When producer Paul Entwistle called me to shoot a couple of stories in Papua New Guinea for a new travel show, “Postcards WA,” I couldn't resist. After all, I love a challenge. Entwistle explained that the job would involve long, hard days, no budget and a small crew — just the producer/presenter and me. However, it would be a rewarding job and a chance for great pictures.
What we hadn't discussed was the logistics. “Postcards WA” is usually shot Digi Beta or, in a pinch, SP, which we all know means at lot of weight and cases when you travel. My usual kit would include red head lights, Dedolights, portable lights, wide-angle lenses, matte boxes, filters, etc. Therefore, the first and major hurdle was weight. We were only allowed 120kg.
That doesn't sound too bad, but we also needed two sets of dive gear and an underwater camera. After much discussion with the airlines and crew, our weight limit was increased to 130kg, and it was time for a major rethink. Digi Beta and SP were out of the question; they're just too heavy. DV wasn't quite up there on specs. So, that brought us to HDV.
Having a television background, I was a bit hesitant about HDV when it first arrived. However, I have been lucky enough to play with the JVC GY-HD101E. It's similar to professional cameras, and it features a changeable lens. In addition, it can be shoulder-mounted. This is a plus because I have used DV cameras with wide-angle adaptors and find that my arms get tired holding the camera up in front of me for long periods. We needed a camera that was light, rugged, easy to use and produces great images. The HD101E was an easy choice.
The camera has three 1/3in CCD image sensors, each one featuring an array of 1280 × 720 pixels (approximately one megapixel), with micro lenses. Eliminating the need for image scaling, its native resolution matches that of most HDTV displays. In addition, the camera provides real-time playback in all major DTV formats, allowing easy conversion of recorded data to other formats without compromising the level of quality.
While the standard lens it comes with is great, I like the huge exteriors. I have a wide-angle converter that fit it perfectly — taking the 5.5 lens out to 4.7. A cameraman friend of mine lent me a 1.6 teleconverter from his film camera kit. So the standard lens of 5.5mm-88mm now became 4.7mm-142.8mm, which would definitely cover most situations.
Pushed to the limit
A typical day on the Papua New Guinea shoot involved jungle-walking knee-deep in water for three and a half hours, looking for wonders such as the Golden Bird of Paradise. The camera didn't miss a beat, which is surprising considering the hot and humid conditions. The low power consumption and tape size meant that I could carry all my filters, spare battery and tapes in a waist pouch.
That afternoon, we were kilometers away shooting sulfur springs. After an hour hike through remote villages, we arrived. Heat and humidity are a cameraman's nightmare; again the camera didn't falter, even when pushed to the edge of a hot spring.
Most of the following days were similar conditions — hot, humid and unforgiving. One day involved a three-hour helicopter flight to the Kokoda track. There was limited room on the chopper, and we were restricted with weight. We shot out of the front as well as the side. Due to the weather and the fact that there were five passengers on board, I wouldn't have been able to shoot with a camera any bigger.
On returning to our base, we went canoeing for two hours. We had to disembark and trek into the highlands for another two hours with numerous river crossings — some chest deep. If we had anything other than the GY-HD101E, we couldn't have pushed through. It was physically demanding and to have used a DV camera wouldn't have done justice to the scenery and people we encountered.
Passing the test
You get a lot for your money with the camera. In the hands of a cinematographer, you would be hard pressed to fault its images. Like all tools, it's only as good as the creative eye behind the lens, but the camera opens up a whole new world.
Another plus is the camera's weight. It's light without being too light. It sat nicely on my shoulder and was never too heavy, even when the adaptors and matte box were on, which was almost always.
The switches are easily accessible and not fiddly. The interchangeable lens is its biggest plus. The fact that you can have a 2/3in lens on it, or any lens for that matter, is a great asset. And the picture quality is amazing.
Over the 12-day shoot, I used this camera in some of the harshest conditions I have experienced in more than 19 years as a cameraman. It never left me wanting or stranded. With the physical demands that were put on us, we definitely chose the right tool for the job.
Jim Frater is a film and television lighting cameraman based in Australia. He specializes in underwater and steadicam shooting.