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 an action sports lover and amateur skateboarder — and his filming was highly influenced by reality shows, like Jackass, where a group of friends joked around, performed outlandish stunts and were sometimes seriously injured, all while being filmed.
“Back when I was doing it, there wasn’t YouTube or really any outlet or distribution for that stuff,” Ansari said. “You just did it because you loved doing it.”
As he grew older, Ansari’s film style matured with him. In college, he began taking film classes and experimented with shooting and exposing 16-millimeter film. He’d take his camera up to the mountains on the weekend and shoot snowboarders with real motion picture film.
“That stuff just looks gorgeous,” Ansari said. “It’s like slow motion and it looks like a documentary — like old National Geographic film. It’s just beautiful and romantic.”
Shortly after entering a love affair with 16-millimeter film, Ansari realized he wanted to give his passion a real go at things and pursued film at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
Fast forward to post-graduation from AAU in the early 2000s. Ansari and many of his fellow classmates did what most film graduates do and headed to Hollywood. Ansari took this time to learn the industry as well as forge his path into the music industry. In fact, he was a part of the production team of Sound City (2013) — a documentary featuring David Grohl, and other influential artists, that tells the story of Sound City recording studio, where some of rock’s greatest albums were 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.”
During this time, Ansari also found opportunities shooting what made him fall in love with film in the first place — action sports. More specifically, he set out to capture the high intensity and growing in popularity game of paintball.
“It was more like a kind of X Games kind of action sports scene,” Ansari said. “Like guys wearing camo in the woods, hunting each other.”
It’s no secret filming the action-packed sport required a highly-skilled and efficient traveling team. Ansari was lucky enough to work alongside industry colleague and friend, Dan Napoli, director of 50 Summers. The two had a history of working on projects together and were able to combine their skillsets effortlessly.
“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.”
He wasn’t kidding. In 2017, Ansari got the call to action from Napoli to join the 50 Summers production team in Durham, North Carolina, and take lead on drone production. He was thrilled to hop on another project with Napoli.
“We [were] going to interview historical figures, and go to historical places, and fly the drone, and get some gorgeous shots,” 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. Ansari, Napoli and the production team spent a significant amount of time planning and executing shots around the Bull Durham stadium. Ansari said that usually the hardest part of productions like that is getting video permissions, but with Napoli as their fearless leader, it was a non-issue.
“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.”
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. With the ease and accessibility of a drone’s modern technology, production for 50 Summers was more efficient and enjoyable.
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!’”
As all good things must eventually come to an end, so did the production of 50 Summers and jamming with the band. However, Ansari continues to use drones at his own production company, Hotrock Pictures, which is based in West Palm Beach, Florida, and has a unique focus on creating music videos for the yacht industry. When asked how he came to focus on the yacht market specifically, Ansari said it was about finding a niche and just diving in.
“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.”
Check out Ansari’s carefully crafted drone footage and more throughout the film 50 Summers, screening at film festivals nationwide.