[No Film School invited Sebastiano Tomada to contribute this story based on his experience covering conflict zones.]
I come from a photography background and would have never thought that, years later, I would find myself covering war zones across the Middle East and Africa. In 2015, I slowly began transitioning to video mainly due to increase in demand from the news/editorial world. It was a positive transition but it came at a cost, a physical one and of course a financial one.
Have you ever lugged pounds on pounds of expensive video equipment? Cameras, batteries, tripods, lenses, and hard drives along with medical gear, a helmet, and a bulletproof vest? Have you ever had to deal with crazy temperatures or lack of electricity where you found yourself rigging car batteries to give some juice to your batteries? If you have, you know the pain and the frustration that comes with working on documentary projects in harsh, remote, and often volatile areas.
"Always have a back of your back up, but less is more.”
In late 2015, I began filming American volunteers who had joined local militias in war-torn Iraq and Syria to fight against the notorious terrorist organization ISIS. Some of these unpaid fighters were military veterans who missed the adrenaline rush of combat, while many others were civilians seeking to find a greater purpose in their lives. This six-episode documentary series called Hunting ISIS will premiere in the U.S. tonight on The History Channel.
These two and a half years of incessant filming and traveling taught me so much. My motto became: "Always have a back of your back up, but less is more.” Here are some of the lessons I learned, that can help you prepare if you ever find yourself shooting in conditions like these.
1. Mother Nature is never on your side
Being stuck in a remote military outpost in northern Iraq with downpouring rain taught me that you can never be too safe. Why do I say this? Well, besides the obvious danger of an ISIS counter attack or a barrage of mortars, Mother Nature is usually not on your side.
During one of those nights in the remote base, it rained so much I woke up coughing water and scrambling to elevate my gear to drier grounds. The water had done its damage and soaked my one and only battery charger for my Canon C300MKII. Needless to say, my trip had just failed. There are no Canon service centers or distributors close by. In fact, we had no cell phone reception. I packed my bags and made my long journey back home.
On my next trip, I carried with me an extra charger (even though those things are massive). I learned my lesson and planned my next trip meticulously. I knew I needed more gear (usually doubling everything) but I also knew I had to carry all of this in the field and had to keep a low profile at the same time.
Shoulder rigs are like underwear; they need to be extremely comfortable but they also have to not get in the way and must pack easily.
2. Be inventive
In the field, I learned to become inventive and found a way to further weather-proof my camera. How? In Iraq and Syria (where I spent the last three years working), dust and extremely fine sand is everywhere. Your camera vents do a great job at cooling the inside of the body, but do an even better job at sucking in every dust and sand speckle in their surroundings.
To help mitigate this, I cut out a slim panel of foam from the inside of my pelican case and, with some duct tape strips, covered the air fan intakes of the camera. Believe it or not, it made a difference. In extremely dusty situations I would put a little water on those slivers of foam in order for it to trap even more dust before it made it inside. Of course, that meant that at the end of the day I would have to make new air intake covers as the sand and dust became muddy. An annoying process? Sure, but it kept the camera working perfectly!
After a lot of research and a few tests, I also learned how to rig my charger and its batteries to a car battery. Shooting in the field is an extremely personal experience and only you can really figure out what works best, which usually comes with a lot of trial and error. (Well, more error than trial, really.)
3. Got backup?
Going back to the motto of "always have a back of your back up, but less is more,” this is what I meant in each major category:
- Batteries: Always have two chargers and abundant batteries. Of course, don’t carry all of that with you all the time. If you have a “home base” you can leave it there and return to it in case of emergency. Don’t forget tons of AA batteries for your LAVs.
- Cables: Cables are tricky; they usually last your forever (XLR, Lemo Pin, HDMI etc) but when they break or malfunction in the field you don’t get to choose next day shipping from Adorama or B&H. So bring a backup of every cable!
- Lenses: Lenses break and get dusty but what you should really worry about is the glass, and by that, I mean always put a filter on it! If you drop it face down, you will hopefully just break the filter but spare the lens.
