Production Notes

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We are on our way to New Mexico to interview Sandra Ingerman and Joan Halifax for Inner Worlds. While in the area I plan to capture some timelapses to be used as verity during the interviews.

I could use my Sony EX-1 for capture, as it has a built-in timelapse feature, but I find that using RAW still images Read more »

Posted by & filed under Production Notes, Stirring The Fire.

I have a 30 day documentary film project in Dolpa, a remote part of Nepal, which I’m going to be away from power for almost 30 days.  This is the first time since I converted to digital capture that I’ll be off the grid for so long.  I emailed some colleagues who shoot for NorthFace and had been given some pre-packaged products (by Goal Zero and Brunton) that they claimed did not work for their needs.

In researching the subject here is what I’ve learned:

1. To power my 15” Macbook pro, camera batteries (Canon Mark II & III 5D’s] and  various AA’s I need a 60 watt solar panel.  The lightest and most compact I have found is the P3-62 Foldable Sunling panel.  It weighs 3 lbs and folds up to 15”x 8” x 1.5”

62 W Sunling panel kit  $849

2. From the panel I will be charging a 12 VOLT 10 Amp Hour  LITHIUM IRON PHOSPHATE BATTERY (LFP).   LFP batteries are half the weight of lead acid batteries and are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than Lithium cobalt batteries.  This one weighs 2.5 lbs. and is 6” x 2.5” x  3.8”.

10 Amp Hour LFP battery  $150

*note–It is necessary to have a controller between the solar panel and the LFP battery to avoid over-charging.  The Sunling Panel kit listed above comes with a controller.

3. I plan to have the solar panel charging the battery outside my tent during the day then charging my various devices off the LFP battery at night.  Here are some adaptors needed to charge my various devices from the LFP battery:

Battery to cigarette socket connector  $5

3 way Cigarette Socket splitter  and USB port  $3

Canon 5D adaptor $20

Macbook adaptor $28

Total cost–$1055

Canon 5D adaptor $20

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I like the subject to look as directly into the camera as possible when being interviewed. This has proven to be a difficult thing to achieve. One of the ways I have attempted this is to use a long focal length lens and place the camera behind the interviewer and slightly to his or her side. This has its limitations. For one the subject is still not looking directly into the camera even though the parallax has been greatly reduced. Also unless the interviewer is very still there is a chance that they will pop into the frame from time to time as they engage the subject.

Today I’m going to try a simple solution from VFGadgets called from EyeDirect.

It’s a cold winter day in Seattle but I wanted to see how this would work outside with a lot of light coming in from all directions. I’m glad I did this test before committing to take the rig down to Guatemala next week for a film on Violence against Women for the UN.

I learned that the interviewer has to appeared dead center in the mirror or the slight shift in the subject’s eye contact was noticeable and distracting. It would have been better to have the typical off camera eye contact.

The EyeDirect unit is built like a prototype and could use a lot of refinement, especially considering its $1500 price tag. It’s rather clunky to set up—needs an allen wrench to make adjustments and set up instead of knobs or wing nuts.

The mirror tilt adjustment knob did not hold the adjustment and I had to use waded up tape to hold the mirror tilt adjustment.

After using it on two subjects their comments were– it did take a little while to get used to talking with a disembodied head in the mirror but after a few minutes they forgot about it.

Here are the results.

Conclusion: Although a bit clunky I will probably rent the unit for the Guatemala film. If anyone knows of a better solution please let me know.

Posted by & filed under Production Notes, Tibet.

Our book TIBET: Culture on the Edge was just released this week!!   I must say I’m thrilled with how it turned out.

The idea for a second book on Tibet came quite by accident.  ( My first book Tibetan Portrait was published 16 years ago.)  In 2009 I had traveled to Lhasa to document the work of the US based organization OneHeart that was working to reduce the high rate of maternal mortality on the Tibetan Plateau.

My equipment in the bag on the left.

Unfortunately, because of the riots that had taken place in Tibet just before the 2008 Olympics China decided to shut down all foreign non-profit organizations in Tibet.   I arrived and soon learned I had nothing to do!   Since I was already there I decided to take a trek I had always wanted to do so I hired a guide and a couple of yaks and headed out.   Almost three years later I have a book in my hands!

