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The New Merry Pranksters, Epilogue # 1: Getting Home

It’s 4 AM Monday morning. Bob can’t sleep. Time to blog.

Episode #15 was finished on the bad road to Arusha on Thursday. We dropped by African Environments to say goodbye to the staff and tell the engineer, welders, etc. how well their backyard engineering had worked for us. We shoot the obligatory ceremonial shot of the five us in front of the two Land Rovers, our loyal steeds. On the way to the airport we shop at Bata Shoes, and grab a quick shower and clothes change at the Impala Hotel.

We arrive at Kilimanjaro airport 3.5 hours ahead of departure time. We will need every minute of this. We load our 14 bags and cases onto carts and Eva, our agent, goes to visit a rather well-dressed and serious looking official. He scowls at the gear and our paperwork. He smiles at something Eva says and returns to his scowl, seemingly his default expression. He demands to see a hard drive and to know what it does. We comply. Scowl. Next, a Sony 8 gig SxS card, which we produce. OK, he says, and we’re off to the real ordeal.

We are the first in line waiting at the KLM baggage check. The swarm of porters who have made it their business to somehow touch one of our bags clamor for their tips. But we are more seasoned than our last visit, and give the tip to one to share with the others. We have a half hour to wait for KLM. The line fills in behind us, but then re-forms behind the economy check in sign. We were the first there, but may be last in line. We finally speak to an agent about our special media rates for excess baggage.

We have an E-mail from Karen McGill, our Delta heroine, assuring us that our baggage fee exemption is on the computer. A succession of four agents appear, each hearing our story and referring it to someone else, allegedly more senior. Finally, a gentleman tells us it is not in the computer and that we will have to pay $236/bag after our 6 allotted bags, or $1,888 in excess baggage. We argue and complain. We produce our credentials and our $250 Delta excess baggage receipt from LAX. It falls of deaf ears. Finally, we buy a telephone card and borrow an agent’s phone to call Karen McGill in the US. We haven’t the faintest idea what time it is there. Miraculously, she answers her cell phone. She gets on the phone to the KLM agent and sparks fly. He raises his voice and looks unhappy. He hands back the phone and tells us, “She won’t listen. I can’t access Delta info.” We pick up the phone and Karen, excited, says, “He won’t listen. I was trying to tell him how to access the note in your file”.

Impasse! She tells us to pay by credit card because cash will certainly disappear. She will make sure Delta reimburses us in the US. Our KLM agent must now attend to something more pressing, so Yousef charms the next agent with the Saudi “old boys’ network” approach and, after a slight issue about accurate arithmetic, we pay for only 5 extra bags and just make the flight.

Of course, 24 hours later, when we finally arrive at LAX, they can find only seven of our fourteen bags. An hour after the supposedly last bag has come down the ramp, two baggage agents have gone looking for our cases and we’re trying to figure out where to have them delivered if and when found . . . all seven cases unceremoniously come down the oversized baggage conveyor.

Sigh. All this time, Bob’s wife Theo has been circling the airport leaving cell phone messages. No one can receive or respond to her calls because, of course, there’s no phone service in the building.

But what we were really worried about was customs. We had $509,000 of borrowed equipment that we had taken out of the country with a detailed manifest and a carnet for the Weisscam that LAX customs had declined to authorize or certify. The custom agent examined our carnet carefully. His frown differed from the Kilimanjaro agent’s scowl in ways too subtle to be noted here. He asked why the carnet hadn’t been authorized. We told him how the other LAX customs official had refused. He examined our uncertified manifest carefully. He looked us in the eye. He then did a truly remarkable thing. He apologized for the actions of his fellow LAX customs agent. He told us we had done everything right and everything we possibly could have done. He actually apologized for his fellow agent and told us we should have been treated better.

Theo had finally given up and was driving home, but we and our gear had made it all the way to the curb outside LAX. We were a cab ride away from Clairmont Camera and could at last take a relaxed, long, deep breath of our world-famous Los Angeles air!

-The New Merry Pranksters

-It ain’t over ‘til it’s over

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 30, 2010 at 11:11:02 amComments (2) Cinematography, Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 15: Tarangire Park

Despite our success at the Ngorongoro Crater, the strict rules prohibiting going off road cramped our style. Tarangire Park had been mentioned as the 3rd most important attraction but when we heard a German couple rave about the animal density there, we asked our guides advice. Now, the guides aren’t supposed to change schedules or rock the boat but when we asked what they would do in our position, the call was made to spend our last filming day in Tarangire Park. What a good decision it would prove to be!

Tarangire has a large river running through it which proves to be a magnetic attraction for the animals during the dry season. Elephants, zebra and a lot of wildebeest gather at the river. But best of all, offroading is almost completely unrestricted for those with filming permits like ours.

In addition to their charm and formidable people skills, our guides are the kind that really love the land and the animals. While offroading, we discovered two lion families that had just killed a huge wildebeest. The two adult females were so full they would roll over with their bellies and legs up and squirm with satisfaction on the ground. The five cubs were enjoying the feast like kids with a Thanksgiving turkey. Except their table manners followed a slightly different convention.

