Hot Rod Client Spotlight: Steve McCord

Posted by Illya Friedman on Nov 2nd 2020

Hot Rod Client Spotlight: Steve McCord

Photo Credit: Merrick Ales

The short film “No Somos De Aquí, Ni Somos De Allá?” was recently released on Vimeo. Artistically shot by long-time Hot Rod Cameras client Steve McCord, the movie encapsulates the personal experiences of being Mexican-American. Because of the artistic style, the film defies definition- a short art piece, a documentary, a commentary, or maybe something that falls between or defies traditional classifications.

Steve McCord was gracious enough to do a brief Q&A with Hot Rod about the production. Watch the short here:

No Somos De Aquí, Ni Somos De Allá from Leo Aguirre on Vimeo

Hot Rod: How would you classify this film?

Steve McCord: I’ve had this exact discussion with Leo Aguirre, the director of the piece. Even from our first meeting, it had an element of discovery. We didn’t know exactly what the form would be, but we knew the soul behind the piece. Fundamentally, the film reflects on the Mexican-American experience, how hybridized communities often don’t feel Mexican enough and simultaneously not American enough. Consequently, they create and inhabit a rich, complex third space. Similarly, you could say, the film creates its own little space, it feels more like a poem. The cadence ebbs and flows exterior to a predefined pentameter of accepted genres - short doc, commercial, narrative - it is its own thing. The voices you hear in the piece are actually the people in the video. Leo went through hell and back to get the voice overs during lock down in March and April. But knowing the wonderful humans that we met on this project, it feels so true and real to hear their voices.

Hot Rod: From a technical perspective you shot one of the oldest, and one of the newest formats used in cinema today. Why did you choose to mix the Large Format Mini LF and the comparatively small S16mm film formats?

Steve McCord: Leo was pretty adamant about shooting on film when we were shooting in Brownsville, Texas. Leo Aguirre is an extremely talented DP and it was really wonderful to collaborate with someone so technical and visual.

This piece is about living with a dichotomy and creating a sense of belonging within that duality. I want to feel that visually. I didn’t want film to look like digital or digital to look like film. They each deserved their own space with mutual respect for each other. That was fundamentally why I wanted to do this odd mixed format. The edit is so impressionistic that it all kind of bleeds together in a way that works quite well.

Hot Rod: There's a strong contrast and saturated color palette for the piece, and it also plays with aspect ratios, but I don't believe that most people will be overtly aware of the different formats on the first viewing. While of course there are giveaways like the film grain of the Super16 contrasting with the cleaner look from the Mini LF, the matching of overall look between the two formats is very cohesive and not nearly as jarring as might be expected when cuts go back and forth. Can you please explain what kind of grade or treatment the Mini LF footage received to allow for this kind of relatively seamless feel?

Steve McCord: A giant frustration for us when we were sharing references was that it often feels like every film shot in that region or in Mexico gets slapped with a sepia filter. We wanted to push the vibrancy and saturation of the community and environment, all of which we could have 100% done on digital. I think everyone is fatigued from the digital vs film discussion but what I quite enjoy is the restraint within film. That is what I wanted when we were down in Brownsville shooting. I wanted us to be forced to choose what we shot, not just spray and pray. We had 800 ft for the whole project in the budget. Everything had to count and since it was very doc style, we aren’t just shooting for a shot list. It was this wonderful balance of discovery and constraint.

This all very much gets into the Yedlin author vs. shopper sphere of conversation, but I wanted deep intention behind what we shot. There was so much soul to this piece and I didn’t want to cheapen in by shooting safeties which is so easy to do when you’re recording ones and zeroes.

We did end up shooting quite a bit of film back in Austin where we hopped back and forth from mini LF to 16mm and it was wild how quickly our shooting focus shifted.

I wanted this to feel a fractured whole. I didn’t want the 16mm to look like the mini LF or vice versa but they had to live their own lives in the same world. Alex Winker - our amazing colorist - did the lord’s work in making that balance work. He’s a true talent and was able to massage the two together in a way that Leo and I were really happy with.

There are a bunch of aspect ratios in here. We shot SR3, a few things on a Krasnogorsk K3 and Mini LF. Even within my mini LF, I shot a lot in open gate, then jumped down to UHD for 60 fps. Aspect ratios were all over the place. But as you said, I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it for the most part. We can get so pedantic about the perfect aspect ratio but if the thing that’s happening within those four sides doesn’t cultivate empathy, then what’s the point?

Hot Rod: How long was the principal photography and post production segments of “No Somos De Aquí, Ni Somos De Allá?”

Steve McCord: Principal photography was 3 days in Brownsville, Texas and 2 days in Austin, Texas in late September 2019. We shot some tests (the soccer scene) for a half day on the Krasnogorsk and some of that ended up making it in. Post Production was a long time. Leo is an incredibly talented editor and since we shot so many different kinds environments, it took a while to find the gold nugget. He also got COVID while he was editing it this spring but was able to pull together this remarkable edit that flows so well. He has my utmost respect and admiration.

