Living near the Canadian Rockies, Alex Robinson understandably loves to get outside when he’s filming. Although when it comes to bears, he prefers to film from the safety of his car.
You shoot a lot of timelapse and aerial footage. What are the benefits, and challenges, of each?
The benefits are obvious as soon as you see them on screen. They’re beautiful tools to help pass time, create transitions, establish a location, or simply showcase a location. Each shows us the world in a different way from our own experience.
I enjoy shooting both timelapse and aerial footage but they do have their challenges. Because timelapse requires an extended period of time, there are lots of factors to be considered, like, Is the sun going to be in and out of clouds, and how do I expose for that? Is my subject going to change in a way I don’t want it to over the period of the timelapse? Is a large truck going to park right in front of my camera halfway through? (That’s happened.)
Aerial cinematography with UAVs in Canada comes with a whole other list of challenges in terms of regulations from Transport Canada. Anyone operating a UAV for non-recreational use must have a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada to operate legally — this is not a choice. There are a lot of limitations on where UAVs can and can’t be used — such as no flights in National Parks — and a lot of misinformation as well. Right now in Canada, we’re seeing a huge discrepancy between how recreational users and commercial users are governed under the law. It’s become a large hurdle for those of us operating legally, but we’re doing our best to comply.
What is your dream location to get aerial footage of?
That would have to be Glacier National Park in Montana. The first thing I’d do is a shot-for-shot UAV remake of the opening credits of The Shining. Imagine if the technology we have today was around when Kubrick was dreaming up that sequence.
A close second is Banff National Park.
What do you like about shooting in the great outdoors?
Shooting in the outdoors, especially in a location like Alberta, Canada, is a great way to explore the area you live in. A lot of my footage on Dissolve is footage I shot over my first few summers living in Alberta as I discovered new places on weekend outings.
I like shooting out there because it gets you away from the city and helps you reconnect with nature and yourself. There is something about the natural beauty of that area that keeps bringing me back to shoot more photos and footage!
Have any tips for finding and filming wildlife?
In my experience, when you go looking for wildlife, you won’t find it. It’s when you’re least expecting it that you will have an incredible chance to observe wildlife. I always travel with my camera in my passenger seat or nearby in case of a wildlife encounter on the side of the road.
Staying off the main routes will make it more likely to see wildlife — the secondary or backroads usually provide more genuine encounters. It’s always exciting to come across a bear hanging out near the road, but it can be dangerous. I’m the first to admit all my wild bear clips are shot from my car!
We love Legislative Assembly of Cards. Tell us about that project.
Legislative Assembly of Cards was something I thought of doing the first time I saw the House of Cards opening credit sequence. It was very much a style of shooting I was doing already — timelapse and motion lapse with sliders — and I thought how fun would it be to do a spoof of it in my hometown of Calgary.
That idea marinated in the back of my mind for maybe 18 months until spring 2015, when Alberta’s provincial election was called. That was my trigger. A lot of people weren’t happy with scandal after scandal as well as the entitled attitude of the government that was in power. I knew if I went to Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, and staged a shot-for-shot remake there, it would resonate a lot more than a Calgary version.
The day after the election was called, I created a binder with frame grabs of every shot, including a description of the specific camera movement within it and the time it was on screen, so when I was out shooting, I would know how to set up the shot and how much on-screen time I needed.
Then there was the challenge of finding locations in Edmonton that matched or loosely matched those shown in Washington, D.C. I did a lot of Googling and a lot of Street Viewing. Each frame grab in my binder had a stickie with two or three locations that could potentially work, so I always had a backup in case I arrived somewhere to find the location unsuitable. Some substitutions had to be made as well. For example, I couldn’t locate any similar-looking lion statues in Edmonton, but the Muttart Conservatory is an iconic Edmonton location that didn’t really have a home in any other shots, so the lions were replaced by Muttart’s pyramids.
Once in Edmonton, I hit the ground running because I had to shoot nearly 40 timelapses in a very limited amount of time at locations all over the city. I also had to be conscious of what areas I was in near sunset because some places had to be shot as the sun was setting. My worst fear was that my sunset shots would cloud over or that I would get rained out, but I lucked out. The stars aligned throughout the shoot and I was able to get all my shots over two weekends.
I was cutting it together as I went and had the whole project complete and posted a week and a half before election day, so it did well in terms of views. It was a great experience all around!
Do you shoot stock simultaneously with your hired work, or do you set aside time to shoot?
I keep them separate. When I’m hired to shoot, that time is for the client. If I’m shooting aerials in a pretty location and am able to get permissions extended past the actual shoot days, I’ll go back after the shoot has wrapped and collect footage for stock purposes. That way, I get exactly the shots I want in a location I’m already familiar with and have the clearance to fly over.
How has Liftoff affected your work?
I’ve been using Liftoff since it began — it’s been a great tool for me. I love not having to worry about adding metadata to my footage. I can just upload or send in my footage and let the experts at Dissolve, who know what people are looking for in stock footage, decide what will work and what won’t and add the best search keywords to my clips so people can find them. Most of my projects now have a sequence called “Dissolve,” where I throw clips that would make good stock footage, then I’ll export them all at once and upload them.
What’s been your most memorable shoot?
There are a few that come to mind, like a documentary on the Calgary Airport Expansion Project — I’m a huge airplane nerd. Another is World of Hurt, the most ridiculous wrestling reality series, hosted by the late Rowdy Roddy Piper.
But I think my all-around favorite was a stop in Washington, D.C., on Best in Chow, a traveling food show I worked on. I say all-around because I’d shoot all day and visit as many museums and historical sites as I could in a day. I even stayed after the crew went home to finish my museum binge. I nerded out big-time on that trip.
What are your three shoot must-haves?
A clear vision, a clear mind, and granola bars.