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American Cinematographer
January 1999

Thrill-seeking documentarians recount some of
their most challenging — and harrowing — experiences.

by Kathleen Fairweather

On May 6, 1998, I received the following message from Noel Archambault, one of the world's leading large-format 3-D cinematographers: "I'm sorry I can't meet you in Los Angeles for the interview. My plans have changed, and I need to be in Toronto during that weekend and the following week to begin camera testing for Galápagos , which has begun preproduction. Then I will be off to the Galápagos Islands for filming. I'm sorry for the change in plans, but my life isn't always predictable these days."

Those were the last words I heard from Noel before he took off for his ill-fated trip. Little did we know how prophetic this final communiqué would become: Noel died in an ultra-light plane crash while filming a 70mm volcano sequence for Galápagos Rediscovered , a joint Imax Corporation/ Smithsonian Institute project produced in partnership with Mandalay Pictures.

That crash, which killed both Archambault and his pilot, William Raisner, Jr., ended the life and career of one of the most brilliant 3-D cinematographers of this era.

I had been working with Archambault since last April on a feature story about his life and work as a 3-D cinematographer. I conducted an extensive phone interview with him from his Canadian home the week before he left to film Galápagos Rediscovered , which is the story of a modern research expedition exploring the unique bio-diversity of the islands that Charles Darwin made famous.

A recent Imax press release referred to Archambault as "a renowned stereographer and a major contributor to the development of the technical and film language of the 3-D format." His many 15-perf/65mm works include the recently released T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous, Mark Twain's America, Nutcracker and Across the Sea of Time , in addition to numerous large-format 2-D projects.

In what ultimately became our last interview, the cinematographer shared some of the many logistics inherent in the making of a movie involving both aerial and underwater 3-D cinematography. Tragically, those very logistics claimed his life on June 26, 1998.

Although Archambault was a one-of-a-kind cinematographer, he was certainly not alone in his quest for adventurous filmmaking. Many other cinematographers and documentarians risk their lives in pursuit of the story, and push the limits to obtain the best shots. "I know I'm asking for it with every new assignment," concedes five-time Emmy-winning director Mark Stouffer, as he packs for his latest film expedition: a death-defying venture which will take him more than 17,000' under the sea.

On this trip, Stouffer will direct the filming of the deepest ocean shipwreck discovery to date for the upcoming National Geographic Special on the I-52, a Japanese submarine that was sunk while transporting more than 2,000 pounds of gold to the Nazis. The I-52 was destroyed in the Atlantic Ocean on June 23, 1944 by a U.S. Navy Avenger plane piloted by Lieutenant Commander Jesse Taylor. The wreckage and the gold have rested undisturbed on the ocean floor for more than 50 years.

Stouffer and his team will make this treacherous voyage aboard the Keldysh , a Russian research and excavation vessel. In addition to the film crew, the Keldysh will transport 87 crew members and 13 scientists. The craft also houses a small hospital complete with a medical doctor. A note forwarded to the film and crew members reads: "We will be a very long way from the nearest land-based hospital. Anyone concerned about this remote location should not be on this trip!"

The filmmakers will be accompanying shipwreck/salvage expert Paul Tidwell, who discovered the wreckage of the I-52 after five years of painstaking research. Tidwell, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and earned a Purple Heart at age 19, describes the quest as "my personal Everest."

The biggest challenge facing Stouffer and the recovery expedition is, of course, the extreme depth they will reach, where pressure on a vessel's cabin exceeds 7,000 pounds per square inch. The I-52 lies on the ocean floor at a depth that is almost 5,000 feet deeper than the wreckage of the Titanic .

Bob Cooke, the assistant operations director on the I-52 discovery expedition, shares an analogy that aptly describes the tremendous force operating at such a depth: "I took a Styrofoam cup, put it inside a sock, tied it onto a piece of gear and sent it down three miles under the ocean. If I packed the sock just right, the cup would come back the size of a thimble — an exact miniature, hard as a rock with all of the air squeezed out of it."

