The Walk as One, Connecting with our World’s Indigenous Peoples, campaign and documentary film was successfully launched in Sydney by Caritas Australia a few weeks ago. I thought I’d write a quick ‘behind the scenes’ post about what equipment I used, what went right, what went wrong etc etc. I’ve always found reading about these things informative so hopefully someone else may be able to pick up a few ideas/tips.
There is a huge amount of information on indigenous rights on the website so if you’re interested in these issues please click here.
This was the first assignment I’ve done where the intent from the outset was to produce a short documentary. On other assignments such as South Sudan, Uganda, Bangladesh the filming came secondary to the stills so the approach to this project was different in a number of ways in terms of planning, logistics and preparation. It was also the first time I’d be part of a team with Alex from Caritas producing and writing the final policy report travelling with me and a dedicated editor, James Bradley who did an excellent job and Cam Mackellar who created the unique soundtrack which just lifts the whole production. There were also translators, policy people, communications staff and everyone else involved with launching a big campaign.
The trip involved two 4 day visits to Beswick, a remote community about 150km south of Katherine in the Northern Territories and a two week trip to Bolivia taking in not only the project focus of the Yuracare community in the Bolivian Amazon region but also other Caritas funded projects which provided some excellent B-roll.
I’ve always been a Canon man so below is the equipment list I used:-
Canon 5D Mk 11
Canon 1D Mk 4
Canon 24-70 2.8L
Canon 70-200 Mk 11 2.8L
Canon 24mm 1.4L
Canon 50mm 1.2L
Zacuto Z-Finder Pro x3
Manfrotto 701 HDV Head
Singh Ray 77mm ND Filter
Singh Ray 77mm ND Filter Thin (for wide angles)
Zoom H4N Audio Recorder
Audio Technica AT8531 Lav Mic
Sennheiser MK400 Shotgun Mic
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones
3 x 500GB G-Drive HD
8 x 16GB CF Cards
Macbook Pro 2.8GHz I7 8GB 750GB HD
Plural eyes to synch audio
So what were the challengers ? In many ways filming and creating a picture essay are very similar in the sense your creating a story. However the approach is quite different. Shooting stills is a much more natural, observed way of working where you often just let things happen. With filming, you have to be much more methodical, pre visualising shots and sequences, directing the subjects at certain times with multiple takes. As a photojournalist this originally felt quite unnatural and contrived but necessary to make the film flow. Using a tripod for many shots also took some getting used to as I’d never owned a tripod before shooting video but they are absolutely necessary. I did shoot some handheld when motion was obvious like in the car but otherwise it was locked down. Audio is always a tricky one and a bit of a juggling act running a duel system but it does work well. I record all critical interviews on the Zoom and lav mic and collect as much ambient as possible. When you know that you just need a trace of ambient and the situation is moving I’ll use either the in camera mic or the shotgun mic top mounted. It would be great to have a dedicated audio person as the audio is equally if not more important than the visuals but budgets often don’t allow this.
Logistically, the biggest issue we had was the shoot in the Bolivian Amazon was cut from a proposed 5 days to just 2.5 days due to funerals, weather, logistics. That could have been a major problem but you can only get what you are given. You just have to readjust the plan and make the most of it however frustrating it may seem at the time.
Technical issues included my 5D melting in the heat and overuse half way through the Bolivia trip. The main board just fried due to the heat/humidity and wouldn’t film for more than 5 seconds. It still took stills but video was out. That meant I had to switch to the 1D which I hadn’t used for filming at all. However, having used this line of camera for years I very quickly got used to it which is partly why the transition from shooting stills to video using these cameras has been relatively smooth. You’re just so familiar with the equipment.
What would my recommendations to anyone about to start filming be…
-Prepare for the worst, back all your equipment up on every level in case something like, your camera melts..!..so you can continue in remote locations. At the time it seemed unnecessary to buy that 1D Mk4 Zacuto conversion kit for $100. However, it was probably the best money I’ve spent as it meant I could continue shooting seamlessly. Without it, it would have been a major issue trying to film by just looking at the back screen..almost impossible to do in a fluid and bright light situation..!
-Keep lots of spare batteries on you in the bag. Not back in your room where they are pretty useless..!
-Plan and prepare a script as much as possible and then prepare for it to all change. Adapt. Shoot everything you see. You can never have enough b-roll.
-Shoot from as many different angles as possible to give the editor the best chance of good cuts.
-Audio is absolutely crucial. As, if not more important than the images. Audio is still a foreign concept to me and most photographers so it’s by far the biggest challenge, not least running a duel system by yourself which is always a challenge.
-Remember to collect as much ambient sound as possible. I sometimes forget and regret not recording even just 10 seconds of ambient which can really lift the quality of the film.
-Always think about that 3 shot sequence. Wide, medium, detail to make editing easier.
-Be really careful when changing lenses. Dust on the sensor is easy to fix in stills. On video, it can be a nightmare..!
-Have lots of CF cards. Interviews and long sequences can eat up the memory no end.
-Power bars and water. When the pressure is on, it’s 38c, humid, mosquitoes, nothing is going right, your equipment fails etc etc the last thing you need to be is hungry and thirsty. Look after yourself and the team.
-Leave plenty of time. Filming takes an enormous amount of time and resources so prepare and plan for that.
I love the challenge of experimenting with new media and equipment and I’m happy with the final result. You learn by your mistakes and I’m continually looking at DSLR training sites/blogs etc for new ideas and tips to improve. Now I’m just looking forward to the next opportunity..!!