It's always tense crossing water. Yaks like to cool off by laying down in the water.

Birthing a photo book is definitely a labor of love.  After spending eighteen months collecting the content I’m usually faced with at least a year of postproduction editing, researching, writing and designing.  In this case the process went ever so smooth thanks to my agent John Campbell who introduced me to a wonderful production team at Rizzoli.  Most heartfelt thanks to Jim Muschett and Melissa Veronesi for editing and hassle free project management.  I want to give special thanks to Susi Oberhelman for her beautiful design.  It was so amazing that we all saw eye to eye 99% of the time.  Truly a wonderful experience for me.

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I shoot my documentaries with both the Sony EX1 and the Canon Mark II 5D. I love the 5D for the shallow depth of field I can achieve with a variety of lenses. It has some very definite ergonomic issues so I mainly use it on a Tripod. I often set it up as a second camera on my interviews.

During my recent trip to Liberia, there was one issue that was constantly bothering me and limited my use of the 5D. In many situations I get those annoying moire patterns and aliasing artifacts.

Example of Moire

I’ve just heard that there is a fix although fairly expensive. It is the VAF-5D2 filter. The cost is $375 and ¼ stop of light lost.

If you want to know more about it go to:

VAF-5D2 Filter

If anyone has had experience with this filter could you let me know? Other than the loss of ¼ stop of light I was wondering what would be the disadvantage of leaving it in all the time. It seems like it would be such a pain to have to stop and insert it every time you encountered moire or aliasing problems.

Posted by & filed under Production Notes.

I have 3 cameras that I use to shoot video for my social documentary work in the developing world. My main camera is a Sony EX1, however, since I’m carrying a Canon Mark II 5D I often use it as a second camera in my interviews. Also when I want a short depth of field or to use special lenses I use the 5D. I also carry the small Panasonic TM 700 when I want to be more inconspicuous, like shooting in Tibet.

Sony EX1

For those of you who use any of these cameras and want to combine and sync the footage you may find the following useful.

Each camera produces files in it’s own proprietary format. The problem arises when I try to bring these different formats into Final Cut Pro 7. Sony’s XD Cam; Panasonic’s MTS files; and the 5D format are best converted to ProRes 422 to be edited in FCP. I just spent 3 days online trying to find the easiest way to convert the files to bring into FCP. Finally out of frustration I turned to an editor friend, Ryan Horner. His workflow is to bring everything in via the Log and Transfer window, however, before you do you need to get the proper plugins. You can find the following plugins below:

For the 5D–Canon EOS movie plugin for Final Cut Pro –
1.  Go to this site
2.  Select your computer OS (Mac) from the drop down menu.
3.  Choose Mac OSX not Mac OSX with a version number on it.
4.  Choose 3rd one down called –

5D Mark II

For the Sony EX1–Sony XD Cam plug in for Final Cut pro (Use FireFox instead of Safari)

1. Download the plugin here
2. Move the zip file to your desktop.
3. Double click it and follow the steps.

The Panasonic TM 700 doesn’t need a plugin, but does require transcoding software.

Panasonic TM700

For the best quality I shoot the Panasonic TM 700 at 1080/ 60p. Unfortunately FCP 7 does not handle 1080/60p. The AVCHD files must first be converted to Pro Res 422. The best transcoding software I have found for this job is Clip Wrap. Once transcoded you can bring in the files through the Log and Transfer window.

I hope this helps.

Posted by & filed under Production Notes, Tibet.

Lumbum meditating in the cave where Guru Rimpoche once meditated.