A physical description and certainly some of the footage we shot would be distasteful to many, but we were too focused on the joy of the entire family to be offended. A lioness climbed a tree, but took a bit of time figuring how to get down. The cubs jumped in to the river to wash themselves off. They played their cub games and we laughed out loud. One would sneak up and jump another. Then a third
would pile on both of them just before a fourth, who had been stealthily playing possum would, sopping wet from the river, fly into the mix. They were truly the merry pranksters and we shot and shot until it was dark, until we had added 12 db of gain to the Sony 350’s sensitive CMOS chips, until we could see them no more except on the bright Transvideo monitor. Now we had to find our way back without roads in the darkness. Hakuna matata. No problem. Our guides were Maasai.

Fear is a common factor in human society. The Maasai are almost exempt. So are the lions. How many times have we been warned about approaching an animal who’s eating? We’re told animals will attack to defend their meal. But here we were in a Land Rover, perhaps fifteen feet from the felled wildebeest, sometimes directly between the mother lions and their cubs. They looked up at us when we started the engine. But then they saw who we were and went back to enjoying their fresh wildebeest tartare. Long experience had confirmed that Land Rovers were no threat to them.

African Environments had hosted us in solar powered environmentally sound camp sites for almost two weeks. Our last night in Tanzania was spent at the solar powered Tarangire Safari Lodge, a luxurious permanent establishment set overlooking a spectacular view of the river, that also catered to genuine tourists. It felt luxurious to have real flushing toilets and running water after so many nights of happy camping.

As we packed for the trip to Arusha, where we’ll grab a quick shower and change clothes, we’ll try to get all the gear packed in their original cases as per the original manifest that customs neither checked nor certified. We become concerned about soil - African soil. Anticipating an adventure at customs, we are concerned that the amount of dust accumulated on all the gear could be construed as bringing African soil into the U.S. Under different circumstances this might seem absurd. But bringing $509,000 worth of largely foreign gear into the U.S. without a stamped manifest can make one paranoid. Especially when it was the customs agents at the same airport, LAX, who wouldn’t check our gear in the first place. So we rose quite early to clean the gear. Our new honorary pranksters, Dennis Mollel and Richard Nashuma, are up at the crack of dawn to help.

Our other concern is baggage costs. We hope our legitimate media credentials, including Creative Cow magazine and ICG magazine plus work being done by our favorite Delta agent, Karen McGill will get us the $50 media rate instead of the normal $200/bag rate. It is Tanzania after all. Anything can happen and that’s a big difference with 10 cases of gear.

We consider ourselves fortunate to have had such a successful voyage. We brought the newest, most complex equipment and it performed beautifully under tortuous conditions. We all feel an excellent movie could be cut from just our own footage. No one saw much of our dailies due to our non-stop shooting schedule. The editing will be a formidable chore. We have just short of four terabytes of Apple ProRes 422 HQ and Canon RAW material. Anyone know an appropriate editor who wants to become a Prankster?

Perhaps most important though, we each had a magnificent time, bonded not only with each other but with a pair of Maasai guides from the other side of the globe and learned a great deal about life in Tanzania, and a great deal about ourselves.

-The New Merry Pranksters

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 26, 2010 at 7:44:06 amComments (2) Cinematography, Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 14: Yousef the Charmer, More about Maasai and a Spectacular Kill

Yousef is an extremely social animal. He has over 2,300 Facebook friends. He loves portraiture and has charm to burn. We pull into a gas station where a half dozen or so men lounge against a wall. Richard cautions Bob not to take pictures of them or at least to ask their permission first. But Yousef is already in there holding the 70-200mm vertically and blazing away. Richard frowns and the men look menacing. But the young Saudi/American charmer walks right into their midst and not only shows them their portraits but offers to send them copies by E-mail. Bob shoots Yousef doing all this of course Dan shoots Bob shooting Yousef shooting everyone else. Soon Yousef is directing the formerly scowling crowd into poses and two-shots, exchanging contact info and recruiting new international facebook friends.

Our next stop was a lunch stop at the ranger’s station exit from Serengeti National Park. As we’re opening our box lunches we see an exceptionally attractive woman in a green park ranger uniform. She seems to be smiling coquettishly and posing for you know who. She would surely have blushed were it not for her dark complexion. Yousef the charmer strikes again. The mutual attraction is clear. She tells him she’s not married. They exchange contact info and ...who knows?

We have now been shooting, traveling, eating and sharing life with our guides Richard and Dennis for about two weeks. Sometimes the conversations are extremely personal and we learn a lot about each other. Maasai men become warriors. Dennis was 16 when he became a warrior and Richard was 19. It was their rite of passage into adulthood. Before boys can become warriors and men, they must confirm the Maasai tradition of bravery by becoming circumcised. Successful completion assures that you are worthy to be a Maasai warrior, afraid of nothing in life, be it warfare, predator or the deadly Black Mamba (the snake, not Kobe).

