In Ghana with AMIRA

Cinematographer and AMIRA owner Johann Perry recently filmed a short documentary about a Ghanaian youth soccer team that gets the opportunity to play in an English tournament. The 12-minute film, titled MY FIRST INTERNATIONAL, was commissioned by the agency AKQA and produced by Firecracker Films in London. It forms part of the Vodafone Firsts campaign, a series of branded documentary shorts, and was completed in just four shooting days.

Were you able to do much preparation before going out to Ghana?


I met Ben, the director, a couple of weeks before the shoot and we had a discussion about what we were going to do. He has a very clear visual idea of how he's going to tell a story. We broke the film down into various segments: the hopes and aspirations of the boys, expressed in dream-like sequences; the action of the football; some sections of actuality; and the trip to England.


How did you light the opening scene of the boys watching a televised international match in a darkened room?


We had about eight boys in that tiny room. There was a very blue light coming from the projector so to add a bit of dimension I put in a little 1' x 1' battery-powered LED panel light, which I set to a tungsten color temperature. That gave us a nice warm backlight to contrast with the aquamarine color of the projector. The whole setup took less than 10 minutes, from the time of arrival to turning over.

What drew you to AMIRA?

Like all documentary cameramen I love the idea of using a 35 mm sensor, but most cameras on the market just seem like boxes that have been rolled in glue and dipped in buttons. As soon as I saw that ARRI was releasing a camera with well thought-out ergonomics and the beautiful ALEXA image, I ordered one. It was like having an ARRIFLEX SR 3 back on my shoulder again. That's how we used to work in documentaries, with a lovely little camera tucked in to our shoulder and feeling like we could capture anything because we weren't fighting our tools. After 15 years or so, it's exciting to get back to that.

So you were able to be responsive in your camerawork?

Being responsive is the most important thing on every shoot I do. In documentaries you have to be ready to go, because anything can happen; I want to get the camera on a tripod or on my shoulder as quickly as humanly possible. I probably work about 150 days a year on totally different kinds of projects. You don't want to be spending a lot of time re-jigging your system for tomorrow's shoot; you want to be able to use the same camera day in, day out. I didn't get into the job of being a cameraman in order to have a bag full of nuts and bolts. With other cameras you can end up needing multiple bodies in different configurations, but the AMIRA adapts quickly to any situation.

What lenses did you use?

I had the Fujinon 19-90 mm zoom and a set of Zeiss T1.3 Super Speeds, which I love because they're all the same size -- very small and light. I ended up doing quite a lot of handheld work on those. When you shoot handheld with primes you have to move your body to the situation rather than just zooming, so you get more involved.

The peaking function in the AMIRA viewfinder is really accurate, so even handheld at T1.3 I was perfectly happy pulling focus myself.

Were you operating the camera on your own?


I've been doing my own focus for 15 years and I prefer to work that way. The peaking function in the AMIRA viewfinder is really accurate, so even handheld at T1.3 I was perfectly happy pulling focus myself. With a 50 mm at T1.3 your subject's eyeball will be in focus but their ear and the front of their nose will be soft; the peaking means you can see exactly what you've got. I found the whole viewfinder setup, with its focus and exposure tools, to be fantastically fluid and effortless.


What kinds of different lighting conditions did you encounter?


We had pretty much every lighting situation you could imagine. There was bright midday sun, dark subjects against hot windows, night-time interiors and exteriors, and mixed lighting with fluorescents and tungsten. I was amazed how well the AMIRA handled all of that. The internal ND filters were very useful and we used them all the time. If I wanted to keep shooting at T1.3 but things suddenly got brighter, I could make a quick adjustment to the internal filter and keep my stop. 

How did the director and producer respond to your images?

They were just delighted and couldn't praise the images highly enough. All the recent feature films we love were shot with the ALEXA, from DALLAS BUYERS CLUB to GRAVITY, so for a director or producer to have images of that quality on a documentary is something they get incredibly excited about. Especially shooting in Log C and then using a good color tool to show them the pictures; it just puts a big, beaming smile on their faces.

Everyone who knows I've got the AMIRA is asking if we can use it on their shoot, almost no matter what the production is.

Did the CFast 2.0 workflow allow you to turn footage around as quickly as you needed?


The CFast 2.0 cards were a new system for us, and that always brings a little bit of uncertainty, but it was remarkable that we were able to film a football match in England, edit it on-site on laptops, upload that to YouTube and broadcast it to a village in Ghana within a three-hour window. It was quite an experiment and there was a lot of pressure to make it work, with 200 people sitting in the village hall, waiting to see their boys who had just played a match over 3,000 miles away. No other camera system could have delivered such great images so quickly.


Has your AMIRA been busy since this shoot?


It has worked almost constantly on a multitude of different projects. Just recently I did a night shoot in central London and the images were amazing. Everyone who knows I've got the AMIRA is asking if we can use it on their shoot, almost no matter what the production is. I'm not having to sell it at all -- the camera is selling itself.