Category: Notes From the Set

This may not be the most ideal lighting kit for the airborne shooter, but the Litepanels Sola 4 Traveler Kit™ definitely packs a healthy punch for its size, weight and power consumption.

Rather than rehashing all the specs for this kit, you can read them on the Litepanels website here. Okay, I’ll make it easy for you. Here they are for your perusal (lifted directly from said site):

  • Complete 3-light kit that is easy to travel with
  • A true Fresnel fixture that produces soft, directional illumination
  • Litepanels proprietary heat-free LED technology
  • High quality 4” Fresnel lens
  • Energy savings and extended bulb life provide a Daylight color balance with no external ballast or restrike period required
  • AC/DC power with DV power via 4-pin XLR
  • Integrated DMX module with RJ45 (Ethernet) connectors for remote control using DMX512 protocol
  • 100% to 0 dimming with no noticeable color shift or flicker at any frame rate or shutter angle
  • Focus control from 72° to 13° beam via on-fixture dial or DMX
  • Robust lightweight housing
  • Standard yoke for easy mounting and positioning
  • 39W power draw with output comparable to a 125W HMI
  • Perfect companion to the Sola 12™ and Sola 6™ Fresnels
  • Color Temperature: Daylight balanced
  • Beam Angle: 72° to 13°
  • Fresnel Lens: 4” / 10.16cm
  • Size: 8 x 7 x 11” / 21 x 18 x 28cm
  • Weight: 3.60 lbs. / 1.63kg
  • Maximum Power Draw: 39W
  • Power Requirements: 14-28VDC / 100-240VAC
  • Power Supply: AC/DC 120-240VAC, DC power via 4-pin XLR
  • Includes: (3) Sola 4, (3) Sola 4 Barndoors (3) Kit Stands, (3) AC Power Supplies, (3) AC Power Cords (1) Trolley-style hard case with custom foam
Sola ENG

Litepanels Sola ENG™

When I reviewed the Sola ENG Flight Kit™ back in October 2012, I was really excited about it. It was such a great little travel kit — albeit, with some drawbacks; the biggest being that a Sola ENG unit was not bright enough to act as a key light the way I like to light people’s faces. You can read the whole article here. Aside from that, I loved how compact and controllable they were and how easy it was to use them for backlight, fill and accent lighting not only in an interview scenario, but along side much bigger guns for other types of shooting.

I received the Sola 4 Traveler Kit to try out on a few shoots that I had lined up over the last few weeks. I was enthused to put the ENG’s brighter and physically-bigger brother to good use. My first impression of the kit as it arrived was that the roller case was bigger than I had expected. Not a major concern, I’ve lugged around large cases before. The units and accessories are packed really nicely in the custom case — I really liked that about it. I was happy to see a precut space for a 1×1 panel, which was my biggest wish with the ENG Flight Kit. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a 1×1 panel on hand to use with my testing so that empty spot was just mocking me the whole time.

My next concern was that the Sola 4 Traveler Kit weighs 62 lbs. I figure if it were possible to come under 50 lbs., Litepanels would have made it so; but I lament, for flying reasons, that this kit falls into the oversized and overweight category on most or all airlines. I usually fly with Delta and, depending on the mood and experience of the representative you get, for a U.S. domestic flight it can cost you anywhere from $0 (love it) up to $335 (hate it) each way! Most of the time, they only ding me for the overweight charge but there was one time it seemed like the representative was having a bad day or something and charged me for the second bag fee ($35), the overweight fee ($100) and the oversized fee ($200). It was ridiculous. I usually try to convince them to give me the “media rate” (a flat $50) but most of the time they don’t go for it because I’m not with a television network or whatnot. Anyway, I digress.

Holding the Sola 4 unit in my hand, it was nice to be handling a light that felt like a light. The Sola ENGs were so little, but this was much more comfortable to handle. The first thing I noticed after powering one up was that the brightness level was a bit brighter than I was expecting. The second thing I noticed was that the focusing mechanism was servo driven — which I didn’t expect and, frankly, I was perplexed about for days until I realized that these units are DMX controllable so the controls have to be motorized. Duh! I are smart. I wondered how the focus could be controlled if the motor ever went out, and I was relieved to know there is a manual override on the side of unit that you can access with a Phillips-head screwdriver.

Now, onto using the kit!

