Hell and Back Again Trailer

Indiewire named their 25 New Faces of Indie Film yesterday, which has given me the long-awaited perfect excuse to celebrate one of the people on the list: Danfung Dennis.

Documentary is a medium that can often put the visual aspect of the film as secondary in importance, and this is often simply due to necessity or constraints. It’s going to become particularly interesting, however, as we are now seeing many of the world’s best photojournalists branching out into filmmaking and producing stunning work, the most noted recent example of this being Restrepo – photographer Tim Hetherington’s first documentary.

The trailer above is for Danfung’s first feature documentary, which now has a new title, Hell and Back Again. It was wonderful to see him mentioned on IndieWire’s list, as he is truly a talent that deserves recognition and is without a doubt someone to watch.

I have no doubt that Hell and Back Again is going to blow people’s minds when it is released next year, but for those of us leaning towards the geekier edge of the spectrum, it’s hard to write about this film without mentioning the technicalities of how Danfung filmed the project. The footage was shot on a custom-built rig, using a Canon 5D Mark II, 24-70 f/2.8 L lens, Sennheiser ME-66 and G2 wireless system, Singh-Ray variable ND filter, and Beachtek 2XAs mounted on a Glidecam 2000 HD with custom made aluminum ‘wings’ and rather than comment on that, which I simply can’t, after the jump is an elaboration on that experience by Danfung.

The Canon 5D Mark II is capable of unprecedented image quality, but since it is a stills camera, there are several limitations that I had to address before using this camera in a warzone.

The first problem is with audio. I used a Sennheiser ME- 66 shotgun mic and G2 wireless system running into a Beachtek DXA-2s (I’ve since upgraded to a Juicedlink CX-231 with the DN-101) which converts professional XLR mics into a minijack suitable for the 5D. I built custom aluminum ‘wings’ to hold this audio setup.

The second problem is stabilization. The design of the Canon 5D Mark II makes hand held video shooting difficult. I mounted my whole system onto a Glidecam 2000 HD with custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam ear plug to suppress the vibration of the lens. The rig is very heavy and it took about two months to get my arm strong enough to shoot extended shots. I cut up a Glidecam Body Pod to make it fit with my body armor and used it to rest my arm when I was not shooting.

To achieve a cinematic look when shooting in bright daylight, I shot at f2.8 at 1/60th or slower, which requires a drastic amount of reduction of light that hits the sensor. I used a Singh Ray Variable ND filter. While the filter can reduce the amount of light by 2 to 8 stops, I had serious problems with uneven coverage, so part of my frame would be darker than others. I have tried Fader ND filters, but also have the same problem.

Another issue is that all focus must be done manually after recording begins. The only way to address this was a lot of practice racking focus. I was not able to rack focus when running, so I often had to try to stay the same distance from my subject to keep them in focus.

The most frustrating problem was that the camera would overheat after about 15 minutes of continuous shooting in 120 degree heat. I had no option other than to turn it off and let it cool. I did not have a spare body.

The final serious problem is that the files straight out of the camera are difficult to edit with. I use a 2.93 GHz Macbook Pro 17in, 256gb SSD HD, 4 GB RAM and convert the files into Apple Prores 422 LT using Compressor (the program often crashes when handling many files, but the quality is better than with mpeg streamclip). I use a 8TB Sonnet D400QR5 set at RAID 5 to store the 45 hours of footage and Prores files.

I carried six extra batteries and five 16 GB Sandisk Extreme IV cards.

For more information on the film check out the website here and to see some of Danfung’s photography, his official site is here

Hell and Back Again is currently in post-production and will be released next year.