Marawi Assignment with Canon XA25

I have recently been commissioned by RT News as video journalist-fixer in the conflict zone Marawi, the city besieged by the Jihadist Maute group in Lanao Del Sur, Philippines.

My primary concern, of course, is the camera. I have been contributing news videos since 2014 and my main camera has always been my Canon 60D DSLR because of it’s long battery life, nice bokeh and flippable LCD. For the interview audio, either I plug in a shotgun mic, a lavalier mic or use a separate audio recorder combined with a good phantom-powered lapel microphone. Marawi03But Marawi assignment calls for a more run-and-gun type of camera. I didn’t want to be fidgeting on buttons and menus between takes in a war zone.

I was going to acquire a good video camera for this but Gonzalo, my Spanish reporter, brought a Canon XA25 video camera.

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My career as a freelance video journalist is now at stake with this camera because firstly, I wasn’t familiar with it. Secondly, the onscreen menus and functions are in Spanish. You can imagine my ordeal. But of course, Gonzalo is kind enough to always give me a hand especially on the first day.

First Impression

Canon XA25 is rather small for a ‘professional’ video camera. I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be painful.’ Because it’s always easier shooting a reporter live with a video camera that can be put on your shoulder but surprisingly, this cam is light and has a really good steady shot capability. It was a piece of cake, really, to be holding it with both hands.

Now, my correspondents love walking while reporting. It’s dynamic, it gives the right feel for a war-zone coverage and shows the viewers around; but it can also be a real challenge for the cameraman because he’ll be watching for a lot of different things at the same time–framing, focusing, footing and audio.  It means that I had to walk backwards while watching my reporters’ steps to synchronize mine so that we bounce at the same time to lessen jerks in the frame and make sure that I didn’t stumble while keeping him/her properly focused and at the center of the frame and be able to show whatever around us that he/she wants to show, like bullet holes on building walls, at the right time in the report as I listen and watch out for any ambient noise which might ruin the audio. With a DSLR, which works more or less like a 35mm film camera,  I would be needing a camera assistant to take care of focusing and a camera stabilizer, like a Steadicam, to pull this off. With the Canon XA25, I did it–with relative ease.

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With just a week of using the Canon XA25, I have not fully explored all of its functions but for the Marawi assignment, I like a list of what it can do:

#1 – It has this intelligent face/multi-face detect feature which, once set with a tap on the screen, focusing was not an issue at all. Astounding!

#2 – I couldn’t find the manual aperture setting. I didn’t have the to study but I never needed it anyway. It seemed to give me just the right exposure. I think it comes with the face detect feature. For a while I was worried about it because most cameras, set at auto-exposure setting would give nasty and noticeable changes in exposure. That did not happen.

#3 – I had difficulty isolating audio input channels. I think I tried every combination but both channels keep getting in. I must be doing something wrong but since my handheld mic level is clear enough, I decided to hit record even when the ambient sound from my shotgun mic is a bit too high for me. Upon editing footage, I was so happy channels were recorded separately. Meaning, I had separate controls for each channel’s audio levels. I was able to lower down ambient sound as necessary and enhance my reporters’ voices for better quality. Maybe this feature is not new for professional cameras but in such a small ‘news’ camera–it made me really want to have my own Canon XA25.

#4 – Once in a hot-spot, I had my 300mm lens on my Canon 60D ready, which, with its image sensor crop factor, works like 480mm, to catch those house-to-house military activities from afar but I was amazed to find out that Canon XA25 can zoom in about the same distance–even a little closer.

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With my heavy flak jacket, it was a real treat having such a light professional, easy-to-use news camera. It was quick to draw when something comes up along the road.
https://actualidad.rt.com/view/video_frame/240195
The only thing I probably want to come with this camera are big, long-lasting batteries because using it all day drained all my four batteries.

