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posted by - Thursday, 10 August 2006

Cloud Chaser Films

In June 2004, I left the USA for Zambia and headed to Meheba Refugee Settlement, a shelter for people displaced by war that is run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. I had never been to that region of Africa, or to a refugee camp, before.I was headed there alongside eight college students who had decided to spend the summer in Zambia volunteering and implementing programs for the refugee community. My project was to create a documentary film about the lives these refugees were living, now entitled: Zambian Forge – Refugees of Meheba.

I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Details of where I was going were minimal. I only knew that Meheba was extremely rural, large, and isolated, and I was going to be living right in the middle of it for two months. Other images I had seen of refugee camps showed people cramped together, living in tents, pleading for food rations. I knew Meheba was founded in 1971, however, so I couldn’t imagine people had been living that way for 33 years. Yet, I really didn’t know. I was advised to keep a low profile.

During pre-production, I had to prepare for every possibility I could think of. I knew my gear needed to be portable, both to transport to Zambia, and to get around Meheba without my own vehicle once I was there. As a one-man crew on a low-budget shoot, I had to feel confident that I could personally transport and operate both the cameras and the sound equipment. I anticipated the only electricity would be via intermittent generators running unsteady voltages and utilizing British plugs, so I needed gear with low power draws and long battery lives. I also needed to make sure everything was backed up – there would be no replacing or repairing anything in the field unless I could do it myself. South Africa was the closest call for help, and my production was NTSC, not PAL.

Cloud Chaser FilmsI chose to bring Panasonic DVX100A video cameras with a variety of microphones, a Nikon D70 DSLR, and a G4 PowerBook running Final Cut Pro. I would have preferred to bring HD gear, but at the time, there was nothing available that fit my requirements. Actually, even the “A” model of the DVX was pretty new. The first one I saw was at NAB in 2004, just over a month before I had to leave for Zambia. I bought two, one from Abel Cine Tech.

I like the design of the DVX, and its ability to shoot 24P video that seamlessly integrates into Final Cut. The menus have extensive options to adjust the image for a camera of its class, and the “Cine Gamma” modes are nice additions to the color palette vs. a more standard video look. Once the camera is prepped to shoot though, it isn’t necessary to go back into the electronic menus – all the controls are 1 step away on the camera body, as they should be. The manual controls are good, which is important for me as I like to shoot in full manual as much as possible, setting my own focus, exposure, shutter speed, color temperature, ND, etc. I’ve never experienced the DVX overriding a manual setting either, which I have had happen occasionally on competing cameras. The Iris and Focus settings are well placed and easy to operate, and overall the camera is well balanced. It also handles audio well, a crucial ability for a documentary.

Arriving in Meheba, I found a unique shooting environment. Physically, it is incredibly beautiful. The dusty earth is a rich reddish-brown hue. We were there in the dry season, when this dust kicks up and covers everything, giving the environment a lovely warmth. Combined with the African sun in the late afternoon, headed off to a slow sunset over the Savannah, Meheba is visually spectacular.

I wasn’t in Meheba to film sunsets, however, though I did use the magic hour to light multiple interviews. The first thing I discovered about the people there was that, for the most part, they were very willing to have their pictures taken. Many of the people I encountered had never actually seen a video camera before (or a white man operating one!), though they had encountered TVs and immediately recognized what it was for. They kept calling my DVX the “big American camera,” so I was pretty glad I wasn’t running around with a VariCam, which would have been impossible anyway. A lot of days, I threw a DVX into a shoulder bag and went out exploring for the whole day, shooting b-roll and interviews as opportunities presented themselves. When I was in a vehicle, often it was in the bed of an old Land Rover pick-up, sitting on the hard case for the DVX and bouncing down roads that might better be described as trails, through the 800 square kilometers of a settlement once home to over 70,000 refugees, mostly from Angola.

Meheba was totally different from my expectations. Being such an old settlement, it was quite established, despite being so rustic. I realized being there that journalists tend to cover emergency zones, especially in Africa, propagating the oft-seen image of starving babies covered with flies. Meheba wasn’t like that. The government of Zambia had worked together with the UN and its partner NGOs, and it had met the basic needs of the people. People were not starving; they were farming. They were also going to school, to church, getting married, having kids, and living out their lives as they waited for a solution to the problems in their homes.

