When award winning film maker and photojournalist Fiona Lloyd-Davies announced her latest project to embark on a journey to The Democratic Republic of Congo, she described the place as “probably one of the toughest environments that a camera can work in - very hot and very, very dusty” but, this was to be just one rigor amongst many during her latest extreme film making mission. The film Lloyd-Davies was preparing to shoot was also about an extremely tough subject – sexual violence against women. Fiona, deep in planning took the step to contact her colleagues across the industry to find a recommendation for a camera that could not only survive being “shaken within an inch of its life along non existent roads” but, one that could capture visually dramatic scenes of both the subject and the landscapes. This time Lloyd-Davies was on a mission to convey the theme of rebirth and re-growth of Congo’s women survivors in the most visually impactful way possible. In the following account from Fiona, she explains how she came to select the AF101, how she used it and the results she obtained.
Camera Selection Criteria
Quality was the overriding concern in choosing to work with the AF101. One of the key criteria when pitching and budgeting for this commission was what I would shoot the film on - which camera and what kind of quality it would be. Because the landscape is so integral to the film, it's essential to have stunning footage. So I wanted to find a way to make the film as cinematic as possible. However, I knew the equipment would have to be highly portable and manoeuvrable in the field, so that it would be realistic for me, a self-shooter with no camera assistant or sound recordist, to handle whilst on location. Initially I looked into taking two cameras, one to shoot the main film on and taking a full frame DSLR stills camera, with which to shoot the landscapes. On closer scrutiny, this simply wasn't practical. As an experienced film maker I wasn't happy to use a camera that didn't have inbuilt sound channels, and colleagues had told me the DSLR option I had in mind didn't handle movement too well. More importantly, the two formats would look far too different and, it would be very difficult for me, as one person to handle two different cameras. The search for high quality, cinematic style led me to the Panasonic AG-AF101. New on the market and even though it was pretty much untested, the narrow depth of field and the superb HD quality sounded like it would fulfil the visual brief.
What Did I Expect and How Did It Deliver?
All the information available flags up this camera as bringing 35mm quality, narrow depth of field to a new community of film makers, and making this kind of quality available at an affordable price. So, I had high expectations. However, hiring the kit was expensive for the budget I am working to. It wasn't just the body, but all the lenses (primes), accessories (matte box, filters) and the Nano Flash (more on this later) with all it's accessories. With my tiny budget I've really pushed the boat out to use this camera. So far, I feel it has certainly been worth it. Obviously the camera will only deliver images as good as the operator but the colours are vivid and intense, the detail - droplets of dew on giant leaves – look fantastic. It has delivered great quality images and now having used the camera once, I feel that I will be able to continue to deliver this kind of quality for the rest for the shoot.
Technical Requirements - How Did the Camera Stand Up?
I was fearful that a camera like this – tapeless, HD, such new technology wouldn't stand up well to the rigours of working in Congo. The dust, the constant jarring (lack of proper roads), rain, intense heat and moisture can take a real toll on any camera. I wondered if it would be versatile enough to perform well in a place like this. I need not have worried, certainly on this first trip, there were no technical problems to speak of and the camera performed well.
Working tapeless proved to be fairly straightforward. Having worked digitally on stills for several years, I just followed the same workflow. For safety I backed up my material twice each night. Ideally I would like to put the rushes material onto another additional format to help reduce risk of losses, possibly even tape, but the reduced cost and greater efficiency of using an entirely tapeless workflow stacked up and I felt reassured by other users of the SD recording format.
Pros & Cons - What Worked Well - What Didn't?
The camera itself, is lightweight, and rests well in the crook of an arm or is light enough to be hand held without too much effort. At the time of this first shoot, there was no zoom lens that could work with the camera so I was using prime lenses. This has pros and cons. The pros are obviously the quality of the lenses and the different mental discipline of working with fixed focal length lenses. Working with primes slows you down, and in many ways this suited the kind of film I'm making. It made me think harder about what I wanted to shoot and how I wanted to shoot it. The only draw back is when working in a place like Congo, you sometimes need to be able to catch things quickly, there's no time to change lenses, you'll just miss it. I'm hoping that a zoom lens will be found that can work with the camera for my next trip to film the harvest. I'd like to have the option but on the whole I really enjoyed the experience of working with primes, as well as the results.
The only disadvantage of the camera at present, it doesn't record 50 MBPS to onboard cards. The onboard camera card only records 35 MBPS – which is not broadcast quality. This means having to rig up an alternative to record onto separate SD cards at 50 MGPS. It means an extra bit of kit to bring, set up and remember to plug in. When you're working on your own, it's almost a step too far. The hire company, VMI, supplied a Nano flash recorder and Anton Bauer battery to power it – heavy and cumbersome. Initially we looked at attaching it to the camera, but it made it too heavy for me to hand hold. In the difficult environment of Congo I wanted things as simple as possible. It was my husband, a retired army officer of 30 years, who came up with the solution. A sturdy Russian soldier’s army belt that he'd swapped when serving in the UN in Bosnia during the war, and two of his ammunition pouches. All held up by a pair of braces. It worked perfectly.
What Was Different From Other Cameras?
Using this camera, with prime lenses, and proper filters made me approach the shoot in a very different way to when I've been self shooting before. I had to slow down, which made me consider much more carefully what I was filming, how I was doing it and why. Doing this made for better images and a higher quality of pictures. The camera feels good and handles well. The menu is easy to use and does what you expect it to do. It feels familiar even though there are new and different options, but they're easy to find. The iris / exposure also worked well.
