Recently, I had the great pleasure of beginning work on a documentary I hope illustrates the challenges facing Christians on both sides of the conflict – both Jewish and Palestinian.
Traveling this distance for a production meant a lot of planning and careful selection of the right equipment. Nevertheless, if you have foreign missionaries or ministries abroad, you’ll benefit from knowing a few tips for effective mobile production.
To begin with, was my choice of camera and tripod. The Sony DCR-VX2000 was chosen for it’s “quality to size” ratio, and it’s robust features for the price. Sony offers a similar camera at the lowest end of the professional category: the DSR-PD150P. The central difference between the two is that the PD150 features professional audio inputs and controls, accepts DVCAM tapes as well as Mini-DV, and has a price tag almost $1000 more than the VX2000. For my needs, an investment in a $200 professional audio direct box for the VX2000 (Beachtek’s DXA-4) brought parity between the two cameras, and saved me a bundle.
What about the Canon XL-1? In a series of tests using minimal existing light, I found the XL-1 to perform less desirably. Canon sales reps deny this characteristic to the core, but my experience says otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used XL-1’s extensively, and appreciate their truly professional design features, but for overall quality and ease of use, I prefer the Sony VX2000.
As expected, with the majority of shooting done outdoors, there was a real advantage having the VX2000’s two levels of neutral density filtration. Neutral Density (ND) filters provide a means of reducing the overall light levels in exceptionally bright outdoor situations so that your video is not saturated with light levels that are too high. Unfortunately, ND filters tend to adversely effect color saturation as well. That’s why I included a filter kit that included a polarizing filter. Polarizer filters allow you to reduce light levels, as well as cut the glare from metallic and glass objects by rotating the filter to change the “phase” of incoming light rays. They tend to preserve the natural color saturation as well.
I traveled with a set of Cokin Filters that also included blue and gray graduated filters (used to add rich color to skylines, while again reducing the light levels depending on how the filter is positioned). I also added a diffusion filter to provide a soft “film” look to interview close ups.
My choice of tripod rested on the fact that I wanted to be extremely mobile and be able to carry all of my gear without assistance. I chose an extremely cheap Bogen tripod with a fluid head. Given unlimited funds, however, I would have preferred a Vinton or Miller tripod designed for the newer lightweight digital camcorders. Either way, a tripod is essential for sweeping landscape pans and other images that are seriously degraded by going “hand held”. Granted, I chose to chuck the tripod when hiking the Engeddi wilderness, but for the serious videographer, lugging a tripod is a necessary part of bringing back professional results.
Next – lighting. I expected to be shooting mostly outdoors in the abundant and consistent bright light of the Middle East. However, I also knew there would be a likelihood of some late night indoor interviews as well. I decided to bring a single Lowel Omni light from our mobile lighting kit. I also included a reflective umbrella as a diffuser. Lowell has built a solid reputation for providing top quality portable lighting equipment. I’ve found their competitors to be bulky and cumbersome when needing efficient and lightweight field lighting solutions. For field shoots closer to home, I’ve used the standard Lowell Field Kit for over 20 years, and it’s a great bundle. The basic kit includes (2) 500W Omni’s and their popular 500/1000W “Tota” non-focusable instrument, as well as a bounce umbrella and basic set of scrims. Whether you are in the studio are in the field, having well lit subjects makes all the difference.
On the subject of lighting, my “bag of tricks” included a Wescott 4 in 1 reflector kit that allowed me to “bounce” light onto a subject and fill dark shadows inherent with directional outdoor sunlight. The Wescott reflector kit includes a two sided diffusing instrument, and two-sided reflector; one side featuring a “neutral” reflector, the other a golden “warm” reflector. Very useful.
Finally, how to handle audio. While the stereo on-camera mic included with the VX2000 is quite good, I would only use it for capturing natural ambience…which in my case included the roosters crowing in almost every backyard in Bethlehem, or the 50 ton Israeli Tanks that visited us at 4am. Otherwise, in my attempt to record “man on the street” interviews, I chose a Sennheiser ME 67 (Black enamel version of the ME 60) ultra-cardoid “shotgun” mic mounted on a standard “fishpole” extension tube. The advantage this mic has over a wireless is that all you have to do is point it at the subject and begin recording. Wireless mics are great, if you have subjects who are committed participants willing to take the time to hide the associated cables and transmitter pack associated with a wireless. In my case, it was tough just finding someone willing to talk about what life was like for an average citizen in Israel. Therefore, taking as little of their time as possible was key. The downside to using a shotgun mic with a fishpole is that you need an extra body to “aim” the mic and keep it out of the camera shot.
After a long day of videotaping, I was able to log all my shots using a Sony VAIO laptop and Adobe Premiere 6.0. The Sony laptop fully supported the IEEE1394 “Firewire” port found on my VX2000 camcorder. Using a small cable, I was able to prep for editing while still in the field! All in all, it was a wonderful and awesome experience. I was able to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a “war correspondent” — witnessing the Israeli Defense Force move into Bethlehem after another unfortunate round of bombings in nearby Jerusalem. Allow me to share with you an excerpt from my journal that, I hope, captures the excitement of taking video ministry “on location”.