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I have not read any detailed ‘professional’ review on this video camera yet. I don’t even know, as of writing, whether it’s a new model or an ‘obsolete’ but all I needed to document the conflict in Marawi, to film and to please my insatiable correspondents, who came all the way from Europe, is in this camera. #

I Ditched the Rig

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It was New Year’s Eve and when my neighbor’s almost endless ear-damaging ‘Sinturon ni Hudas,’ a series of about 10-meter-long firecrackers meant to ward off evil spirits, and humans as well, subsided, I dozed off worrying whether my motorcycle parked outside would survive the night while monitoring fire alerts. It was this time last year when a huge fire broke out leaving 4,000 families homeless and three dead in Apolonio Samson district in Quezon City.

2015 NYE fire in Apolonio Samson, Quezon City

8 AM–I checked my Android. Boom! A fire broke out just right after the world faded to black for me at 2 AM. One dead on the initial reports and a thousand families affected. It was too late to run and get the footage which my news agency in Berlin would probably need. But after a couple of hours, an email came in.
When I went to Apolonio Samson last year, I had a big rig with a 21-inch-long shotgun microphone and mattebox attached.
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It was difficult to get spontaneous shots as people cannot seem to help it goofing around a news camera. This time, I decided to bring just my Canon EOS 60D camera body, my good old 18-55mm kit lens for the wides, a 300mm zoom and my newest special, a vintage 1977 Japan-made Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f2.0 prime lens.

Just like I thought, when I got to the still hot and smoking rubble, almost nobody waved a hand for the news. It was easier to capture the true mood of the area.
2016 NYE fire aftermath, Tondo, Manila
I used a wired lavalier microphone for the interview, of course, but it was difficult getting it right. Leaving my rig means I did not have a matte box to cover my lens. Keeping eye contact with the interviewee, guarding the shot and audio levels while trying to get the right story is hard enough for a solo video journalist and then to top it all up, keeping the lens covered from sunlight with a hand, to keep my contrast as crisp as possible, makes it a whole lot harder.
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My camera also got wet when I was hit by the firemen trying to put out the smoke coming from just a little behind my spot. I used to put a trash bag around my rig in these situations since it has this aluminum brackets that act as the shotgun mic holders and cage at the same time. With this experience, I am now planning a smaller rig setup. 🙂

One thing I like about filming news is the unique kind of high that I get while trying to get the right angle, picking the right person to interview, getting the right images while trying to protect yourself and your equipment in the midst of the overwhelming drama unfolding before me. Making a film out of a script is great but making it out of a real-time chaotic setting under a hairline of time frame is crazy and amazing.
See the breaking news

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From a Missing Airplane to Houses in Ashes

Burnt houses by Ruptly

My best buddies on this assignment:

  • Trash bag – it protected my camera and rig from remaining water cannons and water sprouts from broken pipes and rain.
  • My pair of Converse shoes – it stood hot piles of debris and the murky puddles of charred wood, earth and ashes.
  • Rain coat (which I gave out to evacuees)

To get to the core of this burnt 2.5-hectare settlement, I had to get through a still-hot and smoking remains of a house, come out of a window to the river dike and get through another rubble at the end of it then go through isles of debris. Everything is hot and smoking, if not wet, and the result–surreal.

See the fire.

Documercial in the Countryside

Just finished filming a documercial in Tarlac for the United Kingdom.Documercial Production

In this project, we followed a day in the lives of a single mother living in a shanty converted from half of a duck shelter big enough for a bamboo bed that she shares with her two children and of a wife and mother selling fish in the villages with her blind husband on a pedal tribike, a few days before Christmas in the countryside villages of La Paz, Tarlac, Philippines.

With my wife Marvie doing the interview, my Canon and Magic Lantern buddies and sweaters, I was able to capture as much angles as possible, without disrupting their normal work, from dawn to dusk.

The biggest challenge in this job is the limited time we have to film both subjects that conflicts with their daily routine as one has to continuously sell her perishable goods all day while the other one has to check on the draws of small town lottery she books and tend to her little children and the small window of opportunity to film in the busy village store giving us a hard time setting up the interviews but we pulled it off.

Although this work is probably more of a documentary for research and product development, it was by far the closest I got to humanity as a video producer.