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Creator Q&A: Documenting Disaster

Daniel Hayek
November 7, 2012 by Daniel Hayek Alum

Capturing the machinations of the natural world is one of the great joys of making video. Occasionally big and potentially dangerous natural phenomena swing through and most of us are best advised to stay safely in our homes. However, there are a few who buck the conventional wisdom and venture out to record these events in all their real life glory. I recently reached out to a few such Vimeo members and asked them a few questions.

First up is Jeff Pinilla who captured a news team shooting Hurricane Sandy in action in the Rockaway section of New York CIty, which was one of the areas most severely impacted by the recent storm:

Meanwhile Casey Neistat ventured through lower Manhattan on bike, where large sections were flooded and eventually powerless:

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Here's a rundown of what we discussed:

VVS: How did you end up shooting such an intense event, what compelled you?

Jeff: I work for an ad agency here in NY, Tribune Creative Group, and one of our major clients is WPIX. In the last two years I have created a great relationship amongst those in the news organization at WPIX. When hurricane Irene came in last year, I went out with a crew I was well acquainted with to document the experience but sadly, the camera got wet in the storm. When I heard that another hurricane was on its way, I decided I would try again except I would come well equipped this time. I wanted others to see what I had experienced being in a storm and I wanted to share what I learned about the risks these guys take to inform the public. 
Casey: I was in NYC for September 11 and for the blackout in 2003, these events are so transformative to the city — their impact effects so much for so long — that having the opportunity to capture them just seemed like something i had to do.

VVS: What sort of gear and gear protection do you take with you on these type of shoots?

Jeff: To be honest, I had three GoPros with a protective waterproof case to use as my primary cameras in the field. I brought the [Canon] 7D with me to have the beauty shots before and after. Fortunately, I was able to gauge the moments where there was no rain and I stepped out of the vehicle with it unprotected.
Casey: I was using a [Canon 5D] MarkIII in a waterproof housing.

VVS: Did you bring a backup camera?

Jeff: My backups were the GoPros. I knew I wanted timelapses and indoor footage from the cars and these cameras are built in such a practical way that it allows for easy internal coverage due to the wide lens. 
Casey: Yes, a Canon D20, great camera.

VVS: Any special considerations that you took for sound because of wind issues?

Jeff: I had a backup audio system, yes. I knew that the on-camera microphone wasn't going to be much use because of the wind but this is why I made sure my images would drive the narrative and not the dialogue. I only asked questions when necessary for the story.
The backup equipment I had was a Zoom H4n with an Electrosonics lavalier setup. 
Casey: Hide the sound with good music .

VVS: What kind of action did you try to focus on?

Jeff: Focus... that's the key word. When you're in the middle of 80mph winds and you're filming someone else hanging on for dear life, people don't realize that the guy operating the camera is also holding on for dear life. Keeping things in frame and trying to maintain a stylized look, while pulling focus on subjects, is a very daunting task. The goal was to really focus on the types of images that would drive the narrative. That specific shot is an example where I foreshadowed a bit by pulling a rack focus from Arthur, who is shaking in front of the camera due to the high winds, but the tide is rising fast in the background. When I saw that with my own eyes I started to panic and the only way to bring it across on camera is to maintain that focus while keeping Arthur, out of focus, in the frame. 
Casey: Anything that looked out of place, a Bentley floating in four feet of water for example.

VVS: Any specific types of shots you definitely tried to get?

Jeff: As I was out there, I knew how I wanted to cut this piece and I knew the type of "timestamps" I would be using. The biggest thing in the back of my mind was establishing shots. You must have establishing shots. I was so focused on getting the real time action and the macro shots that kept tight on the subjects but I had to remind myself to get the beautiful, wide, establishing shots. It was the only way I could keep rhythm, flow, and pace in this film. Those shots allowed me to break up the action and restart scenes.  Also, when we started driving through the devastation, I knew there was a moment for faking some dolly shots with the car. I wedged up the camera against the side of the window for stability and quickly changed my frame rate and shutter speed so that I could capture everything in slow motion. I knew these images needed to be presented as moving pictures, they were like living photographs of third world countries. In that instance, the subject matter in front of my eyes motivated the style I chose in camera. This is why I chose to show those images in black and white.
Casey: I tried to capture just how much water there was, I failed.

VVS: How did you know where to go? How did you track where the action is?

Jeff: It's simple. My ear listens and I go. I always remind myself of the initial reaction I had when I heard something or saw something. I write it down and then I'm reminded of it later in the edit. I know that if I reacted that way then my audience should react the same way. Curiosity is what allows me to go where I need to go with the camera.  
Casey: I was on a bike which enabled me to see most of downtown in a short amount of time.

VVS: How do you know where to draw the line in terms of danger? When do you decide it's too dangerous and it's time to head to safety?

Jeff: I had established really good relationships with the people I was with. I knew they were professional and my safety was never in question. Common sense played a big role in my thinking. The moment where it got a bit intense for me was when the water was rising at a rapid rate and our news van was stuck in the water. I think my panic comes across a bit in the footage. Honestly, there are risks that lead to rewarding footage but then there are also consequences. You just have to keep a steady head and make the right decisions when it comes down to it. 
Casey: I missed a lot of great shots because i was busy not drowning and avoiding falling scaffolding.

VVS: Is there anything you told yourself or others to prepare psychologically?

Jeff: I don't even know if I was prepared psychologically. I mean, you know you're going into a massive storm and you're documenting something that could be really really big or just a simple light rain. It was my experience with this crew during Hurricane Irene that really helped prepare me psychologically. I knew I was going into this for about 24 to 48 hours with no sleep but that was the risk I was willing to take. 
Casey: No.

VVS: Any other advice for those who want to capture intense natural phenomena?

Jeff:Intense natural phenomena can be something as simple as a love story or something as big as a documentary covering a hurricane and the greatest reward is when those stories become bigger than yourself. Just tell your story and don't let anyone stop you. Nobody paid me to do this. Nobody suggested I do this. You're a filmmaker, a storyteller, and at times, an idealist. So just go do it...
Casey: Hold the camera still.

As you can see, both of these adventurers took very different approaches in their video quests and both ended up with compelling stories. I want to emphasize that we at Vimeo want you to be safe first and foremost. Capturing exciting footage is cool but not when you or others are in serious danger. Stay safe, stay smart, and capture carefully.

8 Comments

tedd arvin boletic

our planet is severely damage by the climate changes due to different waste and damages mankind created...

Stravka

I have been in quite a few hurricanes over the years whilst visiting the US. What annoys me are the people who go out onto places like the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from Tampa to Clearwater just to watch the waters of Tampa Bay erupt over the wall. They constantly put Rescue people at risk by doing this. It is so dangerous. Please think of the Rescue people.

Ryan Shelley Plus

I love how their answers are so different. It really reflects their shooting style. Jeff makes a 20min movie, casey makes a 5min movie. Jeff gives a paragraph where casey can say one sentence and we get it.

How do you know where to draw the line in terms of danger? When do you decide it's too dangerous and it's time to head to safety?
" I missed a lot of great shots because i was busy not drowning and avoiding falling scaffolding. "

so rad.

Teixidor

Thank you for your courageous work!

richard austin

Sometimes less is more, sometimes more is less.
Sometimes the opposite is true, it is just a flip.
Two/too great workers here. Both the same only different!

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