These extraordinary working conditions limit the crew's equipment options. Plans for diving on the I-52 include the use of two Russian Mir submersibles, used most recently for the filming of Titanic (see AC Dec. 1997). This strategy will allow one Mir vessel to serve as the camera platform while the other provides the lighting, thus yielding the best possible camera positions and photographic results.

Additionally, Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) will be equipped with various equipment packages, including deep-ocean "eyeball" cameras that can slip into tight spaces, and two state-of-the-art digital cameras specially built for the U.S. Navy and provided by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

While addressing the physical dangers of the shoot, Stouffer alludes to another threat: pirates. "We have kept the coordinates of our position top-secret. With that much gold and money at stake, you never know what can happen. We will also be operating in extreme weather conditions and could experience every conceivable storm pattern — including tsunamis."

Stouffer acknowledges that he has continued to push the limits of hazardous filmmaking with every new assignment. "Once you are branded an 'extreme' filmmaker, it is almost impossible to do anything else," he says. "The producers all know that, through the course of making my films, I have been through the 'Navy Seal Boot Camp' of extreme filmmaking. I know how to take risks and optimize my conditions to obtain the best shots. It seems to be my niche."

Mal Wolfe, president of Lobo Productions, has also found his calling. Wolfe is a producer and director with more than 25 years of experience in motion picture and television production, including work in the 16mm, 35mm and 70mm formats, the latter productions including The Greatest Places, Ring of Fire, Search for the Great Sharks and The Great Barrier Reef .

While chasing after dangerous sharks, dodging volcanic eruptions and photographing in some of the world's most exotic and dangerously remote locations, Wolfe has had more than his share of hazardous and potentially deadly encounters. "When we were filming the great white sharks in South Australia, we had specially designed shark cages that would allow a clear, 360-degree view of the encounter being filmed," recalls Wolfe. "The cage was made of Lexan, a strong Plexiglas-like material. We knew a great white shark could eat its way through the cage if it really wanted to, and we had a really close call during production. Rodney Fox, our associate producer and cameraman, was filming down in the cage when a great white tried to eat the cage. The shark actually severed an air hose and completely tore off a positioning line and buoy. We lost all communication with Rodney for a very long and tense five minutes. Fortunately, he survived the experience shaken but unscathed."

Filming volcanoes is another one of Wolfe's specialties, and he had a few too-close encounters of the deadly kind while working on the large-format film Ring of Fire. "The most difficult thing about filming volcanic eruptions is the volatility and unpredictability of the situation," he says. "There are two basic types of eruptions: ash and lava. The gases emitted from these can be deadly. If you end up downwind of a gas bubble, it will be your last shot ever. Period. During our last production, we were spattered by hot molten lava. I lost several camera lenses to the lava spray. High-magnitude earthquakes are also a big danger. During production, we stayed in hotels that everyone else had evacuated. The ground shook so hard that our beds literally danced across the room."

Wolfe's latest Imax film, The Greatest Places , took him to some of the world's most beautiful and challenging locales, including the Amazon River, Greenland, Iguazú Falls, Madagascar, the Namibe Desert, Botswana's Okavango Delta and the plateaus of Tibet.

How does he prepare for these excursions? Wolfe shares some of his own preparation and safety tips: "In addition to the basics — an equipment and crew checklist, medical supplies, med-evac insurance, and health and safety precautions — I always prepare and then prepare some more. You can never be too prepped in this business. In addition to the usual concerns of a film shoot, we are in remote locations with sometimes unknown and extreme conditions. These are usually in unstable environments politically, and we are always at the mercy of disease, injury and bad food. It sounds funny to think of food as a factor, but if the food is bad or spoiled, morale suffers and it can affect the safety of the entire unit.

