The Camcorder and the Kalashnikov
John Ryle on the making of The Price of Survival
In November 1993 I travelled to one of the rebel-controlled areas of Southern Sudan with Bapiny Tim Chol, a commander in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). We took with us a Sony VX1 Hi-8 camcorder, then the top-of-the line in the emerging prosumer video market. Neither of us had much experience in shooting video documentaries. It was the end of the analog era—before digital technology conquered the world—so the equipment, though cutting-edge, was already on its way to the annals of technical history. Of necessity we used only solar power.
For some years previously—in the interstices of working as an anthropologist for international aid organizations in Sudan and elsewhere in Eastern Africa—I had been recording video messages by the people of the area where I lived before the war and carrying them back to show to their relatives in exile in Britain and America. With the advent of the Sharp Viewcam camcorder, which incorporated a speaker and a three-inch monitor (four inches in later models), it became possible to reverse the process and show video clips of Sudanese residing outside to their relatives inside Sudan. At that time most of those living in rural areas of Sudan had never come across a TV, or a computer. It was a remarkable experience to watch them as they watched their children, or their parents, come alive and speak to them on screen. Sometimes they had not seen them in the flesh for a decade or more.
The new generation of video cameras was also used by rebel forces in South Sudan for training and dissemination of information. Communications technology has made life in the warzone visible in a way that it was not in the first decade of the war—in the 1980s and early 1990s. The film’s protagonist, Bapiny Tim Chol, a young Bul Nuer from former Upper Nile Province who joined the SPLA as a schoolboy in mid-1980s, soon after the start of the war, was a pioneer in this field.
The Viewcam is an innovative consumer camcorder which has an LED screen instead of a viewfinder, so it also functioned, for us, as a back-up to the VX1. For this reason we preferred it to another device then becoming available that also had an LED screen, the Sony Watchman. The Watchman is a video recorder and player—but not a camcorder. It was the only other device with an ultra-compact monitor available in mid-1993.
Both the Viewcam and the Watchman have remarkably bright screens and a reasonably wide angle of view. Up to thirty people at a time could—and did—watch the Viewcam when we showed footage at evening time in Southern Sudanese villages and cattle camps. It was a novel and sometimes astonishing sight, both for them and for us.
In the case of the film planned in 1993 the original idea had been to develop the role I had previously played as a video messenger as a narrative device in a documentary film about the life of a community in the war zone. The technical and logistical challenge was considerable. Apart from guns, almost all modern technology in the rural areas of Southern Sudan had been destroyed by war. There was no land access to the area; you could only get there by plane. Roads in South Sudan, such as there are, remain unmetalled, unmaintained and, since the war began, mostly impassable by vehicles—that’s if there are any vehicles to be had. In 1993, after ten years of war, there was almost no ground transport and no electricity outside a few government-controlled towns.
The terrain of the floodplain of South Sudan alternates between swamp and savannah; the distances from village to village are long. And although one or other of the two factions of the SPLA was in control of the majority of the rural areas there was some danger of being caught in hostilities between them, or between them and government forces. We had no radio. So, away from the airstrip, we were on our own.
This was a film that could scarcely have been contemplated even three or four years earlier. That we succeeded in making it was due to the hospitality of the exceptionally hard-pressed inhabitants of Southern Sudan, who have suffered now for decades from a cruel, slow conflict that threatens their communal survival. It was due also to the ingenuity of the R&D departments of Sony and Sharp—and other companies—in tweaking hi-8 to something approaching professional level. And it was due to the power of the sun.
In the event it wasn’t possible to make quite the film I planned, since I was not permitted to return to the village where I had recorded the original video messages. Instead the film follows the journey of Bapiny Tim Chol, who joined the rebel army—the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army)—as a schoolboy in the early 1980s. It begins with Bapiny’s return, after ten years, to his home area in western Upper Nile, also known as Unity state. He discovers that the town where he grew up is now a ruin—his relatives are scattered. The core of the film is the story of his search for the survivors. We called the film The Price of Survival.
In his role as a video cameraman for the SPLA Bapiny had chronicled events in the war using a VHS camcorder, so he understood very well the potential of video to show the outside world what was happening in his homeland—and vice versa. In the commentary to the film he puts it like this:
In battle I carried a video camera in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other…. I learned that the camera is a weapon too.
In the film that we were to make, though, Bapiny was the protagonist rather than the cameraman. And it was not to be a film about the SPLA, but about the life of the civilian population currently under SPLA control—that is, Bapiny’s kinsmen and those he had left behind in the village.
I was keen to have maximum operational flexibility when we were in the field: no avoidable financial constraints and no strict limit on the time or distance we could travel. (In the event we were there for six weeks and walked about two hundred miles). It wasn’t practicable to take even a two-man crew, so the equipment had to be minimal—a camcorder in one hand and a microphone in the other. I needed to be able to operate the camera and sound equipment alone.
