Specialty Camera Ops

#Freeflyers Interview no. 02: Motion State

Motion State is a team of three camera operators, headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, not far from Freefly’s HQ. Corey, Ryan and Sam shoot a wide variety of projects, but focus a lot of their work around the MōVI and other camera movement tech. We got them on the phone to talk about how they each got started in filmmaking, how they work together as a team and how the gear they use defines the work the do.

Freefly: How is everyone doing?

Ryan: Good, good! I got to give you props for getting all three of us on the phone together!

Yeah! Well, we don’t mess around. Where is everyone?

Ryan: I am currently in Ellensburg on the way to Yakima to fly some aerials.

Sam: I’m working on World of Dance. It’s a reality dance competition thing, like American Idol but for dance. So much fun. It’s beating the shit out of me though. It’s a lot of non-stop chasing dancers. These people have so much energy.

Corey: I’m up in Revelstoke. In Canada. It’s this legendary snowboarding spot.

Nice!

Corey: Doing legendary shit, you know?

Sam: Yeah. Ah yeah.

Corey: I mean, isn’t that the whole goal? Do cool shit?

Sam: Yup, that’s exactly right.

Is that the Motion State mission statement?

Ryan: Yeah.

Corey: Do cool shit and don’t fuck it up.

Perfect. Well, should we just jump right in and get started?

Ryan: Yeah! We’ll try to be professional, but can’t really guarantee it.

Oh, Just be Motion State.

Ryan: I don’t even know what that means.

Sam: That means get out the tequila, for Ryan.

Ryan: There we go. That’s what I’m talking about.

Ha! Okay. My first question: what is Motion State?

Sam: We’ve never really talked about that. I guess our tagline is “specialty camera operators”. We sort of came together because we all recognized this opportunity with the Freefly System’s MōVI, and with other sort of advanced technologies in filmmaking. If we got in early and specialized heavily in these devices and tools, that we could carve out a niche in the marketplace for ourselves. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. Anything else to add to it?

Corey: Kind of like a special forces team, you know?

Ryan: The cool thing about Motion State is with the three of us and our backgrounds, we cover all the bases. With Corey and his background in snowboarding and action sports, he kind of does all the action sports stuff. Sam has been doing a lot of features and TV shows. Then my background was mostly commercials and music videos, we kind of have all aspects of film and video production covered. It’s a cool feature that Motion State kind of has all together.

When stuff comes in do you guys just kind of divvy it up or do people come to you as individuals?

Ryan: Yeah. We kind of each have our own clients that we stick to, but we share a lot of jobs together. We try and not to all be on the same job together, that way we’re all out doing different things and creating more things for the company. But whenever we can work together we try to work us all into the same project. That being said, yeah, we have our own clients but then we also spread the love a little bit when somebody’s not getting a job or we try to bring each of us in to meet that client and create more relationships.

Sam: Also, based on what Ryan was saying, how we each specialize in our own disciplines, if you will, like if a job comes through and it’s snow oriented for example, then like it’s a no brainer that Corey specializes in that sort of work. Or if it’s a narrative or feature or something in LA, like I’m from down in Southern California so it’s easier for me to take that job. So we kind of divide it in some ways that way and then other times its just availability.

Corey: What’s cool too is we have so many tricks in the bag. If a larger production comes along and needs more than one of us, say they want an ALTA flown, and they want some MōVI, they want some cable cam and TERO, and all those things, we can basically come in. What I think is really important for us is we can come in as a turn key package. Producers, directors and DP’s can come to us. They call us, tell us what they’re looking for and that’s pretty much the last conversation they have to have with us –  there’s no stress. We can come and strike and provide the best tools possible for their needs. There’s not 100 different calls to rental houses that they have to make. We’re completely turn key and I think that’s something really special that we have to offer.

How long has Motion State been Motion State?

Corey: About three years now.

I know you guys all have backgrounds in film and video going back beyond that. What were each of your paths like, pre Motion State?

Ryan: Oldest to youngest. Go for it Sam.

Sam: Ah Jesus. Let’s see, back in the day, when I was an old man … Okay. I started in documentary, so I actually worked with a non profit organization and they were based around domestic violence. I had personal history with domestic violence, so I wanted to do something to give to that community, so I created a feature length documentary. I had no idea what I was doing, but I went out and bought some cameras at Costco because they had a 90 day return policy, so that’s how much time I had to make this thing because I had no money. I did that and it took about a year.

