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Talking Adventure Cinematography with Philip Grossman

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Talking Adventure Cinematography with Philip Grossman
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Adventure Cinematographer Philip Grossman is a jack of all trades – equal parts media industry stalwart, TV and film technology specialist, explorer, and educator. Continuing his work safely throughout the pandemic, however, required a socially distant approach to planning, collaboration, and review sessions, all achieved via video conference calls. To maintain a high degree of professionalism across these virtual interactions, he ditched the traditional webcam and used his video expertise to create an economical, top-notch setup. Check out the interview highlights below to get a glimpse into his virtual conferencing workflow and life as an adventure cinematographer.

How does one become an adventure cinematographer?

Not without a lot of experimentation. I’m a degreed architecture and civil engineer with a specialty in illumination engineering, but I’ve always loved creative disciplines as well. It started with a penchant for photography at age eight that only grew. Even though I went to school for engineering, I kept up photography on the side. When I graduated, I wanted to do lighting for live concerts and events, but instead found myself doing corporate lighting fixtures in retail, so I got my MBA and landed a job at Ernst and Young (E&Y) in their Media & Entertainment (M&E) group.

After E&Y, I consulted and then moved on to the Weather Channel and eventually Imagine Communications. Meanwhile, on the side, I traveled to Chernobyl and other unique locations to document them. My footage caught the attention of the Science Channel, which eventually turned into my own episode in the series “Mysteries of the Abandoned,” which aired in 2017. Even since the show wrapped, I’ve continued to seek out, photograph, and film in Chernobyl, the abandoned soviet space shuttles as well as in other remote locations. As a side endeavor, I also teach and often present at conferences like NAB about the tools and technologies that I use most in the field. All these roles and experiences have helped prepare me for the demands of adventure cinematography. 

What do you like most about your job and what inspires your shoots?

I love to travel to and explore new and unique places that most people will never see. I just returned from a trip, on which I visited Hungary, Albania, Croatia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro. I eventually landed in Northern Italy, where my filming partner and friend joined me for some urban exploration. A lot of what I try to do is document history and share it with the world. Travel and exploration aside, I also love how I get to interact with a lot of different hardware and software manufacturers, and in turn help influence technological evolution.

Tell us more about your go-to gear in the field.

I've been fortunate within my various roles to handle gear from a lot of manufacturers. I was an early UltraHD adopter, and when RED came out with its 8K camera, I started looking at my options and eventually landed on a DSMC2 HELIUM. I've been filming in Chernobyl for over a decade now but decided to take it with me for the first time on a return trip. I wanted to see what it'd be like for a RED newbie to start from scratch and fell in love with it. Today I have a KOMODO camera, but I also keep a GoPro 10 in one of my cases if I want to quickly vlog about something. Since the start of the pandemic, AJA’s U-TAP SDI device has also become an essential piece of kit for video conferencing.

It allows me to turn a very high-end professional camera output into a webcam feed, so that my live output looks much more professional. From the moment I opened the U-TAP packaging box, I was impressed by how easy it was to get up and running. Most of my cameras are SDI, so I literally just plug in the U-TAP and my computer recognizes the signal over the USB connection. I also have a recorder that I use as a switcher to feed content through the U-TAP and into my live feed, so that I can do a live-switched webcam show. My wife’s company was so impressed with the feed that they asked me to help them establish a similar setup.

Describe the workflow in more detail and why you opted to develop it.

I typically shoot on a RED DIGITAL Cinema DSMC2 with HELIUM (8K) and output the feed to an AJA U-TAP SDI then into my MacBook Pro for pass through into a recorder. When I need to live switch content or am working with multiple feeds, I’ll do the reverse. I’ll send the camera outputs through the recorder, live switch them, and then output the switched feed to U-TAP for webcasting. The reason I built it really comes down to demand. Across industries, the collaboration and review process has gone virtual, and when you’re in M&E, visual quality matters. Just as an attorney wouldn’t walk into a courtroom in sweatpants, I can’t join a Zoom or Teams meeting with a low-quality video feed. That’s what I love about U-TAP, it allows me to pull off a very high-quality HD feed easily and economically. 

How do you decide which gear to use in the field?

Tools are tools, and you must find the ones that best suit your needs. I personally look for functionality, durability, and ergonomics in any piece of equipment. I went with U-TAP, in part, because I’ve used AJA products for years and they’re durable. A lot of them also give you that swiss army knife toolset to handle all the different formats you encounter on projects.

What industry trends are you following?

We are truly in an age of video democratization, so I’m watching the crossover between technologies, workflows, and production techniques in a range of industries, from broadcast to e-sports, corporate video and more. I’m also watching the HDR standards evolution since I’ve been shooting HDR from a photographic perspective for more than a decade and I see it as more of a picture differentiator than resolution. It brings out visuals that more closely mirror what the human eye can see and makes the colors pop. IP is another area I’m tracking, especially with the continued proliferation of OTT.

What tips would you offer to other professionals in the field? 

Video is paramount to conferencing, but don’t underestimate the importance of audio and lighting. A good mic and an overhead light as well as two small color LED lights can go a long way in shaping your webcasting look, and you can find affordable solutions online. Once you’ve purchased your lighting, get a white curtain, and find a nice practical backdrop. You don’t need to spend a fortune to make your feed look professional. All you need – after the mic, lighting, and backdrop – are a good camera, a recorder, and a device like U-TAP. Once you have all the equipment, think strategically about camera and lighting placement, and test out your look before going live.