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Elements of Extreme Documentary Production: On Location with the HBO Series ‘VICE’

Shooting for the HBO documentary series VICE, cameraman Jerry Ricciotti and cinematographer Jake Burghart travel the globe to film some of the biggest conflicts in the most hostile environments.

Where are you at the moment?
Jerry Ricciotti: We’re in Benghazi, Libya, right now; we’ve been in Libya for six days. We’ve been doing a story for and maybe for the HBO show. It was a little exciting getting over here and not knowing, with all the clashes and all the police and military, what we would see, but we’ve largely been pretty safe, so it’s been good.

Jake Burghart and Brendan Fitzgerald take cover on the streets of Cairo, shooting handheld with a 70-200mm. Photo by Jerry Ricciotti.

Tell us a little bit about the series.
Ricciotti:VICE is a newsmagazine show, focusing on a younger demographic, telling stories that are a little bit different, stories that might not get covered on the nightly news.

What cameras do you shoot with?
Ricciotti: Primarily we use the Canon C300, and we always go out with a Canon 5D, as well as a Canon XF105 and GoPros.

Why did you choose the C300?
Jake Burghart: The C300 almost chose us. There really isn’t another camera in its class. With two 64 GB CF cards, I can shoot for over 300 minutes straight. I rarely shoot more than that in a day, which means I don’t wrangle cards till the end of every day. That completely eliminates a job in the field, making our crew that much smaller. I’d love to see another Super 35mm sensor camera meet those storage and battery specs while shooting at 1080 at 50 MB/s in a log gamma. Using Canon zoom lenses on the C300 means iris control is on the handgrip, and my focal distance and focal length are on the screen. I’m changing shots and exposure without taking my eye off the screen or my hand off the grip.

Jerry Ricciotti with all the gear: three Canon EOS C300s, two XF305s, two XF105s, three EOS 5D Mk IIIs and all the stuff to make them work. Photo by Jake Burghart.

Ricciotti: I like how easily it can be broken down to almost a camcorder size. When you strip down to just shoot out of the viewfinder, it’s a nicely balanced camera. Of course, it’s really upgradable too. We end up adding a lot of things for shoots. Ergonomically and just practically, having all the buttons and the menu options available is just great. The weatherproofing of it is great too. I’ve been really happy being able to take it [into all sorts of environments].

Burghart: The low-light capabilities are off the charts. We shot in existing light on the Niger Delta one night. All we had was a moon, the gas flares in the distance and one red LED. The scene looks amazing and you would have killed it by lighting it. So many times I don’t have to break a scene to add light. I can just crank the ISO and know it’s still going to look good.

How far have you pushed these cameras?
Ricciotti: For as new as the camera was, we didn’t really know the durability of it, so we figured out what it could and couldn’t do from the nature of our shoots, which are in some pretty extreme terrain—a lot of outdoor work, hiking, on boats, all that sort of transit stuff.

Burghart: We shot with the camera hanging out of helicopters in the freezing Russian winter and spent days in the Sahara during the middle of the summer. We suction-mounted it to trucks in West Africa, hung it out of boats in the Maldives, ran it nonstop on way too many 18-hour days in 90 percent humidity, covered the thing in oil, sand and grime, mounting extra parts anywhere that would take them. The camera stands up to just about anything.

Jake Burghart shoots morning time-lapses in the Sahara with a C300 for a piece on Mauritania. Photo by Jerry Ricciotti.

Most of your shooting is handheld, run-and-gun style shooting?
Ricciotti: It has to be. You’re waking up with the camera in the morning and you don’t put it down until the night. We have to eat with it. Having a solid shoulder rig and nothing too big is important. We don’t really bring sliders or glide cams with us on too many shoots. Mostly it’s just a shoulder rig, all day.

What shoulder rig do you use?
Burghart: We try to keep moving, stay off the tripod as much as possible. Everyone has his own shoulder rig. I like to keep mine light and tight. It’s a combo of Zacuto, Movcam and some custom stuff.

Ricciotti: I have a Redrock Micro cage, with just the rails, and an offset grip that sits on the rails. That’s basically it for me. Just having to be so minimal with it, I put my lavs on the back of the rails on Velcro, behind the battery. Sometimes, depending on my setup, if I’m using the EVF, I’ll actually put the LCD and the XLR back there also, which is as much of a counterweight as I’d ever need.

What other gear are you using?
Ricciotti: Typically the Litepanels Micro is the only light we bring with us. We use all Canon lenses on the cameras. Our equipment manager, Jaime Chew, started calling them the “three wise men”: 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm and the 24-105mm. I also bring a 70-200mm f/2.8 and I have a doubler for that, which I find myself not using that often.

Jerry Ricciotti walks through a village on the Niger Delta. Photo by Jake Burghart.

Burghart: I have a personal set of Zeiss Distagon primes that I use for interviews and really low light, but the [Canon] 16-35mm is my go-to lens. For sound we use Lectrosonics lavs, Sennheiser shotguns, and when we have a sound guy we use a Sound Devices eight-track. We like to run a lot of wires and keep booming to a minimum. Nothing blows intimacy like a boom in your face. We light interviews back home, but in the field we keep it pretty minimal.

What are some of the situations you’ve been in with the cameras that really pushed them to their limits?
Ricciotti: We went up the Niger River delta in Nigeria a couple of months ago to do a story about oil pirates. These guys continue to break into Shell Oil’s pipelines across the delta where they live. They’ll take the oil out of the pipelines and build these large, basically like moonshine stills, where they refine oil themselves.

We weren’t sure if we’d have power there so we brought three to four days’ worth of batteries and cards, and camped up there to go out and find these guys. And we did. We found them in the middle of the night, so we shot with a small Litepanels unit and a shoulder rig on a panga boat as we sped along the river, doing pieces to camera the entire way as we looked for the indication of oil pirates, which are big plumes of smoke flaring from their oil stills. All the time we shot on the 85mm f/1.2, which sometimes we’ll bring if we know we’re going to be in low-light situations a lot. Shooting on an 85mm at f/1.2 on a moving boat is not the easiest thing to do, but the footage came out great. It’s really steady and the audio sounds good on a lav, and the shotgun—Fuzzy did a really good job picking up the host’s audio.

Jake Burghart’s current C300 handheld rig, with a Movcam top handle. The Zacuto Recoil Lite puts the camera right on his shoulder for better weight distribution. The extended follow focus sits out past the LCD screen, which has a Diety Gear Mira loupe. On the front is a custom handgrip offset made by AbelCine. His shotgun is mounted off to the side so the camera doesn’t get too tall. Photo by Jake Burghart.

Once we got there, we had to walk through a foot of sludge, which is basically a combination of mud and oil that had been discarded by the guys on a daily basis. They’ll refine gallons and gallons of oil, but a lot of that gets discarded around them, so they’re throwing this oil out all over the place. You’re standing in big, knee-high rubber boots, and as the oil is being refined, it’s generating a lot of smoke. It’s a really dangerous environment because that smoke can catch fire and the whole place can go up in flames.

Of course, you’d like to have a tripod but you can’t, so you find yourself kind of balancing with one hand out, and the other hand shooting as you move across a pretty explosive terrain, and the whole time monitoring audio and pulling focus. I was really happy with the camera. I don’t think it was a situation that a camcorder would have really shined in. You didn’t need a heavy rig on your shoulder and you didn’t have to look through it all the time. The precision focusing and the low-light capabilities meant it was the perfect camera for the job.

VICE launched in 1994 as a punk magazine and has expanded into a multimedia network that includes, an international network of digital channels, a television and feature film production studio, a magazine, a record label and a book publishing division.

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