By Ben Emery
I guess when we all started out in this industry as news cameramen or photographers we dreamed of the type of jobs we would be shooting; whether its covering the human tragedy in some war torn country or amazing stories in far away exotic lands. The unfortunate reality of the news industry in the 21st century is we work to feed the demands of a 24/7 machine who’s hunger for news content never tires, we work under continually shrinking budgets and increasing pressures. Even for those of us fortunate enough to get to travel the world covering these stories we rarely have the time or budget to cover the stories we want the way we want to. But every so often – for a lucky few – we get to shoot our dream job. This is a brief account of shooting my dream job.
Late in 2010 Aljazeera English called for pitches for a new program of hour long documentaries called ‘Correspondent’. This was to be a flagship program which would explore a story through the eyes of Al Jazeera’s correspondents. A few years back I’d heard of the Kingdom of Mustang, an ancient Tibetan land hidden high in the Himalayan mountains. Up until fairly recently Mustang had been cut of from the rest of the world, protected by the foreboding fortress which is the Himalayas, foreigners forbidden entry. Life there had remained almost untouched for hundreds of years. But this rich and ancient culture is facing destruction, the threat coming from across its northern borders, where a road is being built to pass through Mustang and eventually connect Chinese controlled Tibet and India, thus ending Mustang’s isolation. The road is due to be completed soon and with it will come the full force of the 21st century. I knew it was one of the last opportunities to witness and document one of the few remaining places on earth where true Tibetan Buddhism is still being practiced. I approached correspondent Steve Chao, who has a deep interest in Tibet having been based in China for many years. Together we pitched it to ‘Correspondent’.
The shoot would be a logistical nightmare. It would take us five days by horseback to get to the capital Lo Manthang, all our equipment would need to travel in with us. Power was very limited as was fuel for generators so these too would have to be brought with us. The return journey to Kathmandu would be by helicopter and because of the high altitude we would be facing severe weight restrictions limiting the equipment we could take with us. Our team consisted of correspondent Steve Chao, Producer Mat Skene and myself. We also had our Nepalese fixer Subel Bhandari, our local guides Tashi Bista and Wangdue Tsering, two government minders (a necessity in the restricted zone of Mustang) and a trekking support team of seven – including porters, cooks and horsemen. In total that’s a team of fifteen and lets not forget our seven horses.
Producer Mat Skene was keen from the outset to shoot the documentary on a Canon 5DmkII. During his ‘day job’ he is the program editor for Al Jazeera’s US based current affairs program ‘Faultlines’. The half hour show is exclusively shot on DSLR, probably one of the only television programmes of its style to do so. Mat wanted Mustang to have a cinematic feel that he knew the 5DmkII could deliver although initially I had my concerns. I’d shot with DSLRs before but only for short 2-3 minute news packages. A 60 minute documentary was going to be a very different beast.
My primary concern was going to be media management; we predicted having between 1TB and 1.5 TB of data for the whole project and it would need to be backed up in triplicate. Also we would need to record audio separately for the many planned interviews – each an hour in duration. Syncing this would be a big job. Fortunately Mat was going to do the post production in DC with Faultlines editor Warwick Meade, a veteran of the DSLR work flow. That was the reassurance I needed and I put aside ideas of shooting it on a traditional broadcast camera such as the Sony PDW-700.
My Kit consisted of the following –
2x Canon 5DmkII
1x Canon 7D
5x 32gb Memory cards
70-200mm f2.8L IS
24-105mm f4L IS
24mm f1.4L II
85mm 1.2L II
400mm f4 DO IS
Extender 2x III
2x Rode video mic
2x Zoom H4n
2x Sennheiser EK2000 radio mic set (RX/TX)
1x Sennheiser shot gun mic
Marshall VLCD70XP 7” HDMI monitor
2x Zacuto Z-finder
2x Singh-Ray Vari ND 77mm
1x Genus Vari ND 77mm
1x Nature Vari ND 82mm
Genus wide angle matte box
Assortment of Tiffen 4×4 filters (polo, Grad ND etc)
Sachtler CF tripod with 18p head
Kessler Pocketdolly slider
Matthews suction cup camera mount
Cavision shoulder mount.
