A Cinematographer Makes A “180 Degree” Turn

Surfing turbulent waves, climbing ice-slicked peaks, hiking through terrain untouched by man.  This was all in a day’s work for cinematographer Danny Moder when he accepted the job working on the documentary "180 Degrees South."

"It’s one of those jobs for me where I prepared for this my whole life," said Moder.  "It had the surfing and the climbing that I love to do, and the subject matter that I’ve just been so turned onto for so long.  It was the perfect match to the life that I’m living."

180 Degrees South follows climbing  and surf enthusiast Jeff Johnson on a six month journey, a journey completed 30 years ago by Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkin.  After completing a portion of his journey by yacht, Johnson meets Chouinard and Tompkin.  The three men, along with a few other climbers, attempt to scale the highest peak in Chile.

Early 16mm footage was shot by Johnson who held a camera while surfing through huge waves, or "close-out barrels," in Puerto Escondido.   Although the Ariflex camera was used for a few more action sequences, Moder was able to persuade Malloy to shoot with the HVX 200 digital camera.  In addition to switching to a digital format, Moder determined that their shoot should sacrifice lighting and grip gear in exchange for multiple cameras and the ease of maneuvering on the journey.

"We had five cameras," said Moder.  "For the majority of the shoot we had two that were working all the time, a third that was usually working, and the fourth or fifth were backups, because we were just out there, in the middle of nowhere."

Although some lens attachments were utilized at different stages of the shoot, Moder was interested in the effects he could achieve by stripping down the camera.

"On occasions we put on a lens adaptor so we could put on film camera lenses," said Moder, " but what we needed to do was go with the smallest equipment possible.  We really fell in love with the long lenses, but again, it had us shackled with extra gear.  I think a lot of the film style came from understanding what each type of situation called for, and understanding Chris’ style.  For instance, when we were going to shoot no dialogue, we’d usually be on 32 frames, just to give it a little bit of slow motion."

While all parts of the journey were carefully plotted out on maps and a GPS, there where many unforeseen elements that arose, making the shoot challenging.  Moder found the urge to constantly roll camera a hard battle to fight.

"It was hard to take a breather and have your own moment.  For me, that was the hardest and biggest challenge," said Moder.  "It wasn’t like a movie where you set up for the next scene coming up, and it’s lit a certain way. "

Understanding the rhythms of the journeymen helped him establish a method of set up and shooting that allowed for the most compelling footage to be captured.

"You knew who got up earlier than the others, and who had the best instincts, because, even though there was a map, sometimes you just gotta say ‘I don’t know , is the swell going to come?  Is there going to be surf?  Are we going to be able to catch that?’ And you just find the right people to believe in and you find the rhythm, and it is like the ultimate camping trip," said Moder.  " We would take a step back and simplify and trust our instincts.  Also, Chris Malloy’s directing style was really encouraging to a lot of people.  He didn’t force you to do anything." 

Although Moder shot the bulk of the film’s footage, there were some cameras he’d focus and set the exposure for, then allowed to run in a self-sufficient manner.  He also had some experts giving him advice.  Alpine cinematographer Jimmy Chin assisted with the climb.  Scott Sowens assisted with underwater photography.  Tyler Emmett handled the data management and captured footage on the yacht voyage, including an unforeseen catastrophe: the mast snapping in half like a pretzel.

"When the boat is lurching, it’s really disorienting, so I’d taught Emmett how to lash down the camera" said Moder.  "Every time I look at that footage and I think of what could have gone wrong, 500 miles from a very tiny island in the middle of the Pacific ocean with shards of metal bouncing up and down in a wreckless ocean.  The fact that no one was on deck, and no one got hurt and they documented it, it makes a huge, adventurous chapter in the movie."

Although the documentary’s journey was a "dream project" for Moder, being away from his family was challenging.  During the middle of shooting he was able to arrange for his children to make an onset visit.  While on the journey, however, contact was limited.

"You’re so far away," said Moder.  "We didn’t bring satellite phones.  But, you ramp up for something like this for a period of time.  All the families get to know each other, and the respective wives get to know each other.   When someone (from the crew) is able to make a call out, that word gets spread around.  They all help each other with keeping the home fires burning."

The essence of 180 Degrees South is the journey Johnson makes and the companionship he shares along the way.  In addition to the lessons he learns through his travel is one of the use of the land and natural resources found in regions of Chile that are uninhabited by man.  The members of the crew learned a great deal about the transformation the land will take when major corporations plan to erect a damn to harness electrical current, as well as the impact this development will have on the local economy.  Moder wants to share the lessons he’s learned during his voyage with others.

"It’s such a multi-tiered message in this movie," said Moder.  "There are still beautiful places out there we can go to have some solitude and peace, but right around the corner they’re going to be putting up a dam and power lines.  Instead of going down there and not paying attention to that, we can make a difference by participating.  I’m absolutely committed to that.  It’s a battle that doesn’t have a lot of glory or victory, but it’s time well spent, because hopefully people will become more conscious of their decisions."


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