I am frequently asked how I go about finding a guide on the trips I take. A good guide is critical to the work I do. Of course I need someone who speaks fairly good English, but the most important quality I’m looking for is an outgoing personality and good people skills. I have found on a few occasions someone from an indigenous group who has managed to learn English will carry a superior attitude and be a bit arrogant with their own people. It is something I have come to watch out for. I guard against it by arriving on location a few days early so I can meet and go out with him/her on a test run before committing to a 4 to 6 week trip. I have had to change guides on a few occasions because of arrogance or shyness issues. It shows up especially during the interview.
On my last trip to Tibet I was blessed with an excellent guide by the name of Lumbum. A good guide is especially critical in Tibet where everything is so sensitive because of the current political situation. Lumbum is hardworking, very outgoing and cares deeply for his fellow Tibetans and their culture. He knew how to engage with our subjects in a way that allowed them to open up about their personal lives without getting into politically sensitive topics. We happened to end up with a driver with a hot temper. For several weeks I watched with admiration as Lumbum skillfully navigated this difficult personality. If you have any plans to go to Tibet I would highly recommend getting in touch with Lumbum. He will help make your trip fun and meaningful!!

Lumbum (English Tour Guide)
Cell phone No.:+86 (0) 13893956746(Amdo)
Cell phone No :+86 (0) 15089036734(Lhasa)

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One of the things that amazed me as I traveled through what was formally Kham and Amdo on the Tibetan Plateau was the amount of new construction at many of the Tibetan Monasteries.   It was not only the amount of new construction but the size and quality of the new monasteries and prayer halls that were being built.  I saw multimillion dollar construction projects that left me wondering where the money was coming from.

One very elaborate Temple that was being built in a very remote area in Qinghai Provence was literally out in the middle of nowhere.   I was told that the funding came from a wealthy individual in Hong Kong.

In another remote area of Sichuan Provence the world’s largest Stupa (Buddhist Shrine) was being built.   Half completed with a construction crane on top it looked like a ‘Stupa condominium’.   I was told it was being financed by ‘someone from the West’.

I was excited to see this resurgence of energy in the Tibetan monastic community.  However, I met a Tibetan documentary filmmaker who had a different perspective.  He felt all this new money coming from the outside was interfering with the historic relationship the monks and monasteries had with the local villages that had historically supported them.  He said, ‘It’s just human nature.  If you are getting millions of dollars donated are you still willing to bless someone’s children or their house for a few sacks of Tsampa {barley flour}?

Posted by & filed under Production Notes.

During the month of May an obscure fungus becomes the major focus of people living on the Tibetan Plateau.  The Cordyceps sinensis fungus is known locally as Yartsa Gunbu or Caterpillar Fungus.  The fungus devours and eventually mummifies its host, the ghost moth caterpillar, from inside out during the caterpillar’s hibernation on the mountain grasslands between 10,000 and 16,000 feet.  The caterpillar dies just below the ground and then the dark brown/black mushroom emerges through the soil from the head of the body.

The growing popularity and belief, especially among the Han Chinese, that the fungus is an aphrodisiac and promotes longevity has fueled a modern day gold rush on the Tibetan Plateau.  The fungus came to the world’s attention after some Chinese athletes at the National Games in Beijing extolled its virtues. 

It is estimated that today over 40% of the income of rural Tibetans come from the Caterpillar Fungus.  I was told that one Kilo of the fungus is worth $10,000 and that the children of Nomads can each collect as much as a Kilo per month.  In late 2007 the value of the best-quality Yartsa GünbuDbyar rtswa dgun ’bu in Lhasa (Lasa) traded for around CN ¥80,000 (nearly US $12,000) per pound (JIATS, Danial Winkler).  Since the Nomads are most familiar with the areas where the fungus grows they have become the greatest beneficiaries.   

I would walk into empty monasteries because the Monks were either hunting Yartsa Gunbu or home tending to the animals so their family could be out hunting.  You can imagine what this does to school enrollment of Nomadic children during the month of May.  Almost everyone I met –Monks, Nomads, Hui Muslims, and Urban Tibetans were involved in harvesting or trading the fungus. 

According to field mycologist, Daniel Winkler, the value of Yartsa Gunba has increased by 900% between 2007 and mid 2008.  Unfortunately, arguments over grazing rights has lead to community disputes.  The violence has caused injuries and even a few deaths.  There were many occasions during my travels when we ran into road blocks and interrogation by officials who let us continue our journey after they were assured that we were not collecting the valuable fungi.