While the boy’s family may know when the circumcision will occur, the boy usually doesn’t. Typically, a large group of boys walk far from home and celebrate and dance the night before the event. Arising at 4 or 5 in the morning they plunge into an extremely chilly river. That is the only anesthesia they will have before or after the operation. A Maasai specialist called a Ngariba performs the circumcision in about 3 minutes. The boy is expected not to flinch, not to move, not even to blink. There is tremendous pride associated with completion of the ritual. No woman will consider sex with an uncircumcised man. Immediately afterwards, training occurs about life values and the responsibilities of manhood.

We have written before of the morality of the predator. Some say that in nature there is no right or wrong, only what is. Yesterday, we captured a very beautiful shot and sequence. It will be disturbing to some. It was a rite of passage for the wildlife cinematographers. We had witnessed three previous failed attempts by lions to capture prey. We had also seen lions with their ribs far too prominent and seen lion cubs who would starve before the next summer.

We first noticed the lioness a long, long way from a herd of Wildebeest and Zebra. She clearly was focused on the herd. For well over an hour she hid in the tall grass, creeping forward a few feet and then hiding again. Dan had the long Fujinon zoom on the Sony in Dennis’ car and Richard’s car contained Yousef on the Weisscam and Bob with the Canon still cameras. Over and over we debated whether to move on to the forest or swamp or whether to keeping waiting for what could easily be another failed attempt or non-attempt.

There is debate about the intent and behavior of the zebras. They were downwind from the lion and sometimes we thought the adults sensed her presence. But they allowed a young zebra to graze closer and closer to the lion while the rest of the herd drifted back. A sacrifice? Dan thinks so but the guides doubt it.

Dan, currently president of the Society of Camera Operators chose the harder assignment, tracking the barely visible lion who would charge without warning. Yousef and Bob chose the easier job of framing the zebra. The lion would come to them. Yousef burned precious battery power continuously shooting at 700 fps, re-recording over the buffer every 17 seconds. Bob was hand holding the 1D Mk 4 on a Cine-Saddle with the 500mm with a 1.4x extender.

Suddenly the lion lunged. Dan had turned his head for a second, and when he looked back, his frame was bare. Richard shouted the alarm, “There she goe,s” and Yousef and Bob went on full alert. The young zebra grazed for another second then raised its head up high for a beat and went into full panic flight, twisting around, almost stumbling, then speeding away. The young zebra zig-zagged frantically raising clouds of back-lit dust.

Yousef’s perfect framing shows the zebra at the right of the frame turning left as the lion enters from frame left on a perfect intersection vector. The black and white haunches make a perfect target as the lion leaps high, swiping out with her right front paw, claws fully extended, and knocks the zebra off balance, stumbling again and creating a huge cloud of dust. The lion, in clear silhouette against the dust opens her jaws impossibly wide and jams her mouth into the zebra’s side. The zebra goes down and in a flash the lioness finds the zebra’s neck and it is all over.

In Yousef’s extraordinary 8 minute shot, a greek chorus of horned wildebeest watch over the spectacle, nobly framed through the dust, watching a zebra leg thrust upward and the lion’s tail whip high at the coda. But now, Yousef’s 17 seconds of fame is all but over, and he switches off just in time to avoid recording over the beginning of his shot.

Dan’s long, long lens covered the lioness chasing off scavenging hyenas and then dragging the hefty carcass to her cubs hiding in the brush some distance away.

For us, as new wildlife cinematographers, we felt like we’d just been circumcised.

-The New Merry Pranksters

-next episode: Tarangire Park

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 25, 2010 at 1:43:37 am Cinematography, Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Lucky Episode 13: The Crater

Ngorongoro Crater is an incredibly popular tourist attraction. A volcano blew the top off a massive mountain. When the hole eventually filled in, it created a large level plain visually different from the Serengeti because of the rising mountainous wall behind almost every shot. Because our cameras are mounted around chest height this makes a difference. There are also forests and swamps with more verdant green than almost any place in the Serengeti.

We rose this morning at 5 AM to have our customary African Environments full breakfast. We would try to complete the tortuous crater wall descent before sunrise. It was the silhouettes of the magnificent trees above the narrow road that prompted pulling out the Canon G-11 and setting it to movie mode to document our early morning ride. The L/Rover bumped and lurched down the grade with its hood reflecting the silhouetted trees in the bottom of the frame. The squirming of the hood and the bouncing of the handheld little camera combined with the banging and shrieking of the Land Rover gave a convincingly visceral account of the ride.

On a whim, the camera was panned to Dennis. The auto exposure alternating between silhouetting him and revealing his beautiful dark chocolate skin tones. It was still so dark the speedometer light was bright. Extending the swiveling fold out display gave us remarkable mobility within the wildly bucking vehicle. Bob asked Dennis some simple question and Dennis, with all the instincts of a born actor, answered charismatically, raising his voice so the tiny mic could discern it over the bitterly complaining Land Rover. Stirring the shifter, masterfully man-handling the wheel, even reaching out to manually wipe the fogging windshield with the lifeless wiper blades, Dennis spoke.

