AMIRA captures Everest earthquake

In April 2015 cinematographer Alexander Kubasov took an AMIRA camera and two ARRI/FUJINON Alura Lightweight Zooms to the Himalayas, planning to carry them 7,000 meters up Mount Everest for a documentary about a team of Russian climbers making a bid for the summit. Events took a dramatic turn when the fatal earthquake of April 25th hit the mountain, killing 19 and drawing the production to an abrupt halt. Alexander spoke with ARRI about his experiences up to that point, and plans for a second phase of shooting next year.

What was the original goal of the expedition and the shoot? 

It's a documentary about climbing Everest, or to be more precise about a group of people, professionals and amateurs, united by the idea of conquering the world's highest peak. It will be a story that touches on human endurance, overcoming limits, and people's behavior in extreme situations. 

After a night of -30°C frost, the aluminum body of my laptop was distorted by about 1 cm, whereas the AMIRA turned on immediately.

When did you set out?


We started on the project in February this year. Besides a huge amount of work on the production itself, the preparation period included serious physical training -- we spent about a month at the Innovation Center of the Russian Olympic Committee, where we prepared for the physical stress of working at altitude in thin air. After that we set out for Kathmandu on April 12th and from there we travelled on to Lhasa, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.


Why did AMIRA seem like it would be a good camera for this production?


There were several reasons. First of all we needed a camera with a wide dynamic range, since we had to work in very contrasty conditions. Being able to record good quality sound with the camera was another critical requirement, since we didn't have a sound director. The ergonomics of the AMIRA are like an ENG camera, meaning that it can be quickly taken out of the camera bag and will immediately be ready for work. We also really appreciated the opportunity to use different lens mounts, as I already had several EF mount prime lenses of my own.

What kinds of shots did you plan to use AMIRA for? 

We were planning to use AMIRA as the main camera for all the shooting below 7,000 meters, as it would be impossible to climb higher with any equipment. Aside from that, we also had 20 action cameras for specialist shots. The decisive factor for us in picking AMIRA as our main workhorse was that it was by far the best camera that could actually be taken to the shooting location and used there both easily and effectively. 

Did AMIRA perform well in this extreme environment?

Unfortunately we didn't manage to reach the most extreme conditions because of the April 25th earthquake. Nevertheless, I can say that for the entire expedition the AMIRA and the Alura Zooms worked perfectly. Let me give just one example: after a night of -30°C frost, the aluminum body of my laptop was distorted by about 1 cm, whereas the AMIRA turned on immediately and we were able to start work. Also, there were often very strong winds with a lot of dust and small particles; the technician had to clean the camera regularly, but it didn't interfere with our work and we had no problems of any kind with the camera or the lenses.

Looking back, what were the most useful features of the AMIRA for this shoot? 

The ergonomics and balance of the AMIRA, as well as its ease of use, made it ideal for this shoot: the flip-out screen means you don't need an on-board monitor and the menu system is simple -- the fact that it isn't touch-screen allows you to use it while wearing gloves. I liked having the possibility to shoot Log C using a 3D LUT: we worked in Log C with Rec 709, which let us see a 'typical' TV picture, but at the same time I knew that the range was considerably wider and I could get my desired look during the grade in postproduction. Being able to shoot 200 fps provided additional freedom of artistic expression and the built-in ND filters were also very useful. 

The wide-angle Alura literally saved us when we were filming in small tents with minimal focus distances.

How far into the shoot were you when the earthquake struck?


The earthquake started when we had ascended to the highest monastery, at about 5,200 meters above sea level; the AMIRA was turned on and we even managed to film the initial shockwaves. Where we were it was approximately a magnitude 4 earthquake, which in theory is not too dangerous, but when you see rocks falling right beside you, it feels pretty scary. Anyway we managed to get some very exciting shots.


Which Alura Zooms did you have?


We had both of the Alura Lightweight Zooms, the 15.5-45 mm and the 30-80 mm, as well as the Alura Extender. This kit perfectly fit our requirements since it covered a wide range of focal lengths, while at the same time being light and compact. 

What did you like about working with the Aluras?

We were very pleased by the quality of the optics; during the entire shooting period we didn't suffer any issues with the lens scales, even at very low temperatures. The wide-angle Alura literally saved us when we were filming in small tents with minimal focus distances; the barrel distortion is corrected very well.

After a few days I gradually stopped using a matte box and follow focus with the Aluras and they dealt perfectly with stray lateral light, while manual focusing was smooth and intuitive. You know, once you're working at heights measured in thousands of meters, you start calculating your kit weight in grams, not kilograms. 

What is the plan now for the rest of the production?

We're not planning to give up and wish to repeat the climb next year, after which we will release the project in two parts. The earthquake was widely covered by the international media and we hope our project will be interesting for viewers not only in Russia, but also abroad.