Danfung Dennis: shooting combat video in Afghanistan with the Canon 5D mark II
Left: Danfung Dennis setting up his shot with Echo Company in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Danfung Dennis (www.battleforheartsandminds.com).
Danfung Dennis shoots HD video in war zones with a Canon 5D mark II, adjusting aperture in the middle of firefights and explosions—“when [an] IED exploded and dust filled the air, I was thinking about correcting the exposure as it had become much darker.”
But even under fire, Dennis has his priorities–keep your head down: “The first thing I am thinking about is finding cover–mud walls, ditches or berms–to protect myself from incoming fire,” he mentions in an email interview. After getting low, he gets the shot: “I simply focus on working the camera and doing my job.”
The London-based Dennis came out of Cornell University in 2005 with two degrees–not in journalism and photography, but in Applied Economics and International Agriculture. However, it was the “tremendous impact” of “images from past wars and conflict” that eventually drove Dennis away from his planned field and into war photography and video. He also “felt compelled to also bear witness to the wars of [his] generation and show others an honest picture of what is happening.” So he bought some equipment and “I trained myself as best I could,” he says, “before simply stepping on a plane to Kabul.” Adventure didn’t wait. “The second day I was there, I was nearly killed by a rioting mob, but I also got my first pictures published in The New York Times.”
Three years later, Dennis embedded with Echo Company in the 8th Marine Company’s 2nd Battalion, covering their July assault into the Helmand River Valley. He wanted to “open a window into [the Afghanistan] war to bring it closer to home.”
Intense footage from Dennis’ Afghanistan exploits can be found in the opening sequence of the Oct. 13, 2009 broadcast of Frontline, “Obama’s War” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/obamaswar/view/).
In combat, trust has to come easily for Marines, but for a civilian in combat gear, “There is always an initial ‘checking out’ period where the Marines or soldiers see if I have the right gear, can keep up and stay out of the way,” Dennis notes. However, once they know he’s not in the way and they see him “going through the same difficult experiences, trust builds quickly.”
Because of his closeness to the Marines during shooting, Dennis can convey what it’s like to be there when editing his footage. “I am trying to convey what it feels like to be a US Marine fighting a ghost-like enemy or an Afghan villager as their house is raided.” He hopes that this will help offset the numbing effect of Americans receiving “the steady stream of casualty and bombing headlines” during “eight years of war.” Thus, when he edits, he keeps in mind his first priority–to “convey emotion, then the narrative.”
At the same time, Dennis doesn’t want his focus solely on the Marines and miss the big picture of the war. “When embedded with the US military, one gets a very narrow view of the conflict,” Dennis explains, “so I spend about half my time working independently, simply traveling with an translator and driver.”
Dennis shot over 45 hours of footage in Afghanistan and plans to go back, as he continues to work on his documentary covering the war in Afghanistan, titled: “Battle for the Hearts and Minds”–the U.S. soldiers’ attempt to rally public support from the citizens of Afghanistan.
A preview of Dennis’ Afghanistan documentary:
Although Dennis goes in with “a general idea of the story,” he let’s it “really unfold and take shape while” he’s on the ground. And he did his homework first, engaging in a six months of “planning and research” in order to discover “where the story is happening” for his Afghanistan project.
As for his gear, “As a stills photographer,” Dennis found that shooting video on Canon’s 5D mark II was “a natural transition.” Indeed, he engaged similar techniques from photography: “The camera allowed me to apply the same aesthetics and method from stills to video. The image quality is stunning, the low light capabilities outstanding and it is light enough to mount onto a hand held steadicam.”
After shooting some HD video in the field, Dennis discovered “that there are more similarities between video and stills than there are differences. I can apply everything that I’ve learned from stills to video, so I feel that I’m still doing the same thing, just adding the complex layers of motion and sound.” However, he doesn’t switch up lenses “in combat and dusty situations,” he adds, sticking to a handy 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
His steadicam is a modified Glidecam 2000 HD (http://www.glidecam.com/product-hd-series.php). His modifications include two “wings” where he mounts a XLR audio adapter (DXA-2s shown below, but now uses the Juiced Link CX231). and a Sennheiser shotgun mic (ME-66) and wireless lav mic (Sennheiser G2 system). He also adapted the Glidecam bodypod device (http://www.glidecam.com/product-body-pod.php), cutting it up some “to make it fit with my body armor and used it to rest my arm when I was not shooting” and he added “custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam ear plug to suppress the vibration of the lens.”
Dennis’s combat gear in Afghanistan: Combat vest, Canon 5D mark II, Glidecam 2000 HD, Sennheiser shotgun mic and wireless mic (ME-66 and G2 lav system), windscreen, and Beachtek XLR adapter. Photo courtesy of Danfung Dennis.
On his website, http://battleforheartsandminds.com/about, Dennis notes that he “tried to achieve a cinematic look when shooting in bright daylight at f2.8 at 1/60th or slower” by using a “Singh Ray Variable ND filter”, which “can reduce the amount of light by 2 to 8 stops.” But he ran into issues “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.” He also mentioned how he had to practice with “racking focus” since you “all focus must be done manually after recording begins.” However, when running with marines, especially when under fire, he “was not able to rack focus”, so he tried an old-fashioned trick: “try to stay the same distance from [his] subject to keep them in focus.”