Dennis spoke of nature and animals. He spoke of Land Rovers (a lot). He spoke of how his father at 60 and grandfather at 80 still farmed, raised livestock and proudly worked demandingly physical days every day. He spoke of how neither would accept help from him because it would make them lazy, then weak. Dennis spoke of his family surviving famine. He called the famine “a good thing” because it made them stronger. He then spoke of learning to live in a state of love. He explained how that led to living in peace which ultimately led to a long and fulfilling life.

Dennis had married outside the Maasai culture because he didn’t want a wife trained in obedience. He wanted a wife who would argue back, who cherished her own independence, and if she indeed loved him, did so because she freely chose to, not because she was required to. It was an amazing interview. The camera lurching around and the cacophonous Rover merely added to the intensity of Dennis’ profound thoughts. If we had ever wondered how a man raised as a Maasai warrior, skilled in spear and bow and arrow could so easily assimilate western language, customs, technology etc. yet not lose any of his original culture, it was now becoming clear.

The Crater itself was sublime. There were herds of Wildebeest and Zebra interacting with the familiarity of old army buddies. We shot a sex training film for ostriches including sequences in super sensual ultra slow motion. The male begins with an uncomfortably familiar sequence of prancing and poses. The finale resembles a perfectly rhythmic fan dance. The suitor languidly glides a puffed-out feathered wing across his body and follows with his head and neck imitating some slithering serpent. By the time the serpent has crossed his supine form, he moves the wing across again. Wing, then serpent. Wing, then serpent. This continues in an absolutely regular and evidently seductive tempo for a considerable time. The eye candy must function as some form of foreplay and evidently does the trick because the male ostrich then casually rises and proudly walks to the female, mounts her and with two long necks wriggling synchronously, an extremely large egg is conceived.

We came across a line of tourist Land Cruisers that seemed to stretch a mile with tops popped open and every size, shape and style of human looking through cameras, binoculars and telescoping spyglasses of every description. A Rhino had been spotted. Rhinos may be a dime a dozen at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, but they are far, far more elusive in the wild. The Rhino was truly an immense distance away and the only ones allowed to leave the roads were rangers.

We looked and looked and saw absolutely nothing! Dennis aimed the Sony and we zoomed the 25:1 in all the way, flipped in the 2X extender and maxxed out the Fujinon image stabilizer and at 2500mm saw absolutely nothing but great abstract blobs constantly changing shape in the intense heat waves. Only a Maasai with an awesome pair of binoculars could possibly have discerned the Rhino. But there they were, tourists stretching as far as the eye could see, all staring intensely into the dancing air and imagining seeing a Rhinoceros. So it goes.

-The New Merry Pranksters

-nearing the end but still more to go

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 24, 2010 at 7:06:14 am Cinematography, Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 11: Five Canons and Waiting for a Kill

In the mid day sun, the animals may be too static for good movies but ideal for portraiture.

The third rotation for each prankster, besides the Sony/Fujinon camera and the Weisscam/Panavision camera are the Canon/Canon cameras. Five of them! Actually Dan’s A640 and Bob’s G11 are personal cameras. The G11 is our favorite documentary style movie camera because the finder flips out and bends every which way giving us the ability to boom up or down, see around corners, go through car windows etc.

The basic kit for the prankster shooting stills is a 5D Mk 2 wearing a 24-105mm, often wearing a pola for landscapes and skies; another 5D Mk 2 with the new ultrasharp 70-200 f/2.8 often wearing an extender; and the super quick 1D Mk 4 with the 500mm f/4 often sporting an extender. Remembering that we must remain in the L/Rover, the 500mm is especially useful for animal close-ups. It is a handful to maneuver in a small space but often we place a cinesaddle on the left front window frame and rest the big lens on that. The machine gun 10 fps motor drive is perfect for birds taking flight or anything else that requires a little luck.

We noticed we were dodging a lot of trees that had been felled on both sides of the road today. Many were substantial in size and looked too healthy to have just blown over or suffered from drought. Guide Richard informed us they were undoubtedly knocked over by a young bull elephant demonstrating his strength to the admiring ladies.

Later, we watched three lions stalking a herd of Thomson Gazelle. Each slowly crept through high grass trying to get close enough to make a kill. Our Weisscam shot framed a lion and gazelles in the same shot. The lighting was perfect and we had enough depth to get the lion and gazelles in one perfect slow motion shot. The day before we had seen a lion get to within 6 feet of a young gazelle. We captured the lion’s charge but the gazelle ran across the road out of camera range and once they hit an open area the young gazelle hit the turbocharger and left the lion literally in its dust.

We were as thirsty for a ‘kill’ as the lion and rolled the Weisscam for over an hour continuously, trying to get the spectacular shot. All we got was an exhausted battery as the cat and deer game proceeded like a deliberate high stakes chess game as each side moved and the other countered. Even for the so-called king of beasts life in nature
is far from easy.

-The New Merry Pranksters

-More to come

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 22, 2010 at 11:23:27 am Documentary, Cinematography

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 10: Health, Hygiene and a Bunch of Other Stuff

The travel nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles routinely included two different styles of diarrhea medicine in travel kits to Tanzania. The first is for symptoms. You try that first. The second is for the cause. You use that if the first one doesn’t work.