The first two shoots I took them onto were ones that already had a decent lighting package. When you have units like an Arri M18, Joker 1600s, 800s, 400s, KinoFlo 4’ 4-banks and Divas, you’re gonna use them. But there’s a time and place for everything, and I definitely found uses for the Sola 4s throughout those two shoots. As you can imagine, a unit with the equivalent of a 125w HMI becomes more of an accent light on shoots like these. Below are some behind-the-scenes shots and diagrams along with their corresponding (semi-)final images. You can click on the images to enlarge them.

The two shoots I had after those mostly consisted of talking-head interviews and made the Sola 4 Traveler Kit feel more at home. These lights were — for the most part — perfect for these shoots. In most of these scenarios, you’ll see a pretty standard approach to the lighting. Diffused three-quarter key light, a backlight/hairlight on the opposite side and perhaps a touch of fill.

Now, here is where my beef with the kit comes into play. Like the Sola ENG Flight Kit, I still found that using one of these lights as a key fell short — at least with the style of lighting I was doing. Having a soft key is crucial for my typical setups. So having a stronger unit than the Sola ENG was exciting to me knowing that I would be diffusing it. But in almost every lighting setup I did, I found it still wasn’t quite enough power for comfort. But, like a good DP should, I made the best of it by adjusting the background, the other lights, aperture, ISO, etc. In one instance, I ended up firing two Sola 4s side by side through my sheet of 400 diffusion to get enough stop for my key. You’ll see that setup in the photos below.

For all these shoots, I used the Canon C100 which has an “optimal” ISO of 850, which I didn’t stray from much at all. I also shot all of these between an f2 and f2.8 — mostly the latter. I know that I can push the C100 comfortably to 3200 without atrocious noise but I like to stay at 850 unless I absolutely have to push it. But for many interview setups using daylight balanced units, you’re probably going to be using a bit of daylight from windows, thus, the need to compete and balance with it. That’s a challenging task when using smaller lights like these.

Like the series above, here are some behind-the-scenes shots and diagrams along with their corresponding (semi-)final images. Click on an image to enlarge.

I should note that the last shoot I went on required a flight to Seattle. It cost $175 to take the kit on the round trip. Delta charged $25 for the first bag and then $100 because it was overweight (gratefully, they didn’t ding me for oversized). They didn’t go for my “media badge” on the way out, but on my way back, the representative in Seattle did. So it only cost a flat $50.

I like the Sola 4s a lot. But they have their quirks, I’m not going to lie. The servo-powered focus is a bit disconcerting even though they didn’t let me down, but I can see how that feature would be a life-saver in a studio setup. I’m also not used to using lights with fans in them, like the Sola ENGs, but I can see the need for that as well. The fans are quiet and never became an issue, by the way. I did like the light quality and the control I was able to have, nevertheless. The size and weight of the roller case and the homogenous nature of the kit (three Sola 4s) makes this kit not the most ideal dream kit for my purposes, but a good kit for sure for certain situations.

What would be an ideal kit you ask? Well, dream a little with me if you will…

Rod’s Ideal Traveling Interview Litepanels Lighting Kit:

  • 1 Sola ENG
  • 1 Sola 4
  • 1 1×1 Mono Daylight Flood
  • All packed up nicely with their stands and accessories in a roller case that measures under 62” (L+W+H) and under 50 lbs.

I have no idea if this is even possible, but I submit that to the world (ahem… Litepanels) as an ideal traveling (flying) interview lighting kit.

The Sola 4 Traveler Kit is a good solid kit that is package up neatly in an easy to repack case. Even the agency guys that helped me wrap up knew exactly where things needed to go. There was no fumbling with cords awkwardly wrapped around the head unit. Lights go here. Cords go here. Stands go here. Done. If you’re looking for a kit that can go from location to location easily using ground transportation, this kit is great. I can’t recommend it so much if you fly a lot and have to sport the bill for the baggage fees (no big deal if it is a covered expense by the production!). Bottom line: the Sola 4 Traveler Kit a great small-unit lighting kit.

footloose bts

I had the great opportunity to shoot the second season of a web series called, “Pretty Darn Funny” which follows Gracie Moore, a mom who gets more than she bargains for when she forms an all-female comedy troupe in efforts to clean up the local comedy scene. Season 2 launched with this [really, really] silly parody of “Footloose” from the point of view of under-appreciated moms.

