Shooting the Monkey Rodeo is a dream assignment that comes along once a lifetime, if that.
Which is why producer Mike Johns was all monkey business when it fell into his lap, like a winning lottery ticket.
Monkey Rodeo features monkeys mounted atop Border Collies as they herd sheep. The monkeys are dressed like Curly in ‘City Slickers’.
Johns caught up with Monkey Rodeo at the ballpark of the minor league Delaware Blue Rocks.
This was not “Planet of the Apes”. Johns did not have the time and budget of a feature film. He had one shoot to get it right. Monkey rodeo performed for one minute after the third and seventh innings, and for five minutes after the game. Seven minutes of action. Johns fretted.
“It’s incredibly brief and hard to plan for,” he recalled. “There’s just no good way to predict where a monkey is going to go.”
His first decision, to maximize footage, was to shoot in slow-mo, at 60 frames per second.
Another tactic was to mount a Go-Pro camera on the saddle to get a close-up of a monkey as he rode. The first attempt was with a monkey named Sam.
“ “Unfortunately Sam decided to put his hand over the camera for the entire thing and then he tilted it in the wrong direction,” Johns recalled. “So the first round was unusable for Go-Pro.”
For the second attempt Johns attached the Go-Pro to an extension arm, so that the monkey could not easily place his hand on it. This time he got his reversal footage of the monkey, but not as much as he wanted because the camera was aimed too low.
Now he was down to the last roundup - the five-minute performance after the game.
“It was a bit of a dilemma,” Johns said. “Do you go for the perfect reversal shot? Or do you flip it the other way for a POV of what the monkey saw?”
He looked Sam in the eyes - was the monkey egging him on? - and made the call.
“I decided that what we had was good enough and that I wanted the front-facing shot,” he recalled. “Maybe if I’d had three more tries I could have got it more perfect.”
Asked what he learned from Monkey Rodeo, Johns was philosophical. “Expect the unexpected,” he said. “It’s like shooting any unpredictable act of nature. You’re not really able to get the perfect shot you have in your head. You can’t tell a monkey to hang on so you can make sure you have everything.”
Posted by Steve Marantz on 09.26.2012