Zambian Forge

After being there a few weeks, I had pinpointed some of the main characters for the doc, people with personality and presence who spoke English well, and understood that by telling their stories for the camera, they could potentially make people in America understand some of the problems refugees face. When the end of my time in Meheba came in August 2004, I had about 80 hours of video and thousands of still photos. I returned to San Francisco, and spent the fall digitizing, organizing, and conceptualizing. In the spring of 2005, I began working with an editor named odell, and we fashioned the first rough cut of the film. It was at this point I decided to return. I wanted to do follow-ups and pick-ups. I also wanted to do something I had been afraid to do the first time around, bring my Aaton A-Minima with me.

After having spent two months in Meheba the year before, I knew the place a bit. I had also gotten to know Zambia a bit as well. So though I understood bringing a full Super16 production into a country that doesn’t even have a film lab – by myself – wasn’t going to be easy, I was comfortable enough to do it, and I did. I also felt that the visual environment of Meheba, its wonderful earth tones, would play well to shooting film.

I returned to Meheba in June 2005, this time with one DVX100A and the A-Minima. I had 24 200’ rolls of film, 12 each of Kodak 7245 and 7205. My A-Minima has a PL mount, and for lenses I brought a Canon 8/64 zoom, a Zeiss 9.5mm MK1 Superspeed, and a Century Optics Nikon to PL 1.4x tele-extender with 85mm f1.4 and 135mm f2.8 Nikon AIS lenses which also mounted on the Nikon D70.

I love the form factor of the A-Minima. The amazing thing about using it to shoot b-roll around Meheba is that it really wasn’t so different from using the DVX. Using the 9.5mm Superspeed, or the Nikon 85mm on the adapter, the Aaton wasn’t significantly bigger than the DVX, though it was much heavier, and I had to carry an extra magazine and my meter, which also made the tote bag (the same one) heavier. I ended up using the Canon zoom only on days when I had arranged for a vehicle to stick with me, as it pushed the package above what I could reasonably carry.

Zambian Forge

Adding Super16 to the project turned out to be very worthwhile. While only about 2% of the footage I shot originated with the A-Minima, it’s about 20% of the edited version of Zambian Forge. Having lenses that were both wider and more telephoto than the DVX’s and had shallower Depth of Field gives the film more visual variety, as does the use of overcranking and the time-lapse I shot using the A-Minima’s built-in intervalometer. I love shooting time-lapse. It’s part of the reason I chose the name Cloudchaser when I founded my company. The intervalometer controls for the A-Minima are extremely simple and straightforward, and it is such a convenience to have it built into the camera body. Often I would catch a time-lapse shot while I was waiting for something else to come together, or while I was using the DVX to shoot an interview. The hardest part is figuring out how much ND and Polarizing filtration to use for a shot.

From the outset, I planned on transferring the Super16 to HD, knowing that this would allow a variety of interesting things in post. I had the negative telecined to D5, and then digitized using Final Cut’s uncompressed codec at the full 1920×1080 resolution, at 23.976 fps. As I anticipated, the way odell and I edited the film, the Super16 and miniDV are intercut throughout much of Zambian Forge. Editing in a SD 23.976 timeline, we could zoom in and pan & scan over the Super16 when we wanted to, with resolution to spare. And, when we create HD / Digital Projection blow-ups of Zambian Forge, all of the Super16 (and digital still) sections of the film will make use of the extra resolution and color space. On future projects, I anticipate telecine direct to hard drive, skipping tape and its compression altogether. 

Documentaries, especially ones with a photojournalistic component, provide unique challenges for a cameraman like myself. Practical considerations such as transport, reliability, and power draw become major issues. Large camera packages can overwhelm and intimidate the subjects, make them (or local authorities) suspicious, and can interfere with the crew’s ability to gather good material. With the DVX100A, one gets a small, affordable workhorse of a camera that delivers impressive images and great audio for its price and form factor. The Aaton A-Minima allows one to capture all of the magic of shooting on film and to utilize an extensive number of lenses, all in a portable form factor that doesn’t skip on the quality or features. I recommend both cameras highly. I love mine. 

Story and Photos by David Mallin

David Mallin is a freelance cinematographer now based in Santa Monica, CA. Zambian Forge – Refugees of Meheba is edited and in search of a distribution deal. More details can be found at www.cloudchaserfilms.com.

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