Cinematographer's Journey: Rightfooted - Travels to Ethiopia
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Ethiopia All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 28

I got a call the end of 2011 from Nick Spark, who had produced two previous projects I shot, asking if I thought Jessica Cox would be a good subject for a documentary. Jessica is a 29 year-old Filipino-American who was born without arms, but that has not stopped her from leading a very full and exciting life. Jessica does everything with her feet, eating, driving, and putting in her contacts. She is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a charismatic inspirational speaker and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only armless pilot licensed to fly solo.

Jessica Cox
Twenty-nine year old Jessica Cox is about to co-pilot a plane with an Abyssinian Airlines pilot Captain Solomon Gizaw, with full press coverage. This and all images courtesy of Hilary Stewart.

Nick is an MFA graduate of the U.S.C. School of Cinematic Arts and his most recent project is The Legend of Pancho Barnes, an Emmy Award-winning documentary that profiles famed female pilot Florence "Pancho" Barnes. Nick wanted the story of Jessica Cox to be his directorial feature doc debut. He believes in films that make a difference, and so do I, so I was in on the project.

Nick raised a bit of money and we have been following Jessica on a shoestring budget. In the past year, we've filmed her flying, mentoring and speaking to children around the country, even getting married. Jessica is especially committed to sharing her story in developing countries where people with handicaps are stigmatized and opportunities are extremely limited. She feels this is an arena where she can have a big impact.

Travelling on Turkish airlines to Addis Ababa

We have been waiting for the right time to accompany her on a foreign trip and when Jessica started making plans to visit Ethiopia on behalf of the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Handicap International, Nick decided to try to raise funds via Indiegogo, an international crowdsourcing platform. He also got fiscal sponsorship of the film by the International Documentary Association. The campaign on Indiegogo went better than expected, raising nearly $38,000, $8,000 over our original goal.

On our way at the Bradley Terminal at LAX. Left to right: Hilary Stewart, Nick Spark, Bill Megalos

When we first started shooting, we had no money and our natural choice was to start shooting on my Sony PMW-EX1. I've owned the EX1 since it first came out and have shot with it around the world. For the type of films I make, often working alone in remote places, it is the best camera I've ever used (yes, beating out my beloved Aaton). It hits the sweet spot of small size with medium (?xFFFDxBD") sensor and an excellent Fujinon lens. I can fly under the radar nearly everywhere, unlike a larger camera, which would draw more attention both at customs and in the field. Though it's long of tooth in this era of new cameras and formats being released practically daily, for my work, I haven't found anything I'd trade it in for (with the exception of the Sony PMW-200, which addresses my few quibbles plus records at 50 mbps, conforming to the EU broadcast standards.) Naturally, we're shooting 1080 24p.

So, the EX1 was going to be our A camera. The big question was, What about a camera for Nick to shoot with? Nick is an accomplished photographer and has a great eye. He was leaning towards a DSLR (which we've shot a few scenes with a Canon 5D on this film) thinking he could shoot stills, as well. I knew that had we gone with a DSLR, his footage would be only very occasionally useful, properly exposed, in focus and well-composed. I pushed for the Canon XA, another very successful low-profile and user-friendly camera that does what it does very well, better than could be expected. (I imagine this camera would have been a big hit with the late Ricky Leacock, one of the lions of cinema verite.) It's truly amazing that images this good can come from a camera this small and inexpensive. It's good in low-light and its size wouldn't aggravate Nick's tendonitis.

As for audio, my first choice is Hilary Stewart, whom I've worked with for several years. I have yet to bring her onto a type of job that she is not perfect for. She always puts the people in front of the camera at ease, whether they are actors or documentary participants. Of course these qualities wouldn't suffice if she didn't record excellent sound. Plus, she's always great to be with. Though we've never worked together outside Los Angeles, I had no doubts that she would be great to travel with.

Hilary Stewart in Ethiopia with a local newscasting team

So, after getting visas, shots and mnalarone (the anti-malarial drug), finding insurance, hiring a local fixer to arrange for our film permit, buying an XA10 on Craigslist (with the crucial Canon .58x zoom-thru WA adapter), we met at my place in Venice late this afternoon and headed to LAX. Turkish Airlines graciously upgraded Jessica and her husband, Patrick and we managed to sneak in a few shots in the terminal and on the plane, so now I can relax and try to catch some sleep.

Future entries will be shorter. Once we arrive and start shooting, the only time I'll be able to write would be while I'm downloading our cards. I'm very excited to be underway. Though I've been in East Africa a half-dozen times shooting or teaching, this will be my first trip to Ethiopia. It's been on my list and I'm glad and most fortunate to be finally going.

In Ethiopia

March 30

An easy day, Jessica slept through until mid-afternoon, Nick and I went out in Addis Ababa and shot some establishing shots of the city, knowing that our schedule would get very tough over the next few days. At the government film office, where we went to get our permit, there was an article about Jessica on the front page of one of the daily papers, so I expect she'll be recognized around town.

In Addis Ababa

In the evening our hotel held an informal cocktail party for Jessica and she did two interviews, one for radio and one for TV. This was good practice for her, as she'll be facing a lot of press on Monday.

March 31

Today was our first full day of shooting and we did well. We started at Easter services at the big Church of The Holy Savior (after our driver took us to the wrong church at first!) We made it in time for the 10 am English Mass and the pastor and priest welcomed us and after the service, Jessica addressed the congregation and was given gifts by some handicapped parishioners. Although the majority religion in Ethiopia is Orthodox Christianity, which celebrates Easter this year on May 6, Jessica and Patrick were very happy to celebrate today.

