Film history was made in September when the feature-length movie ‘Human’ was released on YouTube. We look at some of the challenges involved with the movie’s digital imaging technician, Stéphane Azouze.
Unlike most interviews, this is a story that starts at the end, because here I am saying goodbye to Stéphane Azouze at O R Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’ve just spent three days in Botswana shadowing the much-renowned digital imaging technician. However, it wasn’t until seeing the Frenchman on his way home, surrounded by 18 flight cases stuffed to bursting point with video equipment, that I really had any idea of what goes into the backroom operations of making a movie on location.
Azouze is a long-term collaborator with the French movie director Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who is perhaps best known for his 1999 coffee-table book of still photography ‘The Earth From Above’. Since then, Arthus-Bertrand has gone into working with the moving image and his latest movie ‘Human’ is currently premiered worldwide.
Apart from the fact that the images are dynamic, the biggest difference between the formats is that you need a much bigger support staff, with no part more important than your digital imaging technician. In describing ‘Human’, Azouze talks of it being a mixture of two projects: ‘Home’ and ‘7 Billion Others’, both directed by Arthus-Bertrand. The original films portrayed, respectively, landscapes of the Earth from above and the testimonies of the people who live there. These projects have now been edited together to produce ‘Human’. It is the first time a feature-length movie funded by multiple non-profit organisations has been released on the free-to-view platform YouTube.
To find out what goes into the making of these monolithic movie projects I flew to Botswana to join Azouze on location, where he is part of the production staff for the successor to ‘Human’, an as-yet untitled aerial photography documentary. I joined Azouze - digital imaging technician on this project too - deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, in a makeshift camp on a tiny island that had once been a baboon research scientific station. In the river surrounding the island, only a stone’s throw away there are a dozen hippopotamuses grumpily bathing in the sunset, while a similar number of elephants regard us with undisguised suspicion from the opposite bank. During the night these jumbos will wander silently through our camp to explore the unfamiliar sight of three helicopters (two for filming and one for medical emergency evacuation) parked up in a clearing. Azouze is sitting in a khaki-coloured tent at a bench with an array of digital equipment running off generators, grading the day’s footage.
Because Arthus-Bertrand directs and shoots most of his imagery from the air, the first piece of equipment the project needs is a helicopter. The team uses an AS 350 Eurocopter, for the simple reason that it is, according to Arthus-Bertrand, ‘the best of its type.’ (Their second helicopter used for filming isn’t, as I supposed, a redundancy back-up, but a supplementary unit for air-to-air shots required by the director of the ‘making of’ DVD extra). The helicopter acts essentially as an airborne crane or jib, where the pilot becomes the crane operator to get the camera into position. “The advantage of a helicopter,” says Azouze, “is that you are given more options. With a standard crane you are stuck to the ground in one position. But it’s basically the same job.” The camera itself, in this case a gyro-stabilised Cineflex Hidef V14 aerial movie camera, is operated by a controller in the cockpit. It is specially mounted on a gimbal to the underside of the helicopter, “which means there are two positions which can be altered at any given point. This is why the relationship between the pilot and the camera operator is so important. If they don’t work together well, then you won’t get the images that are required.”
Tranquility of atmosphere
These images are always broadcast in slow motion, a style-marker of the way in which Arthus-Bertrand works. “At the moment we are shooting at 60 frames per second (fps) instead of the more usual 25. But what we do is play it back at 25 which means we are able to get greater than two times slower movement without any loss. This is important because the playback speed changes everything about the perception of the shot, whether it is animals, humans or landscape. Technically speaking, shooting at 60fps helps to create a very smooth image, while creatively it adds a level of tranquility of atmosphere to what we are shooting. We don’t use the camera in the way it is used in action movies. We are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with a slow discovery of the subject.”
Taking to the air with Arthus-Bertrand reveals exactly how the shooting process works. The pilot manoeuvres the helicopter and the camera controller operates the lens, while the director leans perilously out of the open-sided aircraft surveying the landscape for the killer shot. The director then checks his monitor before issuing verbal instructions to the two technicians over the headset. Arthus-Bertrand will also take reference location shots through a 300mm long lens mounted onto a DSLR stills camera, which will be used to help storyboard the sequence when the team is back on the ground. As I sit in the only spare seat in the helicopter, one thing that becomes immediately obvious is just how well the team seems to work instinctively together. Shooting aerial footage of wildlife in Botswana is not quite as easy as it sounds. To get images of wildlife behaving naturally, the film unit needs to be at sufficient altitude not to disturb the animals, by which point they are out of range of most cameras.
Mounted to the front of the helicopter, the camera is large enough to become a liability at take-off. “The gimbal is right under the nose of the chopper and offset to the left. So the pilot has to be careful to lift off with the left skid first.” Normal helicopter procedures, especially for a fast getaway, require that the nose is lower than the tail, “but if you do that with our set-up the camera will hit the ground.”
