The Legend of the Running Iron: How to get the Perfect Light Setting

May 17, 2020. 5 A.M. The brisk Wyoming air sends goosebumps across my skin as we arrive at location. The sun, still awaking from its slumber, has not yet brought us its warmth. In front of me stands a resolute barn, beaten and weathered, in a way that only 100 years of rough Wyoming winters could produce. My body and mind are firing from both the caffeine in my cup and the collective stoke emanating from the Running Iron crew. Our Cowboy character has arrived on set. The director calls for all hands. It’s time to shoot. 

Hello! My name is Jonathan Johnson. I am one of the cinematographers here at Running Iron Creative. The following is my experience of being a Camera Operator on the set of ‘The Legend of the Running Iron’ focusing specifically on my favorite scene of the shoot.

The objective for this scene was to introduce the Mcguffin of our film, a Running Iron, as well to develop the essence of the main character to display qualities of a hardworking and responsible cowboy.

Quick note; a Running Iron is a tool used by cowboys in the old west, akin to a branding iron, but shaped in such a way that it could create, or change, any brand. It was used primarily when cattle operations encompassed vast swaths of land and there were no fences to keep the herds from different owners separate. Ok! Now we’re all up to speed. 

 Ty MacCarty, the director for this project, had grown up with this beautiful barn basically in his backyard and was always attracted to the idea of shooting something within its antiquated walls. With large cracks running through the eastern wall Ty envisioned an opportunity to capture a highly dynamic scene. Morning light would peak over the low hills surrounding the barn, impact the eastern wall, and sneak through the cracks, creating stunning rays of light inside. 

Henri Halle the D.P. for this project and I, the Camera Op, had the challenge and opportunity to execute Ty’s vision in a way that satisfied both the objectives of the scene and in capturing the unique qualities of this rugged structure. This part of film production is where I find the most growth as an artist and as a problem solver. 

As the sun made its way out from behind the mountains a layer of much-appreciated warmth came over the crew. With this warmth came our first challenge to overcome, the light rays were not nearly as dramatic as envisioned. For light to become visible to our RED Raven it must be caught by something. In short, the light is there but it needs some atmosphere to reveal itself.  For our first attempt, we kicked up the dirt that covered the floor, scattering dust into the air, right before rolling the camera. Through the aid of a wireless transmitter and director’s monitor, Ty and I quickly recognized that the dirt was not going to give us the desired intensity from the rays. 

With time ticking, Henri ran back to the car and came back with a few packs of colorless smoke bombs he had acquired on the drive up from Denver. With a strike of a lighter, the scene was transformed. 

I watched in awe as the smoke billowed up revealing intense but smooth light rays. 

Ty’s voice cut through from behind the smoke, “Camera Rolling?” 

My stoke level rose as I pressed the record button and responded, “Rolling”. Anticipation hung, as heavy as the smoke in the room, for the one word that signals the beginning of something beautiful. The smoke settled into the sweet spot and then, there it was, that powerful word used many times before, by so many, found my ear.  


Boom, all the pre-production, the crafting and cultivating of Ty’s vision either comes to fruition at this moment or we move on to the next having not achieved it. 

Ford MacCarty, our cowboy talent, moves into frame. At this point, I am carefully observing the composition through the monitor. Midway through the take, I feel a tide of relief, joy, and passion for what I do sweep over me. I know, in my gut, that this was the take. The smoke swirled gracefully, catching the light, shaping it into brilliant rays as Ford stepped through them. The running Iron grasped in his gloved fist. It made for a hell of a frame. 


Following that word, a cheer rose from our incredible collective of creatives. The outburst of awe, joy, and a shared level of stoke echoed across the Wyoming grass. We reviewed the take, reveling in the moment. I felt pride in our team and what we had just created. Ty was delighted and gave the go-ahead to move forward to the next scene. We rode the high of our success that morning into the following locations and scenes and created a piece that we are all proud of. 

In later reflection of that moment I found myself brimming with life, filled with a burning sense of purpose, and aware of the gratitude for what I do and for the collective that is Running Iron Creative. This crew, who are like family, is something special. Our team of talented individuals came together to create something greater than themselves. I am grateful that this life has brought us together, and for my role in this collective. 

Watch the full ‘Legend of the Running Iron’ video and our other work on our youtube page (link). For those that would like to dive deeper into this scene, we have created a behind-the-scenes video in which I breakdown into more detail how Henri and I achieved this look and the motivations for each shot. Along with that, we created a general BTS that gives you a glimpse into our crew’s collective stoke, as well as how we operate. If you have gotten this far I extend my appreciation to you and we are excited to continue to share the Running Iron journey. Cheers!

  • December 2020


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