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Excerpt from upcoming issue 2

ction

exploring digital cinematography & beyond

Chernobyl Project A PERSONAL DOCUMENTARY PROJECT WITH SONY’S 4K FS700 CAMCORDER By Philip Grossman


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y passion for digital imagery has been with me my whole life. I started in photography when I

got my first camera at age 13. It was fully manual so I had to learn how to do it all myself. Then I got into video, using my father’s VHS home video camera to make movies in my backyard. Soon, I realized my “hobby” was leading me into a career, but the passion has always stayed with me — whether it’s at my current day job at The Weather Channel, or through my personal video projects. The documentary about Chernobyl I’m currently working on began the same way. I’ve always had a fascination with nuclear power. I grew up near Three Mile Island so the Chernobyl story just drew me in. It’s my first real attempt at a documentary and I really wanted it to be something different. It started as a photography project, but I soon realized I could tell a much different story using video.

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decided to take a year-leave from my job at the time and pursue the Chernobyl project. I researched how I could get there and found there were companies doing public tours of the city and facility. In my search for the tour company, I came across an individual who, at the time, had been there three or four times. We found we shared similar interests and visions, and after seeing my still work, he realized my photography skills were right for what I was looking to do. Soon, I was in Kiev. I met up with him and two other photographers early in the morning. We drove out to the zone and spent four days from sun up to sun down just photographing and gaining access. I had a great time and shot about 10,000 photos. In fact, some of my photos from Chernobyl were used by the United Nations during an event about the incident. I also took some video with a consumer Handycam camcorder. When I got back and saw what I had captured I was just mesmerized. So when my contact asked me if I wanted go back, it was a no-brainer. We actually managed to gain access to the control room of reactor block number four, which is where the accident happened. I had several different cameras with me, a Sony Handycam and a POV camera. This time around, I had a clearer vision of the story I wanted to tell, focusing much more on video than stills. It began to take the shape of the project I had envisioned from the start. Its title is “500,000 Voices,� which is a tribute to the 500,000 people who were involved in the cleanup, and to those who are still there. I have done interviews with ambulance drivers, two old sisters who still live in the zone, and an old couple in their eighties that returned 10 days after the accident and have lived back in their home since then. I wanted to show more than the typical journalistic point-of-view. I wanted to get the real stories of what happened and give viewers the ability to draw their own conclusions.

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Its title is “500,000 Voices,” which is a tribute to the 500,000 people who were involved in the clean-up, and to those who are still there. I have done interviews with ambulance drivers, two old sisters who still live in the zone, and an old couple in their eighties that returned 10 days after the accident and have lived back in their home since then.

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round the time of my second trip there, I had just started working at The Weather Channel and was building more of a relationship with Sony, so I had a better view into the newer types of digital imaging technology available to me. One camera that stood out to me was the NEX-FS700. Its 4K capabilities were really intriguing to me. The look I wanted was more fine art in nature so I knew this camera would do the job for me. I wanted something that was relatively manageable because I’m shooting all by myself and as a “one-man band,” you just don’t have a lot of time to pull focus, set aperture and exposures. Other cameras were appealing, but I always found myself coming back to the FS700, especially now with the greater options available for 4K output and recording. Using the FS700 with the Odyssey monitor gives me the flexibility to do 4K RAW and ProRes in the field with a small set-up. I get 4K quality, autofocus, auto exposure and manual controls, plus the “scopes” with the Odyssey7Q — all in a lightweight package. It’s just a fantastic camera and I’m excited about what it can bring to this documentary to tell my story. I want it to be more filmic with a real cinematic feel, because the area in and around Chernobyl is so visually interesting. What’s great about the FS700 is its ability to do high dynamic range without me having to bring tons of equipment or do a lot of post processing. The fact that I could go up to 240p and down to 24p and mix and match all within the same camera is phenomenal. I was actually quite amazed at its 18 to 200mm zoom, because I was in a lot of environments where it’s just not easy to change lenses or carry a lot of equipment. On a project like this, you’ve got to carry everything in with you and carry it back out. I was able to get fairly wide shots and when my partner climbed to the top of the cooling tower 700 feet up, I could be on the ground using a tripod and almost get him in full frame.

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I wanted something that was relatively manageable because I’m shooting all by myself and as a “one-man band,” you just don’t have a lot of time to pull focus, set aperture and exposures.

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he camera actually has two types of image stabilization, which allowed me to go walking in the woods and still get a fairly smooth shot without needing a lot of other equipment with me. The FS700 is so smooth when transitioning from light to dark environments. I’m going in and out of some buildings where there is no electric light or power at all. We had some bright sunny days, we had some overcast days and we were able to transition easily from one to the other. This camera allowed me to go from light to dark without it being jolting and having to actually cut the shots. I could have a smoother transitional shot. For areas that were pitch black, I had a custombuilt headlamp that was 18,000 lumens, a very bright LED light. The way LEDs work, you have to have a small lens over top of them to get the right light to throw, which causes a fairly sharp cut off. With my regular film camera, it was very

noticeable so I had to be very careful when framing, trying to stay out of the edge of the light. The FS700 actually did a really good job of smoothing that, and not accentuating that fall off. I was able to get a much wider image without worrying about that sharp cut off and “horror film” look you often get when using a spotlight. The FS700 is nearly the perfect camera. It stands up to challenging environments really well, and now with the Odyssey7Q, I have the best of both worlds in terms of the 4K side. 4K won’t necessarily change the way I shoot, but it will definitely work to my advantage when doing wider shots because 4K just has so much resolution and I can capture so much more detail — children’s shoes on the floor, 30 years of the environment. I want to get close-ups on all that. So 4K won’t necessarily change how I shoot. It will definitely change what I shoot.

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’m a big fan of 60p shooting. It really lets me choose the look I want, for example, slowing things down by 50%. If I could shoot everything in 120, I would, but I just know it eats up a lot of drive space. 60P gives me that flexibility to choose what I want later. I can shoot in 4K, but delivering in HD definitely changes the way you think. Being able to shoot everything in 120 and deliver it at 60 or 30p, again, gives me that flexibility to do things differently in post because I’ve got so much more data to work with. Ultimately, the FS700 and 4K will truly make this documentary something really special. It would be a shame not to watch it in 4K after shooting it in 4K simply because of detail. That’s what drove a lot of this, even going back to when it was just purely a still photography project. When people look at my photos, they always notice that there’s so much information in them. They feel like they’re drawn into the photo and that’s what drew me to 4K because it’s very similar to the way I shoot photography. There’s so much detail and information that it pulls you in deeper than an HD image would. Our next challenges are not camera-related, but more logistical. We’re working on planning our next trip to Chernobyl, tentatively set for August 2014. We’re also looking at distribution options, including Sony’s 4K download service (Video Unlimited 4K) and television broadcast. This is a project that’s very personal to me, and something I’m extremely proud of. Being able to shoot it with a camera like the FS700 just adds to that feeling of excitement and pride, knowing it will look the best it can. For more information about Philip Grossman and his projects, please visit www.pgpimages.com

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Chernobyl Project  

Excerpt from Upcoming Issue 2 of @ction