Easter services at the big Church of The Holy Savior
Easter services at the big Church of The Holy Savior

In the afternoon, we visited a 14 year-old boy, Sammy, who lost the use of his arms. He's an artist who can draw with his feet but mostly draws with his mouth. He and his family were gracious hosts and they were happy to talk with Jessica and hear her stories of how she has managed to live such a full life. She helped him come up with new ways of dressing himself and thinking about his future.

Fourteen-year-old Sammy can draw with his feet, but mostly draws with his mouth.

Tomorrow is a very big day, starting out with Jessica addressing the U.S. Embassy staff, then giving a speech at Addis Ababa University and ending up co-piloting a flight with an Abyssinian Airlines pilot with the full press in attendance. Biggest fears: not enough time to set up an any of these events, the day is packed, traffic will be brutal, unlike on this placid weekend and having enough time to set up GoPros in the plane.

Bill setting up the GoPro mount to film Jessica flying the plane with Captain Solomon Gizaw.

April 1

Today was one of those days that I got into this line of work for and that no matter how tired or stressed I am makes everything worthwhile. In recent years, it seems more likely that I experience these magic days in Africa.

We started the day very early, anticipating bad traffic (a near certainty in practically every African capital city) and we headed to the U.S. Embassy where Jessica was to meet with both the ambassador and the head of the USAID mission, which is largely funding Handicap International's efforts in Ethiopia. She addressed a packed room of over 100 embassy staffers. She was terrific and the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Of all of Jessica's presentations we've filmed over the past year, this could have been the best. We then rushed over to Addis Ababa University where the hall was packed with 2,000 students who went crazy when Jessica entered. Another great session which was followed by a press conference. What a pleasure it is to be able to cover these events with two cameras! There is never a problem with having enough establishing shots and audience reactions with a second camera.

Bill and Jessica and the American Embassy

The XA10 has been a great second camera. It's so unobtrusive that I've been able to grab shots in many places that are normally off-limits, like airports, in planes, even on the grounds of the embassy. If only the SDHC cards it records on would download as fast as the SxS cards the EX1 uses. Today we shot over 120 gigs of material between the two cameras, Hilary's Sound Devices 744 and the two GoPros we used. While this is nothing for an ARRI Alexa or Red shoot, it's a bit of a strain on a tiny crew like ours. After a full and exhausting day following a nearly sleepless night, two hours of media management is just about the last thing I want to deal with.

After the university we were off to the airport where Jessica met Tariku, an 8 year-old boy born with no arms. He and his parents had traveled for many hours from their remote village and he was so shy. It's quite a natural situation for someone who had never been to the city. It took Hilary quite a while to get him comfortable enough to put a radio mic on him. At first he was scared because he thought she was trying to give him an injection. It turned out that he had never seen a white person before. Jessica was very excited to be with him because she still remembers the first time she met someone without arms and how that impacted her entire life. She's very good at comforting shy children but it was very difficult for Tariku, as they met out on the tarmac. He'd never seen a plane before and he was surrounded by noise and strangers. Let's just say that their first meeting didn't make for great video, but we were scheduled to spend more time with him.

Jessica with Tariku.

Soon Jessica started prepping for her flight over the city with Captain Solomon Gizaw, which drew the full complement of local media. I mounted the GoPros and put Hilary in one of the two passenger seats with the XA10, while I stayed on the ground to get taxi, takeoff and landing. It's always a thrill to be on an airstrip and also something of a crapshoot, trying to be in the right place for wheels up and down. Experience does help in these situations, because airports are so vast and disorienting and of course, you just get once chance. It always seems that the plane is spotted too late. Today both shots were 90 percent or better.

Bill with Captain Solomon Gizaw

Hilary on left with local newscaster, and right they prepare to board the plane to to feature Jessica piloting the other plane.

Back on the ground, Ethiopian TV interviewed Hilary, and that was a treat for her and for me. People aren't used to seeing women work as physically hard as she does (always on and running when needed, lugging her 40-pound package with four receivers, a mixer, the 744 and batteries, plus a boom, of course.) They were appropriately impressed and it was a kick to see her on the other side of the camera.

Back on the ground, Ethiopian TV interviews Hilary.

We ended the day at an old traditional restaurant where Jessica and Tariku really connected. He taught her how to eat injera, a soft pancake bread used as utensil to scoop up stews and vegetables. Naturally, they both ate with their feet and it was wonderful. A tradition of Ethiopian cuisine is for people to feed each other and they did and it was so sweet to see (and to shoot!). We get to see Tarik one more time tomorrow morning before we fly to Dire Dawa, which we expect to be much hotter than Addis (where, at 7,300 feet, the temperature is quite lovely).

Tariku taught Jessica how to eat injera - a soft pancake bread used to scoop up stews and vegetables.

The restaurant was typically dark, I went to 9db gain on the EX1 (I go to 6 db without blinking). The XA10 needed to go to 18db. Generally, in the dark, I'll be conservative with gain and add the last 3-6db in post, even with the less-than-robust XDCAM and AVCHD 4:2:0 codecs. I used a light for the first time on the shoot, a 4x6" battery powered LED unit that I bounced into the white sheet that hung over the area we were seated. It looked great and helped to even things out, as Jessica and especially Patrick are light and Tariku and his family are very dark by Ethiopian measures.

One other fun thing that happened in the restaurant is that the news was playing on a TV as we arrived and a piece on Jessica from the university and in the plane was playing. The staff was quite excited to see her walk in as she was on the screen.

Enough for today, it's been 19 hours...

Ethiopian Sunset