Change your lens, change your life! Or at least, change your story.

So in preparation for filming an archaeological excavation in Greece later this month (a central component of my PhD), I recently invested in my own shiney new Canon XF300 and sound kit. It’s my first professional camera and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to upgrade from the wee consumer-level Sony HDR camcorder I’ve used previously to a machine where I really can control the image and sound at a quality that can then be professionally edited, projected or broadcast. I did consider renting a kit, but since I intend to spend a lot of time in future on archaeology sites doing long-form observational filming, purchasing my own gear outright seemed cheaper in the long run. And of course a lot more fun!

I shall call him Cameron and he shall be mine. Canon XF300 Pro-Camcorder.
I shall call him Cameron and he shall be mine. Canon XF300 Pro-Camcorder.

So there I was on the weekend, geeking out with my kit, testing everything out to make sure it was all compatible and working, when boom! Battery charger blinked it’s last blink, spluttered and died. No worries I thought, I’ll send it off for warranty repairs and worse comes to worse I still had time to buy a new one on Amazon. No big deal. Shortly after, as I did a final check of my settings, the LCD flip out screen on the camera flickered and disappeared, never to be seen again. Anxiety mounting. Sure, I could always work with just the viewfinder, but what if that kicked the bucket too? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH MY BABY? With 2 weeks until I was booked to fly out to the excavation I began to feel the cold sweat of the solo shooter’s pre-production panic.

Thanks Canon.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons about solo shooting in the days since The Gear Check Of Doom:

1. Warranties can only be redeemed in the country of purchase. Don’t expect a global company to grant global coverage (thanks Canon) (expect more rants about regional barriers to media production in coming months). Therefore register your products and know your warranty details are so you don’t waste time chasing them through international hotline menus or waiting for the right time zone and office hours to roll around.

2. Know your repair options before you shoot. For Canon there is only one authorised store in the UK that repairs professional camcorders for non-registered Canon users (there’s another joint in London but you need to own several professional Canon cameras, lenses, etc to qualify). They’re H. Lehmann, and they’re all the way up in Stoke on Trent in the midlands. I scouted out local options online but either they don’t touch the professional grade stuff or they were dubious websites with no registered business details. I went with H. Lehmann, sent my baby up by courier, begged them to fast track the repairs, and prayed to Vertov, the patron saint of documentary filmmakers for a quick turn around.

3. Have a support network. I had a few archaeologist friends who’s response was genuinely sympathetic, but ultimately (and not unkindly) a little dismissive of my absolute freak out concerns, and who suggested I just borrow a camcorder or DSLR from the archaeology department. How to begin explain the difference between camera types and the stories they can tell? I imagine it’s a little bit like how archaeologists feel about trowel types – of course you could technically excavate with any old trowel (I’ve even seen people use spoons), but don’t expect any kind of precision or speed if you choose something a bit ad hoc.

Archaeologists really dig these tough wee trowels.
Archaeologists really dig these tough bitty trowels.
Bricklaying trowels. No. Just no.
Bricklaying trowels. No. Just no.
Trowel Love. (Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, Volume 60 Number 4, July/August 2007).
Trowel Love. (Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, Volume 60 Number 4, July/August 2007).

There’s a reason many documentary cinematographers loathe DSLRs, especially for observational or vérité filmmaking (bad sound, ergonomically useless, no stability off tripod [requires a rig], and takes limited to 12-15 minutes [I know you can hack this but is it really worth it?]). And as for consumer-level camcorders, they’re fine for online video or archival footage but say goodbye to projecting a large image of any quality, and again, there’s little to no control of the image or sound. I’m all for experimenting with different mediums and prioritising storytelling (I love camera phones and go-pros), but I’m also aware of the output and limitations of different mediums and formats. In short: I know what kind of footage I want and what kit I need to be able to get it. And I’m willing to trade the beautiful shallow depth of field shots from a DSLR for the run-and-gun freedom of a pro-camcorder. The camera is more than just a recording device – it’s a contract that states your style and intent not only to your participants but also to yourself and your audience – it’s an extension of the filmmakers body and mind. I do plan on using these other cameras for b-roll and could even use them as plan Bs, but to do so would mean a whole different approach to both the documentary mode and distribution strategy.
My filmmaker friends responded to the news in a similar fashion to myself: a flurry of swear words, commiserations and suggestions of turning to alcohol. Unfortunately though, independent documentary filmmakers are a solitary species, and my filmmaker buddies all live far away (most back in Australia), and could offer little more than kind words and sympathetic emoticons.

But all is well! I heard back from H. Lehmann today and the camera and charger are both are fixed and serviced (6 month warranty, thanks guys!) and due back in my loving arms by Monday, much earlier than I expected. A tremendous relief. So in many ways this episode is a blessing in disguise: I now know what to do if I’m in the field, working to a tight schedule, and the camera (or other gear) gives up the ghost. I’ve got my emergency contacts for Canon in Greece printed out and good to go. But I’m also now aware of how very lonely it will likely be as a first-time solo shooter, navigating the pitfalls of documentary production in the midst of a busy archaeological project, with no crew to back me up. And at the end the day the last thing you want is for the technical aspects of the shoot to distract you or your participants from the events at hand (in this case the archaeology and the filming of it).

All of this and I’m still just in pre-production! Expect more updates, thoughts and tips about solo shooting archaeology documentaries in the coming months – and please share any of your own thoughts or advice in the comments below (archaeologists and filmmakers and both!). What kit do you use to film with? What’s your workflow? What would you like it to be?

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