Backpack Journalist Offers 'On The Go' Video Advice

Tips for gear and practices when going solo in the field.
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Above: Backpack journalist Bill Gentile at work in Afghanistan.
Bill Gentile, a documentarian and photojournalist, is providing his 30 years of hands-on experience to videographers on the go.

by J.J. Smith

The “Backpack Journalism Project,” which Gentile founded at American University in Washington, D.C., offers equipment and production advice to videographers looking to embrace the challenge of “backpack journalism.”

The methodology of backpack journalism is, Gentile said, “one person goes out into the field and comes back with a product that is much more immediate and intimate than a product that can be generated by a team of four or five people using shoulder held cameras.”

Gentile’s recent works include “Nurses Needed,” about the nursing shortage in the United States; and “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War,” which documents the day-to-day existence of a front-line unit of U.S. Marines operating in the Helmand River Valley of southwestern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. “Afghanistan” earned an Emmy nomination in 2009.

HANDHELD CAMERAS URGED

To start, Gentile urges the use of a handheld camera rather that a shoulder based camera, and that the handheld camera, which produces professional quality images and sound is the Sony PMW-EX1 camcorder. “There’s no question” about the quality of images produced by the Sony PMW-EX1, he said, adding “it’s the camera I took to Afghanistan.”

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Sony’s PMW-EX1R XDCAM EX HD Camcorder Gentile shot “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War” in 2008, and Sony has made advances to the PMW-EX1 since that time. Today, Sony offers the PMWEX1R XDCAM EX HD camcorder, which retains popular features from the PMW-EX1.

Like its predecessor, the PMW-EX1R’s core is its three 1/2”-type CMOS sensors and 14x Fujinon zoom lens that captures full 1920 x 1080 hi-def images to solid-state SxS PRO memory cards at multiple bit rates, resolutions and frame rates and resolution from 60fps and native 23.98p recording at 720p, to 1fps at 1080i, which makes it right for shooting documentaries.

It also offers DVCAM SD recording, XDCAM HD compatibility, and HDMI output, eliminating the need for down converting or transcoding recordings into different formats or for different recording and playback devices, according to Sony. Further new features include a high-resolution 1.23MP viewfinder, Cache Record, one-click S&Q button, auto iris, and image inversion for flipping the image when shooting with a 35mm adapter.

Whichever handheld camera is used on the go, it is critical for the camera to have two XLR inputs for sound, Gentile said. One of the inputs is for a directional microphone, and the other should be for a wireless microphone, he said.

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Petrol Bags' Rollpak features a main storage section and a laptop pocket. “I always come back with two channels of sound,” he said. “Even if I don’t have one of my main subjects wired [with a microphone], I’ll put the wireless mic in my chest pocket and mic myself so I have that extra channel of sound,” he explained. “If something happens to the main mic, I’ll still have that sound,” he said.

In addition, Gentile urges the use of earphones to monitor the sound, and he recommends using earbud style headphones rather than large, over-the-ear headphones. “I see a lot of young people out there who are just learning the craft, they aren’t using earphones, and that’s a huge mistake,” he said. Use earphones “that are very discreet, that you place in your ears, so while you’re wearing those, you can not only hear what’s happening with the subject who has the wireless mic, but also what’s going on around you,” he said. Hearing both what the subject is saying, and the peripheral sound “will allow you to anticipate and move on your feet, and be agile, and get in front of whatever the story is,” he said.

“That is key to this whole craft, because when you’re working with yourself, you’ve got to anticipate, and then anticipate, and then anticipate,” he said. “It’s all about being agile, quick and light on your feet and moving.”

KEEPING MOVING

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Left: Sachtler’s Telescopic TT 75/2 CF Lightweight Tripod; Right: Anton/Bauer’s QR-HotSwap-AR Gold Mount Work in the field requires speed and agility, but videographers still have to carry their equipment. Gentile recommends backpack journalists wear cargo pants to take advantage of their many pockets, and they wear fanny packs, which are “extremely useful for carrying batteries, pens, pencils, notebooks in the field.”

An alternative to cargo pants and fanny packs for carrying equipment is Petrol Bags’ Rollpak, which is a combination backpack and equipment trolley equipped with a host of industry-leading advantages. The main chamber is contoured to fit a video-enabled DSLR camera with the lens attached. An ultra-wide U-shaped opening offers fast and easy access, and removable rigid dividers fold into pockets for storing and organizing important accessories. Contents are protected on all sides by layers of durable cushioned red fabric, and a second, padded rear pocket is designed to hold a laptop computer with up to a 17-inch screen.

LOCKING IN POWER

Gentile mentioned the need to carry batteries for the camera. To hold camera batteries for digital cameras on the go, Anton/Bauer offers the QR-HotSwap-AR Gold Mount for the ARRI ALEXA digital camera system. Providing a secure snap-on approach to keep the battery in place from any position, the Gold Mount provides three solid mechanical connections that “lock” into place, providing secure contact for a steady stream of uninterrupted power, and the self-cleaning gold-plated pins rated for high-currents, the company says.

HOLDING STEADY

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While Gentile is a strong advocate of holding the camera to shoot the subject, some videographers or backpack journalists might have to use a tripod from time-to-time. For those situations, Sachtler says its new Telescopic TT 75/2 CF Lightweight Tripod will keep the camera steady. The TT 75/2 CF is a two-stage carbon fiber tripod for HDV and video enabled DSLR cameras; it features a 75 millimeter bowl and three-section single carbon fiber tubes that offer a range of heights, from as low as 10.6 inches (27 centimeters) up to 67.3 inches (171 centimeters). With a weight of just 5.1 pounds (2.3 kilograms), on-the-move shooters might find the TT 75/2 CF to be ideal, according to the company.

However an on-the-go videographer chooses to get a shot, Gentile said the core of his methodology is the ability to do all of the different production tasks at once. “When I went to Afghanistan I was the cameraperson, the soundperson, the producer, the correspondent, I logged the material I shot, I wrote the script, and sat in the editing room with an editor from PBS when we put it together,” he said. “That’s backpack journalism.”

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