The camera kit
The AK-47—the Kalashnikov automatic rifle—is a gun famous for its durability. You can drop it in a swamp and it will still shoot. It would be unwise to do the same to a camcorder—though they are not as delicate as they look. The VX1 had to be protected from river crossings and dust storms—and because we were on foot we needed to be able to carry everything on our backs, though we usually had some assistance.
It was the early days of mobile video; also of mobile video protective equipment. The kit I brought out from England to Kenya consisted of a customized padded backpack with a rigid aluminium case that fitted neatly inside it. (It had been manufactured by Sony for an earlier model of camcorder.) But this hard case added to the weight and it was too difficult to open without removing it from the backpack, so after a few trials I abandoned the case and packed the cameras and video tapes in polypropylene food boxes. These kept dust and moisture at bay and gave some flexibility in arranging the equipment in the back pack (though the pack was not as well-balanced as it might have been). When I wanted to be ready to shoot I used a shoulder bag with a large oblong plastic box inside—without a lid—to make a rigid protective nest for the camcorder. When the equipment wasn’t in use I replaced the lids and sealed the plastic boxes with gaffer tape. At least, I did this sometimes. I should have done it every time: everything worked, but when the camera was serviced later there was sand in the lens.
We knew there would be no reliable source of power once we were in Sudan, except for the sun. I considered taking lithium batteries. This might have been a satisfactory solution, but we did not know how long we would be in the field and I was keen to have a renewable energy supply so we could show footage to people while we were there without worrying about depletion of the batteries. At that point no one I knew had made a film using exclusively solar power, but it seemed to me that was the way to go.
One of the tricky aspects of photovoltaics is the nature of the current that solar panels produce. The amperage is variable; nickel cadmium batteries don’t like this. Lead acid batteries are much more tolerant. In order to charge standard rear-mounted ni-cad camcorder power-packs from a solar panel we found it paid off to use a lead-acid battery as a buffer. It struck me after a while that the ni-cads were superfluous. Sony, I knew, supplied a compact 12v DC adaptor that was designed to be used with a car cigar-lighter—it’s the same size as a ni-cad and weighs rather less. Using this adaptor, it was possible to use a waist-mounted 12v lead-acid battery with a cigar-lighter socket attached directly to the camera as a power source. So I bought extra batteries in Nairobi and got an adaptor sent out from England. This set-up was more-or-less the state of the art for an affordable mobile solar power system in the early 1990s.
The smallest lead-acid battery available weighs about the same as half a dozen fat ni-cads and lasts about the same length of time: you can shoot the whole day with it. We carried three altogether. They were sealed solid-gel batteries. I smuggled them on to the plane and prayed they would not leak (they didn’t). Their recharge and discharge time turned out to be more predictable than that of ni-cads. And they had a longer useful life. Lead acid batteries are cheaper, too—cheaper than ni-cads and a lot cheaper than lithium batteries. Yet another advantage is that they can be charged directly, without an adaptor, from a car battery, or from a diesel generator with a 12v output, if you have access to one. And they can be used to power lights. (I took a 12v mains adaptor as well, for charging at the last place where there was mains electricity before we left Kenya.) But they are heavy, of course.
The battery belt was purchased in a hurry. It consisted of a fitted bag for the battery, with a cigar lighter socket, looped on a broad cordura belt that was originally designed, not for a camcorder, but to power a halogen light for hunting. It was lop-sided, but tolerable. I dare say there is a purpose-made camera battery belt that serves the same function as the one I used, or soon will be. (Sony’s instruction book for the VX1 has an illustration of what appears to be a large flat power pack slung from the shoulder, which may be a lithium battery; but there are no details given in the text.) Or maybe there is some new, ultra-compact battery technology coming down the pike that will solve all these problems.
Solar energy makes dreamers of us all
After some sifting of the kit in Nairobi, we set off with the equipment detailed above. The lead-acid batteries needed five or six hours of uninterrupted sunshine to charge fully. When we were on the move this necessitated a strict routine to keep them charged. Because of the heat we travelled mostly by night, so it was usually possible to do this while we were filming or resting in the day. I only had recourse to the ni-cads once or twice. But keeping batteries charged in these circumstances was an irksome additional responsibility for an already overburdened director-camera-soundperson.
An aluminium solarflex panel purchased earlier from Telesonic Marine in the Brunswick Centre in London (designed to be used mainly by yachtsmen), turned out to be excellent piece of kit: rigid, but light and strong. The other solar panel, a nameless brand made up for me by Chintu Electronics in the Sarit Centre in Nairobi (which also supplied two of the lead-acid batteries) was plastic mounted and not so tough, but it worked fine too. It’s worth remembering that one of the most important aspects of the management of photovoltaics is keeping the panels clean. A day’s worth of dust can cut the charge considerably. Charging the ni-cads was an additional nuisance: there were so many adaptors and cables. With two cameras we had to carry a total of four different adaptors for them. Life would be easier if Sony and Sharp peripherals were interchangeable. I’d have happily said goodbye to ni-cads altogether if I could have taken a couple of reasonably priced lithium cells for use in the last resort.