We used both.

You wake up in the morning and put on every layer you have. The sun pops up and you take almost all of it off. You sit writing at the computer in the evening. You feel a little chilly and you turn around to look for a jacket. But you don’t see one because it’s pure jet-black night. Yes, night happens that fast at the equator, almost between paragraphs.

Every day you, your gear and everything else is covered with dust. Your jug of shower water is heated in a black boiler with a wood fire lit under it. It is then carried a few hundred yards to your tent, poured into your shower bag and the bag is hoisted up. The man who carries two jugs of this water at a time is really, really strong. You take your shower immediately unless you like it cold. The full moon lights you like a chandelier through the open-topped stall. But you must be quick because you only get the water that can be carried. The first night you may run out just after you’re covered with soap. Too bad! The second night you adjust the valve and make it through the rinse cycle. Perhaps on the fourth or fifth night you set the valve to a trickle and risk a shampoo. But not Dan, he has far too much hair.

Your finger nails are disgraceful. Getting your ears clean is an accomplishment, only to be undone a few hours later. Your laundry is washed by hand in a bucket and dried in the glorious sun. Life is good. Lions and elephants roam freely through your camp at night and you are not afraid.

While renewing our permit at the Serengeti airstrip we got to see how the other half lives. Shiny Land Cruisers with immaculate paint jobs parked next to our beaten up L/Rovers with half the left side hacked away for camera panning ability. F I L M was proudly spelled out in white tape on our right sides and ‘Film Crew’ labels covered the covers of our two spare tires. Two rotund, middle aged American women couldn’t keep their hands off their smiling young jet black guide, who wriggled and teased anticipating some very large tips.

We originally felt that our differences in age would be part of the story. Yousef is 25, Dan is 54 and Bob is 70. But our camaraderie seems to have eclipsed that story. We are each good at different things. We have been together for 18 days now, except for going to our homes at night while prepping at Clairmont, one Sunday off before we left, and splitting into two L/Rovers for each day’s shooting. We do whatever needs to be done. There is no boss. There are few assigned tasks. We all discuss and understand all aspects of the adventure and mutual consideration precludes conflicts. The win-win is the only state acceptable to any of us. There is nothing we can’t discuss and no taboos. We can joke about the size of a bull elephant’s ‘sixth leg’ and become fascinated by how long a gazelle’s elimination process lasts at 1000 frames per second. Allowing each other to be ourselves without judgment is a good recipe for far more than this safari.

As we collect material at a rate too great to review, each of us knows what we have personally shot and has only heard the enthusiasm of the others. No one knows what we really have. Perhaps our guides have the best overall picture. Because the camera often runs a long time before anything interesting happens, we’ve tentatively agreed to edit the chaff out of our own footage. But editing dozens of hours of footage is a giant task that we haven’t really planned for. The reported interest generated by this blog requires that we edit the stills and behind-the-scenes footage to tell the story of our adventure visually, perhaps as an iBook. But for now, we stay focused on trying to capture the best footage we can and let the future bring what it brings.

The New Merry Pranksters

-more later

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 20, 2010 at 10:45:40 pm Documentary, Cinematography

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 9: Tactics of Wildlife Cinematography

The Serengeti Wildlife Preserve is roughly 15,000 sq. kilometers, or approx. 8,000 square miles.

If that doesn’t impress you, perhaps you died.

Each day hundreds of driver/guides give and take info about where the animals are. Just like ants communicate with other ants going in the opposite direction, drivers chatter away, usually in Swahili but sometimes Maasai, about what they’ve seen. They also use short wave radio, texting or anything else that helps communicate. This is because, overnight, a large area teeming with animals can become barren.

Each morning, three pranksters posing as cinematographers set off around 7 AM, when the sun is already bolting past the horizon like it had been catapulted. They tell their guides what they hope to photograph, knowing full well that they are more likely to photograph what they stumble upon than what they ordered from their guides. Sometimes you come across a dozen or so frantic tourist cars jockeying for a view of a leopard sleeping high in a tree. It certainly is a leopard all right, but a dark, unmoving, camouflaged spotted blanket in a tree is hardly a cinematographer’s dream.

So you’re basically on your own. This ain’t Disneyland. The animals roam as they please and nobody knows where they’ll show up. So you and your guide are basically hunters. Today, during the mid-day heat, all we could find were a few lions lying under trees panting, and the usual surplus of Thomson Gazelles. We had found a really large herd of Cape Buffalo earlier, but an hour later, it seemed like the entire endless plain was empty. We tried driving cross country. We talked to drivers coming from every direction, all reporting the same thing: no animals. The few we found were standing still and just not very interesting. We were discouraged.

We decided to head home and get some other work done while it was still light. When we were almost at our camp, we saw a huge gathering of tourist vehicles. Because of our film permits, we could go off road around the tourists. What we saw completely obliterated our discouragement. An extended family of about 40 elephants of every age and description had taken over a water hole and converted it to an elephant resort. They played in the water and they played in the mud. The kids leaned into and squeezed each other. Elephant women would fall sideways into a mud bank and slide into the water with a humongous splash. Elephants blowing trunkfuls of dust at their still-wet friends filled the air with shafts of sunlight. No one, absolutely no one, could have had more fun. It was a great day to be an elephant. It also turned out to be a great day to be behind a movie camera.

