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So I am back in England. Cold, wet England. Cold, wet, miserable England … but not all doom and gloom. My lovely old cat Noodle is sitting on my chest as I attempt to write this post. Not helping, but she is keeping me warm and the purring is sweet. Love my cats? Yes, I am a mad cat lady!!
My time in South Africa was quite wonderful. Dale and Rick were amazing guys to hang out with and organised the smoothest running workshops ever, and that is a feat, I promise you. These things NEVER go smoothly! I met so many great people, both at the workshops and in general. It really is a lovely country. Beautiful, friendly and so rich and diverse … it’s also more or less on the same timezone as England which helps a lot. Crazy as it’s 11 hours away by plane …. just more or less in line with us!
As you may or may not know, I love to shoot. It’s my thing. We all have our things. Rick’s thing for instance was his love of middle of the road awful rock music. Dale’s thing was his love of 50′s musicals. All fine with me Mine is filming.
Between workshops, did I rest? Nope. No way. No sir. Not a chance. My first trip to South Africa ever and there was no way I was going to lie in, watch movies and relax. There were stories out there to be told and I wanted to tell them AND see and meet new things, amazing people.
Film 2 was a moving portrait of a film projectionist who loves his job so much that his projectors have become his family and his realisation that things are going to change drastically soon… This was shot on the 1DX. Gorgeous image. Lovely man. Moving. Shot in around 2 hours.
Film 3 was an insight into what a lot of black people do in the Durban region and the surrounding areas do to “stay healthy”…they drink sea water. INSANE but fascinating… Shot on the Sony FS700. Again shot in a couple of hours.
If you get a chance to, please watch them all. They are all incredibly different in style, but I think the stories are utterly fascinating. That is key for me. Great stories. Great visuals are also nice to have and I have done pieces just for visuals… my, as I call them, “mood pieces”, but nothing makes me happier than telling a proper story, and real stories always interest me more than fictional ones!
I was lucky enough to be invited to be a guest at the quite spectacular Londolozi Game Reserve. Rich Laburn, who works there and shoots a lot of their stuff, came to my Cape Town workshop and invited me up there. An offer I couldn’t refuse. This place is INSANELY gorgeous. It’s in the Kruger National Park, about 5-6 hour drive east from Jo’Burg. This is a part of the world, not just of South Africa, that I have always wanted to visit. I LOVE animals, fascinated by them and have of course seen countless nature documentaries. It is up there with the best in the world and to even to be able to visit was an honour, let alone two nights. They treat guests there like royalty. I could get used to that … perhaps I need to find a princess to marry? Anyone know any single ones … ideally younger than 90!
Obviously filming at the safari was a given. But with just 1 full day there and a morning, what was I going to shoot that hadn’t been done before? There is no way I can compete with a Nat Geo doc shot over weeks/ months/ years. These things are amazing. With such limited time, chances are you will see just a small amount of animals. Tracking them takes time, and the area they roam is vast.
OBSTACLE ONE: Not much time
OBSTACLE TWO: Find something fresh to film
So, two obstacles…that’s not bad… I normally have WAY more than that. So I needed an angle, a new story. Something that hadn’t been told before. I could easily just go off with the FS700 and shoot loads and loads of 240FPS animals and do a nice montage. In fact I may still do that as I have the footage, but for me that would be a waste. I want to see these animals but I want the viewer to be enraptured not just in the beauty of the animals but hopefully in a captivating story. If you look through a lot of my doc work, both personal and commercial (the BAFTA/Raindance winning “How to start a revolution”) they are pretty much all real people telling real intimate stories. That is what fascinates me. I truly believe everyone has a fascinating story in them … it’s just finding it!
So chatting to Rich from Londolozi at dinner, I asked him about who we would be going out on Safari with, to tell me about the ranger and the tracker. It was from this conversation that the story formed in my head. Dean, our ranger was a financial whiz back in Jo’burg. Making lots of dough, living a “cushty” life … he gave it all up to become a ranger here. Elmon, a native of the area, had been working as a tracker here for 42 years. This was his life. He had also helped co-founder John Varty make many nature docs there as well as film them himself and appear in many too. Both great stories. So why not do them both? These guys work together. How well do they get on, with such enormously different backgrounds? This is what I wanted to find out. So this was my film, peppered with the beauty of the area.
