If you’re a movie buff and are short of ideas for your next vacation, you could always follow in the footsteps of director and cinematographer Lawrence Ribeiro. The Canadian film-maker spent months visiting the locations of his favourite action movie sequences, including the Paris car chase from The Bourne Identity and the Istanbul motorbike battle from Skyfall. Once there, he would break down the scenes in his head, picturing how he’d shoot them.
“When I imagine an action sequence, I can see the finished edit in my mind,” he says. “I already know how I’ll approach it.”
Ribeiro has action in his blood. His father was a navy frogman and professional rally driver. As a result, Ribeiro learned to drive before most of us have choked on our first smoke. Then he spent many of his formative years doing insane things with cars. He’s also been an extreme roller-blader and a heli-logger – which, yes, involves logging with a helicopter. When Ribeiro talks about taking a break, he’s probably referring to his arm.
So how did he translate what he describes as “a natural attraction to risk” into a career?
“In Los Angeles in about 2007 I met up with a well-known cinematographer named Howard Wexler, who’s now a very dear friend of mine. He became my mentor.”
This was the time when cameras like the Canon 5D DSLR, which also shot video, were democratising the film-making process. Teach yourself to edit with Final Cut Pro and you were in business. “And then of course in 2008 there was the crash, which brought with it a demand for a more economical way of shooting,” Ribeiro observes.
The downside was that the scene quickly became crowded with camera-toting disruptors. Ribeiro had to find a way to stand out. “I’d present myself as the kind of guy who would shoot in conflict zones, or mountains, or jungles. But the technology was evolving so fast I couldn’t keep up. There were people in Hollywood who could digitally fake a Nicaraguan hut full of bullet holes. They didn’t have to go anywhere.”
Being Ribeiro, he just pushed himself harder. “I’d shoot while roller-blading tied behind a motorcycle. Or while rappelling down a mountain.”
All this risky business eventually led him to a place that felt like home: a stunt boot camp. It was run by stunt innovator Lane Leavitt (Terminator 2, Fast Five, Drive) and his motorcycling champ wife, Debbie Evans (Matrix Reloaded). “It wasn’t really a school – it was more of a place where you could experiment. We could do high falls and fires and stuff with cars and bikes. It was also around the time that drones came onto the scene, which added a whole new dimension to shooting.”
Stunt veterans would regularly drop by to share tips, which is how Ribeiro met Andy Armstrong (who with his brother Vic is one of the world’s most experienced stunt coordinators) and Gary Powell, who has worked on stunts for both the Bond and Bourne franchises.
“Gradually I started to get the rhythm of shooting action,” Ribeiro explains. “Sometimes these are very long sequences, and they require a great deal of choreography.”
He also built up a network of friends who could help him with his work. Since then he’s shot more than 100 action sequences with the best in the business, including his own award-winning short The Chase. His personal style combines art with grit – more Bourne than Marvel.
BRANDING AND SENSATION
At the time of writing he’s based in Aix, in the South of France, and in his own words is busy prepping for “a speed bike chase in Morocco, a fight/parkour sequence in Paris, a fight sequence in Rome and a flamenco project in Seville”. Characteristically, he says of the bike chase: “I wanna do it in the vein of Melville meets Kubrick.”
He has strong opinions about branded content, which he worries has become too enslaved to digital shortcuts. He wants viewers to have a visceral, palpable experience. As he wrote recently in an article for the Branded Content Marketing Association: “A truly good product is when it all comes together, in an innovative way, using sound principles and strategy, to convey an unforgettable experience that evokes sensation.”
He adds: “Because of my training as a cinematographer, I have my own ideas of how things should be shot. Then I can get the right guys and I know how to brief them. I can shoot efficiently and innovatively, but my approach is likely to be very different to a traditional advertising guy.”
While regulations concerning stunts vary around the world, clearly the main concern is that somebody is going to be injured. “But in reality, I’m not going to put anybody’s life in danger, because I know exactly who I need to shoot the sequence safely. It’s all about the set-up that creates the illusion. Let’s say I need a guy to ride a motorcycle at speed and get his knee down. I have plenty of expert riders to choose from, but if the speed isn’t there, I can always find someone with longer legs to cheat the shot. I have options.”
Although he’s a fan of the BMW branded content series from the early 2000s – particularly Tony Scott’s Beat The Devil – he has the impression that auto advertising today is mostly bland. “A lot of times they shoot car ads using only one car. If you know anything about how to create the illusion of speed, you’ll know that it’s like trying to shoot a fight sequence with one guy.”
His mission is to educate clients, agencies and production companies about how a combination of the right team and the right techniques can result in genuinely thrilling content that doesn’t cost a fortune.
“There are a lot of techniques out there in movies that are frankly not being used in the advertising world…But action and movement are legitimate forms of storytelling.”
When was the last time you watched an ad that had you on the edge of your seat? If Lawrence Ribeiro has his way, you could be seeing one very soon.
By Mark Tungate, editorial director