge the exciting cinematography commonly seen in adventure/sports films with the pressing narrative of finding a critically endangered species. We had great, natural subjects in Craig and Sarah who, aside from already being involved in the science project, were badass and passionate runners. Wide shots were the only way to capture a landscape as big as the Uinta Mountains and to show how small people really are in a place that remote and wild. The night time-lapse seemed like a no-brainer to add to our shot list because that is the time when wolverines are out doing their wolverine thing!”
Danny Schmidt has had a busy Fall working on various projects, “all of which have different styles and aesthetics”, says the DP. “From a purely verité doc series on income inequality in America, to a glossy doc about salt water fly fishing in New York, to a wildlife film exploring conservation on military lands. So, sometimes I am standing behind a tripod in the early morning hours waiting for an animal and other times I am fully loaded with my Easy Rig following people around town.”
Traveling with the Hawk-Woods batteries
What’s in your kit? What’s in your bag? These are questions everybody seems to make and while some people will say it is more a marketing thing, I believe the answers serve as guides to whoever follows a DP’s work. People want to have/use the same gear as their heroes. Danny Schmidt says “for most doc stuff I use an FS7, a variety of Sigma and Canon primes, EasyRig, MoVI, a couple sets of wireless lavs, Cartoni Focus 22, a bunch of Hawk-Woods V-Mount minis, a few LED panels, and lots of other grip gear, monitors, and supports. For long lens wildlife stuff, I’m generally shooting on the RED for over cranking and increased resolution. It’s a lot of stuff to haul around the airport.
Energy is essential to make cameras and other gear work, and Danny Schmidt has picked the Hawk-Woods Mini V-Lok batteries, whose exclusive US distributor is Manos Digital, who also distributes Cartoni, for his last trip. He says “the Hawk-Woods are a game changer. Seriously. I am the envy of my friends and colleagues on set. They are tiny, they last forever, and charge fast. What else could you ask for in a battery? They are the future.”
What about size? Size of batteries is usually a problem, because if they are small they don’t last long. Danny Schmidt says “the size is deceptive. They are small, but super powerful. I am so glad Hawk-Woods is leading the charge (pun intended) on shrinking the tech into smaller packages. Traditional v-mounts were really big and bulky. With TSA now requiring all batteries to go in your carry-on bags, it is crucial that you take the smallest, most powerful batteries you can find. Your camera will run all day and your back will thank you later.”