News cameraman Matt Allard has found that using a HDV-enabled D-SLR has advantages in some situations, especially where being able to move quickly is a priority. Interview by Bruce Usher.
Matt Allard is a video cameraman and stills photographer based in Kuala Lumpur where he works for Al Jazeera English, the 24-hour English-language version of the Arabic Al Jazeera news and current affairs TV channel.
Matt has been with Al Jazeera English for nearly four years and travels with up to 16 cases of equipment, including lights, audio gear and, more recently, a Canon EOS 7D D-SLR that he bought in South Korea and is using to shoot video footage.
An important piece of equipment is the BGAN portable satellite up-link which enables him to send back stories from anywhere in the world. Set-up takes just ten minutes compared to around four hours not so long ago, and those 16 cases of equipment have been pared down from 40.
The whole thing about Al Jazeera Matt says, “…is that we tend to do stories where people don’t have a voice”. Late in 2009, for example, Matt was in the Aceh Province of Indonesia, working on a weekly eight-to-ten minute story with a discussion panel which debated the subject of Islamic Sharia laws.
Matt explains, “We went down there and spoke to a lot of people, including the police and politicians. Most people will talk to you. There are many strict Muslims in Aceh who have a lot of power. We went out with the Sharia police on a couple of occasions. A lot of them tend to be female officers, especially in the daytime. On Fridays – when they have Friday prayers – they drive around in a truck with a loud speaker telling people to go to prayers. Some people get a bit angry, pretend to go and then circle back, close the shop down and drive off. We went out again at night when they harass young people – males and females who are not married and sitting too close to each other. Anyone caught drinking alcohol is arrested. Women who are wearing pants they consider too tight or not wearing a head scarf are taken back to the police station and get a lecture. Most of these laws are directed towards women.
“There are no streetlights in Aceh so it’s very dark and the broadcast camera is no good in low light even with an f1.6 wide-angle lens plus gain-up. Using the battery-powered light gives a bad look because, for the subjects, it’s like peering into headlights. So I pulled out the EOS 7D and wound the ISO up to 12,800. You still get noise, but it’s no worse than putting plus nine [of gain] into my regular video camera.
“The 7D is so compact you can jump on the back of a truck and get out of somewhere much more quickly, but it’s not as easy to focus and has a shallower depth-of-field. You have to use the live view mode so it’s hard to distinguish things in the background with a wide-angle and you can’t zoom. However, I have shot a lot that I could never have done on a normal video camera. I have also used it in very high contrast situations where the correspondent talking to the camera was backlit with bright clouds and the sun. I tried shooting with the normal camera using multiple filters in a matte box, but then put the 7D on the tripod and it was instantly a hundred times better. It handled the contrast range and got all the detailing from light to dark.”
The Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka
Matt Allard’s visual senses were subliminally tweaked as a small child growing up in Canberra where his Dad had a black and white darkroom. He also remembers being amazed by his uncle’s photography which included a lot of hand-coloured pictures.
In 1988 the family moved to the Boston area in Massachusetts, USA, and the local high school there had its own cable TV channel and TV equipment. Matt worked on the sports coverage and a number of other stories. Back in Sydney, he enrolled in a television production course and then joined Channel 9 to become an assistant cameraman. Later he was lured to Channel 10 and during his time there he was a Walkley Award finalist for his camera work on the Cronulla riots. In 2007 he moved to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, and joined Al Jazeera English (AJE).
Later that year, Matt travelled to northern Sri Lanka to cover the on-going guerrilla campaign being waged by the Tamil Tigers.
“The Tamils were very isolated and cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka and the world. There was a lot of trouble getting in food and supplies. It’s quite primitive and the kids go to school in bombed-out buildings, but they are very passionate people.
“We interviewed the mother of a female suicide bomber who had joined the Black Tigers. She had blown up a military depot and her mother was really proud and had her photos on the wall. Her other daughter was pregnant and wanted to do the same thing, but they only take one suicide bomber from each family and the majority are young women. It’s a different world and you don’t tend to think about it while you are shooting stuff because you’re so focused on what you’re doing. People probably don’t realise this, but before the second Iraqi war started, a third of all suicide bombings happened in Sri Lanka.