The principal shoot day was really hot (back on June 8th). We didn’t have any lights for the production — just a 12×12 gold/silver checker bounce and a 6×6 unbleached muslin for bounce. We had my favorite CamMate jib operator, Glenn Fisk (because he’s the best), on hand to fly our camera around. We shot on two RED Epics capturing in 5K… because we could.

Here is a video I took of the opening shot to show my kids when I got home. Thought I’d share:

We were supposed to do the famous dancing-in-the-warehouse scene at the school parking lot but ran out of time and the talent ran out of energy so we decided to shoot it another day and to make it more elaborate than the original vision for this video. I’m glad we did because it turned out way funnier and better than what we would’ve shot at the end of that first shoot day. For that shoot, we didn’t use anything but available light and shot on two Canon 5Ds (a Mark II and a Mark III).

I think it turned out pretty darn funny… especially if you’re a mom over 40. ;)

So I just got a new app called Shot Designer from Hollywood Camera Work. It’s kind of, you know, amazing. Overhead schematics are the universal tried-and-true way of planning out your shots and blocking for a scene. Many times it’s a scribbly mess of chicken scratch on a piece of paper in a quick meeting at the end of a shoot day for the next day’s work or first thing in the morning, if you’re really tired. But when time is available, planning shots in advance is obviously the way to go. I’ve used the traditional pen-on-paper approach most of the time, but that can become a mess and a waste of paper. Other times, I’ve used Illustrator or SketchUp to plan out shots, but that’s always been a painstaking process as well. It looks great, but it usually takes way longer to do than is worth it and the pen-on-paper approach takes on a whole new attractiveness. Wouldn’t it be great to have something WAY easier, fast, and fun to use?

Enter Shot Designer. It’s an app that is clearly designed for touch devices and is available for the iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle Fire (&HD), Mac and PC. I was introduced to it by the creator himself, Per Holmes. I watched the tutorials first and was blown away at the speed and ease of creating a clear, effective, dynamic, and beautiful shot plan. I especially love how smooth the interface is and how pretty the diagrams end up. You can even animate the movements of characters and the camera to illustrate clearly and without confusion what crazy ideas you have in your head. Try doing that on paper! Another great thing about this app is that it takes no time at all to draw up a move so you can show someone “live” if you need to. The app even creates a shot list on the fly.

All these words I’m writing is a futile attempt to share how awesome and powerful this app is. You really should watch the intro and tutorial videos on the website to see how amazing and crazy easy-to-use this app is. And then download it. I don’t own an iPad (inconceivable, I know) so I used it on my iPhone and my MacBook Pro. Based on the tutorials, it looks significantly more fun and easy to use on an iPad, but was still super easy to use on the Mac. It was easy to use on the iPhone as well, but the small screen makes it a little harder to work with. I would think that an iPad would be the best method of working with this app.

The app is FREE, too! You can work on one scene at a time with the free version but you can upgrade to the Pro Upgrade for $19.99 which adds the ability to work on multiple scenes, export PDF and Excel files, save multiple versions of shots for options, work on a Mac/PC version, and more.

  

There are so many features in this app, it’s incredible and ridiculous. It even has the ability to incorporate stills from your camera to work as storyboards and attach them to cameras to demonstrate even more clearly what the shots will look like. On top of that, it even comes with a director’s viewfinder feature.

It goes on. Go check it out!

*images “courtesy of” the Hollywood Camera Work website

Last week I was hired to shoot some testimonials for an infomercial. We shot 13 people at a couple of beautiful homes over two days. We shot on the Red Scarlet with Zeiss high-speed primes (f/1.4). I had plenty of light in the lighting package but ended up using hardly anything for these setups. I’m still baffled by what we got and how we got it. The shots were gorgeous and high key; but because of the native 800ISO of the Scarlet, the high speed of the glass, the desire to have soft backgrounds, and the lack of ND filters, I needed to use so little light that it was almost disturbing.

The houses we shot in had these wonderful huge windows that were thankfully equipped with powered shades that cut the light down a lot. We ended up closing all the shades and using a single tube of a 4×4 KinoFlo through a 4×4 frame of 250 diffusion for key. Then for fill, we bounced a 4×4 Kino into the ceiling or wall.  For a hair light, we had a 300W fresnel with full CTB and one to two double scrims (depending on the subjects hair color) to knock the power down even more. That’s it!