Each time you have a subject in your viewfinder, you ask yourself the same question: Is this worth the expenditure of time, light and valuable battery life? You may abandon an animal and find nothing better all day. You may shoot a dull shot and miss a brilliant one. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes, an animal may be immobile, but if you’re quiet and still long enough, the animal will reward you. Other times, you’ll just waste time end up with nothing but a sore neck from holding the frame so long.

When you decide to shoot a scene, it’s undoubtedly because you or your guide liked what you saw with your eye. But when you drive up close to animals, they tend to move away, often giving you retreating butts instead of the idyllic scene that first attracted you. Sometimes you roll up with the camera already recording. You uncap the lens (remember the dust), level the camera (remember the terrain), zap in for a quick focus, zoom out and you’re recording. The Sony starts almost instantly, but the AJA has a frustratingly long initial start up. The Transvideo monitor is somewhere in between. We output the monitor from the AJA box so if we’re not booted up when our subject is, we lose our monitor as well as the Ki Pro recorder.

In that case, we can record almost instantly onto the SxS cards and use the PMW 350’s viewfinder. The only problem is that it’s not always easy to reach the forward finder from our pretzel-cramped shooting position. So usually we keep the camera on and squander precious battery power. We can easily run through 8 batteries in a day. The Weisscam is the same deal. Sometimes we boot up only when we think we have a shot, and still return to camp for a mid-day charging break. Rolling for a long time until the subject behaves appropriately drains a lot of precious power.

If all this sounds hard, it most certainly is. But your secret weapon is your guide. We have total respect and affection for Dennis and Richard, as much for their character as their expertise. Both can slide and drift a Land Rover, negotiate ridiculous terrain, fix anything on the car, cater to your medical needs, speak multiple languages, diplomatically negotiate anything, maneuver your vehicle for the best angle without guidance, watch and thoroughly understand the light, spot subjects your eyes are simply not good enough to see, pan and zoom your camera to find almost invisible animals, shoot beautiful stills, understand absolutely everything in nature and its history, and care deeply and personally about you. ‘World-class’ doesn’t even begin to describe their quality.

There was a piece of fiction called, “The Deadliest Game” that described a contest between deadly hunters and equally deadly animals. Hopefully, we as an evolving species have become far less cruel and much too enlightened to consider that game, and contrary to legend, almost no animals want a piece of us unless we give them no choice.

But we can still have the adventure and excitement of the game. A gun causes pain and suffering, orphaned children and the destruction of a creature so beautiful and amazing that our science will probably never be good enough to create one. But the camera takes far more skill, and allows the joy of these beautiful species to be experienced and celebrated throughout the planet.

-The New Merry Pranksters

-to be continued

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 20, 2010 at 8:57:15 pm Cinematography, Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 8: The Microscopes and Telescopes of Time

High speed and time lapse are to time what macro and astronomical photography are to space. We’ve shot time lapse sunsets at our camp to show the transition from day through gorgeous sunset to shutter-open-for-25-seconds night, and then have the laptops come on as we began our daily download. The sun sets like a rock at the equator, and it goes from unbearably hot to ‘where’s another layer to put on’ cold. In between, the Tse-tse flies have a field day. That sharp prick you feel is an injection of something lovely into your system.

But today’s episode is about high speed cinematography. We love our Weisscam. We traced our overheating problem to the shorting Clairmont voltage converter and our user error in not simply shutting the camera down. But even though the camera has worked flawlessly these past three days and the images are stunning, never ever let anyone tell you that taking a high speed camera on safari is easy.

Powering it in the field requires a hefty amount of 24 volt power. Our 19 lb. state-of-the-art LibertyPak Little Genny powers the HS-2 camera and 8” Transvideo monitor for about 2/3 of a day’s filming. Additional power comes from Sony 12 volt Li-Ion camera batteries paired in series to create 24 volts. Each pair runs for about 45 minutes. Fortunately, the Little Genny charges in around 4 hours. Unfortunately, when it charges, it draws so much power that our uninterruptible power supply beeps the equivalent of, “Hey dude! I can’t protect your hard drives if you’re going to draw the voltage down with that power hungry pig of a battery charger!” Not being able to download to hard drives as you charge your main battery makes for a long night running the generator.

The way the Weisscam works is that you frame while rolling. You must be in record mode to see a monitor image. So once you’re at a location with animals that move fast enough to warrant high speed photography, you set your estimated frame rate and set your shutter speed in a small touch screen. You hit RECORD and the camera shoots 12,000 frames (8’ 20” @ 24 fps). When you’ve filled the 12,000 frame cache, the camera continuously records over the oldest frames until you press STOP. You then review your shot with a user-friendly interface allowing you to search forward or backward at up to 32x speed, and mark in and out points in the timeline. You then record the sequence onto the AJA box. Now you’re ready to shoot another shot.