"Other production wild cards are the governments of these locations. I always make my government and civilian contacts ahead of time, secure presidential, military and civic permits, and then prepare a 'gratuities' budget to get us through the rough spots. I've filmed all over the world and have learned that people are people wherever you go. You generally run into problems when you have to deal with foreign governments and bureaucrats. Unless you are prepared, things can get messy and entangled really quickly."

One of the best resources for filmmakers in search of advice on advance preparation is the Community to Protect Journalists Survival Guide . The CPJ is a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in New York City with a full-time staff of 12 that researches, documents and protests abuses of press and documentary freedoms around the world.

During the Balkans conflict, the CPJ checked with news assignment desks responsible for orchestrating war coverage, and interviewed U.S. and European journalists who covered the story. The journalists' detailed responses, based on their own experiences, became the backbone of the guide, which was first published in 1992 after the tragic deaths of David Kaplan and more than 20 other journalists covering the Balkans strife.

While this survival guide is primarily tailored for war and conflict documentation, the information can easily be applied to situations in any other extreme environment. Topics include body armor and flak jackets, a first-aid equipment checklist, insurance, telecommunications, and armored vehicles and foreign transportation. Also covered are radio and field contacts, satellite transmissions and tips on such useful accessories as short-wave radios, batteries and extra-long video leads. There's also information on the use of currencies in negotiations and goods to bring along for barter.

The guide even defines and recommends a conflict-oriented dress code, which details how not to look like a soldier on assignment. It is replete with ideas on selecting custom body armor and flak jackets constructed with specially designed armor plates, tailored for the protection needs of cameramen and crew members. "When I first read this survival guide, I got a very real sense of the danger facing me on my upcoming project in the Balkans," explains Nettie Wilde. "I ended up canceling that particular film."

Still, Wilde is no stranger to danger, having filmed guerrilla insurgencies in the Philippines, as well as the Zapatista uprising and resultant village massacres by the Mexican Federales and their right-wing supporters in Mexico. The latter documentary, A Place Called Chiapas , recently debuted at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles, where it earned high acclaim and an Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Wilde sums up her personal working philosophy by noting, "Research is your ultimate weapon — along with time, trust and money. Money buys you the time to be there, and time is the only real way to gain the trust of the people and fully comprehend the events that you are documenting. You can't just blast in there with your film crew and cameras and expect them to trust you with their story. On A Place Called Chiapas , I used a 50/50 combination of Mexican and Canadian crew members. We wanted to document all sides of the revolution. The subjects would see us go back and forth between the encampments, which, of course, made them very nervous and suspicious.

"We were also following a very cruel and hidden war that took place outside of the conflict zone. While the so-called cease-fire was in effect, people were being killed and forced out of their homes and villages. Any supporters of the Zapatistas were targeted, and I was determined to get these people to tell their stories on camera. While we were filming them, they would acknowledge the importance of us being there to document all sides of the story; as soon as I put my camera down and walked away, though, these same people would threaten to kill my Mexican cameraman and sound operator.

"I was relatively safe from these threats, because they knew that I had the Embassy behind me, and that there would be repercussions [if any harm came to me]. That was obviously not the case for my Mexican crew. Of course, the people who were most vulnerable were the villagers we were filming, who don't even have birth certificates. If they disappeared, there was no evidence to prove they even existed in the first place. The tension that creates is astounding. We got to the point where it was too dangerous for our Mexican crew to continue on to the north with us. We had to go on our own."

Cinematographer Ken Kelsch, ASC, whose many feature credits include The Impostors, Big Night and The Funeral, recalls his experience in the documentary trenches while in French Guiana: "We were in Suriname to see a live-fire artillery exercise directed by two American mercenaries for the Surinamese Liberation Movement, which entailed a lot of shooting with smuggled AR-14s. The noise drew the attention of the local gendarmes, and when they showed up, everyone else disappeared into the woods.

"I was shooting with a small VHS camera, which I left running on the top of a nearby vehicle," Kelsch continues. "I filmed the authorities harassing us, and then palmed the tape and tucked it inside my boot. I later substituted a blank cassette, and when they demanded our film, that was what we handed over. Two days later, our real tape was broadcast internationally on CNN — including in French Guyana and Suriname. We zipped on out of there like ghosts in the night. I now realize that we easily could have been caught and eliminated. Nobody would have known or cared.