I swear, it looked like we had struck the lights to break for lunch, but it was our lighting setup! The director walked in and thought that we weren’t lit or that someone had turned off the lights. I’m not exaggerating. It looked WAY TOO DARK to shoot ANYTHING. But on camera, it looked fantastic. Here are some shots of the setups:

One tube of a Kino through a 4×4 frame of 250 diffusion. What?!


Essentially the same setup but I did have the help of a half-open window for key.
Also, there is a 1K spotted on the flowers and vase in the background from outside to liven it up a bit.

I seem to have been doing a lot of talking-head interviews since I was thrown into the world of documentaries with New York Doll. I’m really curious to know how many I’ve done to date.

Here are a couple of BTS shots of some recent ones. Sorry, I don’t have any frame grabs from these to show.

I was up in Oregon a couple of weeks ago shooting a little mini doc piece about a senior missionary couple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple called their  journal, “Serving in the Valley of Volcanos,” because the region they were in (circa Bend, OR) is surrounded by volcanos and buttes. I wasn’t able to take too many pictures because of run-and-gun nature of the shoot, but I was able to steal a few here and there. We shot with our usual setup of 2 5Ds, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 16-35mm, 2 Litepanels 1×1, GlideCam, GoPro, etc. These photos don’t tell much about the shoot, but here they are anyway.

My wife always says I go on “vacation” when I work. I know what she means. With four young kids and another on the way, parenting can be a challenge—especially when your spouse goes off to work for days or weeks at a time to places you only dream about. In this particular case, I was shooting at La Costa Resort & Spa, a fancy high-end resort in Carlsbad, CA for a series of online fitness coaching vignettes. It was a pretty sweet resort. So it doesn’t help when I post pictures like this on Facebook:

I’m mean, huh? Well, to my defense—if that’s possible—I wasn’t lounging around the whole time. I was talking to a friend of mine who had called and the only place to sit anywhere in sight was this hammock. Seriously!

Below are some photos from the setups and screen grabs as well. We shot on two Canon 5D Mark IIs and the usual 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. For lighting, we had 3 Arri HMI fresnels plus 1 4×4 KinoFlo with 5600K tubes.

 

Back in March, I had the chilling opportunity to shoot a documentary in Alaska. It was cold (understatement). If you missed my post about it, click here to read about it. We went back for a follow up shoot in September and it wasn’t as cold. Daytime highs were in the low 30s, so technically, it was still freezing. But it was a welcome cold compared to the -30s I was in last time.

I had to trade one discomfort for another, though. If you haven’t gathered this about me already, I’m not the outdoor/woodsy guy. Camping? Hunting? No. But on this trip, I got to be involved with both. I can’t say it necessarily grew on me, but it became tolerable. LOL Most of my fears about moose hunting and being eaten or mauled by bears melted away after a day. Sticking close to the guys with the riffles helped.

Funniest story of the trip:

So last time, we stuffed the furnace with wood so as to last longer in the night. It was cold! Towards the end of the trip, Josh and I stayed in a cabin that had nothing in it but beds and a furnace. Remembering what we did last time, and not wanting to freeze at night, I stuffed it with firewood like I had seen before. What I hadn’t taken into account was that it was more than 60 degrees warmer than the last time I was out there, and we were in a cabin and not a tent. You know that saying, “hotter than the blazes of hell?” Well, that’s what it felt like as I tried to go to sleep for two or three hours. It was the most miserable thing ever. I tried opening the window by my bed a bit, but the mosquitos started coming in. So I left it open just a crack, fanning the cold air into my face. Somehow, Josh was able to sleep through all this. Finally after a few hours, I realized I could close the vent on the front of the furnace to choke the fire. Yeah, I wish I had remembered that could be done a lot earlier. After a while, the heat became tolerable and I fell asleep. Never again.

Here are some random pictures from the trip:

Looking for the ideal portable lighting kit? The Litepanels Sola ENG Flight Kit may be it.

I’ve had the opportunity over the last few weeks to use the Litepanels Sola ENG Flight Kit on a few different projects: a series of interviews, a documentary in Alaska, a commercial spot, and a music video. These little lights were  designed as on-board camera lights, but this kit attempts to make them a little more than that. As such, I took them on a few shoots and used them as “conventional” lights, so keep that in mind as I review this kit.

