Los Angeles-based gaffer Mark Stuen gives his account of working with ARRI M40 and M90 M-Series lights on remote mountain locations for the night-skiing short film, AFTERGLOW from Sweetgrass Productions. Shot by Mike Brown, Nick Wolcott and Zac Ramras, the film was directed by Nick Waggoner and Brown.
Our shoot started with about 20 days in British Columbia and after that we had around 16 shooting days in Alaska. A big topic of discussion during preproduction was the reliability of the lights we were going to take up; when you are in the middle of nowhere, nothing else is a higher priority. We looked at the photometrics of every light available, but the ARRI M-Series was better suited to a shoot like this than anything else on the market.
In British Columbia I originally wanted six M40s to deal with the logistics of the shoot – two for each of the zones we were planning to ski, so that we wouldn't have to move them much. Unfortunately our budget couldn't handle that in Canada, where rental rates are high, so we ended up with two M40s and some LEDs. Nevertheless, the M40s were our backbone and we generally used them as double over-the-shoulder keys. Every shot started out with the M40s and then we would work the LEDs in where they could accent.
We were working in 15 feet of snow and on the edges of cliffs and cornices. The lights were all moved on our shoulders while skiing and the generators were placed in sleds and pushed or pulled up and down the slopes. We probably spent 80% of our time moving lights and 20% skiing.
For Alaska we exclusively ordered ARRI fixtures, having learned in BC that the M-Series were the only lights with the horsepower and reliability to be trusted on a shoot like this. Everything had to be helicoptered to the exact cliff locations where it was going to be used. We planned this out in advance by looking at photographs and going on scouts with our guides, as we had very limited helicopter time. When the time came to drop the lights they were slung in nets with their generators and carried off to their positions.
The lights had to deal with rapidly changing humidity, frost and altitude in Alaska. I actually had to thaw out the lampheads with the exhaust of their generators, as the ice was preventing them from striking. Originally we had planned on using all the lights at about 3,000 feet elevation, but at the last moment it changed and we were closer to 4,000 feet; the generators hated us for that and had to be constantly monitored.
We had taken two M90s and six M40s, but the extreme cold caused us generator issues and we couldn’t use a couple of the lights. I was literally standing on the middle of a cliff while working on an M40; night time was rapidly approaching and I had more lights at the base I needed to ski to before it was too dark to see, so we just had to work with what we had. Our setup turned out to be an M90 and M40 key, two M40 backlights and two M40s at the base as fill, so our skiers could see the end of the run. The skiers could only do one run each per night, as you couldn't get back up without a helicopter.
We put these lights on slopes with 10 to 20 feet of snow, on cliffs and glaciers, in sub-zero temperatures and flew them in and out of our location hanging from helicopters. They still worked and performed incredibly well, and I don't think there is another light in production that could have done it for us. We definitely put them through the wringer but I chose them because I knew they were the best lights for the job. We needed the reliability and power of the ARRI M-Series – nothing else comes close.