Shooting at 1000 frames a second requires 32 times (5 stops) more light than shooting 24fps. If you’d lit to T/11 at 24 fps you’d need a T/2 at 1000 fps. Shooting animals in the Serengeti requires large telephotos. You’re not allowed out of the vehicle. The animals are most active when it is cool and the light is lower. Begin to get the picture? Low light, high speed and long lenses. You need a HUGE lens to do what we need. Hence the gigantic Panavision 135-420 T/2.8. We use it with a 1.4x Primo extender. This is an astonishingly sharp lens and takes the extender with ease.

Don’t forget that we’re 4 wheeling cross country and over absurd roads. We passed an overturned Land Cruiser today. Bad things can happen, and this lens with its matte box and eyebrow hang out of the L/Rover a mile. Only the focused concentration of driver/guide Richard keeps the lens from mowing down small trees. It draws gawking penis envy from every tourist with a camera.

This camera, lens, monitor and AJA box weigh so much that we travel holding the camera with the tilt lock off, so the camera can’t wrench the 150mm ball leveling socket. But screws loosen under this kind of weight and vibration. We must constantly retighten the Sachtler quick release plate. But the bolt and locater pin holding the camera to the Panavision dove tail device vibrated completely loose today. The only reason we didn’t lose the Weisscam was because Dan was checking the camera constantly and spotted the problem before disaster struck. This is certainly not for amateurs.

But the footage! Oh the footage! The human eye simply isn’t quick enough to see some of the amazing accomplishments of nature. In fact, the human operator is rarely quick enough to follow an animal perfectly if all of his focus and framing reactions are to be slowed by a factor of 20 or 40. But the camera is quick enough, and its spectacular footage justifies all the hassles of taking such a beast halfway around the world.

How does a stork take off? She begins with her head pulling down sharply. A long micro-beat later her knees start to bend and her spindly legs contract. Then her tail feathers start to ruffle and eventually part, revealing a symmetric, unbelievably beautiful feathery abstraction. Then like a yo-yo, she reverses direction. Her legs expand, her head rises and her wings emerge from the sides of the lady. At the peak of the leap, her wings push down, and the bird’s claws arch downward as they leave the ground. Her great wings circle back around, revealing that incredible symmetrical abstract painting again. And then her wings extend impossibly far outward and then downward, pulling the lovely stork forward with thrust, and upward with lift, high, high into the sky. You can see it all at 1000 fps
and it is indeed magnificent.

-The New Merry Pranksters

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 18, 2010 at 3:23:11 pm Cinematography, Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 7: Why our ‘A’ Camera can touch your heart

Now that the Weisscam was sorted out and we had learned how to use it, we started a 3-position rotation, with each Prankster moving daily to a different camera. Our ‘A’ camera was the workhorse of the show. The Fujinon 25:1 and Image Stabilizer could get miraculously tight and steady shots of animals a long, long distance away. Even animals accustomed to close proximity of Land Rovers still get shy, especially if the L/Rovers have large long lenses protruding from them.

Yesterday, Dennis spied two elephants playing together in the river. Perhaps the elephants were aware of the camera, because they almost immediately turned a corner and were hidden by a rock. Dennis went cross country in 4-wheel drive until they came upon them again. This time they turned around side by side and showed the camera their considerable backsides.

Dennis and Bob were stone silent and didn’t move. Neither did the elephants. Perhaps 15 minutes went by in this contest of patience. Their colossal ears quivered. So did the elephants’. Finally, one elephant extended his trunk and drank some water. Then he squirted a bit at his buddy, who returned the compliment. The two adolescent Pachyderms finally felt alone and played boy games until an amazing thing happened. One spectacularly rose up circus style and dexterously placed his front feet on his pal’s shoulders and seemed to mount him doggie, or rather elephant, style. Dennis told Bob that male elephants reach puberty at around 18 to 25 years, and practice sex with other males to be ready. The two friends touched trunks and tusks and sweetly rubbed their heads together. There was no mistaking their love and affection.

Of course we got the shot in all its beauty. We had an easy 80-minute run time from the 128Gb Ki-Pro solid state modules, and the AJA hard drives gave us twice that. Our Sony PMW-350 camera had CMOS low light ability sensitive enough to shoot magic hour with a lens that, when fully extended and stabilized, became a T/11. We assigned a button to turn on the picture cache, and set it to 15 seconds. Any time we were waiting for an animal to react, all we had to do was start to record and the 15 previous seconds would be added to the head of the shot on the 8 bit SxS card version.

The Transvideo 8” monitor was so good that we used it rather than the Sony finder. It had a full length waveform monitor across the bottom that we based our exposures on, and a comprehensive peaking function that we used to focus. The only thing was, it was a big monitor to use in the short L/Rover, and placed toward the back of the camera, it was sometimes hard to reach all of the way forward to focus the lens. We wished we’d brought a Studio Follow Focus.

We zoomed with the sensitive Fujinon zoom control mounted on the tripod handle. We used Sachtler 9x9s on both cameras despite their vast differences in weight. The heads are so versatile they can perfectly balance almost anything. We had about a 90° angle of view out the side of the vehicles, and both of our guides were quite expert at spotting subjects and lining up the car for the best shooting angle. In short, we were a formidable weapon in the battle to reveal the secrets of nature.

