Tim Hawkins Scales Himalayas with Sony Cameras for Todd Samson’s Body Hacks
For most DOPs, shooting in the cold brings its challenges, but when the cold comes hand in hand with climbing a mountain in the Himalayas, that’s a whole different ballgame according to Sydney-based cinematographer Tim Hawkins.
Hawkins explained, “I’ve been a Sony F5 owner for almost two years and a Sony user my whole career. Of all the Sony cameras I’ve owned the F5 is most definitely the one that has revolutionised my shooting style. Put simply I love the F5 and the pictures it produces. I’ve always had a love hate relationship with my cameras as they often seem to have a life of their own and my F5 certainly does sometimes push my buttons. That said, when I was asked if I’d be willing to shoot the Himalayan Sherpa episode of Todd Samson’s Body Hack, I knew it was the perfect camera for the job.”
Hawkins was told it would be a challenging shoot on many levels, namely: personally, professionally, and logistically.
He continued, “It was mentioned that, as with any high altitude mountain shoot, there is a fair chance the crew may become a part of the story. The executive producer then went on to explain to me that they had also chosen the world’s most difficult trekking peak, Lobuche East.”
Lobuche East sits just below Mount Everest’s peak at 6200 metres. The trek would take 17 days and feature a push to the summit where the crew would ascend 1100 metres in a single day in extremely difficult climbing locations.
Hawkins added, “After accepting the role I started thinking about the camera. I really wanted to shoot the episode with my F5 and cine lenses, but had concerns with how it might function at extreme altitude, something every cameraman has to consider when shooting in the Himalayas. I also had to take into account how the F5 would handle the dust and dirt below the snow line, and what would it do above that snow line in minus 20° temperatures.”
The camera was only one of many questions Hawkins and the crew faced. There was also the issue of how they would travel with the F5, how they would power it and how they would wrangle the data from it.
Hawkins continued, “I was determined to give the episode a cinematic feel, so large sensors were the only option for me. Our director, Jeff Siberry, agreed. We discussed cameras and lenses at length. He was a Sony FS5 fan and reckoned it would be a good choice for run and gun. He also owned a Sony A7S. I knew the A7S well and reckon it’s the best second camera or gimbal camera going, but the FS5 was new to me. Jeff was happy enough to make the FS5 the main camera but I wasn’t convinced and wanted the F5 on the shoot. On paper the FS5 looked bloody good though – large sensor, S-Log, built in variable ND, high frame-rates and small size, but I still had my concerns as I knew what the F5 was capable of.”
After some debate and test shoots, Hawkins and Siberry decided to use all three Sony cameras. The decision was made to travel with the F5 as the main camera and use it as much as possible while using the FS5 as a run and gun camera – and potentially the camera they would summit with. The A7S would be used by Siberry to shoot additional elements.
Hawkins added, “The preparation for this shoot nearly made my brain explode. The logistics were complex, and I was also on a mission to get as fit as possible. Apart from my three Sony cameras and multiple lenses, we traveled with a Movi M5 gimbal, two Miller Solo tripods, two LED light panels, two MacBook Pros, five GoPros, a little 1m slider, and a drone. It felt like a lot of kit for an expedition but I just couldn’t lose anything without losing production value.”
Feeling fit and with everything packed into backpacks Hawkins, Siberry and the crew set off for their 28-day journey to Nepal and Louche East.
Hawkins commented, “Our first scene was flying into Lukla airport. Known as the world’s most dangerous airport. I’d picked up the FS5 to shoot a PTC with Todd in the cabin and to shoot the landing, and began to wonder whether Jeff’s predictions about the FS5 were starting to come true. It was the start of a pattern that continued the whole month. The FS5 was always in my hand or close by in my backpack whereas the F5 was carried by a Sherpa in a backpack. That said I really did try to use the F5 as much as possible. Where a lot of our shooting style was run and gun and the FS5 was used, but in truth most of the content below 5000 metres was shot on the F5. Shooting in Cine EI mode on Cine S-Log 3 using the LC-709TypeA LUT we shot a lot of off speed, and I used the interval record mode to shoot all the time lapses. I decided before leaving that I would try not to move the ISO EI rating off 2000 ISOEI as I didn’t want to create any confusion with the new clients in post production. In other words I wanted them to also apply the same LUT and have correctly exposed pictures from the get go.”
