Military Videographers Use Creative Solutions to ‘Make It Work’

Using production gear on the battlefield requires a ‘MacGyver’ mindset
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Bransen Dillon covers Operation Khaleje Response at the Kuwait Naval Base in 2012. (Courtesy US Army)

All videographers have their own style of acquiring content. Some swear by a tripod while others assert they are adding excitement to their pieces with handheld shots. In fact, one of the only aspects videographers have in common is that they all have their own style and preferences — what works for one doesn’t always work for another.

However, when it comes to personalizing equipment in the field of military broadcast journalism, it isn’t always about what is comfortable or preferred. Like most equipment provided by the military, individuals rarely have input on what is provided to them or their team. Many military videographers tend to follow the “make it work” mentality and get creative with the equipment they are provided with.

Scott Matlock, a video production specialist for Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash., began his video career in the Navy in 1990. “In the field it seems that ‘Murphy’s Law’ has a habit of springing up at the most inopportune times,” he said. “Whether it’s your Sony DSR-PD170 DVCAM or the newest RED Epic camera, they can malfunction and most ironically, it’ll be [when you are] far from technicians and definitely in a field environment.”

Many videographers agree that having a plan and knowing your equipment is far more important in a combat situation than simply buying the gear used by Hollywood. “Gaffer’s tape and some ingenuity can be your best friends on a shoot,” Matlock said. “I think all videographers have a little ‘MacGyver’ in them.”


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Scott Matlock documenting the Cuban refugee crisis at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in 1994.

Gayle McCabe, a well-known videographer for the Department of Defense, considers herself a “one-woman show.” “I am my own support engineer,” she said. McCabe, now retired, carried a leather purse filled with screwdrivers, several kinds of adapters — BNC, RCA, HDMI — cleaning brushes and an extension cord.

She soon learned that tripods are too bulky to fit under the seat of a CH-48 Chinook helicopter or an up-armored vehicle, so they were the first items to get left behind. “One time I conducted a four-star general interview using the edge of a Humvee as my tripod,” she said, “and an MRE [meal ready to eat] on one corner to keep it level — that was a hoot.”

Her recommendation: if you have the luxury of bringing a tripod, stick to the carbon fiber, lightweight models by Manfrotto, which offers a variety of choices.

Resourcefulness aside, each professional has an opinion on emerging technology: Light, compact equipment, and high-quality imagery and audio are the “gold standard.”

When it comes to using lightweight and easily mountable cameras, GoPros have become the new norm in the civilian world and likewise, most military branches have spent the extra money to equip service members with the lightweight and easily mountable cameras. However, GoPros don’t provide the sound quality of a professional grade camera, so it’s recommended to avoid using them for interviews.

Matlock and his team currently use 4K-capable RED Epic Cameras, which provide four times the pixels of a standard 1080p camera. There was some hesitation at first, but the technology and the camera is perfect for high-quality, nearly cinematic imagery. The audio also exceeds the norm, allowing two to four digital audio channels.

With the RED Epic weighing in at just five pounds, Matlock warns against their efficiency in the field. “They capture an amazing image but they’re not too friendly in a ‘run ‘n gun’ type of environment,” he said. For that capability, Matlock’s team recently invested in Sony PXW FS-7s. “They were built specifically for being able to pull right out of the bag and shoot,” he said. Renown as a reliable documentary camera, the Sony PXW FS-7 has a built-in shoulder rest, can handle HD and 4K imaging and is a complete package, without the need for extra rigs or gadgets.

However, Matlock warns that no videographer should depend on the camera itself to do all the work. Many videographers, especially those new to the field, make the mistake of relying heavily on the hardware and less on their knowledge of videography. This is what successful professionals have in common: the ability to get to know their equipment. There is an abundance of platforms to continue learning the craft and when technology and capabilities change, the videographer has to adapt as well, to keep their skills honed.


Bransen Dillon was a field videographer when iMacs and Adobe Creative Suites were being introduced into Army Public Affairs in 2008, and says he experienced some growing pains when it came to the shift. “I was ‘50-50’ on the arrival of the Macs,” he said. “Most of the younger soldiers were excited but the noncommissioned leaders (NCO) were skeptical.

“I love to learn about electronics and what’s not to love when the Army sends your unit a Christmas present like a new kit,” Dillon continued. “The Mac [MacBook Pro 15-inch display, pre-retina] ended up being far more stable, efficient and superior in its rendering capabilities.”

The only drawback with the MacBook Pro is the space provided on the hard drive. A lot of RAM is needed to build an intricate product including graphics, design and length of the project. If editing in the field is the only option, an external hard drive is mandatory. Look for a system that includes RAM and hard drive at 16GB and 1TB with 7200 hard drive rotational speed.

The newest MacBook Pro, has 8GB of RAM and weighs 3.5 ponds; a good choice for their space and durability in bumpy situations.

For those who need to invest in a large-scale post-production kit, systems like the NewTek TriCaster run about $15,000. For that price you get the equivalent of a “portable studio” that offers virtual studios, four to eight camera inputs and real-time production.

Dillon, currently the station manager of WUVI 97.3 on the campus of the University of the Virgin Islands, still recommends a well-equipped Mac for new videographers for their ease of use and processing speed. “In today’s environment, nothing beats a Mac at the job,” he said.

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Gail McCabe on assignment in Kuwait.


Adapting to new platforms can be difficult as illustrated by the U.S. military’s shift from Avid editing systems to Adobe Creative Suite software. In March of 2014 the Department of Defense signed an expanded agreement with Adobe that allows the DoD to standardize on Adobe Creative Cloud products, Adobe Acrobat, and capabilities of Adobe Experience Manager. To overcome the DoD’s transition from Avid to Adobe, the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort Meade, Md., the Army and Air Forces courses were being alternated between the Avid and Adobe editing software. In other words, half the students would graduate with their certification in Avid, the other in Adobe. The Army and Air Force no longer provide training in Avid software. By the time service members reported to their units, they were able to share their knowledge of one system while learning the other. Such “cross-training” remains an essential tactic for learning new equipment while still being efficient enough with the old to complete the mission.

That diversity benefits many service members transitioning from military to civilian job markets because unlike traditional videographers, they learn the entire process of creating a broadcast package — from acquisition to playout. However, Dillon still thinks there is progress to be made in broadening military videographers’ skills, adding that he would ultimately like to see the military use 4K DSLR cameras for still photography and video. “This move would have an eventual merge between the 46R [Army broadcast journalist] career field with the 46Q [Army Public Affairs Specialist] in mind,” he said.

If that does happen, he thinks there will need to be an added investment in audio capturing tools. Like most videographers, Matlock and Dillon agree that audio is just as important as imagery. Matlock uses RØDE series microphones, noting that RØDE’s VideoMic Pro “is probably the highest-rated model, and works really well with DSLRs.”

So whether you prefer a Sony or a Nikon, Premiere Pro or Avid, or are a post- or pre-production specialist, in order to be successful in field videography — or more accurately “battlefield” videography — you need to be open to all aspects and push yourself to learn more. The cameras will change and so will the technology.