Brain Farm's Curt Morgan Talks About Developing Filmmaking Drones, New Surfing Film
If you aren’t already familiar with the work of Curt Morgan and his adventure-seeking production house Brain Farm, stop what you’re doing right now and take a minute to watch their 2012 Digital Cinema Reel below. Go ahead, we’ll wait…
You may need a moment to catch your breath after all those slow-mo aerial shots of cityscapes, remote snow-capped mountains, African plains and some of the world’s best snowboarders and surfers pulling tricks that have never been caught on tape before. Words like “amazing” “glorious” and “epic” cease to have meaning in the wake of footage like this. You can tell this stuff was made by a bunch of adrenaline junkies because just watching it gets your blood pumping and your heart beating just a little bit faster.
Morgan used to be a snowboarder but turned to filmmaking after repeated back injuries forced him to retire—permanently. Since then, he’s made a name for himself as the mastermind behind Brain Farm, striving to change the world of cinematography and digital filmmaking. He caused a stir with the films That’s It, That’s All and Art of Flight, both of which follow Travis Rice and a bunch of his pro snowboarding buddies, effectively redefining the very notion of a “snowboard film” and how we expect snowboarding to be captured and portrayed.
Crafting unique and never-before-possible cinematic experiences in remote locations and under extreme conditions isn’t exactly something you can do with your Canon 5D—even having a fancy Phantom or RED camera doesn’t get you home free, which is why Morgan and his team have been developing custom rigs and equipment to serve their demanding filmmaking needs. And, in the process, they’ve been inventing the future of filmmaking.
For the past year and a half, Morgan has been working closely with the makers of the Cineflex cameras, an advanced set of 35mm digital cameras that are capable of capturing high image quality with the highest level of stability in even the most rugged conditions. They’ve been using the cameras on helicopters, boats, trucks and any other kind of vehicle they can get their hands on, but recently, Brain Farm teamed up with Snaproll Media and Schiebel to get some heli drones equipped with the Cineflex. You know what that means? Even more extreme, unimaginable shots.
We caught up with Morgan briefly over the phone yesterday to find out more about these crazy new Cineflex-equipped drones and what else he’s got up his sleeve. He leaked a few precious details about an upcoming surfing film he’s about to begin filming and a Cineflex jet ski they’ve got in development. The future of filmmaking never looked so good.
The Creators Project: Tell me a little bit more of this drone camera situation that you guys went to Vienna for.
Curt Morgan: So if you don’t mind, let me tell you in a different order. You know we are very into stabilized cinematography and finding ways to change the game in the visual market. That’s something we are adamant about and we are always finding a way to outdo ourselves. So we got the Cineflex camera system from General Dynamics—the Cineflex v14 HD. It was really great for what we were doing but wasn’t really built for us, it was built more for news. So I went to them and I asked, “Can we work together to create a new system that will suite high end commercial, film and television?” It took a little while, but eventually they came back and said, “You know what, yeah, we want a filmmaker involved in this, let’s do this. So what exactly do you want to do?”
I basically worked with them for the last year and a half and we went through every single thing that was wrong with the current system—or, not wrong, but could be better—and changed up the camera to an ARRI ALEXA, which is a more cinematic digital super 35mm camera that shoots 120 frames per second and can be controlled completely wirelessly from miles away. It’s all kind of geeky but it’s going to completely change the game as far as images are concerned, so we developed the system and launched it yesterday here at NAB in Las Vegas.
And so with the drone, we partnered with this company called Snaproll Media and they have several smaller unmanned heli systems that can fly the RED Epic, Phantom, Alexa and other cameras. They had a relationship with a company called Schiebel in Austria and Schiebel said, “We’ve wanted to do this for so long, we want to integrate Cineflex. We’ve been talking about it for years,” and it was done.
Essentially, Snaproll and Brain Farm worked with them for months to integrate the Cineflex into their system. We spent lots of time on the phone coming up with different ways to make it work. All of the engineers put their heads together and figured out how to integrate Cineflex. We spent a week over there figuring out how to build [the camera] into it, control it wirelessly, integrate the wireless controls into their current system and then transmit that back down to the ground. It was a big challenge and its flying 130lbs on an 8-foot unmanned aircraft. That’s the meat of the story.
What does this mean for you as a filmmaker what will this allow you to do that you haven’t been able to do before?
One time I was down in Molokai in Hawaii and I was shooting this waterfall and it went off a huge overhanging cliff. I wanted the helicopter pilot so badly to fly me behind it—he probably could have, there was a 60 foot space behind it—but he was like, “absolutely not.” So I’m [thinking], “We’re never going to be able to do that.” But now, with a system like this, you can actually fly behind a waterfall, you can fly through a hotel lobby and exit outside and reveal a city. You can turn a dolly, into a crane, into a helicopter, all in the same shot, so you can just accomplish more dynamic cinematography. It’s in its very beginning stages but it’s exciting to see it working.
I was watching a video of the controllers you use to control these drones and it looks like you’re playing the most epic realistic video game ever. What was that like?
[Laughs] We have not been fully trained to fly it yet, that was Schiebels operators. We just control the camera. That Heli is crazy! It was traditionally used for government surveillance and other militarily applications. Now Schiebel is looking to expand to the production market so they brought in Snaproll and Brain Farm to help in the integration process. It was an amazing experience! It’s absolutely wild to see a multi-million dollar drone take off the ground and fly.
How does it feel for you as a filmmaker to be participating in creating new technology?
My root is definitely in filmmaking—actually, originally photography and then I got into filmmaking—and I still really am, but I have bigger goals than that. For me, being on the forefront of creating this groundbreaking technology is more exciting than making the film itself. I’ve spent the last year focusing more on these new technologies and this is just the beginning. I have a lot more ideas. I’m actually also toying with the idea of opening a Brain Farm film school. I’ve never actually told anyone that, but in the next couple of years I want to open that up in Jackson and have a filmmaker’s retreat for people who want to learn our techniques. We’ll see if that actually happens.
Wow, that would be amazing. So what kind of stuff are you shooting now with these new toys you’ve been working on?
We’re doing a surf film right now, another snowboard film, and a skate film, as well as many other commercial and television projects. We are hiring more directors and making it a bit more of a collaborative house, really going after what the name originally meant—Brain Farm, bringing dynamic, smart, creative people together under one roof to create great work. I was thinking about it and realized that if I’m the only director here, it will never grow, so we started hiring on some really creative, amazing people to help tackle projects and put our stamp on it. It’s working out really well.
That sounds awesome. What more can you tell me about these films that you just mentioned?
I have to keep that very vague. I can tell you that we’re doing sort of The Art of Flight of surfing, a very high-end film, but I can’t tell you any of the partners or anything like that. For that project we are going to be toying around with some crazy technology. We’re building a special wireless rig for our Cineflex that is absolutely the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s gonna change everything for surfing. Were going to be using the drones for that film as well, so that gives you a little bit of a taste for what the movie might be. That’s going to be a fun project. We start shooting that project the end of May in Indonesia. I cant give you too much of the film but it’s got lots of unique, remote locations in Africa, Indonesia, and South America.
That makes sense because I remember in your Creators profile you said you were inspired by the cinematography in Planet Earth and I feel like your films are as much about the landscape and scenery and epic aerial shots as they are about the people, the action sports or the subject matter.
Absolutely, every snowboarder, skateboarder, surfer and just about every human is always looking around the corner for something new. I like to apply that “always on an adventure" attitude towards all the projects that we do, no matter what they are and showcase the world and the activities we all partake in, in a unique way.