Ups and Downs:The Art of Making, Hacking, and Hunting to create a documentary in South Sudan

I don't like waiting; for anything. 

My wife can attest to this. I can't leave sweets in the house to be enjoyed slowly over the coming weeks. Instead I rush on them, like a boat load of Viking raiders inches from the shoreline of a new village, as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  It pains me when new technology that I can clearly use in my work, arrives in the marketplace and I have to wait before I can buy it.  I pined for an iphone, I longed for a 5Dm2, I couldn't resist the draw of FCPX even though it was getting mostly frustrated reviews by other professionals.  I couldn't help it, I had to get it.

This was the case in June.  I was thinking about the largest stumbling block for backpack/So.Jo/Visual Journalists: managing all that equipment by yourself.  The tool I needed for my work wasn't really available in the market and I realized that I could figure it out on my own if I learned a little bit of computer and electrical engineering. 

I became a man possessed overnight,.  Again, you will have to ask Erica to really get a full picture of my obsession with solving the problem set before me.  I poured hours and days into building the device I have affectionately called "The Brick".  I'm guessing it represents about a full month of work (about 160 hours or so) between coding, design, and building.  Maybe more.

The Brick is the keystone component of a multimedia management system that I figured out on a sleepless night, worrying about the film by myself.   I built The Brick because I was tired of trying to respond to a situation quickly but being saddled down by the extra steps of recording sound separately from my video because of quality issues in H264 and the preamps in the 5D.  Normally, the process of shooting video with good audio on a 5d rig looks like this:  Hit record on the Audio Recorder to put it in stand by, hit it again to actually start recording, hit record on the 5D.

It's not only inelegant, it's time consuming, and most importantly: it's distracting when you are trying to focus on telling the story.  I wanted one button for everything.  So I built The Brick, sent off a couple of patent applications and now I'm here in South Sudan, where I expected to never use my newly found skills. 

But when I unpacked my bags after landing in Juba on Saturday, I realized I had left my charger for my Sony VG10 back in the states.  I did some research, figured out which charger I had was close enough to the needs of the V-Series battery the camera uses and went to work with the few things I happened to have around: a stray jumper wire left in my bag from my building frenzy days, a female plug that happened to fit the charger for my Brick–which happens to be the voltage and charge controller type for the Battery, and a Leather Man.

A coffee induced moment of clarity:

It looks like it's working, though the charger is a little hot.... I may have to keep an eye on the rig when I do go to charge the battery in the future. :)  But it's working, and right now that's a good step.

Waiting is the hardest part of working here in Juba for me.  I don't mind the power outages, I know how to prepare and work with them.  I don't mind having spotty internet or unreliable connectivity.  I wish I had less gear to haul around, but that's more about choices I've made than the environment.  What's been hard is waiting to start.

It took half a day to get all my journalism paperwork squared away so I could shoot in public legally.  It wasn't until yesterday that I was able to get my first interview with Kuol.  I have exchanged a total of two text messages with KongKong, both short, both mildly hopeful.  He's working out of town but might be back for a few days before I leave.  That's all I know right now

The weather is hot, the light is difficult, and contacts take time to establish.  communication is slow.

But if you are patient, if you have planned and shored up your loose ends.  You can pounce when the opportunity strikes.

Oh God, that I can be a patient man.

I hate waiting.

Another reason to trust your project to people beyond yourself. (Some people any way...)

About three hours ago the world proved, yet again, that I can't control it.

My visa fixer informed me that I wont be able to get my paperwork for South Sudan hammered out until about 4pm on Friday.  The plan was for me to get it today and then fly out tomorrow. So instead of getting into Juba tomorrow afternoon (Thursday), I'll be getting in on Saturday.  This cuts my time in South Sudan to exactly two weeks.

On paper it shouldn't really effect anything (I was already expecting that my work over the day and half that I've lost would mostly be about getting adjusted to the timezone and culture and less about shooting) but if I'm being honest, it shook me for a few minutes and tossed me off the noble steed of self confidence that I had been riding all morning. I couldn't think past it, I couldn't see what I should do next.

I expect it had a lot to do with the jetlag.  Yeah, it was the jetlag….

I mostly spent the next hour or so sitting out on the balcony of the iHub with an amazing americano, trying to relax for a second while my Assistant Producer tamped the situation back under control.[/column]

[column]My AP is Martin Kariuki and he's exactly the right guy to have on my left flank right now.  Martin is a Nairobian who grew up in a situation that left him incredibly street smart, savvy, and realistic; while at the same time remaining kind, funny, and optimistic.  It's a powerful concoction and I suspect it's the reason Erik put him as my point man the last time I was here.  Erik Hersman brought him on as my go-to while I was in Kenya last year working on projects surrounding the Kenya Referendum for Ushahid. We immediately clicked. 