With a 5am call the next day, it was time to plan my gear. I did have some people with me to help. Rich himself who was keen to learn from me. Dale & Rick from the tour and Ryan Rappaport, also a shooter was there. I didn’t need them all, but I could certainly take advantage of a couple of them!
I also knew I was going to be 99% stuck in an open top Land Rover, so a tripod was out of the question. I didn’t have a monopod, so it was going to be mostly handheld with a bit of a bean bag on the edge of the vehicle for more stability on some of the shots.
I had 4 main cameras with me to choose from. My Canon 5Dmk3, my Canon1DX (well, actually a loan one thanks to Canon South Africa, mine died on day one of the trip, just got it back. The circuit board needed replacing!), the Sony FS700 and the Blackmagic.
I went with the 1DX and the FS700 … why? Well the Blackmagic would have been cool to try out here, but it really is NOT a documentary camera. In Ponte Tower all the shots were tripod shots. It worked fine for that. But run and gun, handheld reactive shooting? Too risky. I wouldn’t have shot raw due to the size of the files, ProRes, but that was not the main reason. Why the 1DX over the 5Dmk3? Obvious. It’s image is miles nicer! Sharper, richer, more organic, more filmic. lovely. I wanted a small form factor for the main camera, as I would be shooting handheld all day. I had my little Zacuto target shooter. The smallest rig they make and my favourite for minimal shooting, unfortunately not coupled with a Z-Finder. My stick-on frame for it was on my broken camera. I can take it off but wouldn’t be able to reattach it to the loaner with special 3m adhesive tape. Thankfully the lovely people at PhotoHire in Cape Town gave me an LCD VF to use. Saved my bacon that did. To be honest, and this has NOTHING to do with my relationship with Zacuto, I didn’t like it. Why? The way the loupe is held on via a magnet is simply not strong enough, I knocked it off about 600 times in that one day! The clip-on Zacuto one probably would have been knocked off maybe no more than a dozen times. I was bouncing around in a land rover all day, so it was a bit rough!
The FS700 was a no-brainer. 240 FPS shots of animals? Had to be done … that was actually the main reason why I left my lovely C300 at home … to make room for the FS700 for the slow motion part of the Safari! The C300 would have been the ideal camera to shoot the main doc on. Perfect handheld camera with cracking image!
Lenses … well I needed IS. When shooting handheld on a DSLR, even one with pretty limited rolling shutter issues compared to other DSLRs, the 1DX, you gotta have IS. Essential for long lens stuff and for the closer stuff too … especially bouncing around in a car!
For the 1DX, apart from 2 shots in this piece, I used just 3 lenses:
- The excellent run and gun doco lens, the Canon 24-105 IS F4.
- The nowhere near as good as the F2.8 II version but all I could carry weight-wise Canon 70-200 IS F4.
- Canon 100mm Macro IS F2.8 for the two close-ups mentioned …
- … and my Rokinon 14mm Cine T3.1 for the wides. Not as good optically and with more distortion than my Canon 14mm F2.8 but I wanted to try out this lens…I was actually pretty impressed. Optically nice and LOVELY mechanics. Smooth iris, gears … lovely … also much cheaper. Just more distortion and not as sharp. Fine for video … stills would suffer.
For the Sony FS700, supported on a bean bag from Land Rover, 99% was shot with my push-pull zoom lens, the Canon 100-400mm. Not a fast lens but perfect for this. A good range and pretty sharp. Great for getting lovely close ups!!
I used the FS700 for the main interviews too. Made sense. Dual system sound is no problem, but recording sound in-camera with proper in-camera pre-amps is much easy. For the interview I used the 24-105 F4, again supported by my lovely Miller Solo DS20 sticks! I often travel with this head when weight is an issue. I prefer my Compass 20 head but it’s heavier.
The 1DX had the Marvels Cine latest version profile in it and that was nice to work with. The FS700 had a new version of G-Log in it. Not sure I like this one much and I did have many issues matching the colours in the edit. Not being a professional colourist and all it takes time to make them match.