Right when the first MōVI clips were showing up, like Tabb shaking the MōVI, I saw the first couple of shots. The only thing I thought of was snowboarding. I was still working at Burton Snowboards, and I saw this thing. I came from doing a lot of fall cams, hand holding, big Arri SR2’s, 16 millimeter cameras and 35 millimeter cameras, trying to chase guys down the mountain and get these stable shots that totally weren’t stable at all because it was all handheld. I thought, “This would be the greatest tool ever.” So basically, I kept calling and pestering Freefly. Sending emails, “Guys, I got to get this thing. I work for Burton. I want to test this out.” That’s how I met Sam.

Sam and I had never met and I basically hired Freefly to come out on a shoot for Burton with us. Sam and I flew out to the East Coast and made a pretty cool video. It was an intro for the Burton web series. It was like a one shot. I had never done a one shot take, Sam had never done a one shot take. We basically came up with the idea with the guys at Burton in a few hours. It was insane.

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At the same time, Ryan was getting Freefly involved on the commercial side. All these paths kind of came together to create Motion State. After about a year of going out with Sam, and Freefly sending me out as an ambassador, teaching people how to use the MōVI, we were all sending jobs back and forth to each other. We were thought, “Man, we all know this thing. It’s pretty amazing what it does. We should all, create a company together based on this idea of just being really good at the MōVI.”

It’s transpired to different things from aerials to using the MōVI in all these different ways. There are all these people out there that try to be everything: directors, DP’s, editors. We just wanted to be really good at what we do. It’s really worked out for us. We’ve traveled around more in the last three years and worked with so many amazing people. We probably would’ve never had this chance if the MōVI had not come along.

Ryan: Before the MōVI all came along I was an editor at a company in Seattle called Süperfad. I was there for about 9 or 10 years. While I was working there I was directing a little side piece for a golf course. A friend of mine introduced me to Nick Kolias, who was working kind of hand in hand with Freefly at the time. He came out and flew some aerials with us, this was before the MōVI. That was probably 2011, 2012. Then he introduced me to Tabb probably about 2012 when they were having the first prototype of the MōVI. He basically contacted me and Superfad to create a video and help launch them out to NAB. We did one of the first videos with the prototype to play at NAB. That was my start with the MōVI.

I met Corey on a Macklemore project. I had an in with the Macklemore camp in 2013 when we were shooting White Walls. I was like, “All right, this is perfect for the MōVI,” which was still In the prototype phase. I hit up Tabb and he supplied us with one. We did like 17 or 18 shoot days with the prototype MōVI, we had Mike Hagedorn out there and Corey came out for a pretty good portion of it. That was the first time I shot with Corey. And here we are today.

Is that the video where Macklemore is on top of the Dicks Burger joint?

Sam: Yeah it was. I was still on the Freefly team and about half of us, which was really small at the time, came to that shoot that night at Dick’s. It was the first time any of the engineers had seen the MōVI in action. It was pretty awesome. It really was a morale booster around the office.

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Ryan: Yeah. That shoot was kind of a crazy one. We only had the prototype MōVI. Ryan Lewis, the director was completely blown away by it. In the beginning, we were planning on using the MōVI a little bit, but in the end, it turned out that almost the entire video was shot on MōVI because they loved it so much.

Corey: That was probably one of the craziest shoot days, I think ever. It was just that sheer amount of people that day. It was insane.

Ryan: Yeah, it was. We were originally supposed to fly one of the Octo’s with the MōVI on it down Broadway in front of the Cadillac. Word got out that they were doing a secret show and about 12,000 people showed up to Dick’s on Broadway. We couldn’t even get up to the hill because there was so many people, it was shut down. We only had a few shots with the MōVI hanging out the back of Corey’s truck.

You guys have done a lot for Macklemore since then, right?

Ryan: Yeah. Since then, I’ve pretty much shot every Macklemore video with them using the MōVI. I also went on tour with them in 2013. For that tour, I was shooting for 60-70 days straight, an average of six to seven hours of MōVI work a day. It’s safe to say they love the MōVI. Anytime they want to shoot, they call us.

You guys have touched pretty much every MōVI, from the early prototype to the new MōVI Pro. Talk a little bit about the evolution of the MōVI from them to now.

Sam: I can probably cover that one just because I’ve worked with the very, very early ones. In the first iterations, the IMU (the computer) was huge. It was this big box, just taped on the bottom. If you didn’t tape it on correctly the whole thing would be out of whack. In order to make adjustments to the camera, you had to balance each axis with a couple of screws. The roll axis was attached by like eight screws. They would strip out all the time. You could be operating, hit a bump, and the whole thing would just sort of sag on you and stop working. You always had two screwdrivers in your pocket, you had to be ready to fix something in a moment’s notice.

