Cinematographer Tom Burstyn CSC and journalist Barbara Sumner Burstyn describe themselves as “escapees” from the fantasy world of feature filmmaking and corporate media. When Burstyn isn’t shooting major features or television projects, his head is deep in the documentary world. Recently completed and now garnering major attention on the festival route is his four-year journey - This Way of Life.
“It is the story of a wild family that spend much of their time in the remote mountain ranges of New Zealand, raising and training horses,” says the Canadian-born, New Zealand resident cinematographer who has over 30 feature, 50 television, and over 15 awards to his credit. It is a story of strength, independence, determination – and one that the team hope will inspire people the world over.
To capture this family’s reality, Burstyn needed support that wouldn’t fail him. That’s why one of the first tools he counted on was his “trusty” Vinten Vision 3 carbon fiber legs and fluid head. “Vinten has never failed me,” says Burstyn strongly. “I chose this combination because of its light weight and robust construction, but mostly because of its smooth operation. I liked the carry bag that came with it. For this shoot, I chose the Sony HDV Z1U (which Burstyn used on Son of the Dragon and The Travels of Marco Polo as an insert camera), an amazing camera with stunning results.
“I had to follow our subjects on horseback through extremely rough terrain,” he explains. “We crossed rivers flooded by winter rains, hiked high up in the ranges to get the great shot, and when we shot on the beach, the legs were in the surf. I needed a tripod and head combination that was strong, yet light enough to pack on a horse. I wanted something that I would never have to worry about, something that would perform as well in the cold and damp, after a rough ride and years of wear as it did the day I bought it.”
Burstyn shot the film without assistance, for the most part. “It was just me and the camera,” he says. “I photographed the images, recorded the sound, set up and packed the gear away each day. Occasionally, on her school holidays, I had the help of one of my daughters, who is interested in photography and horses.
“This Way of Life took four years to shoot,” he explains. “If I showed you the tripod today, you would think it was a few months old, it looks that good. I take good care of my equipment, but I don’t baby it. First and foremost, my gear is meant to be used as a means to an end. It needs to work so I can tell my story. When things are breaking fast with wild horses doing what wild horses do, I have to be faster. The Vinten tripod sets up quick, the legs still tighten and loosen perfectly, thanks to a simple, quick mechanism. The head levels fast, thanks to the big bowl and an illuminated bubble. (I thought, at first, the light for the bubble level was a bit of a luxury, but is it very handy.)”
When the project was finished, the HDV Z1U footage was output to 35mm, sharpened and sweetened by Gary Shaw at Technicolor, and an HD Cam SR Dolby 5.1 surround sound picture is now being projected on a big screen. This Way of Life played to many sold out screenings at the New Zealand International Film Festival and recently was a major hit at the Vancouver International Film Festival. “This Way of Life sets a high-water mark for love, tolerance, forgiveness, and indomitable cheerfulness in the face of adversity,” says actor/director Peter Coyote, who is now working with Burstyn on a feature project. “Such charismatic, beautiful folk. It’s time to saddle up and head for New Zealand.”