"One of the most important things I learned on that kind of assignment is to take lots of cash and Rolex watches as emergency backup to buy your way out of testy situations. It really is the only way to get around in unstable situations. Our cab driver in Suriname freaked when we pulled out our camera inside his cab after a lot of journalists had just been killed. We solved the problem with a very large tip. It was still a huge risk for him — and us. I believe you are dealt a certain amount of luck in life, and no matter how much training and preparation you have, serendipity rules the situation. I have been in situations where I was very lucky to have walked away."

Former CBS News cameraman and filmmaker Lars Nelson, who has documented such risky assignments as narcotics smuggling in Third World countries, agrees. "If you don't take the risk, you won't get the shot," Nelson acknowledges. "On the other hand, if you take that risk, you might just get yourself shot, attacked or even arrested."

Nelson is not alone in his thinking. According to the 1998 Executive Summary and Survey prepared by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 journalists were murdered in 1997, and 10 other killings are under investigation. In addition, 129 journalists were imprisoned in 24 countries, with Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico and China responsible for most of the arrests. A 10-year chart tabulates the murders of 474 journalists by region and country.

One of the best resources for filmmakers in search of advice on advance preparation is the Community to Protect Journalists Survival Guide . The CPJ is a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in New York City with a full-time staff of 12 that researches, documents and protests abuses of press and documentary freedoms around the world.

During the Balkans conflict, the CPJ checked with news assignment desks responsible for orchestrating war coverage, and interviewed U.S. and European journalists who covered the story. The journalists' detailed responses, based on their own experiences, became the backbone of the guide, which was first published in 1992 after the tragic deaths of David Kaplan and more than 20 other journalists covering the Balkans strife.

While this survival guide is primarily tailored for war and conflict documentation, the information can easily be applied to situations in any other extreme environment. Topics include body armor and flak jackets, a first-aid equipment checklist, insurance, telecommunications, and armored vehicles and foreign transportation. Also covered are radio and field contacts, satellite transmissions and tips on such useful accessories as short-wave radios, batteries and extra-long video leads. There's also information on the use of currencies in negotiations and goods to bring along for barter.

The guide even defines and recommends a conflict-oriented dress code, which details how not to look like a soldier on assignment. It is replete with ideas on selecting custom body armor and flak jackets constructed with specially designed armor plates, tailored for the protection needs of cameramen and crew members. "When I first read this survival guide, I got a very real sense of the danger facing me on my upcoming project in the Balkans," explains Nettie Wilde. "I ended up canceling that particular film."

Still, Wilde is no stranger to danger, having filmed guerrilla insurgencies in the Philippines, as well as the Zapatista uprising and resultant village massacres by the Mexican Federales and their right-wing supporters in Mexico. The latter documentary, A Place Called Chiapas , recently debuted at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles, where it earned high acclaim and an Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Wilde sums up her personal working philosophy by noting, "Research is your ultimate weapon — along with time, trust and money. Money buys you the time to be there, and time is the only real way to gain the trust of the people and fully comprehend the events that you are documenting. You can't just blast in there with your film crew and cameras and expect them to trust you with their story. On A Place Called Chiapas , I used a 50/50 combination of Mexican and Canadian crew members. We wanted to document all sides of the revolution. The subjects would see us go back and forth between the encampments, which, of course, made them very nervous and suspicious.

"We were also following a very cruel and hidden war that took place outside of the conflict zone. While the so-called cease-fire was in effect, people were being killed and forced out of their homes and villages. Any supporters of the Zapatistas were targeted, and I was determined to get these people to tell their stories on camera. While we were filming them, they would acknowledge the importance of us being there to document all sides of the story; as soon as I put my camera down and walked away, though, these same people would threaten to kill my Mexican cameraman and sound operator.