Tapeless Versus Tape?
I've only worked tapeless once before and then I had a cameraman and a technical whizz of an AP. This was going to be very different. I would be on my own. However it all proved to be fairly straightforward, using 500 GB rugged hard drives to back everything up twice. At the end of the shoot, I ran out of space on my drives but had enough SD cards to prevent a disaster. Next time I'll take Terabytes. There is of course one tremendous advantage in that you can view your rushes without worrying about damaging the tapes. In the past I've had problems from viewing, where the kit has broken down because of the dust. Using a laptop back at base, transferring everything each evening meant this wasn't an issue. The only real potential problem with this technology is the dependence on electricity. Where I was staying, it was very limited, as we were on a generator. The main one was broken, so the priests were using a smaller one which over heated after 3 hours and had to be turned off. I just about managed, but it showed how important it is to take enough cards and batteries to have spares in case one can’t transfer after the shoot.
How Easy Is It To Use As A Single Unit Crew?
Working on ones own, is a challenge wherever you are. In Congo it's even more so. You have to be super organised and choose your local crew (fixer and driver) carefully. However having worked in Congo for ten years, I now have a thorough check list. Luckily I work with a fantastic fixer and translator who is also a journalist so understands what I'm doing and this helped a lot. The driver soon became a boom operator and learnt how to set up the tripod. Never-the-less, it's a huge amount to take on for one person. Especially as it's not just the filming, but the nightly aftercare of the equipment and the transferring of footage as well. It can be done, but there's no doubt it’s a hard task.
What could be improved on?
In general the camera is user friendly and easy to use on location. The menu is similar to previous small cameras I have used and is pretty straightforward to operate. The main area that I felt needed to be improved is recording 50 MBPS, on the camera but, by using the Nanoflash solution I got the results I needed with a camera that delivers the cinematic results I was looking for and at a very compelling price.
Conclusion – Working the 101 in Future
The AG-AF101 Panasonic had only been released onto the market ten days before I was due to leave and the hire company (VMI) was still checking it out. However they were tremendously helpful and gave me invaluable advice and backup. I'm really pleased with the results. Congo is a beautiful part of the world and I wanted a camera that could do it justice. Not only did it bring out the vivid colours of the people and their environment, but its large chip allowed me to adjust the depth of field to great effect. I will be heading back to Congo for a second shoot in 2011 together with a Panasonic AG-AF101.
About Fiona Lloyd-Davies
Award winning film maker Fiona Lloyd-Davies is one of the UK's most experienced foreign documentary and current affairs programme makers. She's been making films about human rights in areas of conflict since 1992; working in Bosnia, Iraq, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other locations. Her film about Honour Killing in Pakistan License to Kill for BBC2 brought a change in the law in Pakistan and was awarded a Royal Television Society award for Best International Journalism. This was the first of two RTS awards, the second for innovation was awarded in 2005 for her films with Salam Pax the Baghdad Blogger for BBC2's Newsnight programme. These films, the only ones of their kind, revealed what it was like for ordinary Iraqi's post the 2003 invasion.
Fiona found her way into current affairs TV through an ad hoc trip to Bosnia in the first few months of the war in 1992. It landed her, her first job as a researcher, on Clive Gordon's film The Unforgiving which won a BAFTA. It also started her passion for exposing human rights issues and bringing stories from areas of conflict to a wider audience. Now over nineteen years later, she's made a wide range of films from "obs docs" to history and current affairs. Her work combines journalism with a strong visual sense that she learnt as a graduate of the Royal College of Art. She is also a widely published and exhibited photojournalist. She shoots some films herself.
Fiona now works through Studio 9 Films Ltd. She continues to make programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera either through her company of direct with the broadcaster. This year she's been commissioned to make an observational documentary by Al Jazeera English in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she's been working for the past ten years. The film focuses on a group of women, all survivors of sexual violence. The film will juxtapose their life with their only hope – a new crop of beans. Will the field fulfil their dreams of food, produce, income and the only community that will now accept them, other women like themselves – all survivors of rape?
Fiona Lloyd-Davies Describes Her Latest Short Film; ‘Women's Voices from Eastern Congo’:
The Democratic Republic of Congo is probably one of the world’s toughest environments to work in. Everything is extreme – the heat, the dust, the bone rattling roads and the beauty. It's rich, lush and a fantastic place to photograph. But, it can also be dangerous. The war was officially over in 2003, but pockets of fighting spring up across the East like mercury. Over 6 million people have died, mainly from disease and the harsh elements when fleeing the fighting. Last year the UN dubbed the East the 'rape capital of the world'. But women have continually been raped since 1998 when the war started in earnest. When I first went in 2001, 70% of the women had been raped in the town I was based in. The only difference today is that they've been raped 4 or 5 times, and their children from rape, have been raped too. It is heart breaking but also one of the most important and compelling stories I've ever covered. So I pursued a commission from Al Jazeera English to make an observational documentary which was accepted. It centres on Masika, a woman survivor and the centre she has set up for women, all survivors of rape. One of the key aspects of this film is the visual theme which we come back to throughout the story – their field. When Masika has funds she rents a field where the women can grow crops to eat and to sell. But it also gives them a reason to be together and to support each other. In the film we will see the women prepare, sow and harvest and be there to hear how they support each other, listen to their problems and even laugh together.