Travelling Light

There’s something International travel really teaches you, and that’s the value of every last gram you carry. When we were shooting the documentary Sixteen Legs, we travelled around the world. In the UK, we primarily shot on an AJA Cion (partially because we had some off the shoulder stuff we really needed to get). The whole kit was massive though – big camera means big lenses, big batteries, big tripod, big boxes for everything. Shortly after we toured the USA, and with a ton of flights to deal with, we changed tack slightly.

I’m sure I’ve gone on before about how much I love the Panasonic GH4. It’s a film maker’s compact camera. Unlike most other systems, the menus don’t get in the way, there are quick and easily accessible shooting profiles, audio controls are instantly accessible (better yet if you have the GH5 you get pots!) and the batteries last forever. We got one to serve as B-cam for Cion in the UK, but planning to travel we decided to shoot with GH4 as the A-cam in the United States, with the controversial decision to use an iPhone 6S running Filmic Pro in 4K as our B-camera. We took along an Atomos recorder to get 10-bit 4K from the GH4.

We basically went from a kit that took three men to carry, to a kit that fit into a single backpack and it really began to change my perspective on shooting. Ever since I started I’ve used big cameras – mostly JVC shoulder mounted ENG-esque cameras. My proficiencies were in live video production mainly, and I needed robust systems that worked in ENG, doc, TV spot, and live production environments. There’s a lot to be said for a camera that sits on your shoulder, and JVC’s ProHD systems had a great balance of size and weight so as to not be cripplingly bad for one’s back. I’d often walk to jobs with a Miller tripod slung over one shoulder and my JVC hanging from a strap.

Today the market seems to really be favouring the ability to travel light and perform a rapid set up. I have done a lot of work in theatre, either producing content for shows or filming the shows for archive o and sale. It’s an environment where the ability to work fast can be of ciritcal importance. We have a small number of professional theatre companies here, so actors are often performing on a voluntary basis. So when shooting in show content or TV ads, etc, often you’re working with people who have taken an hour out from their day job, or have other commitments they need to get to. They’re giving up their Saturday, and the last thing they want is to be standing around while you perfectly light and frame a shot.

The other killer for me has been showing up to a job, trying to be overprepared, and finding one critical element of your kit is missing. As I’m often shooting many different kinds of content (and until recently, with several different kinds of cameras) it would be the case regularly that this kit had a D-tap cable and this one had the SDI patches and I used all of these brackets on another rig. You try and assemble an appropriate camera rig for each job but inevitably, often with time working against me, things get missed. I took a whole interview kit centred around a Blackmagic Cinema Camera – shoulder mount, monitor, all the rigging and mounting for monitor, mics, etc but not one single SDI cable. Luckily I could work off the built-in screen but it was an experience I’d sooner not repeat.

I’ve found it interesting exactly how fast my shooting habits changed as well. I’ve always been a bit against the grain in my shooting preferences – whereas others prioritised the image quality over all aspects, I always have prioritised the ergonomics of shooting. The more quickly and easily I can set up a shot (basically, the less visible the camera is to the shooting process) the better the shots I’ll end up getting. Even if there’s some degree of optical fidelity or sensor sensitivity I’m sacrificing, I like to feel comfortable and confident I can get every shot, and get them in a timely manner.

The one clear advantage of the pursuit of smaller, lighter shooting gear, is the sheer flexibility you have. We shot elements of The Games Maestro (a topic for a later blog post) with a camera rigged up weighing ten kilos. It meant our jib had to be big and heavy, our dolly had to be big and heavy, basically everything got bigger and more cumbersome. But shooting with a GH4 or a GH5, suddenly you’re looking at sub-$1000 gimbals, lightweight sliders, huge portable jibs and even awesome stuff like the Wiral Cable Cam (15 hours left on Kickstarter!) which will enable several shots I’ve had discussions about over the last two years but we never had the means to achieve.

It’s remarkable when I think that carrying the same weight of my old Miller tripod/JVC ProHD/V-lock combo, I can now have two 4K camera bodies, batteries, two tripods, a 4K drone, a gimbal, a cable system and more. A big part of it for me is the environments I work in – a shoot at the Theatre Royal for example will have a very constricted set up time – basically from when they open the theatre for the company to arrive, up until half hour before curtain you have to be completely set up. Often it is an hour or less, and every trip to the car to bring more gear in is time literally shedding away off the clock. Part of the shift to smaller, lighter gear has also been a marked increase in production quality in pretty much all aspects of production. Where once upon a time I could charge a large rate to show up with a big camera and a big tripod, now you’re more likely to see dolly shots, drone shots, gimbal shots, motion tracking etc in a basic production – and that’s just in something as down market as a real estate video!

Not my gear, but an example of the new trend of showing what gear fits in your backpack

I was very resistant to small gear, but I suspect it will continue to become the norm. The Panasonic EVA-1 seems to be more evidence of the trend, as well as cameras like the Alexa Mini. The ability to fly a camera, to get into small spaces etc is less of a novelty these days and more of a requirement. There is no “impossible shot” for even the lowliest and most humble of film-makers, and I think that has been a great democratiser. Extreme sports have basically been showing us how it is done for years – a few GoPros, DSLRs, some gadgets and ingenuity and you can get world class cinematic experiences in the farthest reaches of the globe without needing an entire support crew along for the ride. It’s a trend that benefits us all.

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