FILMING AN EXPEDITION DOCUMENTARY
Filming an expedition brings a plethora of challenges that you don’t get in normal TV production; the technical difficulties can be immense if you’re unsupported and you need to maintain your equipment totally off the grid for weeks on end. This article dives into some of these challenges, if you want to understand production techniques see: http://www.mikaelstrandberg.com/2015/06/11/producing-an-expedition-documentary-by-patrick-hutton/
The first thing you should ask yourself, is if you’re trying to produce something with a cinematic quality, or if you want something ‘run gun’ style where you capture the adrenaline and action. The next question would be about how much weight you can allow yourself to allocate for filming kit. In this article I shall assume that you’re intending on carrying everything between two people, and allowing a total of roughly 3.5 kilos of camera kit each.
For a cinematic documentary you would need, unsurprisingly, a DSLR, like a 5D. Being able to obtain a shallow depth of field, and having a huge choice of fast lenses enables you to capture reasonably high quality images that aesthetically, look fantastic. The drawback is a DSLR’s poor functionality/ interface as a video camera, poor sound quality, and its inability to hit HD TV broadcast quality video (this isn’t an issue if you only intend on uploading to Vimeo or YouTube). For an example of a documentary shot on a 5D, see Chapter 5 of my Papua Series.
CHAPTER 5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRtVN1oGS1Q
RUN GUN OPTION
To film in a ‘Run Gun’ style, you would need a small sensor video camera. Something like an XF-105 or XF-205, is a single compact unit that means a) you don’t have to faf around changing lenses b) you can use focus assist peaking & zebra c) has good XLR sound input and D) obtain HD TV broadcast quality footage. The drawback is the image doesn’t look as nice/ filmic (although technically speaking it is higher quality), and it is much more limited in low light…except for its infra red option, but that looks horrible in my opinion.
BUDGET & LIGHTWEIGHT RUN GUN OPTION
If weight is really restrictive, and you don’t mind spending a lot of time in edit synchronising sound from a separate audio recorder to video, an entire film shot on GoPro type cameras is also possible. See Chapter 3 of my Papua Series, which was shot using this method.
CHAPTER 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiWE9t341UA
Once you have selected what type of style you want, it is VERY important to get to know the equipment you are using. Learn the controls, build it into your muscle memory. The last thing you want to be doing is working out how to open the iris while a really good bit of actuality is needing to be filmed. Make sure you are proficient and have mastered the cameras iris, shutter speed, ISO/ gain, white balance, frames per second etc etc. Learn all the quirks of your camera, eg on a 5D only use multiples of 160 in the ISO to avoid increased noise issues, or on the XF 105 learn to work around not having manual control over the internal ND filter.
If you are going to run gun you’re documentary with a small sensor video camera that has XLR audio input, you’re laughing. Just get a shotgun mic that runs off phantom power (power drawn from the camera) so you don’t have to bother with replacing AA batteries on the mic in the field.
If you’re going down the cinematic route, it’s a different story. The inbuilt amp on any DSLR absolutely sucks, what you need is a shotgun mic that amplifies its sound internally before outputting to the DSLR. The standard is the Rode Video Mic pro. Switch the mic to +12, then on the SLR manually set the audio levels to one notch above zero. This results in passable sound quality that bypasses the poor quality internal DSLR amp; by significantly loudening the better quality mic’s amp to the point where the DSLR’s internal amp can be equally quietened. It isn’t great sound, but it at least isn’t noticeably bad, and should be fine for online videos.
Bizarrely lapel mics plugged straight into the DSLR work quite well, and the crackling noise issue is pretty minimal. No idea how that works, but it does.
If you are planning on a sequence where sound quality is of utmost importance, or if you are filming a piece to camera on a GoPro, use a lightweight external recorder like a Zoom H1. Once the camera and audio recorders are rolling, say on camera and to the mic the time of day, the date, what the sequence is, and then clap. This helps organise everything in edit, and the clap helps you synchronise the sound with the video footage, just line up the clap with the peak on the waveform. Nearly all the sound on Chapter 3 was recorded on a Zoom H1, as opposed to the internal mic of the action camera.
Backing up is a tough issue on an expedition. If you’re using the small sensor video camera, again, you’re laughing. On most cameras of this ilk you have two memory card slots, and the camera allows you to record to both cards separately so if there is a error on one, you still have the other as a backup. If buying lots of memory cards isn’t in your budget, or you are using a DSLR, there is still an alternative to lugging around a laptop and hard drive.