Photo Credit Dan Leyendecker

Hot Rod: I know you were the very first Alexa Mini LF customer for Hot Rod Cameras, which means you've owned the camera longer than almost anyone else on the planet. Has this camera changed the way you work or opened up new work opportunities for you? And if so, how?

Steve McCord: Hot Rod Cameras will always have a special place in my heart. They put up with my besieged requests of “where’s my mini LF” for months and months then in early September 2019, it was ready. Britt and Illya moved mountains to make the delivery of my camera happen so early. That whole week when I got the camera is a crazy story involving becoming best friends with the Chase business support call center, a 15 mile run around the Copenhagen airport at 2AM, and flying across an ocean for love. Buy me a coffee in NY and I’ll tell you the full story.

But in answer to your question of how it has changed how I work, allow me to wax poetic for a second. I’ve never used a camera that feels like an extension of myself before. What I see, it captures. I distinctly remember when we were shooting N.S.D.A. - the very first time I used my Mini LF, I had the 50mm Leica R on and I realized I wasn't thinking about the camera, just what I want to see. In my opinion, that’s the ultimate praise for a camera. I want this camera to be invisible. Which I realize, that line doesn’t sell cameras - what camera manufacturer wants to advertise invisibility? But I want the ability to choose if the camera is subject or objective for whatever is right for the story. Other cameras make that decision so hard. The ergonomics to the menu systems, other cameras I have to think quite intentionally about the tool. Perhaps because it’s my camera, so it feels a part of me. This is all incredibly subjective, no camera test will show the way it feels on my shoulder and I am ok with that. It works really well for me, that doesn’t mean it works for everyone.

Photo Credit: Merrick Ales

Regarding formats and this camera, I came up in the doc world, shooting pieces for the Gates Foundation where I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya.I got out of docs and took a break for a few years and now I’m coming back and have a couple ongoing docs. A constant conversation I’ve had since I’ve owned the camera - especially when I’m prepping for a doc - is why the hell would you shoot large format? My general pitch is that it is unfortunate that the unconscious experience doesn’t get a line item. But then again so many actual line items trigger the unconscious in the viewer. Large format is at the top of those unspoken line items for a few reasons. First, contextual intimacy. This is a super hoity toity phrase but to be able to see the world where the character lives and the feel of a close up at the same time is incredible. You don’t have to give people hair cuts when you’re on a longer lens unless you want to. The ability to choose is the power. And what is freedom but the ability to choose what to chain yourself to. In the doc world, the biggest thing that it earns for me is reduced distortion. By earning more field of view at longer focal lengths, you can reduce distortion and make it feel more like what an eye sees. Now only if it could shoot full 48 fps in open gate.

As for more opportunities, obviously 2020 is a complete trip and not a good metric of the impact of a camera on career. On the personal side, I moved to NYC in January which has been really interesting timing but I’m incredibly grateful to be here and bear witness to everything that has happened here this year. But with moving to a new city and the multitude of factors this year has brought, I don’t think with clarity I can say the impact that the camera has had on job opportunities.


Photo Credit Dan Leyendecker

But one thing that has been super helpful is owning the best damn camera in the world. This gets into the business versus artist conversation, but in my opinion everyone should own gear if you’re able to - not to contribute to capitalism - but because of the knock on effects of owning gear. I have had so many conversations with peers about how they can’t find a lens set that they can use on every job. I sure hope not! Every job is different, it is the wrong metric to use when deciding to buy gear. Yes you get to double rate when you bring your own gear on, but I let go of that purist ideology that there is a perfect camera to own for all the time or perfect lenses. It just makes sense business wise. From tax write off to personal projects to being able to test, it’s a win. If you can afford to get a loan and just slowly pay it off, do it.

The entire flip side is that this year has been really rough to have a loan to pay off and have very little work in the middle of the year. I have my camera on consignment at Dynamic Rentals. They are fucking amazing. Obviously everything shut down for 6 months so I had no money coming in on the camera but still a loan to pay. Some really rough months in there, like for everyone. But even with that, in looking at the rentals I’ve gotten and how much I’ve paid off my loan, I’ve essentially had a free camera (the idea of course to make a bit of money - hopefully that’ll come later).

This down ballot effect is huge. I am able to take creative risks and shoot on my camera for small projects like short films with incredibly talented directors that don’t have the budget to normally rent one. Most importantly I am able to give my camera to friends, ACs wanting to DP, people who aren’t white and male and just say here use the damn thing, make dope shit, show the world how you experience the world. Capturing the world is power, that power has been held back from everyone accessing it. Fuck that, use my camera. Access to a camera shouldn’t be another hoop to jump over.

Hot Rod: Is there a place where people can find you on-line if they want to follow your work or get in touch?

Steve McCord: Sure- people can send me an email, check out my website and visit my Instagram and the Instagram for my Mini LF camera, because life is too short to not anthropomorphize a piece of carbon fiber.



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