Once the camera is aloft, the trick is to keep out of the animals’ way so they behave naturally. Elephants in particular can be quite frightened of helicopters at low altitude, so for close-up shots the camera needs a lens with an effective focal length of 1700mm. The way in which lens length works is that camera shake increases dramatically with length, so to get stable and in-focus imagery from a helicopter requires investment in camera technology. The Cineflex used by the team, which is an integrated closed system, comes in at about £600,000 and is the day-to-day personal responsibility of Azouze. When equipment is this expensive, there is no spare and so it’s got to work.
Azouze describes how the camera is stabilised using five gyros that are so precise the United States Department of State “will not allow the use of the gimbal in certain countries, because the technology is restricted under ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations).” The reasoning for this, he explains, is that if you were to lose your gimbal in, say, Iran or Sudan, “then the technology will fall into the wrong hands. The gyros could be used, for example, in missile guidance systems. So military-specification technology such as this can only be used in certain territories. You can’t use it in China, for example.”
Even though the team is using one of the best cameras on the market, “the technology is actually a little bit old now. It’s not the latest camera and certainly not the sort of thing that would be used in the latest James Bond movie, for example. Maybe five or six years ago it might have been used in an action movie like that, but the reason we are sticking to this technology is the focal length. You cannot achieve that zoom factor on today’s digital cameras because the sensors are so much bigger. The camera we use - which is really a TV broadcast camera - has a smaller sensor, which is how we were able to achieve the focal length range.”
However, the procedure for getting up and running is exactly the same. In this instance Azouze arrived at Johannesburg, where he picked up his rental helicopter and, reunited with his camera, bolted the latter onto the former and flew north five hours to his location in Botswana.
Over the next few days I watched the team shoot 34 hours of footage. How much of this will end up in the final movie? “That is a tricky question. I really don’t know. But the final amount will be microscopic in comparison. Yann takes all the footage that he can. He thinks like a library.” Arthus-Bertrand himself says: “It is a bit crazy really. We shoot so much and yet so little will end up in the movie.”
Azouze goes into more detail: “what’s happening here is that we are looking for the really exceptional shots: the perfect angle, perfect framing, perfect light and perfect action. What we are shooting isn’t fiction: there’s no script written, no actors. What we shoot, we have to go and find for ourselves. You really have to work the shot. It can take one hour of footage before you can find what it is you’re really looking for. Also, you can’t stop shooting, because from the camera controller’s point of view it is too complicated.”
The controller’s left hand will be concerned with focal length and a rotary encoder dealing with focus. The right hand is taken up with remote control of the gimbal itself, addressing factors such as tilt and horizon. Without a third hand, it is extremely difficult to start and stop recording. “This is why the controller just keeps shooting, because the minute you take your hands off the controls you will lose the frame. The cameraman is controlling four functions in all, with two hands, as well as manually focusing. It’s a special skill.”
Making the grade
Up in the helicopter the footage is recorded straight to data cards, where two hours shooting will require 1TB of storage. So we’re not talking about standard flash cards. The format is SR-Master, “which is a really big, fast, reliable data card made by Sony.”
As soon as the helicopter returns to the ground, these cards are transferred to the video grading suite (in this case Azouze’s tent). Colour corrections are applied to the ex-camera footage in a software program called DaVinci Resolve, produced by Black Magic Design, that’s been around for a few decades now. At this point, no editorial decisions are made: it’s all about colour correction and making sure that the files work properly. “It’s a complete toolbox, which we need because what comes out of the camera tends to be a bit flat and unnatural.We apply a special gamma curve that I have created to give the footage its finish. It is at the grading stage that you can make the specific identity of your movie. You can decide if you want the rendition of your movie to look cold, warm or with contrast. This is where you apply the artistic look.”
I sat in on a grading session overseen by the director, who according to Azouze, “wants to see everything. Everything.” Then starts the long process of going back and forth through the footage with Arthus-Bertrand continually urging Azouze to find his favourite shots.
For all the adventure associated with shooting aerial photography in the bush, Azouze says his main job is the same as any other digital imaging technician: to back up the files. This may not sound very glamorous, but he points out that the security of the imagery is one of the most important jobs on the team. “I don’t just make copies. I make several copies. I also check the integrity of the copies. You can’t keep the memory cards full until we get home to Paris to work on post-production, because we need to use them again and again. We have a limited amount of cards and so they need to be off-loaded. I can’t go back to Yann and say to him we need to return to the jungle to shoot it all again. I would say that in order of importance, this is what comes first. Data security.”
To watch ‘Human’ visit www.human-themovie.org