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Giving It Your Best Shot

Name: Max Polley

Age: 41

Hometown: Darwin

Where are you based?

Occupation: Cameraman

Current assignments:
A story on the Australian Dodgeball team for Channel 7, about a bunch of not-very sporty guys looking for an excuse to go to Vegas for a bucks party. The excuse they came up with was creating a National Association in order to compete in the World Dodgeball Championships, made famous by a Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn movie.

Have you been busy?
Extremely. In between work and a family of three kids, not much spare time anymore. Also, I’ve noticed a correlation between the greater “normal” economy and film/TV economy. The worse the rest of the world is doing financially, the more buoyant is film and TV.

Shooting where?
The last few years I’ve spent a lot of time on the road shooting a travel show called Getaway for Channel 9 – everywhere from Venice to Vanuatu. It’s a fun gig mostly and very indulgent for cameramen, since they love pretty pictures, but being away from my young kids is difficult. Jetsetting may seem glamorous, but it’s disruptive to family life; I try very hard to minimise the awayshoots.

Where have you shot?
Over the last 22 years? Most places.

Do you specialise in a particular genre?
I used to shoot a lot of documentaries for Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and various other global cable TV outlets. There was typically a lot of international travel involved. Nowadays, it’s more short-form promo or lifestyle TV.

Do you prefer long form shooting or TVCs?
No preference as long as it’s quality. The work I did in the early 2000s had a reasonable budget, so everyone could get on with their jobs without being cranky or negative. Nowadays, documentary budgets are generally about half what they used to be which, with a family and a fat Sydney mortgage, eliminates all but the highest end projects from my radar. The last “massive” budget doco I did was Atlas: Australia Revealed, a feature length film shot on HDCAM for Discovery HD Cinema with Russell Crowe narrating - turned out beautifully.

What’s your idea of a luxury shoot?
Luxury is business class flights and eight-hour days with everyone stopping for lunch.

A hardship shoot?
Airport flight delays without a book or a something to watch on the laptop.

What was your first shooting job?
Channel Ten News in Darwin. I remember the first time I took out a Betacam camera. The senior cameraman at the news bureau asked me to go out to a golf course and get some shots of a golfer teeing off. I crouched below the pro and had him stand on a box and place the ball on top of my wide-angle adapter and line up his shot. It was looking great but there must have been some miscommunication, because he actually took the shot right off the top of my lens! You can imagine how incredible the shot was. When I got the rushes back, the senior cameraman took a look at the pics and didn’t know whether to promote me or fire me. I was pretty lucky the pro knew how to hit a ball.

Most recent, interesting assignment?

A few weeks back I did a shoot down in the Naracoorte Caves in South Australia. You had to crawl through a narrow tunnel on your belly to access the most spectacular chambers. It was a profoundly tight squeeze and very unpleasant going. I had my Canon 5D Mark II along – the only camera I could drag in behind me in a Pelican case and literally shoot in the dark with. I pumped it up to ISO6400 and we lit everything with LED torches and headlamps. It looked amazing.

Current equipment you use?
Digital Betacam, Canon 5D mark II, 900rHDCam, and 800XDCam.

Kit wish list?
I pretty much have everything I need. A couple of HMIs in my car would be handy, but for a cameraman, they’re quite an indulgence. A friend who has nothing to do with TV recently introduced me to a 1000 lumen daylight LED bike light with a six hour 300 gram battery pack retailing at 400 bucks. The output looks amazing for the price and I’ll probably pick up a couple of those sooner or later to have a play with.

What piece of gear do you wish someone might make?
A cheap broadcast camera that the entire freelance community gets behind. I think the days of the $80,000 camcorder serving you well into the next decade (like DigiBeta) are past. Most guys I know are holding off waiting for this new beast to appear. It may or may not be Sony’s 350.

Best thing about your job?
Getting out and about, keeping your own hours mostly, and doing something different almost every day.

Worst thing about your job?
The occasional lean times.

Dullest assignments and why?
Format TV. The creativity took place a long time ago when the format was invented so you’re kinda just working to the recipe.

Hairiest/scariest assignments and why?
Shooting a European football story for Trans World in the early 90s. This was during a war in Croatia but we didn’t think we were going anywhere near it. Nobody spoke particularly good English, so it was lost on us that the team were headed into the war zone. The producer and I got on the team bus from Zagreb and several hours later got off in a little town called Slavonski Brod, bordering Bosnia Herzegovina. Machine gun fire kept us up all night which was freaky enough… we were assured the sound carried from a long way away. But the next morning, as I dutifully wandered outside the hotel taking in the bullet riddled cityscape, setting up my tripod to shoot some general views, our local guide came running over. He managed to explain in broken English that my tripod looked like a rocket launcher and that since the town had only recently been liberated, perhaps I shouldn’t shoulder it like a weapon?

For that is precisely what it looked like from a distance! He pointed across the street to a river, the other side of which he explained was enemy territory. It seems ridiculous now, but the boy from Darwin was incredibly naive. I was never a war correspondent.

Some of the Third World countries we spent time in for the Journey’s series were also pretty hairy. Pre 9/11, I spent a couple of weeks in Peshawar and the tribal zone in North Eastern Pakistan. It was like the old west, everyone wandering around with pistols on the belts and machine guns. Also, it was like playing Russian roulette every time I ate something outside our Western style hotel. Definitely worth bringing along your antibiotics!

How much 16:9 do you shoot?
All my shoots are 16:9.

What country would you most like to shoot in?
I think Antarctica would be a great challenge.

What’s your taste in music?
It’s a mixed bag from the 80s thru to present day… Is Bon Jovi still cool? No, I’m kidding.

Favourite food?
You can’t go past a good steak.

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-- TV Technology Asia–Pacific