“It was very difficult getting permission to get in and go up there. The Sri Lankan government didn’t like journalists going there and you used to be only able to cross the border on one day a week. We were the first western media crew to get there in three years. We got permission at the last second and they knew we wouldn’t be able to get there before the border closed at 7.00pm. When we arrived at 8.00pm, the guy in charge told us the border was closed, but he would let us through at our own risk. The crossing is almost like a Mad Max situation. There are two opposing forts made out of sand bags that are about 400 to 500 metres apart. He cautioned us by saying the Tamils wouldn’t be expecting anybody through at this time so they might just open fire on our van. So we drove very slowly across a bombed-out road towards the border point, got out and walked over with our hands up. Then the journalist and the stills photographer talked to the Tamils while we waited in the middle of the road in the pitch black. They were away for 45 minutes, but we got our clearance. The road from the border crossing to our destination was the most dangerous in Sri Lanka as there are Claymore mines and various IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] everywhere and ambushes happened a lot. The next day we heard that, just a couple of hours after we had passed over the border, a van was blown to pieces.”
The Bamboo Railways, Cambodia
Another assignment where Matt Allard found the portability of the EOS 7D allowed him far greater freedom than his $60,000 video camcorder was in Cambodia. He went there to do a story on the upgrading of the railway lines which will displace the rudimentary ‘Bamboo Railways’ services that have been running since the end of the civil war.
“They have one train line and one train, and it runs once a week. They are planning to build another line and this will affect the people who run the Bamboo Railways. They salvage axles from old tanks, put two down on the track and fix a bamboo platform on top with an old water pump motor that runs a large rubber band to drive the wheels. These makeshift trains along the tracks, picking up passengers, but they don’t have any brakes and, when two are coming towards each other, the one with the lightest load has to unload and wait. These people are concerned that the Bamboo Railways will be banned, but it’s a cheap way of getting around as it’s a very remote area and there are no roads.
“The only transport here is these bamboo trains. I started filming from one train with my main video camera, but it was very shaky and it also took up a lot of room. There were 30 people on the bamboo platform and gear was stacked up everywhere. So I eventually decided to sit on the top and shoot with the EOS 7D. I shot 70 percent of that story with the 7D and I got a lot of compliments about the footage.”
The demands of shooting news stories, often in difficult situations and under considerable pressure, makes news cameramen highly inventive and they’re constantly looking for new solutions to their particular challenges. Often these solutions come from unlikely sources.
“New toys are probably my downfall,” Matt admits. “I was doing some research online and found this tiny new camera called the GoPro that you can put on vehicles, boats or helmets, and use underwater or anywhere… and it only cost US$120. I’ve used it to shoot at some protests in Malaysia and put it on the end of a boom pole. One of the producers was walking around with it up at 12 or 15 feet and shooting with its virtual fish-eye lens. It doesn’t matter if it gets doused by the water cannons or tear gassed. There’s now a full HD version that sells for about US$300.”
Matt’s work has so far taken him to more than 30 countries, covering everything from major sporting events to major conflicts. As well as using the Canon EOS 7D for some video shooting and for still photography, Matt also has a Sony A900 D-SLR along with two fast Zeiss zoom lenses. He has subsequently acquired three new lenses for the Canon; a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 wide-angle zoom, Canon 135mm f2.0 prime telephoto (equivalent to 216mm on the 7D) and a Canon 100mm f2.8 macro.
“Nobody else [in the network] has bought a D-SLR for video shooting at the moment, but a lot are talking about it. I’ve always been interested in making things look different and previously the only way – if you didn’t go the $125,000 film camera route – was to buy a film-to-video conversion kit for US$12,000 to $15,000.
“The trouble with the D-SLRs is that they create a more complex process for editing and post-production. They record a Quick Time movie file that is not really compatible with anything so you have to import the files into the computer and transcode them into another format and then put it into Final Cut Pro. However, Canon has released a plug-in for Final Cut Pro which helps here.
“Then, to get any type of decent audio quality, you need to record the soundtracks separately. The D-SLRs have an automatic gain control which, as soon as it hears a bit of noise, it amplifies it. So, if you’re doing an interview and somebody stops talking, it amplifies the background noise and renders the interview useless.
“A few people have done documentaries on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan using D-SLRS and there are still photographers imbedded with the troops who are dabbling with video so it’s something that’s only going to get bigger.”
Matt Allard’s favourite segment filmed on the Canon EOS 7D D-SLR can be seen at http://vimeo.com/8646010 His blog is at http://blogs.aljazeera.net/profile/matthew- allard, and a report on shooting with the GoPro HD camera can be viewed at http://www.dslrnewsshooter.com/tag/gopro-hd/
More information about the GoPro helmet and sports cameras can be found at www.goprocamera.com. An interesting Website for anybody using a D-SLR to shoot HDV footage is DSLR News Shooter which can be found at www.dslrnewsshooter.com