- Media: One big challenge with documentary filmmaking is that you never have enough material. My suggestion to all of you is to avoid overshooting. If you shoot too much, you will regret it, your hard drives and their backups will regret it, and you will drive your video editors insane! Get the shot and move on. But never forget to back it all up!
- Audio: My philosophy with audio is you can never be cheap with audio! It’s the one case where the gear really does make the difference. Always invest in good audio gear, I promise that you won't regret it.
Sebastiano Tomada (left), chasing one of his subjects during the arrival of the first major flow of civilians fleeing the besieged city of Mosul, Iraq.
4. Choose your rig carefully
Shoulder rigs. Those bad boys are indestructible, unless a military tank drives over it, in which case you just have bad luck. Shoulder rigs are like underwear; they need to be extremely comfortable but they also have to not get in the way and must pack easily. I love small rigs that can break down easily and will let you work inside of a vehicle.
Can I suggest you one? Probably not! Why? Because I have gone through so many options and made so many purchases and returns I never want to go through that experience again. I do suggest that you stay away from complete rigs setups or bundles. By this I mean: start with a shoulder pad and camera plate attachment you can’t live without and slowly build it up from there. You will probably end up with 10 different brands on your final build out. Again, trial and error!
Your camera and your rig should be an extension of yourself; you should be able to transition from a shoulder stance to a handheld one in a minute. Less is definitely more here.
If you are working in the field, ballistic protection is essential; a bulletproof vest and helmet should be next to you at all times.
5. Don’t skimp on safety
If you are working in the field, ballistic protection is essential; a bulletproof vest and helmet should be next to you at all times. Also, always carry a tourniquet and a medical trauma bag with you. I suggest everyone to have a tourniquet and to know how to use it. It’s a simple device that can save you or others from massive bleeding. Take a basic medical course or watch a few videos online. I encourage everyone to share this with your friends and family. I have lost friends in the field who would have probably been still around today if they had a tourniquet with them. A tourniquet is cheap and effective. Hopefully, you will never have to use it on yourself but most importantly be ready, you might need to use it on someone else. Stay safe out there!
Sebastiano Tomada filming inside a armored vehicle during a military offensive in Mosul, Iraq.
I will close this up with some of the gear I use for my video setup:
- Canon C300MKII
- Lenses are really up to you but I never leave my Canon 24mm L f1/4 behind
- 2 Battery chargers.
- 4 Batteries.
- 4-6 CF 256 GB cards (2 of them I leave in a secure place like a “home base”).
- Tripod with video tripod head
- Zacuto VTC Pro Base Plate (super comfy)
- Zacuto VTC Tripod Plate (for your tripod)
- Zacuto Mounting Kit (to reposition your LCD viewfinder to a lower and closer position)
- 2x Wooden Camera NATO Rails, cause you always need those (especially if you want to use the mounting kit for your LCD viewfinder)
- Vocas top Handgrip (much better then the handgrip that comes with the C330MKII)
- Zacuto Helmet (the cheese plate is good for attachments etc.)
- Tilta quick release hand grips (very light, ergonomic and will fit everyone’s arms length)
- Lectrosonic LAVS (simply the best; mine have been through hell and back)
- Other, cheaper lav options are:
- Lav accessories including vampire clips, windscreens, clips, etc
- Sennheiser MKH 8060 Shotgun Microphone (can't go wrong with this guy)
- Shotgun accessories including shock mount, windscreen and the optional audio modules that you can add to the unit itself
- I also like to bring a field recorder like the Lectrosonics Portable Digital Recorder that can be used to record natural sound, and be a backup for interviews in case your LAVS break or malfunction. It can also play as a second recorder when interviewing multiples.
I always get all of my medical gear, including tourniquets from Dark Angel Medical.
Was all of this of any use? Feel free to contact me or post comments below if you have any questions.
The 'Hunting ISIS' series was produced by Delirio Films. It premieres on the History Channel on Tuesday, May 29th at 10/9c, followed by an encore presentation on Viceland on Sunday, June 3rd at 10/9c.
Featured image: Sebastiano Tomada in the back of a Kurdish YPG military vehicle during a military operation in northern Syria.