"I was relatively safe from these threats, because they knew that I had the Embassy behind me, and that there would be repercussions [if any harm came to me]. That was obviously not the case for my Mexican crew. Of course, the people who were most vulnerable were the villagers we were filming, who don't even have birth certificates. If they disappeared, there was no evidence to prove they even existed in the first place. The tension that creates is astounding. We got to the point where it was too dangerous for our Mexican crew to continue on to the north with us. We had to go on our own."

Cinematographer Ken Kelsch, ASC, whose many feature credits include The Impostors, Big Night and The Funeral, recalls his experience in the documentary trenches while in French Guiana: "We were in Suriname to see a live-fire artillery exercise directed by two American mercenaries for the Surinamese Liberation Movement, which entailed a lot of shooting with smuggled AR-14s. The noise drew the attention of the local gendarmes, and when they showed up, everyone else disappeared into the woods.

"I was shooting with a small VHS camera, which I left running on the top of a nearby vehicle," Kelsch continues. "I filmed the authorities harassing us, and then palmed the tape and tucked it inside my boot. I later substituted a blank cassette, and when they demanded our film, that was what we handed over. Two days later, our real tape was broadcast internationally on CNN — including in French Guyana and Suriname. We zipped on out of there like ghosts in the night. I now realize that we easily could have been caught and eliminated. Nobody would have known or cared.

"One of the most important things I learned on that kind of assignment is to take lots of cash and Rolex watches as emergency backup to buy your way out of testy situations. It really is the only way to get around in unstable situations. Our cab driver in Suriname freaked when we pulled out our camera inside his cab after a lot of journalists had just been killed. We solved the problem with a very large tip. It was still a huge risk for him — and us. I believe you are dealt a certain amount of luck in life, and no matter how much training and preparation you have, serendipity rules the situation. I have been in situations where I was very lucky to have walked away."

Former CBS News cameraman and filmmaker Lars Nelson, who has documented such risky assignments as narcotics smuggling in Third World countries, agrees. "If you don't take the risk, you won't get the shot," Nelson acknowledges. "On the other hand, if you take that risk, you might just get yourself shot, attacked or even arrested."

Nelson is not alone in his thinking. According to the 1998 Executive Summary and Survey prepared by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 journalists were murdered in 1997, and 10 other killings are under investigation. In addition, 129 journalists were imprisoned in 24 countries, with Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico and China responsible for most of the arrests. A 10-year chart tabulates the murders of 474 journalists by region and country.

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On May 21, 1996, the Journalists Memorial was established by the Freedom Forum, a non-partisan international foundation dedicated to a free press and the free spirit of all people. Located in Arlington, Virginia's Freedom Park, next to the Newseum, the Memorial bears the names of more than 1,000 journalists who have perished since 1812. To be included in the Memorial, an individual must have been a documentary filmmaker or regular contributor of news, commentary or photography to a broadcast outlet or publication. Also included are producers, camera operators, sound engineers or any other working members of film or news crews.

One name added recently was that of Dan Eldon, a 22-year-old Reuters photographer who was stoned to death along with three other journalists while on assignment in Somalia. Eldon is the subject of Dying to Tell the Story , a two-hour documentary that premiered on TBS last September and will air again next month. The documentary follows Eldon's sister, Amy, back to Somalia, where she attempts to comprehend why her brother and other journalists would choose to live a life of risk and danger.

Also featured in this excellent and poignant film are Peter Magubane, who was once jailed and tortured for taking photographs in South Africa during the height of apartheid; Corinne Dufka, a Reuters photographer out of Nairobi who has twice been assigned as a replacement for dead colleagues; and Carlos Mavrolean and other seemingly fearless camera cowboys and self-identified "adrenaline junkies" who shoot war footage — or, as they call it, "bang-bang" video.

