Orphaned orangutans in a wheelbarrow on the path to the Forest School at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo: Aaron Gekoski
I first met Raise The Red Flag creator Aaron Gekoski, cinematographer Will Foster-Grundy and director Chris Scarffe in the Kalimantan jungle in Indonesia as they filmed a segment for a series at several Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS Foundation) sites, in Borneo. The series was typical of their mission: The three filmmakers have combined forces to help save or at least improve living conditions for fellow creatures, such as orangutans, that share our planet.
For example, at the BOS Foundation facility in Nyaru Menteng, we encountered many orphaned orangutans. The orangutan mothers are often killed when they trespass onto palm oil plantations in search of food or when poachers attempt to take their infants to sell on the illegal wildlife trade market.
My interview with Foster-Grundy, whose clients include Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Smithsonian Channel, took place at his home base of Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian section of Borneo.
Digital Photo Pro: What’s The Raise the Red Flag project about?
Will Foster-Grundy: Aaron Gekoski came up with the concept of Raise the Red Flag. He’s an award-winning environmental photojournalist, filmmaker and TV presenter. I had met Aaron at the start of 2015 in Borneo, when we both worked for the underwater natural history production company Scubazoo and instantly hit it off.
It started out as an online app that allows users to flag wildlife tourism operators with poor practices by taking pictures and writing reports and submitting them. It’s sort of like a TripAdvisor for bad wildlife tourism attractions.
To create additional awareness about the topic, Aaron asked me to be the director of photography and brought in director/producer Chris Scarffe and editor Damian Antochewicz to produce a documentary about the abuses of the wildlife tourism industry while hopefully creating real, tangible change.
How did you become a filmmaker?
My route into filmmaking wasn’t particularly conventional. I studied zoology at university and have always had a fascination with the natural world. But every time I’d try to explain the mesmeric beauty and amazing animal behavior I had seen or read about, I just could not do it justice. Ultimately, I decided the best way to communicate my awe of the natural world was by picking up a camera and telling stories through film.
Sadly, it does not take one long to realize that our natural world and wildlife in general is in peril, globally. So, it was a natural progression to point the lens in this direction.
While I think the likes of the BBC and National Geographic do a great job through their landmark natural history productions inspiring people to care about the untouched and beautiful places left on our planet, I find it more fulfilling to cast light on the conflict between people and wildlife in a bid to encourage individuals to perhaps question some of their lifestyle choices that are having direct and indirect negative impacts on the natural world.
How did you learn the technical aspects of the medium?
I was very lucky while I worked at Scubazoo in Borneo to be given many opportunities to get hands-on with camera gear in real working environments. In fact, the first time I shot on a professional camera system was on a professional shoot. It’s certainly trial by fire, but you learn extremely fast in that sort of environment. Coupled with that, I took advantage of the amazing online resources now available for free like YouTube as well as paid services like MZed Pro.
What equipment are you working with to tell the complex stories of both animals in the wild and in captivity?
It’s definitely a case of horses for courses. For most of the broadcast work I do and for documentaries, I’ll use a Sony PXW-FS7, with a Metabones Ultra 0.71x Speed Booster, which provides an almost full-frame aesthetic. I pair this with either the tack-sharp Canon L-series photo lenses—mostly the 24-70 f/2.8 II and 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, or, if the budget permits, some sexier EF mount cinema primes, including the Canon CN-E and Sigma and Tokina cine primes.
I also recently converted a set of old Canon FD glass from the 1980s into my own set of mini-cine primes by de-clicking the aperture, swapping out the FD for an EF mount, adding a follow focus gear and a standardized step-up ring for fixing a clip-on matte box. The vintage glass really helps to soften up the often overly sharp digital look that modern lenses and sensors can produce.
In the rare instances I shoot fiction work, my camera of choice is the ARRI ALEXA Mini. It produces imagery as close to the beauty of celluloid as I have seen from any digital camera. Put a set of Zeiss Super Speed lenses on the front, and you are ready to shoot a movie.
I’ve yet to give anamorphic lenses, like a set of vintage Kowa lenses, a whirl, but I’m desperate to shoot at least a short doc in this format.
