Suki Medencevic has been working on a couple of projects that have taken him to the snowy peaks of Utah as well as several of the happiest places on Earth, at least according to Disney. The Utah assignment was for Cloud 9, a movie for Disney Channel that follows two teenaged snowboarders and their struggle for self-confidence and young love. The film was directed by Paul Hoen. One set was built in Salt Lake City, but the rest of the film was made at altitudes as high as 11,000 feet in and near Park City. More than half the film takes place on the slopes.
“It was really as extreme as it gets,” says Suki. “Of course the air is thin and very, very dry. We shot in subzero temperatures pretty much on a daily basis.”
Illuminating the slopes was a complicated puzzle. No access roads the potential for high winds led to collapsible, mobile, self-contained, light yet strong towers that are sometimes used to raise cell towers and in other construction projects. A producer helped Suki locate these towers, which are made in Oklahoma. Remotely controlled 18K HMIs and generators were towed up the hill using heavy duty Snowcats. The production installed its own anemometers to measure wind speed. If the winds reached 50 mph, the shoot had to shut down. The generators had to run constantly or risk freezing up. Safety considerations slowed everything down, and the light was lost by mid-afternoon due to the horizon. The cameras were Arri Alexas shooting with SxS cards. Lightweight Optimo zooms minimized downtime.
Climactic scenes were shot on an icy half-pipe. Shooting in such conditions called for one-of-a-kind rigs for the cameras and spiked boots for the crew. “In order to be as fast and flexible as possible, the idea was to be slim in terms of equipment,” says Suki. “Some days we sent images a half mile down the hill as we were shooting so the producers could see what we were getting. Salty Pictures embraced the Alexa workflow. The director insisted that we shoot as if we were on film, without monitors, a DIT or a video village. It was pretty much camera, viewfinder and my light meter. It made sense because any additional crew would have made it that much harder to move quickly from one angle to the next.”
Suki notes that Disney Channel is one of the few providers of made-for-television feature-length movies. He says they’re developing approximately four per year. Another, similar project is Teen Beach Movie, recently shot by Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC.
Over the past year and a half, Suki has also been working on a promotional documentary about the 60-year history of Disney Imagineering. The director is Leslie Iwerks, whose father, Don Iwerks, is a former ASC associate member who pioneered many visionary special format film techniques at Disney. Leslie’s grandfather, Ub Iwerks, was a legendary Disney animator and ASC member who co-created Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig, among many influential accomplishments, including early combinations of live action and animation as seen in Song of the South.
Leslie has previously made several other well-received documentaries on the Hearst Corporation, Pixar Animation Studios and Industrial Light & Magic. According to Disney, the new project will “explore in unprecedented depth the facts, faces and fantastic stories behind the magic of Disney Parks.” The film is due for release in 2016, but a trailer can be viewed here. (Disney Parks Blog)
For Suki, the project has required a great deal of travel to the various Disney operations around the world, including multiple journeys to a park currently under construction in China. He is shooting mostly on Alexa, with some shots done with Canon C300s or Canon 5Ds.
“There’s always some adjustment required when you work in China,” says Suki. “As in most places, they do things a little differently there. You have to accept that, make certain compromises and figure it out. But I was pleasantly surprised how good the crews are there. They’re very dedicated and hardworking. A few weeks ago, we were shooting on one of the hottest days of the year in Shanghai. They had to shut down the attraction, and much of the city, for about three hours due to the excessive heat. But we kept shooting.”
Suki is also shooting in established parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere. “As they say, every park is a work in progress,” he says. “They’re never finished, always adding new attractions and expanding. Our job is to register and document things over the course of five years. The film should be completed in time for the opening of the Shanghai Disney park.”