I was at a demo with Alex Bono, they brought the MōVI prototype out and the whole thing was so messed up. They had no idea. The camera was falling out of the MōVI, all the screws had stripped out. But because nobody had ever seen anything like the MōVI, it was amazing enough to make up for all the times we had to stop and fix it. But now with the new MōVI pro, man, it’s just so much easier. I’ve been doing 12 to 14 hour days, shooting nonstop and the camera never goes down, the wireless video never goes down. With the hot swapping batteries we just keep going. We’re always ready to go at a moment’s notice. We’re always ready to just pick it up and run with no problems at all.

Corey: Yeah. From when the first M10 came out until now, it’s pretty cool to see the unrelenting pursuit to make it better. They could’ve easily just said, “Oh, well we made this great gimble and that’s the end of it.” But Freefly has never given up.

Freefly is always trying to push the limits, make it better, listen to what operators are saying and what we want. The MōVI Pro is really kind of all those things we’ve dreamed of for the last three years. Integrated power, hot swappable batteries and no more RC lipos. Just what it can do and some of the software that’s coming out, using an Play Station controller, all the mimic stuff, I mean we would’ve never even dreamed of that a couple of years ago. It’s pretty cool to watch that and we’re insanely excited to see what comes in the future too. You guys are never giving up and always making it better. So stoked on that.

Do you guys have any routines or rituals you do before each shoot?

Ryan: I stretch out in the morning just to get all limbered up. I always like to do some research on the director we’re working with or the DP,  look at all the stuff the night before, just to get their mindset and the right idea of what they’re looking for, so we’re on the same page the next morning.

Corey: I think preparation is key. It’s like we know that MōVI works and you can pretty much pull it out of the case, turn it on, plug in all your cables and you’re good to go. But we are never completely satisfied with whatever the last shoot was. Every time we shoot, it’s completely different. We constantly prep and are always working on our gear to make sure that we’re prepared for any sort of issue that can pop up. Knowing where you’re going, whether on sets to work on a feature or commercial or deep in the British Columbian Mountains on a heli ski trip, we are always prepared. We always prep and go over scenarios. I think that’s what’s really important.

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Sam: Ritualistically, I’m always just checking over the kit. I feel stressed until I turn the system on the night before, until I know that everything is functional and working. Not just the MōVI, but the Teradek wireless system, lens control system, monitors. Turn it all on, and when everything works, then I can relax and get some sleep before we shoot.

What’s the collaboration process like when you’re working with a client? And what about when working on pet projects?

Corey: I think we all have different relationships with each directors or DP’s we work with. On every project we’re collaborating with the directors and the creative side in some way, and helping them understand the technology. They know they want to move the camera but we’re constantly teaching and educating people on how to move it and how we can move it. Sometimes we’re giving them new ideas,  things they didn’t even know were possible.

Even with all the pre-production, when we’re actually out there shooting with people, there’s nothing else like the freedom you have with the MōVI, to change things on the fly. There’s just no other system in the world that can do that.

Even though we specialize in the MōVI, we still edit and produce our own projects. I know Sam still writes and works on storyboarding. We all still sometimes collaborate on the entire film process, but we really just want to be able to help other productions move the camera interesting and creative ways to help tell their story.

Sam: We all have personal goals in what we want to do over the next several years. I am personally moving towards being a director of photography. I started in music well before film, with interest in scoring films. For me the passion has always been about storytelling. So I do touch all the different parts. I do write, I do edit. When a director of photography or a director comes to me and says, “Hey, we’re doing a shoot and this is what we want to use you for,” I start asking questions to see if I can push it further because they may have no experience with the MōVI, or they just don’t know what it can do.

On example, when Corey and I first worked together we did this one-take through the Burton factory. Because the MōVI was so new, no one knew exactly what could be done, but we wanted to try everything. So we had this break room with two glass windows and I’m like, “Dude, can we take those glass windows out? Maybe we can pass the MōVI through the window. That would be pretty cool.” So that’s what we did. We took the windows out and it worked. We were just building all these obstacle courses to like move the MōVI through. Some things worked and some things didn’t.

You guys seem to keep pretty busy. How do you find time to get inspiration? How do you fill the well? What do you do to keep up on what’s going on in the film and video community?