What is your setup for the times you have to shoot covertly to expose wildlife abuse?
If I’m working undercover, then I’ll usually use the Panasonic DC-GH5 or, more recently, the S edition when the light gets really low. The clever trick inside the DC-GH5S is a combination of low pixel depth compared to sensor size and the innovative dual native ISO technology borrowed from the Panasonic Varicam cinema camera.
Firstly, by lowering the number of megapixels on the sensor but maintaining the physical size, the GH5S has a much cleaner signal-to-noise ratio compared to the GH5, an improvement of around 1.5 stops.
Secondly, the dual ISO allows for two base ISO settings for the same sensor. In theory, this puts the noise level for the base ISO of 400—non-LOG profiles—the same as the second base ISO of 2500—non-LOG profiles. In theory, perceivable noise for 400 and 2500 ISO is the same, which is quite remarkable.
I’ve used this camera for a while now and would say that it really does work, although at the higher base ISO of 2500, there is some noise-reduction software in-camera at play, so there’s a minor softening of detail rendered. All in all, what it means is that I have shot very usable video in a linear profile, such as CineD at ISO 6400.
Also, I throw a Metabones XL 0.64x Speed Booster to bring it to a 1.28x crop on full frame. So, when I stick the same EF glass on the front, it gives me some really nice-looking imagery from a tiny setup, especially if it’s captured in 4K 10-bit, using the All-Intra 400 Mbps codec.
This simple setup can be passed off as a prosumer DSLR, which means if I’m doing some gnarly stories, I can shoot undetected, often posing as a tourist while still capturing cinema-ready footage. In these environments, the option to shoot V-LogL super-flat profile and have an in-body stabilized sensor is extremely useful.
Do you often light on-location when you’re not shooting covertly?
As I predominantly shoot documentaries, I’m usually reliant on natural light to get the look I need. I try and pack two reflectors so I can at least shape light in more controlled environments using negative fill and a bit of bounce or diffusion. When I have the luxury of lighting things, I’ll opt for the Aputure 120D or 300D with a pack of gels and the softbox and grid accessory.
How are you shooting underwater?
I like the Panasonic DC-GH5S because of its relative portability [including when I’m using an underwater housing]. I also like the fact that it has a dual native ISO function and 10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording.
This means I can keep a deep depth of field from f/8 and narrower to get a nice, sharp image, even in the corners of the underwater housing dome, which is tricky with wider apertures or cheaper housings, and still get a very clean image from ISO 2500.
I almost exclusively use Nauticam housings. For larger cinema setups, I opt for a more modular Gates housing. Regardless of what camera I’m using underwater, I’ll run a feed to my SmallHD 502 Bright external monitor to help with composition, critical focus and correct white balance. This is also housed in a Nauticam.
What are your go-to lenses underwater?
Generally, with underwater cinematography you need two main lenses: an ultra-wide-angle zoom and a macro prime.
This way, you can capture the beautiful seascapes and larger animals or schooling fish and also the amazing miniature critters found on the reef or in the muck.
I like the look of around 18mm for full frame. But wider than that, I think the rectilinear distortion amidst the fluidity of the ocean feels a bit uncomfortable on video. I don’t like fisheye lenses for video, as the distortion feels extremely unnatural.
As for macro, definitely 90mm and above to get some really nice close-ups of the bizarre tiny creatures. But dedicated wide-angle and macro lenses aside, what a lot of people don’t know is arguably the best way to get the best imagery underwater is to opt for a wet contact wide-angle converter lens. These act as a separate lens in front of the one attached to your camera, often providing as much as a 0.3x crop.
Nauticam makes two brilliant pieces of glass—the WACP and WWL-1. The latter used on a Panasonic GH5S with the Panasonic 14-42mm PZ will give you a 130-degree FOV with corner-to-corner sharpness.
It’s not quite fisheye and not quite rectilinear, but it feels very natural underwater. You can also zoom through and focus on the end of the dome, allowing you to pick off mid-size macro without having to swap lenses.
What about lighting underwater?
