For cinematographer Sami Ansari, the love for storytelling through film dates back to one of his earliest childhood memories. At the influential age of 5 years old, Ansari’s grandfather gifted him with a few vintage, old film cameras.
“I used to run around with those things and like wind them up and just shoot stuff without even having film in there,” said Ansari.
His love for film didn’t stop with make-believe productions in the backyard. As a teenager, Ansari was found himself immersed in the world of action sports, skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding — a fertile time as VHS tapes and DVDs from the best brands and riders became a staple of those sports.
In college, he began taking film classes and experimented with shooting and exposing 16mm film. He’d take his camera up to the mountains on the weekend and film snowboarders.
“That stuff just looks gorgeous,” Ansari said. “It’s slow motion and it looks like a documentary, like old National Geographic film. It’s just beautiful and romantic.”
Turning a passion into a career
After graduating from the prestigious film school at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Sami worked on productions throughout California, but it would be one project from fellow AAC alumni that weirdly would place Sami on a path to film 50 Summers nearly 20 years later.
Ansari was pulled in to film one of the early 2000s fastest growing action sports — professional paintball — by none other than 50 Summers director Dan Napoli, and Sami’s classmate Brad Maughan (who provided additional cinematography on the Arizona shoot of 50 Summers).
“It wasn’t what I expected. It was more like an X Games kind of action sports scene,” Ansari said. “[versus] like guys wearing camo in the woods, hunting each other.”
Ansari’s career blossomed in the 2000s. Sami became a go-to cinematographer for reality and docuseries-style productions. His work included stints on Deadliest Catch and many behind-the-scenes music pieces for the likes of Interscope Records and hip-hop artists, like Cypress Hill.
His journey made an incredible jump in 2013 when he was able to join the production team of the documentary Sound City (2013) — which features Dave Grohl as he explores the history of the Sound City recording studio in Los Angeles, where some of the greatest rock albums were perfected and recorded.
“I got a chance to work with Paul McCartney and the guys from Nirvana, […] there was Stevie Nicks and a dozen famous rock icons,” Ansari said. “The type of work was in the music studio with these people. It was really intimate, and they told a lot of great rock history stories.”
Getting the “band” together in Durham
Even while Sami was rubbing elbows with the Tom Petty’s and B. Real’s of the world, he would still occasionally collaborate with Hurrdat Films producer and director Dan Napoli.
When 50 Summers needed an additional cinematographer for an important shoot added late in principal photography, Ansari, now residing in West Palm Beach, Florida, got the call.
“I compare it to being in a band with Dan,” said Ansari. “He would be like the lead singer, and I’d be like the lead guitar player. […] We come from the same school, essentially, of filmmaking. So, when I’m with him, it’s just like being back in the band again. That’s why any chance that he has a project or wants to get us together, I usually jump right on it.”
“We [were] going to interview historical figures, and go to historical places, and fly the drone, and get some gorgeous shots [of the ballpark used in the movie Bull Durham],” Ansari said. “It’s like being a band member and getting a call saying that you’re going to go jam at this big festival […] It’s just a good feeling.”
And jam they did. Napoli and art director Max Riffner met Ansari in Durham. From there, Dan and Sami spent a significant amount of time planning and executing shots around the Bull Durham stadium, mostly the day before in the hotel room on scout day. It was nothing the two hadn’t done a together a million times in the past.
“He’s a seasoned director and producer,” Ansari said. “We didn’t have any major hiccups or anything. It was really smooth, and we flew right through it.”
Establishing the story with drones
Ansari took on producing most the drone footage of the Bull Durham stadium. When asked what unique aspect drones bring to the bigger picture, Ansari said that it all relates back to the bigger picture of telling a story.
“It’s kind of like having a different paint brush really,” said Ansari. “A drone is really just one perspective […] I use a drone to establish the story and where we are, then I like to go in really tight and intimate.”
Before drones flew into popularity, capturing these types of big-picture shots took a lot more effort and money. In order to achieve sweeping aerial views, you needed helicopters, cranes and a $25,000 camera. That type of cost would be an obstacle for a small, indie production like 50 Summers 20 years ago. Not so today.
Ansari especially took pleasure in the project because of his intertwined personal history with baseball, including playing in the Little League World Series in Europe at age 11.
“I love the fact that we were shooting baseball, and we were going to be out on the fields and getting our feet muddy,” Ansari said. “[It] got me excited again. I was like, ‘Man hit me a ball!’”
Ansari spends most of his time with his production company Hotrock Pictures, based in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Like most great creatives, Sami is always looking to grow and challenge himself, and led to Hotrock finding a unique focus: Creating music videos for the yacht industry, with heavy reliance on drone footage.
“I saw an opportunity to really be able to compete with the situation here,” said Ansari. “I think now that I’ve really focused on one [industry], I’m feeling the most stable and successful in all my career yet.”
50 Summers: A Minor League Baseball Documentary is narrated by Rob Riggle. The film is now available on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and video-on-demand services from various cable outlets throughout North America.