Corey: Luckily with the success of our company, we get some really great projects. There’s those days where you’re just doing a random commercial for whatever company, or you’re on a five day commercial shoot. Those are great because they help pay the bills, help us be able to buy the tools so that we have the ability to say yes or no to whatever we want. We all do projects that we’re passionate about and luckily, thanks to the success of our company, we’re able to have those tools to be able to go and do those nonprofit things in other parts of the world, or to work on personal projects, or help friends out with their projects.

That’s what’s hard for a lot of young kids or indie filmmakers. They may have these great ideas but it’s really hard for them to get ahold of the tools. We have a really unique opportunity that we have all this gear we’re able to pursue our passion still.

Sam: The cool thing about the MōVI is we work on such a variety of projects. There’s inspiration on almost every phone call we get. We travel to these amazing places. Most of the projects we work on are a lot of fun. There’s inspiration on almost every job we’re working on.

Corey: It’s always different, always changing. Every week is different. I think that’s what we all thrive on. We’ve all had the normal 9:00 to 5:00 jobs, or worked at a company and you get stuck in that routine of having to do the same thing, it’s like that’s not the case. You don’t know what every week is going to bring and what every shoot is going to bring. I think that’s part of what helps us stay inspired, keeps pushing us, and it never lets us settle. We’re always on our toes for sure.

Sam: Case in point, this job I’m doing right now called World of Dance, it’s like a reality dance competition thing, like American Idol but for dance kind of deal. Every day, I get to work with the very, very best dancers from all over the world. There’s a Colombian team, a Norwegian team, a lot of American teams, etc. These dances are amazing, they’re like tossing people in the air, and there’s break dancers that are like flipping over people and doing all this crazy stuff.

I’ve never really done a lot of that stuff, done a little bit of it, but I get to go into that arena and move with these dancers and get right up next to them and get on stage with them, do all this stuff. When we play the footage back in slow motion, you can see these incredibly talented dancers and that you get to work with them, it’s such an amazing privilege and opportunity and it just gets me fired up. Even though it’s a long exhausting day it’s like, “Okay, what are we doing next? Like what crazy stunts are we going to pull off this time?” It’s really, really inspiring.

What’s the most grueling shoot experience you’ve ever had?

Sam: I worked on Into the Badlands, this TV show we shot in New Orleans. It was so hot, sweaty, and nasty, we were there in mid summer. I was on the stunt team so we were chasing ninjas all over the swamps of New Orleans and it was just rough, man. They were long days. That was pretty challenging.

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Ryan: They’re all rewarding in their own way but when you’re there, yeah, you’re wondering how the hell you got there and why you’re still there. I think Alaska for me, I was there for two weeks, we did a Nissan campaign and I was getting strapped to side of helicopters, the back of mules, just a lot of crazy stuff, getting thrown around in the mud and stuff. In the end, we had an amazing time, wouldn’t take it back at all. It’s all worth it in the end. I’d say the most grueling single day I had was probably an Awolnation music video. This was before we had any crazy support for the MōVI. It was a one take music video for about four minutes and I think we did about 30 to 35 takes that day. I was beat up for about two weeks after that one.

Corey: I think my most grueling shoot was two winters ago I traveled Japan working on a snowboard film called The Fourth Phase. I got to travel Japan with those guys. Me and our drone pilot Nick Wolcott. It was almost 40 days straight of hiking. In Japan there’s no access to helicopters, there’s no access to snowmobiles. Everything is limited to whatever you can carry up on the mountain. Basically it was following around the best snowboard athletes in the world in some of the deepest snow ever, trying to carry MōVI, follow cam with the MōVI, hike drones to the top of mountains, working all night, and lighting up the night. That was one of the biggest punts ever. It was 30 to 40 days of just getting your ass handed to you. In the end, it’s probably one of my favorite segments in snowboarding. It was definitely worth it but during the time we were questioning our existence pretty much the whole time, for sure.

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Do you guys think there’s a connection between most grueling and most rewarding?

Corey: 100%.

Sam: For sure.

Ryan: Yeah.

Corey: When you’re just doing the same thing you know you can do every time, it kind of gets mundane. When you’re pushing and trying something new or pushing your body to its physical limit, and when you’re able to accomplish that, there’s nothing else like it. Usually the the imagery you get coincides with that, it compliments that.

What was your favorite project from the past year?

Sam: Mine was on this music video for Moxie Raia with director Jason Koenig. We were out in Hawaii, on a small budget and we were just poaching all these crazy locations. We went in a real lava field, so we had our talent dancing feet away from lava, dipping a torch in it. We were in the jungle setting up zip lines for the MōVI with our Dactylcam cam. We did some underwater work. It was just very surreal, you know, working in these amazing locations and then actually making a music video while we were there. It was really spectacular.