That’s perhaps the hardest part of underwater cinematography. When you descend into the ocean, light is lost but not all at the same time. Because red light has the longest wavelength and blue the shortest, you lose red first, which is why the ocean looks blue.
But what it means for underwater imagery is that it is a constant battle to add the red light back into your frame. In order to combat this, underwater DPs must constantly perform custom white balances as we descend, every meter at least. This way, the camera can amplify the red signal and pull down the green to give nice-looking results.
However, depending on your camera sensor and the visibility of the water and amount of available light, success at performing correct custom white balances can differ.
Generally, I can still get decent color at 15 meters on a clear day in good visibility, but deeper than that is a struggle. This is where shooting on a camera like the Red DSMC2 with their Monstro VV or Helium sensor in REDcode RAW will provide tremendous flexibility in post, particularly for pulling back decent colors out of the RAW files.
When it comes to artificial lighting, I swear by Keldan lights. Their purple tube lights have an exceptionally high CRI rating, are daylight balanced, have a nice wide-angle beam with soft falloff, and are incredibly bright. The entry-level models are 6,000 lumens, but they go up beyond 20,000.
In addition, Keldan has developed a set of filters that help cinematographers achieve perfect white balance between natural and artificial light. The system works by first affixing a red filter to your taking lens; this helps to bring back the red signal that is lost underwater. They make three strengths for different depths, but the weakest strength is normally enough for most purposes.
However, if you’re deeper or need fill lighting for high-contrast environments, such as lighting up sharks’ bellies or shooting large overhanging coral bombies, then, when you turn on your daylight-balanced lights, the subject will be interpreted as red by your camera because of the filter. To counteract this, Keldan has a set of filters for the lights as well, but this time they’re blue in differing strengths. So when you turn them on, your ambient light and your natural light are interpreted by the camera as a similar wavelength. These filters will cut the light by a couple of stops, so you need to compensate with that by using a higher ISO or wider aperture.
Underwater cinematography is all about compromise.
Above or below sea level, what are a couple of examples of the most intense situations you’ve found yourself in, both in terms of animal encounters and with the people that are trying to exploit them?
Aaron and I were documenting a team of wildlife rangers for the online channel SZTV. They were rescuing and relocating Borneo’s endangered species when they came into close contact with humans, most often when they had strayed into palm oil plantations.
In this case, a large bull Bornean elephant had been sighted in a plantation feeding on the young and extremely valuable palm oil saplings, and the rangers were tasked with tracking, darting and relocating this 8-foot elephant back to a protected forest reserve.
After several days of trekking through the forest, we had managed to catch up with the elephant, and the vet was able to fire a couple of sedatives from a dart gun into its hind leg, bringing the elephant to a standstill. While it was only partially asleep, the rangers moved in to secure the elephant’s leg to a tree. I continued filming.
All of a sudden, something startled the drowsy elephant, which turned straight towards me. I was determined to get the shot as a game of chicken unfolded as the elephant charged. I held the shot as long as I could before trying to run backwards through the jungle undergrowth. Just as the elephant was no more than 2 meters from me and I was about to leap to what might be safety, the rope tethering the elephant to a small nearby tree pulled taut, saving me from a likely trip to the hospital or cemetery.
What can individuals do to make a positive impact on these realities?
Human-animal conflict is a multi-faceted issue. It ranges from direct interaction between people living in rural communities coming into contact with wildlife, either both inhabiting the same place or competing for the same resources, to less-direct conflict, such as how plastic pollution has a negative impact on marine life.
In the case of Raise the Red Flag, the focus is on the conflict between mankind’s desire to be entertained and the exploitation of wildlife to achieve this. While ultimately the solution may not be easy, it is fairly simple—do not visit wildlife tourism attractions that exploit wild animals. Not visiting these sorts of venues or making your opinions heard on social media or in the press will create positive change and help reduce conflict. DPP
For more on Will Foster-Grundy and Aaron Gekoski, go to willfostergrundy.com and aarongekoski.com. You can learn more about Raise the Red Flag at gofundme.com/f/wildlife-tourism.