A Korean based company called Nexto-Di produces hard drives that have their own internal power source, an internal card reader, and a user interface that enables you to backup a memory card straight on to the hard drive without a computer. See my review of the ND 2901 for more info:
ND 2901: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1Hrj8wvDXs
Something to note, at high altitude, I.e. 3000+ meters, hard drives become unreliable and you may want to use a solid state drive instead.
TIME & PRESET
A very easy thing you can do to make life easier for yourself in edit, is set your main camera, GoPros and audio equipment to the same time of day and date. The metadata kept will help you group clips and sound files together into whatever order you see fit. Obviously what you are filming isn’t a big multi camera shoot so this isn’t of vital importance, but it can help later on.
When doing this you should also remember to set all you kit to either PAL or NTSC (25fps or 30fps respectively) @ most likely 16:9, using progressive or interlaced. Set the bit rate and the codec to what is easiest for you, research this by finding out what works well on your edit platform. This could help stop your computer getting slow and clogged up with a unsuitable codec.
Charging is a real headache for really remote expeditions where access to a wall plug is non existent. Solar power is, as far as I know, the only way to go for an off the grid expedition. However, a lot of the time you can get away with just taking a massive storage battery like power travellers ‘power gorilla’, that manages to pack an impressive 21,000mAh. You can charge your 5D many times off this, as well as your satellite phone, GPS etc. Just charge the storage battery from the wall/ generator, and ration out the power accordingly. This saves you the weight of solar panels, and the expense.
It isn’t that often that you actually need solar panels, most of the time people just assume they will on a exped. Even in very remote communities and tribal areas, it is likely someone in the village has access to a generator or car (where you can charge directly from the cigarette lighter).
If you genuinely do need solar panels, you will need a significant amount of wattage to keep the kit going. Maybe 20-30 watt panels. You will also need a large storage battery which will charge the batteries in your camera. Don’t try and trickle charge the camera batteries directly off the solar panels, this can damage them. Once you have bought your solar charging kit you HAVE to test it repeatedly again and again. If you can, try and test it in the environment you will be using them in. I had one instance where solar panels worked fine in the UK but failed on the expedition as they overheated in the equatorial sun! The only company I’ve had experience with, where the panels worked as they should, is ‘human edge technologies’ (http://www.humanedgetech.com/#5). They tend to do equipment for polar regions, but for a TV production I worked on, I tested their kit out in an environmental chamber down to -40 Celsius and it worked fine. It was subsequently sent out to Antarctica on a expedition and it all worked.
The very cold weather you get in polar regions delays charging time, and makes the battery life shorter. For instance lithium ion batteries in GoPros seem to last only 2/3 their normal time at -20 Celsius.
Remember when you are charging from a storage battery, you are using DC power as opposed to the AC power you get from wall plugs. You need to ensure you have a DC charger, otherwise you need to use an inverter which is more weight, and makes the process less efficient.
Carefully research issues people have with the environment you go into. Eg in jungles you have water ingress and mould issues. I used Brno lens and port hole caps to dry the camera out when I saw fit. Take plenty of silicon sachets. For deserts, sand is the issue, ensure you have a blower or canned air. In very cold environments you may need to use a different lubricant on the cameras moving parts. Learn to deal with lenses getting fogged, and try to avoid it by acclimatising the camera to the environment. Fogging can happen up at very bizarre moments, and will take you by surprise.
Obviously on lightweight expeditions you are severely limited on what type of grip kit you can take. For a gopro a versatile mount like the FlyMount works well, as it can be placed on trees, branches etc. for the main camera a tripod with a fluid head is the best you can really hope for. The fluid head will significantly improve the pans and tilts.
If you are embarking an expedition that involves ‘beast of burden’ like horses or camels, you hay have room to carry a few toys like a slider or even a drone. Be very careful using drones though, especially in unstable countries where you could find yourself getting arrested.
WHAT I USED FOR PAPUA SERIES
1x Canon 5D mk III
2x Drift innovation Ghost – S
x1 Rode video pro mic
x1 Zoom H1
x2 audioSquid lapel mics
LCW variable ND filter
Lens reverser 77mm (for macro shots)
x6 kingston 32GB CF cards
x20 kingston 32GB SD cards
x20 kingston 32GB micro SD cards
x2 NextoDi 2730 1TB
Manfrotto 701 HDV fluid head
x2 Solar Gorilla
x1 power gorilla
x1 power chimp…….?
‘Just’ cleaning kit & sensor cleaning kit
Brno silicon dri caps