I can envisage some other improvements in the solar shooting kit: longer leads on the panels so the batteries can be sheltered from the sun while they are charging; another Solarflex panel instead of the rather flimsy generic panels I bought in Nairobi; or a folding panel, if one could be found at a reasonable price. A panel that incorporates an adjustable stand to angle it towards the sun could be useful. Or a panel made in sections, like an umbrella, so it can also act as a sunshade, or a light reflector…. Thus the promise of solar energy makes dreamers of us all.
In the field the system worked very well, better than could have been hoped. There were plenty of practical and logistical difficulties during the six weeks we spent on the shoot, and some physical danger, but no problems with the video equipment. On one occasion, with exhausted batteries, I found it was possible to run the camera direct from a panel, with a lead-acid battery as a buffer. (Strictly-speaking the shoot was not entirely solar-powered. The external mics had their own non-rechargeable mercury or alkaline cells, though their power consumption was tiny. In this connection it would surely be useful if Sony—and Sharp—could provide on-board sockets for running mics from the camera’s power source, particularly radio mics.)
At the time we made the film the VX1 was undoubtedly the camera of choice for this kind of work, for those without the budget for professional equipment or the means to transport it. It lacks the audio monitoring and separate access to each sound channel of the old V6000 (the first plausible semi-pro hi-8 camcorder) and the V6000’s reassuring shoulder mounting. But the three chips in the VX1 give an immediately noticeable improvement in colour, red in particular—you can see it even on the little Viewcam screen. And the V6000 is simply too big when minimal weight and bulk are important. I used the wide-angle auxiliary lens on the VX1 almost all the time. For some reason this device comes without a front thread, so you can’t put a lens hood on it. This is a nuisance. Let’s hope Sony come up with a new one, or an adaptor for it. Or a lens with more range at the wide end. Or, best of all, a detachable lens system.
The greatest luxury in terms of weight and bulk was the tripod, as it will always be. As all videographers know, amateur or professional, you can’t do without a tripod. With a tripod you can set up an interview and move around, if need be, during the shot, while the camera is running. When you are a one-person camera team, and trying to direct and do the interviewing as well, this is invaluable. The tripod also made it possible to shoot wildlife—what’s left of it. There was trouble, though, attaching the tripod to the camera. The tiny threaded socket set in the malleable plastic belly of the VX1 is not really strong enough. It reminds you that the VX1, though it is labelled “Pro”, is actually a domestic camcorder pushed to the limit of technical ingenuity.
A little Sony ECM 909 mic—already nine or ten years old—did remarkably well. I thought of taking a boom for use with the mic, but it turned out that the spears carried by almost all adult men in Upper Nile—along with guns nowadays—can be easily adapted for this purpose with gaffer tape. It became a point of pride among those who assisted us in this way to keep the mic in exactly the right position, just out of frame. Those with military training were best at this, accustomed as they were to remaining motionless on command. The mic lacked a windsock, so, on the advice of a helpful BBC cameraman in Nairobi I made one from a child’s furry toy.
Roll on digital
The film was intended to bear witness to the struggle for survival of people in the heartland of South Sudan. As of the mid-1990s there is no foreseeable end to the suffering there. If anything, things are getting worse. Humanitarian needs are paramount. In this situation how much does it help for South Sudanese to have a voice in the outside world, to show how communities there manage to survive despite everything—as we tried to do in The Price of Survival? Can advances in communications technology help the cause of South Sudan? I would like to hope so.
Next time we’ll take a radio mic and a bigger shotgun mic—the Sennheiser 300 was good, but not as good as, for example, a 416 would have been. A chest brace would be useful, too. I’ve never used a monopod or a Steadicam (either the optical or the electronic kind), but will do so at the first opportunity. Next time it will be the rainy season, so we will need to protect the equipment more effectively from damp.
The received wisdom in the growing community of semi-professional hi-8 users is to avoid running tape through the camera more than once—and to transfer it as soon as possible to more durable format. We ignored this advice because we were keen to show what we shot—or some of it —while we were in the field, to the people we were filming. The intimacy of hi-8, which makes it such a powerful medium for this kind of film, is further augmented when those you are filming can see what you are doing. This is particularly important in a culture which is not yet video-literate, where you may have to explain that it is a video camera not a still camera you are using and that it records sound as well as pictures. We probably paid a price in drop-outs and glitches; it was a price worth paying. Post-production problems are another story. As with advances in solar power generation and battery technology, the future of video editing can’t happen fast enough. Our footage—thirty hours of it—was dubbed down to Beta-SP on our return for the edit. What a performance! What a cost! Roll on digital editing, so that it can all be done on discs or hard drives.