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Tue 14 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Bridge over troubled waters

Digital Studio hears from Dubai’s Picture Department about its coverage of relief efforts in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

Bridge over troubled waters
Mongey: All in a day’s work.

Paul Mongey, a cameraman from Dubai
production house The Picture Department, recently spent 13 days embedded with
the US and Pakistani
militaries as they, alongside international aid agencies, distributed much
needed food and provisions to those affected by Pakistan’s recent floods.

Mongey was filming for a special report on PBS’ flagship
nightly news show in the US,
and has been a regular fixture on various international news channels in the
region, including the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, for some years.

Although the floods had largely subsided by the time of
Mongey’s visit, infrastructure in the region was still badly damaged, while
thousands of refugees were still stranded in temporary camps, making both
transport and Mongey’s own job a tricky task: “It was quite a lush area – very
green, with pastures and rivers – really quite Swiss looking, but due to the
damaged roads aid could only make it to a certain point. From there, it had to
be taken to those in need by 10 Chinooks and 10 Black Hawks from a local
Pakistani Air Force base,” Mongey explains.

Of course, on an assignment like this it’s not practical to
carry truck loads of equipment around, so Mongey chose his weapons carefully:
“I used Sony XD cam HD camera, and my Mac with Final Cut Pro 7 for the editing
work. The camera was also connected to a Convergence Design Nano Flash, which
is a great bit of kit.

“It can record in multiple formats – MPEG2, MXF or MOV to
import directly to Quicktime, so you can record directly into a Quicktime file
with no need for a lengthy ingest from the optical disc. The shoot was one hour
and six minutes of HD footage shot at 35 megabits. That would take 43 minutes
to ingest from the disc through the XD cam software – it has to unwrap the MXF,
create a MOV and then put it on the browser. The same job with the Nano Flash
takes 11 minutes, so basically you can get in from shooting all day and in the
time it takes to make a cup of tea you’re ready to start editing. I have mine
loaded with a 32 gig card, so there’s plenty of space, and the HDSTI cable
carries the timecode too.”

The benefits of the hardware don’t stop there, either, as Mongey
continues to eulogise: “You can select the bit rate it records at too, right up
to 280 bits, so you can record as an MXF at a much higher bit rate for Avid, or
MOV for Mac. It’s a $3,000 piece of kit, but with its versatility, as well as
the time saved on ingesting, it’s already paid for itself many times over.”

Mongey was not alone on the shoot. A local fixer was also in
place to provide back up, and film in the camps and villages while his
Dubai-based partner was airborne: “The local guy was filming in SD, so there
was a little stretching and tweaking to be done in the edit, but nothing too
complicated. The footage had to be graded up a little – sharpen up the image, a
little bit of touching up to deal with over-exposure, and some of the hues had to
be sharpened up a little bit. I did all this in Final Cut and it gave the
finished product a crisper look and made it less obvious that it was DV.
Admittedly you can see a quality difference with the HD if you put them next to
each other and look closely, but it’s not something a viewer would notice in
the course of normal watching.”

He continues: “PBS had been interested to know whether it
was practical to shoot in the field in HD in this region. I’ve been shooting HD
in the area for four years for clients like Al Jazeera, so I told them it was
no problem. Of course the bigger bandwidth means HD files take a little longer
to get from A to B, but with a decent ftp programme installed that needn’t be
an issue. I tend to use Transfer, but Cyberduck and Filezilla are free, and
viable, alternatives.”

A good ftp programme may solve a thousand problems, but in
such a remote area, it’s of little use if you have no internet connection.
Luckily, this didn’t prove too much of a problem, although it wasn’t all plain
sailing: “We had a base at the Marriot in Islamabad, so we knew we’d be
connected, but we didn’t know what the connection speed would be, and how much
that might be affected if a hundred businessmen came in from work and decided
to log on to the hotel connection to watch the golf in the evening.”

“I’d guesstimated that every minute filmed would take about
30 minutes to send over, which worked out about right. There were still some
nervy moments, like when we got to two hours before the piece was due to air and
we still had half an hour to go on the transfer. I actually have a friend who
covered the Bangkok riots, and he hired out a whole internet café to be sure
he’d have a good enough connection, but we managed without, even though there
were some touch and go moments.”

The shoot itself
lasted eight days, which broke down into two days shooting, one day editing,
then a further two day shoot and one day editing, with a spare day either side.
In this time Mongey produced an eight minute package, and a second seven minute
package for broadcast on the channel.

Mongey says of his time in the region: “It was an
interesting assignment. I was originally supposed to go out when the floods
started, but there were visa problems. I can understand why the Pakistani
government didn’t want hundreds of journalists running around, but it was
frustrating – this was PBS, a responsible broadcaster, and we were there from a
humanitarian perspective so it was a bit annoying.

“In the end we got the visas and it was decided to do a follow
up piece on how the relief effort was getting on, do they need more and so on.”

Mongey’s choice of equipment was, it seems, not a tough one
to make as his trusty Sony XD is his camera of choice in multiple field
situations. He says: “The XD was an obvious choice. It’s multi-format, so I can
work, say, for the BBC on the Formula One around Yas Island at HD 50i
widescreen, firewire into a DV cam deck and go home with two or three large DV
tapes. Then for CNN, for example, I can switch over to 60i, widescreen HD,
which I also keep in a 4:3 safe format, so they’re free to change it over in London.

It shoots in PAL, NTSC, it can go fast or slow – it really
is a great workhorse. I know I can drag it around in a humid, dusty environment
and  the body of the camera will keep on
going. Technically it only shoots in 1440/1080 but clients are happy with that
for news, and the discs are brilliant – there’s no lugging tapes around, or
dealing with stuck tapes in challenging conditions.

“I still think it’s good in the field to work with a proper
size camera. Maybe it would be a little different in a war zone where being
held up with a big camera could be a matter of life and death, but for this
sort of work it’s fine. Admittedly it’s quite big, but you can still jump
around and get steady shots with it.  You
can really trust what you see in the viewfinder, with no soft backgrounds or
misfocus.”

Portability is clearly a major factor in Mongey’s choice of
editing suite too, and the advances made in technology here have clearly been a
boon for location shoots. He says: “When I started out 20 years ago, you needed
two decks with channels for audio and video, two nine-inch monitors and so on
in the back of a van. Then in 1995 Sony came out with their SX edit decks, AP
and BBC foreign took these on and things started to get smaller.

“That was still a 28 kilo bit of kit, but it was the
beginning. I started using Final Cut Pro 2 in 2002, then I had version three
when I was embedded in Iraq.
That would only really handle straight cuts and the odd dissolve, nothing too
complex, but now with the latest version you can churn out high end HD content
with no problems at all.”

On a closing note, Mongey observes that many clients do
still have reservations about using HD, but he’s convinced it’s the way forward
in order to futureproof content. He says: “The big issue they have is around
space on servers, especially if they’re not currently broadcasting in HD. I
always shoot HD in a 4:3 safe format, so the client can cut out a 4:3 master,
but keep a 16:9 version in their library. That way in three or four years time
they’ll be able to sell the thing all over again in HD widescreen. SD is
definitely going to fade out over the years, and by keeping content in an HD
format, even if you don’t use it as such right now, you’re protecting the value
of those assets for years to come.”

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