The film also includes an interview segment with one of the world's most notable and widely known television journalists, Christiane Amanpour. As CNN's chief international correspondent, Amanpour has reported from many "hot zones," including the former Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf. She has earned her network countless news and documentary Emmys, as well as many other awards.

Amanpour shared her views during a recent interview for TBS and Dying to Tell the Story . "The primary role of a journalist on the front line is to do your best to tell the story in a situation where the truth is not always readily available," she said. "Risk and danger are inherent in combat reporting. We have to know the difference between calculated and foolish risks. I try to rely on common sense. I talk to the local citizens who are familiar with the lay of the land. In extreme situations, I have used armored vehicles and bulletproof vests. Although I am continually faced with dangerous assignments, I have never turned down a job because of the dangers involved."

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who once traveled with a two-person crew into war-torn Beirut to tell the story of one family's hardships, concurs with Amanpour and offers an explanation for producing her own high-risk documentary: "I took a chance because I believed that I was invincible as a journalist. When I made Beirut: The Last Home Movie , I was 21 years old and thought I was never going to die. I look back now and realize how dangerous that was. However, some things — no matter how dangerous — are worth filming. I was very passionate about that film. War is hellacious, and what you do to yourself to get through the experience is very, very numbing and negative. I believe you [have to] destroy a part of yourself to work in such an extreme environment."

What attracted Fox as a filmmaker to take that kind a risk? "I was seduced by the story and the power of the emotions," she says. "Nothing compares to a story of that intensity, or the simplicity of basic survival. I believe there are people who feel more alive during war and become addicted to the adrenaline and intensity of the emotions."

Unlike Amanpour, who does a great deal of prep work at CNN, Fox admits that she did little to gird herself against her dangerous undertaking. "I was very naive at 21," she says. "We were at risk the whole time we were there. There was constant shelling and miscellaneous warfare, especially during the five weeks we spent with the soldiers during maneuvers. When I came back home, I went into a kind of shock. I would never, ever go into a war zone again. I survived on guts and luck."

Santa Barbara-based filmmaker Kevin McKiernan agrees with Amanpour and Fox. McKiernan, who documented the siege at Wounded Knee, has covered the Contra/Sandanista war in Nicaragua, the civil war in El Salvador, and counter-insurgency in Guatemala, is now working on a film focusing on the plight of the Turkish Kurds, entitled Trouble in Paradise: The Untold Story of 2 Million Refugees .

McKiernan, who also co-produced the documentary special The Spirit of Crazy Horse , which aired recently on PBS' Frontline , explains, "There is an illusion of safety when the camera is in front of your face. Although it is not a shield from the danger or the reality of the situation you are filming, it creates a kind of distance. I'm very good at calculating the risks, but sometimes I must calculate them under extreme duress.

"I constantly ask myself, 'How good am I before I make mental errors?' I believe I know when to quit; however, I am usually sleep-deprived and running on empty while I am making those decisions. I have learned, though, that it is okay not to always go after the gold. I have learned to sometimes settle for the silver and be happy with that shot. There is a moment in every cameraman's life when you know you've done enough. Knowing when to quit is everything, but at the same time, it is also a very hard decision to make."

McKiernan acknowledges the dangers of staying too long in a volatile situation. "Your presence always changes things," he notes. "It is impossible to be there as just a fly on the wall. You can completely change the tone and the outcome of an event just by being there with a camera."

On more than one occasion, locals in various places have offered to stir things up by verbally harassing villagers and throwing rocks at them. "Do we make things worse or better?" McKiernan wonders, adding with a sigh, "Sometimes they see us as snitches, when we simply point our cameras at the truth. Still, the personal fulfillment and rewards are great — even in the most dire of circumstances."

One person who agrees with this sentiment is Emmy-winning director David Breashears, who filmed and coordinated a daring rescue that saved several lives while making the McGillivray Freeman large-format film Everest (see full coverage in AC May '98). He sums up the dangers of hazardous cinematography by concluding, "It is very hard to imagine what can be accomplished in the face of adversity and tragedy. Filmmaking is no exception."

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