But nature was a clever foe that time, and again taught us humility. A crocodile had exited a water hole too suddenly for us to capture. But the end of her tail still dipped into the mirror-still water. We had a beautiful abstract shot, with the tail looking like some scaly tree. We fully expected to surprise our audience as the ‘tree’ moved upward and we tilted to reveal the croc waddling away. But the croc sat for almost half an hour without moving, as we rolled on every boring frame. Finally, Dennis agreed to toss a rock in the lake to motivate the seemingly comatose croc. But instead of slowly continuing up out of the water, the croc flipped 180° in the air and was back in the water so quickly that no mere human could possibly react fast enough.

Another dirty trick pulled on us was watching a large lioness creeping toward a herd of gazelles in high grass. We filmed the lion until we lost her. Then we filmed the gazelles ad nauseum with a really long lens through heat haze as they postured and gestured and went on full alert until . . . absolutely nothing happened! We now have a fascinating sequence of a lion moving through grass and a ridiculous amount of blurry heat-distorted gazelles on alert.

But nature didn’t win them all, and we ultimately scored big-time. We discovered a big pride of lions at the very end of our lens. There was a group of young cubs hanging out around Mama’s tail. Every time the tail would swing low enough, the cubs would jump up and try to catch it. Mama would flick it high in the air just in the nick of time over and over until a slightly older cub bit it hard. Then there were young cubs playing tag, rolling around, wrestling and biting. No harm, no pain. Then Mama got jumped by at least a dozen cubs at once. You never saw anyone have more fun in your life. It was touching, funny and 100% pure lion.

Is this fun, or what?

-The New Merry Pranksters

-But wait! There’s more to come!

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 17, 2010 at 1:30:15 pm Cinematography, Indie Film & Documentary

The New Merry Pranksters, Episode 6: A scary day - from electronics and a lion

Carrying this much electronics into a place with one crude old solder gun with the tip bent up 45° and about to break off is not for the faint of heart.

A few days ago we realized we could power the image stabilizer, 25:1 lens controls and Transvideo monitor directly from the Sony PMW camera, but the only power outlet left for the AJA Ki-Pro recorder was only a half amp connecter designed for radio mikes. So Dan, our resident gear geek, snipped off the end of an AJA power supply and soldered it on to the connecter powering the monitor. Field repairs 101!

Yesterday, our missing tripod case finally arrived, flown in by private plane to the nearest airstrip. At last we could build the Weisscam/Panavision monster. The size and weight of this rig should not be underestimated. Even without an extender on the lens, the distance from the tip of the eyebrow to the hood of the monitor is greater than the width of the Land Rover interior. We take the Sony off the tripod head and rest it on a mattress when we drive from place to place. This would be impossible with the Weisscam not only because there’s no space, but also because we aren’t allowed to get out of the car and it would take Schwarzenegger’s former strength to lift the camera from inside the car.

So off we go in the scorching equatorial heat with a fairly new and power hungry camera, trying to remember the instructions we were given in case it overheats -- which of course it does. Tom Greiser, the US Weisscam technician, told us to just shut the camera off rather than run the fan. Of course we forgot and ran the fan, and couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t cool down. We shot a test and brought it back to camp and a Clairmont 24 volt to 12 volt converter box went ‘Pop’ and then smoked ‘Poof.’ We blamed it on the curse of Africa and found a work-around.

As Dan and Bob were working through this nightmare, Yousef was off with Dennis living a nightmare of his own. They had a good day shooting wildlife sequences but were distracted with tourist cars pulling up as they were patiently waiting for an animal to perform. The tourists would often make noises loud enough to make the animals go away. This in turn made Yousef go away. He asked Dennis to take him away from the tourists. Unfortunately, that also seemed to take them away from the animals as well.

They finally found a lioness with two cubs nursing. They tried shooting from a distance but too much foliage obscured, and besides, Yousef loved the closer presence. They finally landed about 15 feet from the nursing lioness. Yousef went in tight, and panned from the nursing cubs to a tight close-up of the mother’s face. Yousef didn’t like what he saw in her eyes, though. She was clearly not happy about the film crew invading her privacy. Yousef assessed his position. He was young, quick and agile and, if necessary, packed a mean punch. She, on the other hand was lying down with two cubs attached to her teats. No problem, right?

At that moment the lion acted. Yousef never learned how she moved from her reclining position or what happened to her cubs. There was only a blur in his finder and a roar in his ears. The engine of the L/Rover started instantly. It was only a warning, but Yousef was shaken by the incredible power and unimaginable speed. As they raced off he realized he was alive only because of the graciousness of the lioness. It made a great conversation piece at dinner.

-The New Merry Pranksters

-more to come

Posted by: The New Merry Pranksters on Aug 16, 2010 at 1:54:42 pm Cinematography, Documentary

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Three cinematographers, aged 24, 54 and 70 go to Tanzania for a cinematographers' dream safari.
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