First, a little bit of an introduction. The Sola ENG Flight Kit consists of three very compact and sturdily-made 3” LED fresnel units. They are daylight balanced and put out a pretty decent amount of light (equivalent of about 250W Tungsten or 1ooW HMI) for the minuscule 30W of power they require. The fixtures have a well-designed dial on the rear that acts as the power switch and dimmer. It dims smoothly from 0-100% with no apparent color shift. There is another ring around the barrel of the Sola ENG that rotates smoothly to control the flood/spot feature (70º to 10º). The unit also has a relatively quiet cooling fan built in, but more about that a little later.

Each fixture comes with a 2-leaf snap-on barndoor, a compact (Nano) stand, an AC power adaptor, a D-tap cord for battery-powered applications, a plastic gel kit (full CTO, half CTO, diffusion), a ball-head shoe mount, and a TVMP 5/8” stand mount. The kit also includes a collapsible 8” softbox, and a Pelican 1510 carry-on case with custom foam. If you’ve never used the 1510 case, it rolls around really well and fits perfectly in overhead airplane compartments. It even fit (snugly and with a little bit of force) in the tiny overhead compartment of a CRJ900. The flight attendant even told me to tell other flight attendants that it will, in fact, fit if they tell me otherwise.

There are a lot of pros and some cons about this kit. I love that it’s so compact and relatively light (28 lbs). It’s a far cry and a welcome relief from the Arri Softbank Kit that I’m used to lugging around. The custom foam makes it very secure and super easy to pack up at the end of a shoot. I like that it comes with a gel pack so you don’t have to mess with clumsy sheets of CTO and C-47s. They put out about as much light as I would have hoped for and more light than I was actually expecting. I think it’s a fantastic kit for documentary and news work. Although, it’s not perfect.

I found that it was best and at its most useful when used more for accent lighting. Because of it’s beam pattern and dimmer, it is perfect for creating little hits here and there, edge and rim lights, adding separation, etc. It’s also great for bouncing off walls for a kiss of fill. But as a key light, unless you’re going for a hard key look, it’s just simply too small of a unit to create an attractive key for my taste and not powerful enough to shoot through a silk for soft light.

Regarding the collapsible soft box… A great idea and a clever solution on paper, but a moderate fail in it’s attempt to create a soft source. In theory, increasing the 3” round source of the native fixture to an 8” square should provide a decent amount of softening. But the lightly-frosted diffusion screen that affixes to the front of the box is ultimately ineffective; only expanding the 3” source to maybe 4” at best. A seemingly easy solution would be to include something with more diffusion power like the ones you typically see on a Chimera or Photoflex soft box but the unit probably doesn’t put out enough light to make it an effective key light (for my purposes). With that in mind, I ended up using other fixtures for my key light in all instances that I used these lights. Sometimes a 1×1 Litepanel, another smaller LED battery-powered panel and in one case a “slightly larger” 6×6 silk with a 1K Arri openface ;)

The cooling fan that is built in to the unit is relatively quiet unless you are going to be in a quiet room and in close quarters. I did not find myself in any situations where the fan noise became a problem, but I can see how they can easily become a problem in a situation like an interview in a small to medium sized quiet room where the fixtures are close to the subject, and therefore, the mic. I don’t know what the solution would be to fix this other than not using the lights. I’m assuming the fan needs to be there and in use; so until they can come up with a silent fan, this could be a big problem for some.

Some additional notes on this kit that could use some improvement:

  • It would be great to include a minus green in the gel pack. If cost is an issue, ditch the diffusion gel as it doesn’t do much for softening at all.
  • The ball head/shoe mount + TVMP stand adapter combo is a bit wonky. If you don’t tighten everything just right, the light can slip off the shoe mount adapter. The ball head is a decent solution for directing the unit, but with all the different knobs and screws, the whole system becomes a bit “trinkety.” Fumbling with light is the last thing I want to do in a rush.
  • A 1×1 Litepanel + 2 Sola ENG kit would be the most ideal for my uses. I would easily trade one of the Solas for a 1×1 panel in a snap. If they could figure out how to pack this assortment of units into the 1510 case, it would easily be a kit I would be interested in buying and I would use it constantly.
  • Somehow improve the softbox to not fall off the unit. It merely (and barely) hugs the fixture front rather than clipping on, or otherwise, securely attaching to the unit.