1x 17” Macbook Pro
1x 15” Macbook Pro
5x Lacie rugged 1TB
2x Lacie rugged 500gb
1x Nexto 750gb
1x Express slot CF card reader
2x Sandisk firewire Express card readers
I would need to light a lot of the interviews but decided to take only a basic kit. Where possible I used available, only using my lights to compliment it, giving the interviews a more natural look. Obviously all the lights would need to be DC powered so I took a kit made up of exclusively LED lights:
1x 1×1 Litepanels 5600k Flood
1x 1×1 Litepanels 5600k Superspot
1x Litepanels mini plus with battery
2x small cheap AA batt powered camera LEDs (to be used as background lights)
Assorted colour correction gells and diffusion
3 light stands, 2x reflectors, black wrap, black cloth and some basic grip kit
2x IDX Endura 10 batteries and charger for the 1×1’s
I’ve probably forgotten some stuff…. but yes that’s right, this is me traveling light! I took duplicates of a lot of equipment as redundancy was key – If equipment failed I wouldn’t be able to find a replacement on location. I shot most of the interviews using the prime lenses and used the zooms for overlay and sequences. I know that Canon make some of the sharpest zoom lenses available but they really can’t be compared to the fast primes for quality. The fast primes are astounding – letting me shoot using only available light in some very dimly lit locations.
For the most part the Canon cameras and lenses performed flawlessly in the harsh conditions as would be expected of their pro series equipment. I did encounter a few technical issues mostly to do with dust on the 5DmkII sensor. Mustang lies in the Himalayan rain shadow so is essentially a high altitude desert. This coupled with the fact that we were living and working in tents made keeping dust out of the equipment a full time job. Despite the 5DmkII sensor cleaning function I still ended up with dust spots ruining some material I’d shot. I’m not sure how I could have avoided this – changing lenses constantly is a necessary evil with the DSLR. I also encountered issues with the 7D overheating and causing the camera to crash. An image would freeze on the rear LCD and the battery would need to be removed to reset it. I found this strange as day time temps only reached a max of 24-25 degrees C.
The other technical issues I encountered were mostly with the accessories we strapped to the DSLRs to transform them from stills cameras to video cameras. As I feared before leaving a lot of these accessories are not built to the rugged standard that we expect of professional broadcast equipment. For example the rubber bands on the Rode microphone mount broke constantly. I had a Juicedlink mixer which lasted about a day before failing. The Singh-Ray vari ND’s vignetted on the 24-70 and 24-105, the Genus 77mm Vari ND jiggled apart on horse back one day causing the front piece of glass to fall into a rocky river bed. The Nature 82mm vari ND had a strange patchy effect when it was set to max. The Z-finders constantly fell off the cameras (though to their testament never broke).
As I suspected the media management was a real challenge, ultimately it added one and a half hours extra work to my day on top of the twelve hours shooting and traveling. After we’d settled in a camp I’d set up my Mac with the 3 1TB hard drives daisy chained together and the CF card reader in the express slot. I’d then create a folder for the date, then camera A and camera B, then cards 1 to 5 plus a file for the Zoom recorder audio. This would be duplicated on all three drives and I’d start copying the files off. Most days I’d shoot one to two cards. Once they had finished copying we would review the rushes and verify the copies. Dust, or the constant jiggling of horse back travel, eventually killed 3 of my 5 Lacie ‘rugged’ hard drives causing a few stressful and sleepless nights! I never carried the 3 drives in the same place for safety and fortunately the decision to have copies in triplicate paid dividends – we didn’t lose any of the material.
I don’t mean to sound down on DSLRs but I do want people to be aware of the limitations of some of this equipment. The fantastic image quality that can be achieved with DSLRs has been well documented on the internet and nobody needs to hear its praise sung again. But the reality of shooting for broadcast on this equipment does mean a compromise – especially for those of us more familiar with professional broadcast equipment.
Shooting ‘Mustang: Kingdom on the Edge’ was an extraordinary adventure and I learned a lot along the way, both about shooting on DSLR and about an incredible culture that the world stands to lose. I was very privileged to get the opportunity to work with a fantastic team and my heartfelt thanks goes out to them all.
Hopefully the results speak for themselves, ‘Mustang: Kingdom on the Edge’ is airing now on Aljazeera English from the 13th of October. You can watch it here.
You can follow me on Twitter @benjamin_emery
Ben Emery is an award winning cameraman based out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for Aljazeera. He is a multiple ACS (Australian Cinematography Society) award winner having won the prestigious Neil Davis Golden Tripod for International News Coverage in 2010 for his work on the Bangkok riots. Ben has covered major stories around the world and is an avid user of DSLR technology.