Hawkins shot most of the footage wide open which did cause a few issues with the rest of the team as he explained. “I drove the Sherpas and Jeff crazy as I changed my Matte box ND filters a thousand times to get correct exposure. It was a tough challenge I’d set myself but I was committed to keeping the EI ISO at 2000 while shooting with the lens open. The fact that I did, meant the results at lower altitudes were magnificent.”
As an expedition they were moving fast and Hawkins was working hard. The crew’s expedition doctor had warned them that if they didn’t slow down it was highly likely they would get altitude sickness, but for Hawkins slowing down was an impossibility. “I was hired to get the job done and was relying on my fitness to get me through. An added challenge was the data wrangling as it kept me up late each night when I needed to get sleep. Sleep and rest are a huge factor when attempting to fend off altitude sickness. Things were going well as we ascended, the days were ticking by and we had a very happy productive crew. Our camera decisions were proving successful. The rushes were looking good, and while sleeping with my camera batteries to keep them warm was uncomfortable, we had no technical problems. At Everest base camp we encountered our first major drama, and that was my health. I was crook, and as predicted the doctor said I had altitude sickness so we all needed to descend and I needed to rest. Suddenly not summiting was looking like a possibility.”
Fortunately for Hawkins, on his second day of rest his symptoms lessened and although still quite unwell he pushed on up past Everest base camp and onto Lobuche lower camp. Lower camp is 5600 metres and minus 16°.
Hawkins wondered if any Sony F5 had ever ventured to this extreme altitude adding, “Ultimately it was the last stop for the F5. We did shoot some scenes with it up there and it didn’t miss a beat. It powered on, and to my surprise the batteries even held charge. The FS5 would be the main camera from now on, but I had a big worry about its usability in the rough conditions. I’d been using Canon L series lenses with it and was worried I wouldn’t be able to use the zoom or focus at that height, in such low temperatures, and in the dark as I was already struggling with these issues at lower altitudes. I was also worried that when things got real on summit day, I wouldn’t be able to operate the camera as needed.”
Hawkins shared his concerns with Siberry who offered up a solution, pulling out several Sony Zoom lenses he’d brought along for the ride, and told Hawkins to try them.
Hawkins said, “I figured out very quickly that they not only looked good enough but integrated with the camera much better than the Canon lenses. I suddenly had a servo lens zoom and auto focus plus facial recognition. Now I’d not used a servo on a lens in 15 years and never used auto focus, but in this situation they were a Godsend. I figured out I was able to use the servo lens with my gloves on and use the facial recognition with the auto focus. Without the Sony lens giving me servo zoom and auto focus surely I would have been doomed, but in fact we’d been saved! I was a little worried about the batteries for the FS5 as we only had three of them and they hadn’t been tested at such low temperatures. In the end we decided I’d sleep and carry the spares on me to keep them warm. With all that settled, we packed the F5 up and kitted up the FS5 for a 2am attempt at Louche East summit.”
Summit day proved to be far more difficult than Hawkins imagined, both personally and professionally as he concluded, “For me, it was quite a challenging technical climb, and after Crampon Point I was a broken man on a hill at extreme altitude and had no right to be shooting. I really had a rough time. With all the different kit I was carrying 17kg in my backpack which wasn’t the smartest decision, and to be honest camera work was not at the forefront of my mind on summit day, survival was. In truth, I couldn’t operate well. It was a point and shoot situation. The camera performed really well in full auto mode and my fear about battery life was unfounded as I didn’t even burn through one battery all day. As it turned out the pictures from the FS5 looked great. I used the zoom and everything was in focus. We summited a little after 10am and after an exhausting eight hours. As an experienced DOP, it’s hard for me to admit this, but a servo zoom and facial recognition auto focus on a Sony FS5 really saved my bacon. I must say hats off to both the F5 and FS5 as when push came to shove under the harshest conditions I’ve ever shot in, both performed brilliantly and neither skipped a beat.”
Todd Samson’s Body Hack is currently airing on Ten Play and Discovery Channel International. Watch the episode here.
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