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Shown here are Craig Walters and Lou Douros, on location in Tanzania. They used a Sony F900 CineAlta camera to help produce a series of HD images for new Artbeats stock footage titles covering indigenous peoples.

Artbeats Digital Film Library recently sent me Craig Walters to Africa to help produce a series of HD images for a new product covering indigenous peoples. This was not a typical tourist visit with all the trappings of safari lodges and eloquent, dashing, story-filled guides with British accents. Rather, it was a luxury-free trek through some isolated villages of Africa. However, we came home with hours of to-die-for footage and some new ideas for successful shooting in the wilderness.

Logistical issues

I've produced or shot in more than 25 countries over the past 12 years, all on SD formats. But, Africa has been on the top of my most wanted list for production since my first visit there in 1992. What made this assignment different was that all images were to be captured in HD. My partner in this trip was Craig Walters, of Walters Productions.

Fujinon’s HA20x7.5 lens provides a wide range of zoom, making it easier to switch between upclose and faraway scenes. Shown here is Lou Douros, halfway between Kilimanjaro and Dar es Salaam.

Shooting in the Third World is loaded with logistical challenges. Ideally, capturing stock footage of life-styles would include a larger crew. Unfortunately, the reality was that showing up in a tiny Ugandan town with lighting, production assistants, a full camera crew and craft services would severely limit our take-homes — and bust the budget.

However, by rethinking our goals, we developed an equipment list more resembling a light documentary or ENG assignment. We opted for a basic equipment rental package from Bexel in Burbank. It included a Sony F900 CineAlta camera, two Fujinon lenses, six Anton Bauer Dionic 90 li-Ion batteries, plenty of tape, and a Sachtler 100mm and V20 tripod head. Even with the lighter-than-normal load, we were not exactly inconspicuous. Our pale presence in the sea of beautiful ebony skin was more of a curiosity than was our equipment. “Mzungu” was the phrase used by the natives to refer to us, and not always with great charity. Loosely translated, the word means “runs around a lot.”

Back roads

Our route took us from Tanzania to Zanzibar to the western region of Uganda. While in Tanzania, we traveled from the northern city of Arusha to the Masai lands and back each day. We made about as much progress on the roads as you would in LA traffic, but for different reasons.

Anton Bauer’s Dionic 90 is a good choice for videographers because of its light weight — just 1.7lbs.

The first two days were a guy's dream come true — four-wheeling on rutted, pot-holed dirt roads. However, when traffic slowed our progress, it wasn't from fellow vehicles, but rather cattle with horns as tall as a man. Because we were bent on finding remote locations and villages, every day was spent pounding and tossing both us and the equipment about for five to seven hours. The novelty of off-road driving quickly dissipated, and I soon longed to escape the Land Rover and pour my jet-lagged body into a hotel bed.

We quickly learned some tricks to this kind of production, the first of which is to blur the roles between the partners. Craig's familiarity with the camera placed him as primary DP, and I functioned most often as a field producer, but we traded from time to time when it made sense. This permitted us to make quick setups and get talent release forms signed on-the-fly.

The equipment

I found the Sony F900 is only a bit more complicated to operate than the SD Betacams I am most used to (chiefly in the setup menus). We shot mostly from the tripod, though some setups led us to try some off-the-shoulder shots. The CineAlta is a bit on the heavy side, but not by much. The Fujinon HA20×7.5 lens gave us a nice long 150mm option for the wildlife shots, and the 7.5mm wide lens was adequate for most market scenes or tight village work.

Pelican equipment protection cases are unbreakable, watertight and dust-proof.

While we tried using the lens doubler on a few occasions, we found the Sachtler tripod head was just a tad light to hold most setups. The slightest puff of wind bounced our shots.

We elected to use a Sony DM-3000 LCD color viewfinder and an Astro DM-3000 LCD. The unit was adequate for framing shots when we were cramped for setup space or time. We calibrated it against a standard LCD monitor and rechecked for reference several times during the trip.

Were the equipment package configured the way many feature cinematographers prefer, we'd have required a caravan of support vehicles. Instead, we traveled with the camera in a soft case, often on our lap or seat-belted in beside us to minimize shock. When flying, we carried it onto the airplane rather than shipping with bulky flight cases. We used a Pelican case for most everything else, including a Zeiss prime 5mm lens that we lovingly wrapped in shock-resilient materials. The prime only saw the African skies on a few special occasions, and when it did, it made for magnificent pictures. We were never sorry to find time to use it.

Carl Zeiss DigiPrime lenses are designed for HDTV cameras with three 2/3in format CCD-Chips and a beam splitter HDTV prism.

My fear was that we'd be out in the bush as the CineAlta drained the last drop of juice from the batteries just as the killer shot emerged before us. Didn't happen. The Anton Bauer Dionic 90 has a small footprint, excellent capacity and with some careful power management on our part, we never ran out of DC.

We also carried a 4:5 matte box with a small compliment of filters. The Tanzanian plains are all about the sky. No matter the foreground, we were often taming the clouds with filters. The package of filters included .3, .6 and .9 ND-to-clear grads and a polarizer. The contrast forgiveness inherent in our F900 setup was critical in getting a range of detail out of our subjects. A young Masai warrior or herdsman wearing the traditional intense red blankets are a video camera's horror when he's surrounded by the light browns and off-whites of drought-parched Tanzanian grasses. The surreal detail produced by the HD format, including skin tones and color saturation, was spectacular.

It's hard to imagine going back to SD video after experiencing the wide 16:9 field of view and beautiful detail of HD. My early perceptions about the F900 being a too-big camera for a low profile shoot like this were unfounded. It proved to be no more trouble than other cameras I've used.

Part of my misconception was based on the promotional positioning of these cameras for features-length works. Movie cinematographers like to see accessories and large lenses hanging off the camera body. However, today's HD cameras are perfectly suited for a wide range of applications, even without all those extras.

Stunning HD results

Lou Douros has produced, directed or photographed international documentary-style projects since 1992. He's the president of Grass Roots Software in Grass Valley, CA. Craig Walters is a cinema photographer for Artbeats, a royalty-free stock footage and video library company.