So, in short: The Sola ENG is a great little light. The Flight Kit is a great kit, but not perfectly suited for my particular needs but with some “minor” changes mentioned above, I think it could be a perfect news/documentary kit. Litepanels has a great product line and I love using them. Special thanks and shout-out to Alan Ipakchian of Litepanels, Inc. for allowing me to test out the kit.

Here are some shots from the set(s) with indications of where and how I used the Sola ENG lights:

For this establishing wide shot, there are a Sola units (red and yellow) behind the square pillar and wall cross lighting the extras. Another Sola is placed directly behind the main actors, fairly low, aiming right at camera to add some highlight on the floor. *Note: All the Sola units were left uncorrected on this shoot (shot at Tungsten) for the blue color.

One of the Solas backlighting the extras. Here you can see the 6×6 silk frame we used for they key light (1K).

Here is an overhead of the panning three-shot setup. One Sola (red) is backlighting the extras. Another (blue) is backlighting the female talent and [side-lighting] the waiter. The third (green) is adding a blue splash to the otherwise plain wall behind the waiter.

Virtually the same setup for the female’s coverage as the wide establishing shot with the exception of the edge light on her right side. I used the unit that was on the floor for the wide shot as her edge light here. 6×6 key with a kiss of bounced fill.

Blue splash on the wall (red). Backlight for male talent (green). China ball on the floor for the back wall, 6×6 key and a little bounced fill.

Here is a shot of the setup for the male talent’s coverage.

Sola (green) adding a little glow behind the chair for more interest. Edge light (red) from the same general position as the other unit (see below). 650w openface through a 4×4 silk for key light. Remaining Sola bounced into the wall behind the guy’s head for a bit of fill.

Here is the setup of the Sola units used for the wall glow and the edge light mentioned above. Here you can see the full CTO gels used to correct the daylight-balanced units.

A shot of the setup for the female’s coverage (minus the edge light and fill light we hadn’t placed yet).

Male coverage, almost same as the female’s. Edge light is placed low on the ground hidden behind the arm of the sofa (see next photo). This shot starts out as a medium shot and pushes in to this framing.

This is the unit that was hidden behind the arm of the sofa.

These two shots are from one setup of a series of interviews I shot for a web campaign.

Sola 1 (red) is bouncing off the wall to create a subtle and soft “backlight”/rear fill(?). Sola 2 (blue) is hidden behind the wall and lighting the lamp, table, and wall to the right. The last Sola (yellow) is adding some interest in the background. We used a 1×1 Litepanel as key light.

Another interview from the series. Mostly window light. The Sola (red) behind her is adding a really subtle hair light and there is another unit that I forgot to indicate on the left that is adding some light to the bottom half of the book shelf.

This is an interview we did in Alaska on a doc shoot. We toted the light kit everywhere for over a week and only ended up using them for this setup which we did outside at night. Our key was an off-brand, battery-operated LED panel (green). I had a Sola (red) highlighting some animal traps hanging on the wall. A second Sola provided some fill.

Just the accent light on the traps.

Accent light plus key light.

Accent light, key light and fill.

ADDENDUM:

Sorry there are no pictures from the music video shoot. I guess they didn’t make it off my iPhone 4 when I switched to the iPhone 5. I’m pretty sure I took pictures of setups and the Sola units in use. Oh well, you get the picture, right? Here’s the only one that survived… somehow:

One Sola is hitting the stairs from the left, another is hitting the back of the recliner chair and the third is on the floor behind the player’s hands. And if your brain is hurting to know, there is a Joker 400 behind the piano with a Chimera softbox as key; another Joker 400 is at the top of the stairs aimed down the stair well; a 4′ 4-bank Kino Flo on the ground behind the sofa uplighting the fireplace; a non-Litepanels brand 1×1 light panel behind the recliner chair illuminating the back wall; another 4′ 4-bank Kino Flo behind the camera for fill; and another non-Litepanels brand panel off camera left for the talent’s back light.

Note the size of the red sled.

I don’t even know where to start.

Right now I am in the comfort of my hotel room in Fairbanks, AK feeling very grateful to be warm, alive, and connected to the internet. I’m only five days into the shoot, but I can say that the worst is over.  I hope.