On top of the 1DX I had my Rode Stereo Video Mic Pro. Stupidly I left my Video Mic Pro as home. WHY?!?! I wish I had it for this. The problem with IS is picking up that grinding, churning sound of it working. My VMP on top moved slightly forward picks up none of it as it’s directional. The stereo one … well … it picks it all up. Lovely sound, just be wary with IS. To be fair, the SVMP was really mostly for reference sound and a touch of atmos. I did in the final edit use it for a couple of grabs close up too, when my soundo was busy having a pee!
Most of the sound was recorded using my lovely Roland R26 external recorder with a RODE NTG2 plugged into it (the NTG3 is better but, as it’s phantom powered, it sucks your batteries dry fast!) and a wireless UWP lav mic on Elmon, hidden under his clothes with my Rycote undercovers.
The sound for the interview was captured in-camera with the simply gorgeous, warm, favourite lav of mine. The Sanken Cos 11. Love it!
The handheld was damn good actually, and the image from that 1DX is truly glorious! Because I was operating the main camera and capturing all the actuality and the normal speed animal stuff, I wasn’t able to use the FS700. Rich naturally jumped at the chance – who wouldn’t? A quick tutorial and putting it in end trigger mode … a must for wildlife. It buffers the 240FPS constantly for 8 seconds, then saves what it has buffered when you hit record, so when you are waiting for that special moment, you wait to it to happen them hit record which in effect is “save”. Takes some getting used to, but if you are not directing the action, it’s the only way to do the slow motion with this camera and not miss stuff!
On the first trip out we saw rhinos, hippos, birds, zebras and even a leopard! Amazing! In between this, I asked Dean and Elmon questions to explain what we were seeing and give me some stories. Lots of b-roll shots too. I really was amazed at how much detail came out of the 1DX. Really gorgeous. It’s fast becoming one of my favourite cameras!
Then I did the main interviews, which gave me a shot list of what I needed to get for the second trip out. On that trip our main goal was the Cheetah. To see one is so hard, just one there and incredibly hard to find. It often takes days … but we got lucky!
Day two was pick ups and my request of lions and elephants! It was also when I did the opening shot. A mock body cam shot of Elmon on the front of the vehicle, trying to make it look like the camera was mounted on him. Simply done but using a small tripod wedged between his legs and crotch and him holding onto it with one hand. The other used to point! Smashing!
I graded it all in Magic Bullet Colorista II. Get 20% off all Magic Bullet Products with code bloom20 and checkout at redgiantsoftware.com
I commissioned my friend and previous collaborator Cedric Conti to write the score. I asked for 3 cues of different pace. Mostly percussion with a slight bit of melody in there. This was without him seeing the footage. I knew the sound I wanted and with these 3 distinctive cues, I knew I could make it work. I got him to listen to the music from a much underrated movie from 1990 about Richard Burton’s search for the source of the Nile, Mountains of the Moon. Check it out if you can. It stars Patrick Bergin in the title role and the awesome Ian Glen who is doing great stuff in Game of Thrones right now.
So below is the finished mini-doc … around 14 minutes or so … not bad for just over a day’s work! I am very happy with it. I feel it tells the story of the friendship between the two men and has lots of gorgeous images coupled with it. Cedric’s music is fab … Elmon and Dean were terrific. Rich got some great shots. Dale and Ryan got me some nice sound. Rick just cheered us all up with his infectious personality and constant cheeriness!
I have subtitled Elmon. It was a tough choice to do hard subs on just one of the characters. But he is hard to understand for some probably, due to his thick accent, especially if English is not your 1st language. I have no problem but I can see how others might. I will add Dean at a later stage for the hard of hearing as they will only get half the story as it stands. Sorry I haven’t been able to do both straight off…it takes time and with my work, movember promotion and this am rather swamped!
I could also do with a few more crisp sound effects of munching elephants and splashing. If anyone has some that may match? What we got wasn’t quite pristine enough for me … I am a perfectionist after all. Below is the final edit of the the film …Version 4. :)
Londolozi – http://www/londolozi.comLondolozi Blog – http://blog.londolozi.comLondolozi Youtube - http://www.youtube.com/londolozigamereserve