Richard Ladkani - director and cinematographer 1

ARRI Master Grips on Sundance premiered “Sea of Shadows”

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, “Sea of Shadows” is a dramatic documentary thriller. Director and cinematographer Richard Ladkani chose ARRI Master Grips to aid in the challenge of filming on his own at sea.

Jan. 29, 2019

A looming disaster in one of the most spectacular environments on Earth sparks a rescue mission unlike any other in “Sea of Shadows,” a riveting new documentary with the intensity of a Hollywood thriller. When Mexican drug cartels and Chinese traffickers join forces to poach the rare totoaba fish in the Sea of Cortez, their deadly methods threaten to destroy virtually all marine life in the region, including the elusive and mysterious whale species known as the vaquita porpoise. But a team of brilliant scientists, high-tech conservationists, investigative journalists and courageous undercover agents as well as the Mexican Navy put their lives on the line to save the last remaining vaquita and bring the vicious international crime syndicate to justice.

Director and cinematographer Richard Ladkani had the chance to document this desperate operation to capture some of the last survivors of the species as part of a protective sanctuary program. Richard was all-too aware that, in more ways than one, he would only get a single chance to film a vaquita. He knew that he’d have to get every shot right, the first time—at sea, on a crowded boat, with no assistant. For this project, ARRI Master Grips were the answer.

The challenges were enormous. The critically endangered marine mammals had never been filmed by a professional crew, and the conservation team had a huge area of sea in the Baja California to search.

“This action involved 60 scientists from all over the world on 15 ships,” he says, “it was insanely complex, and we had very limited access. Sometimes I had to go on a ship all by myself—I couldn't even take a sound man or an assistant. I was on my own.”

Naturally, when preparing to film the conservation operation, Richard thought very carefully about his kit. “It was important to me that I would be able to work with my equipment as quickly and self-sufficiently as possible. Right from the start I thought that the Master Grips could be very helpful because they allow me to focus with my right hand, for example, and to pull the aperture, and sometimes just hold on to the boat with my left hand.”

So, to give him that extra degree of control he chose Master Grip Right Wheel MRW-1 (for focus and iris) with 160mm rod extension, a Master Grip Left Rocker MLR-1 (for zoom) with 160mm rod extension, and a Cforce mini and zip gear (on the zoom axis), along with his ARRI AMIRA and EF lenses.

“I had to be flexible, I never had to be in the way, and I had to be fast—and I still had to deliver the best quality pictures, and tell the story,” he says, adding that the Master Grips were easy to operate, and didn’t fight against his muscle memory of other controls. “I just had to get used to what's where, and how to deal with it. Then I was afraid that the focus pulling wouldn't be so easy—I'm used to sharpen with my left hand, and now I have it on my right thumb—on my fingertips. But I got it immediately—it was intuitive after 10 minutes.” 

It took four weeks for the team of scientists to get close enough to a vaquita to capture it, but then everything moved extremely quickly. “It was wild—I was on a boat accelerating at a crazy speed, and I had to hold on. But, of course, I still wanted to shoot and to be in the middle of the action.”

“This sharpening from the hand, from the fingertips without having to reach for anything, was immediately convincing. The AMIRA, while heavy, lies well on the shoulder. And with the Master Grips you can say it worked well as a unit.”

Despite the harsh conditions—including twelve-hour days in 35 degree heat, with little shade - Richard was very happy with the way the shoot went. “To be able to do everything in one hand and still have the quality of ARRI and AMIRA—that was fantastic”.

“I couldn’t have captured 'Sea of Shadows' the way I did without the Master Grips. With one hand I was holding onto the boat, with the other I was able to change the focus, iris, and zoom with the Master Grips.”

To learn more about the film, please visit the website:

Photos: Terra Mater