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Our Director of Photography, Dan Etheridge, takes us behind the scenes of his shoot in Syria and shares insider tips on how to get the shot. 

It feels a bit strange writing a small piece about a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan as my first blog for AFC. I was racking my brains for something super edgy, extreme, adrenalin fuelled and visually stunning… Something that would sit nicely nestled next to something Meg has written so much about recently.

I had preconceptions, like most people, of what I was going to be walking into in a refugee camp at the centre of the Middle East. I’ve filmed in many ‘extreme’ environments, a phrase that’s often used wrongly in my opinion. Of course they are to a degree, they’ll bite you if you’re not ready but when you’re properly prepared and with the right people it offers the opportunity to experience places that you wouldn’t and couldn’t normally operate in, it’s something available to us all if we just muster the commitment.

“Commitment is doing that thing you said you’d do, when the feeling you had when you first said you’d do it has long since left you”

I have a massive problem with motivation, it’s the enemy in some ways - that’s why I love this quote, a nice one to keep at the forefront of you’re mind before embarking on long/arduous but ultimately fulfilling journeys, whatever they may be.

So, walking Into Zaatari refugee camp for the first time I thought I knew what I might expect, what I experienced was quite different. Of course the back-stories of the people who had arrived there were littered with incredible pain and suffering, family members killed, homes and hometowns destroyed and all the imaginable hardships of fleeing from the ravages of war. What I wasn’t prepared for was the incredible, unfaltering positivity and determination in the face of such oppressive adversity. I have never felt so welcomed in my life. Lots of the people there have very little; they’re given the equivalent of twenty pounds a month to spend in one shop. So with very limited resources, they’ve basically created a small town in the middle of the desert, two high streets, playgrounds, coffee shops and parks. It’s astonishing really, and amazing visually, almost felt a bit like something you’d see in Blade Runner or Mad Max movie. I can’t tell you the warmth, generosity and hospitality of the Syrian people in Zataari, I climbed a water tower one morning to get some height on a time-lapse of the dust clouds that whip though the camp. Just as I set it going I got a tap on the shoulder and a guy had followed me up there with a cup and flask of coffee, so we sat for ten minutes, drinking, looking out and just smiling, no words just an offer of friendship.

So, on arrival it was a quick cup of Turkish coffee and some of the best wood fired bread I’ve ever tasted with a bunch of super friendly dudes who owned the bread shop, then on with the task of filming.

My key to capturing the subject matter;

First up when shooting something like this, or anything really, for me I have to soak it up for a bit, have a look round to see what’s going on. Trying to transpose the 3D world, with sounds and smells to a single image is basically impossible. What’s important for me is to try and tune in to the details of the matter, the hard-working hands of the guy who fixes everyone’s shoes and the frayed power cord leading to the machine he’s carried half way across Syria. How skillfully and close his finger gets to the massive needle going on and out of the shoes he fixes for everyone (he told me he’d put it straight through his hand twice). The home made decoration that everyone puts on their bicycles, most of which have been pulled from rivers in Holland and flown over. Timelapses of the dusty, busy, streets where thousands gather to buy their food and goods daily. Slow motion shots of kids playing football on rocky pitches… the ball they play with. Falafel sizzling on oil on a super close up and the super speedy hands of the guys that make them. I was only there for a week and only allowed into the camp between 9-4 every day so I was anxious to gather as much as possible and aware that you could film here for a month and still not get everything.

We had to travel as light as possible and have kit that’s not only durable to the heat and fine dust, but could also have the ability to display all of what there was to see as effectively and creatively as possible.

The practicalities of getting the shot - here’s my kit

Featherlike Litepro crane

Canon 7D for Timelapses

Sony A7s

Genie motion control and Hague 1 metre slider with crank handle

Sony Fs7

Satchler V20 100mm head and Miller Solo Legs

24-70mm F4 Macro

70-200mm 2.8 Canon

50mm f2 Leica R Prime with metabones speedbooster adaptor

HJ22 ENG Lens With Abelcine to PL, then PL to E-mount.

MoVi M5 (which fits on the Crane to with a turtle adaptor).

DJI Osmo.

The kit I choose on each job is inevitably dependent on budget and in this case durability. There’s lots of changes I’d make if I had more time, more money, more hands, but I need to be able to get everything up and running quickly and on my own at times. Durability is paramount too, hence running a 7D instead of a 5D or the A7s for timelapses – a camera that hasn’t let me down to date and is the SLR equivalent of a Land Rover.

Road testing the DJI Osmo handheld stills and video camera.

One of the headlines from the producers was to get height and scale into the film. I had an incredible ride over the camp in a UH-72 Jordanian helicopter and filmed out of the side on the skid, then in the camp used the crane to get on top of buildings and any structure that would hold me. The DJI Osmo was amazing for ease of use and incredible what you can do with it, putting it on the end of a large stick and just walking with it, swinging it like a jib or running after a bike, annoyingly though post-production have struggled with it’s codec and I’m currently working with them to try and find a way it can be ingested and used in a professional environment with Avid.

Zataari isn’t somewhere that I’d ever visit in my every day life so I feel so lucky to have been there and met some amazing people. We’re bombarded with so much ostensible and incongruous information in today’s world of social media but the reality is so much different and I feel hugely privileged to have seen and experienced it all up close. I hope when you see the documentary on BBC2 the message comes through.

Dan.