Martin got off the phone with the fixer, called the hotel, my driver here in Nairobi, and the local airline I'm using and got everything adjusted.  All I had to do was focus on maintaining perspective.  That might sound decadent, but when you only have a couple of weeks to shoot a documentary, it's really valuable to be able to remain at 10,000 feet, or at least 5,000 feet, when you can. 

Martin has been the difference between juggling 10 things in my head and juggling 5.  That difference results in perspective and maintaining perspective is how you make a documentary. 

With out that perspective you follow events like a cow being lead around by the nose, you are the captive of your environment and you tire easily.  Martin, my AP, is a liberator.

Initial impressions of CoreMelt's Lock & Load X

[col-sect][column] I remember when I first discovered Final Cut’s SmoothCam filter. I was young and it was summer. I was doing my first helicopter shoot and needed some help ironing out the rough edges on what I learned later was a very clean shoot. Our time together was new and exciting. I was shooting on an HVX200 at 1080p and the client needed a 720p product so I never noticed SmoothCam’s faults. At the end of our shoot, Smooth and I went our separate ways as all summer relationships must. Years later, I needed SmoothCam again and found it lacking. I hadn’t noticed its slow calculations and its ridiculous handling of CMOS footage before, but now it was all I could see.

I found CoreMelt’s Lock & Load X while trying to find a better solution than VirtualDub’s Deshaker for rolling shutter removal.[/column]

[column]I don’t like leaving Final Cut to process my material any more than I have to, so The Foundry’s Rolling Shutter plugin for After Effects is not an option to me. Lock & Load X turned out to be a fantastic find.

The short review of L&LX is that it’s a powerful and quick stabilizer that handles CMOS roll OK.

Here’s a quick video I pulled together over the weekend while some good friends were in town. I shot on my 5D with a 24-105. I kept the IS on for most shots. I was at the back of the canoe so I couldn’t focus on shooting too much with my 8 months-pregnant wife insisting that I not let the craft drift into logs, palms, and alligators. This was made for a realistic worst-case scenario.[/column][/col-sect]

[col-sect][column]How does it work?

First off, you need to know that all digital stabilizers achieve their results by analyzing a clip, finding what objects are consistent in that clip, and then figuring out how to draw a box around those objects such that if that box where the frame it would look like a smooth shot. Basically it’s a dynamic, moving crop box. This means that if you are planning on using any digital stabilizer, you should edit on a timeline that is one size smaller than your source material. So, if you are shooting 1080p, use a 720p timeline. This way, your stabilized images will remain sharp and not be stretched.

As a stabilizer, I have never used a better product than Lock & Load X. It tracks clips quickly and does it in the background so you can keep editing while L&LX is thinking. Even on my laptop I found this to be a hiccup-less process. Once it’s done tracking, you have a lot of control over how the stabilizer plays out. You can control how much it compensates for horizontal, vertical, and rotational movements individually. You can even tell it to lock down a shot so that it looks more like it’s a static shot on sticks. From there, render time is dependent on the complexity of your codec versus your timeline.
[/column] [column]
The soft spot in Lock & Load X is the feature I was the most excited about initially: shutter roll removal. For mild pan object-tilt and light handheld jello it works great, but when movements get a little complex the algorithm gets confused and gives objects a momentary vibrating effect. Is it better than the jello? Most of the time, yes; however I do find it distracting to watch when it’s bad, as you can see in the video above.

Is it worth it?

At $150, I would say it’s worth it for anyone who ends up having to digitally stabilize often in their post-production. I seem to never have sticks around when I should so the large reduction in render time was well worth it for me. As a shutter roll remover it’s the simplest solution around for FCP and if you are doing commercial work or a narrative film and can control most of your camera movements onsite, then Lock & Load X will help get rid of those little imperfections in your image for sure. That being said, it’s not really capable of removing the roll entirely and exaggerates short, fast movements like bumping the camera or moving from the focus to zoom rings. So if I have my eye piece and am being careful, I think the shutter roll removing function will have be really useful, most of the time….[/column][/col-sect]

Further Proof that you need to be a little "off" for this job.

I sometimes think that if we lived in a more "tame" world, then the rugged cameras and over built gear would not be necessary and we could all run around with the latest consumer grade gadgets. The world is not a very soft place as it turns out, and so we haul around 20lbs cameras with bulky tripods. National Geographic's Bob Poole is a guy I admire a lot. It's not just that I envy his hair (which I do), or that I hope to have that instinctive eye that he has despite carrying around a huge 2/3" ENG kit, I admire his willingness to experience something that civilization has spent a lot of energy trying to avoid for the last 4000 years.