In His Own Words: Stephen McCarthy on Location in Japan with Aaton and SDX900
Director of Photography Stephen McCarthy recently filmed a documentary for PBS on the Second World War in the South Pacific. For this demanding shoot, he used his Aaton XTRplus and Panasonic’s SDX900. Now, Stephen shares his thoughts on the cameras, mixing formats, and working with Abel.
We had just finished up our work in Naha, capitol of the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. This was the conclusion of the second of three weeks of shooting in Japan and the South Pacific. Most of the gear I’d brought with me was spread out in the loading bay of a local grip house drying out after a squall snuck up on us while we filmed in nearby caves.
We were working on a film for the PBS series‚ The American Experience‚ chronicling the bloody final year of the Second World War. The hills surrounding Naha saw some of the worst carnage of the three month long battle of Okinawa and now our production coordinator was sprinkling me with sea salt to disperse spirits of soldiers we might have offended while working in the caves where they died.
The staff of the rental house gathered to ogle my kit. Okinawa gets its share of motion picture production – Japanese, Hollywood and the US military’s – but the local professionals seemed to find my compact collection film and video camera equipment, jib arm and HMIs exotic. While the owner of the rental house must have been a bit disappointed at our crew’s self-sufficiency his staff were eager to help us prepare our gear to fly out. As we toweled all the bits and pieces and replaced them in their Pelican cases, it struck me that there probably wasn’t a single one of those cases that didn’t contain something sold to me or maintained by Abel Cine Tech.
I’ve been an Aaton loyalist for over 20 years and I’ve know Pete and Rich Abel by the quality of their work over most of those years. The brothers moved from working for previous US Aaton agents to setting up their own operation at about the same time I completed the transition from assisting to shooting. They’ve helped me keep my workhorse XTRplus maintained and up-to-date, sold me the Losmandy Portajib Traveler that goes with me just about everywhere I travel as well as the compact Canon HD zoom that I’ve adapted for use with both my Aaton and B-4 mount video cameras. Most recently, Pete coached me through the purchase of a Panasonic SDX900 DVCPRO50 camcorder when it became clear that standard def was not dead but that my client base had come to love 24p.
For the past several years I’ve worked in a hybrid world where I mix and match film and video, hi def and standard def, big cameras and small – all the while struggling give each project a cohesive look that serves it’s subject. The challenge is fitting all the parts together – cross compatible accessories, cross compatible formats and user-friendly technology – in a way that facilitates the creative process instead of overshadowing it.
In the South Pacific things went off without a hitch, despite torrential rains, long flights, cramped caves and aging subjects. When an elderly interviewee who had survived the carnage on Okinawa suddenly launched into a song from her childhood, I was able to capture it in its entirety thanks to the pre-record board Abel installed on my SDX900. My Aaton survived being hung over cliffs on Saipan, and our production manager in Naha informed me that we were the first crew he’d ever seen use a jib in Okinawa’s subterranean caves. The results, Victory in the Pacific‚ airs on PBS on May 2.
Other shows for PBS shot with the SDX900 (usually in tandem with the Aaton XTRplus) include They Made America, Building the Alaska Highway, Kinsey and Frontline’s The Persuaders.