Corey: Probably the funnest, most memorable trip I had last year was actually traveling to Italy and Switzerland with this company called Freeride Entertainment. They come from the same background as me in action sports. I got to travel there with our pilot Nick Wolcott. We both got to bring our wives. We got to travel all through Italy and Switzerland, shooting mountain bikers for Specialized and some pro skiers for Red Bull. I don’t think the imagery was my favorite of all time, but just the experience of that was huge.

[photos from the trip?]

I think my favorite shot of the year was something Ryan and I both worked on together. It was for Microsoft, called the Clap Your Hands Campaign. We got to work with the Seattle Seahawks at their VMAC training facility. Our good buddy, a director of photography named Greg Wilson called us up, “Hey, can you guys come help me out? I know you guys are good moving the camera and getting these really these cool unique shots.” We hooked up the Phantom Miro to our TERO and Ryan was basically going full speed, about 40 miles an hour, with Tyler Lockett, who is a wide receiver for the Seahawks. We got this Phantom Miro shot at 1,000 frames a second of him running full speed and catching a football that was just dead rung, centered up. It’s just one of those moments that is almost impossible to recreate. That was probably my favorite shot of last year.

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Ryan: I’d say my favorite job was when me and two friends flew to Havana, Cuba, kind of on a whim, funded our own shoot. We came back with a pretty incredible documentary about a boxer down there who’s going through the troubles in times of being a Cuban and whatnot. We were there for two weeks and just shot some incredible stuff. We met some amazing people and just the experience itself was better than anything I could’ve dreamed. We got some amazing shots and that’s probably the most memorable of the past year, if not all time.

That’s awesome. Love that piece. What advice would you have for the young guys coming up?

Sam: Shoot as much as you can. Don’t get so caught up with technology at first. The technology is awesome and it’s great to use when you get access to it, but it’s not going to help you make your mark early on. You’ll do that by proving you can tell stories. Go out there and shoot a story about your neighbor and their dog, or shoot just whatever’s happening around you. Go down to Pike Place Market and talk to street performers, shoot stories about them, that’s what I did early on. Use you iPhone or DSLR. Or if you can borrow your friend’s red camera, then use that, fine, but just tell the story and do that as much as you can, over and over and over again. Just tell stories and the tools will continue to show up. It always comes down to story. Ask any filmmaker, they’ll tell you the same thing.

Corey: To me there’s another thing: the willingness to work hard and the willingness to learn. There’s a lot of young guys and the entitlement in younger people these days doesn’t really bode well in our industry. I think having a good work ethic, being willing to learn from other people around you, being humble, I think these are some of the most important things. We still learn every day. There’s always something new to learn. Don’t complain, be willing to do whatever it takes, whether you get the PA job for the day or you get the director job, it’s just do whatever you can to work as hard as you can and everything else will come naturally.

Ryan: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest part for me is the work ethic. Getting your nose to the grindstone and just getting out there and doing it. We don’t have a job, we don’t have a 9:00 to 5:00. We make money doing something we completely love. Whether it’s on a Saturday or a Sunday, we’re emailing people, collaborating and trying to make jobs happen, it’s not really work for us, it’s a passion. And as industry-crazy as it sounds, it’s who you know. Get out there, email people, be that annoying person, and just get to know people.

Could you guys imagine doing anything else?

Ryan: When I was younger I always wanted to be a garbage man and I did that for a summer and I hated it. I went home smelling pretty bad every day. This pretty much for me is living the dream. Yeah.

I feel like you are making that up.

Ryan: You can ask my mom, I’ll give you her number! This is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I can imagine doing something different later on in life, when the body can’t handle it. For the last 15 years, now and in the foreseeable future, I feel like myself and us as a crew, we’re exactly where we want to be. I mean, we get to travel, we get to work hard, we get to meet tons of people, we get to tell stories and bring people’s stories to life. It’s pretty damn good. It would be hard for us to find a better job out there, for sure.

Corey: Agreed.

How do you guys take your coffee?

Corey: Black with a little bubon.

Sam: I go black with some coconut milk.

Ryan: Of course you would Sam. Truck stop style black for me.

Sam: Truck stop style. With some grounds in it?

Ryan: Haha! Yeah.

Okay! Well there you go! Well you guys, this has been really good. Thanks for all your answers!

Ryan: Yeah man, thank you.

Sam: All right. Later guys!

Corey: All right. Well, I think we all got to bounce, we got to get back to it.

Be sure to check out Motion State’s impressive body of work over on their website, and keep tabs on them over on their Instagram.