Simon Vacher, a young, keen, talented cinematographer and widelife/documentary cameraman, spent 25 weeks over three years on five separate trips filming on Ascension Island and St. Helena, the UK Caribbean Territories, Pitcairn & Henderson Island, Falklands, Antarctica, South Georgia and the Chagos Archipelago for a television documentary about the UK Overseas Territories, ‘Britain’s Treasure Islands’ (WT).
Miller invited Simon to talk about his expendition, the challenges, motivation and other interesting parts of his intriguing projects. And of course to find out how his new Miller Compass 15 Solo tripod system had performed in the harsh shooting environments like the South Atlantic and the ice, snow and penguin poo of Antarctica!
Miller: What was your motivation to shoot this project?
Simon Vacher: I’ve always been totally absorbed with observing the natural world, and specifically the film communication language on which the visual medium of the natural world is told through television. I’m very passionate about my gadgets and cameras, and love technology. These two interests have created a fusion which has led me to becoming a wildlife and documentary cameraman!
As a young, keen cinematographer with a wealth of enthusiasm, I really felt I could get my teeth and air my enthusiasm into the UK Overseas Territories project, as it served as a level platform to build up experience and work with a talented presenter as well as wildlife and people in natural surroundings, rather than the staged scenario of a studio. It also gives me the priceless opportunity to travel with my job and see the world!
With this project I also felt free to apply my own creative direction to how it’s shot, and keep the look throughout the film. For example, this includes the way in which the presenter interacts with the scene, and creative shots such as using a crane-jib to give the viewer a sense of space and 3D movement.
Miller: What was the biggest challenge for this particular project?
Simon Vacher: Some of the major challenges of an ambitious shoot such as this are the environmental concerns with equipment. We shot many sequences on wind-swept sandy beaches, searing heat and salt-water mangroves, to cold icy plateau’s and pools of penguin poo, to razor sharp skin-lacerating lava cones. Each of these places tested our equipment to the maximum!
Our first setup wasn’t a Miller but an inferior friction tripod head system with a Sony EX1 and nanoFlash. After our first six weeks filming, we found salt water had corroded the XLR inputs on the camera, and the lens barrel has almost completely corroded from within. We soon learned to always keep the camera within its Portabrace glove and never remove it unless totally necessary! The nanoFlash also sat uncomfortably on the top of our EX1, and always seemed to be in the way. After a while, constant use meant the Serial cable between the EX1 and nanoFlash began to give timecode dropouts, and so we thereafter always brought spare Serial cables with us. Subsequently our inferior friction tripod completely let us down, and within a week the cheap composite metal spreader bars had snapped, leaving me to fix it in the field with just metal wire to hold it together. The tripod legs also began to slip into themselves after a few weeks, and constantly required tightening with an Allen Key.
From these mistakes we learnt so much. Firstly, We ditched the old tripod, and brought a Miller Compass 15 3-stage Solo tripod and invested in a new Dedo LedZilla top-light. We also bought the new Sony PMW-200 which has the inbuilt capability to record 4:2:2 and therefore removing the need for the nanoFlash and additional battery weight. This shooting setup followed us around on the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula for nearly two months, and never ever let us down once.
Miller: What were the advantages of using a Miller tripod for this shoot?
Simon Vacher: We’ve been thoroughly impressed and pleased by our outstanding Miller Compass 15 3-Stage Carbon Fibre Solo Tripod! Not only did it get some impressed looks from the BBC and Sky crew at the Falklands Referendum when I was able to get high and stable above the other TV crews, but most importantly it has lasted and survived every situation in the field we have chucked at it. During the harshest moments of our trip when other tripods would most have certainly broke; in ice, in mud, in saltwater and in high winds, in sandy dusty beaches and in blistering heat, it has not let us down once.
The 3-stage leg-locking system is an instant 10 seconds breeze to setup, from high-angle shots to low-angle ground shots and is easily configurable for rocky and uneven terrain, meaning we’ve nearly never missed a shot. I’ve almost always achieved smooth and stable pans with the simple yet well built 3 way drag fluid head, even while shooting at the ‘end of the lens’ in the dry and windy katabatic conditions found in the Antarctic. I would go as far to say it’s really a pleasure to use each and every time I use it!
Carrying it long distance over rough terrain has not been any problem either, due to its lightweight chunky Carbon Fibre legs and leg-locking system, which is unaffected by saltwater, and is always reassuring and masterfully uncomplicated!
My only complaint is of the cheeky Striated Caracara who pecked and pecked at the upper leg foam coverings during filming until they got shredded beyond use, resulting in the Gaffer tape making an appearance! Those keen-eyed birds almost made away with the Producers camera, broke his lens cap and stole his notes!
The only question is… Will the tripod last longer than us?! It’s a question already crossed in my mind…
Miller: Would you recommend Miller to a colleague/friend and why?
Simon Vacher: I would always recommend a Miller tripod to a colleague or friend, simply because of their reliability and the fact that you truly get what you pay for with a Miller!
Miller: Is there anything you would change about your Miller tripod?
Simon Vacher: There really isn’t much I would change about the Miller, apart from making it more bird-proof!
Miller: What’s your next project?
Simon Vacher: Our next trip is to Pitcairn Island, well-known for the ancient story of the mutineer’s of the Bounty.
Beyond the UK Territories project, who knows. I certainly know it better be an exiting, photogenic and unforgettable place! And it sure better be a hallmark documentary which changes the world for better.