I am shooting a documentary up here for a few weeks and the first thing we covered was the preparation and departure of Vern Stickman and his epic run down the frozen Yukon river to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Vern’s son committed suicide a few years ago and, expectedly, has devastated his family’s life. As part of his own healing process, he has decided to do this run from his home in Tanana to “nearby” villages to speak to the youth about suicide prevention and healthy living choices.

The plan was to document Vern’s preparations for the run, the commencement of it, follow him on the trail for the first day, camp out with him overnight, and then his departure from the camp as he continued on his trail. We would then head back to civilization and meet up with him when he arrived at his first major destination at the village of Ruby.

Day 1 of Vern’s run

For a while we didn’t know if we were going to even have a snowmobile (or, “snow machine” as it’s called up here). I’m still not sure what we would have done without one. Needless to say, a snow machine was arranged for us to use.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this. I honestly don’t think we would’ve been able to keep up with Vern—what with our camera gear and the need to get ahead of him frequently to get shots of him running.

Another big concern was that we would be traveling through wolf country.  We had no cell phone coverage, no GPS, no one else around except for the times we would re-encounter Vern for a shot. It was a real possibility that wolves could be encountered. Vern had a gun. Chris, his support “team” had a gun.  We did not have a gun. We did, though, have an ice axe and bear spray. Josh Ligairi, the director, brought them with the awesome plan that, if we were to be in any danger, I would spray the perp with the bear spray while he would charge and attack with the ice axe. Great plan, right? LOL Um… yeah. We were a bit concerned every time we stopped to set up a shot and had to wait for Vern to catch up for the shot.

Getting our snow machine stuck in the powder was scary and then having it clunk the rest of the way was nice, too. Somehow, the machine never ran the same after this first incident. You know, just that extra bit of confidence we needed to know that we would survive this adventure in the middle of nowhere with no communication.

On the frozen Yukon River

I was dressed sufficiently warm, but even still, my fingers and toes were frozen not very long into this adventure. We shot Vern most of the day as my toes became increasingly painful. But, for the most part, it just became a given and I was able to function and bear the pain. Unfortunately for me, I have terrible circulation and it made for significantly increased torture for the rest of the day. By the late afternoon, there were a few more miles left on the first 21-mile leg of the run, I had reached my limit and just couldn’t go on anymore.  The pain in my feet was so intense that I could barely walk.  Thankfully, Josh wasn’t insensitive to my plight and we headed to the cabin on our one-seater snow machine. There were quite a bit of prayers being said by myself to just get to the cabin.

The cabin was the most welcome site. I got off the snow machine and hobbled straight inside where a fire had already been started. My feet were literally ice cold and stiff.  I could barely move my toes at all and the pain was virtually unbearable.  It took about half an hour for my feet to defrost enough to move and not be in intense pain. This can’t be good, right? All this with two thermal-type socks, toe heaters, and below-zero grade shoes. I don’t know what else I could’ve done to prevent this other than having used the type of shoes that we saw other people wearing called “bunny boots.” Apparently those are the only ones that you can really use in that weather. Now they tell us.

Well, sleeping in a cabin was a MUCH BETTER OPTION than sleeping on the Yukon in a tent in -20°F with already frozen feet! I can’t tell you how many prayers of thanks I gave to God for this blessing! Wow. Yeah. Oh, we did a time lapse of the cabin and got a little bit of northern lights action going.  I got to see the northern lights! It’s been on my bucket list, but I had never really thought about how I would ever really get to see it. :)

Bucket List Item: See the Aurora Borealis… Check!

As an added bonus, at sunset/twilight, I got to see Jupiter and Venus like I’d never seen them before.  Super bright among the other stars in they sky.  It was very cool.

Now the trip back to the village was a comedy of errors. Vern and Chris were continuing on with their trek while Josh and I embarked on our own trek back to Tanana on our own. Here were our concerns:

  • Do we have enough gas to get back?
  • Are we going to take the correct way back?
  • Are we going to encounter wolves or bears?
  • Are we going to die?
  • What if we get into trouble, then what?
  • Who will know to look for us if we get into trouble?
  • Will our snowmobile survive the trip?

But over all of these concerns was the big one at hand. How are we going to get our gigantic bag of gear back home with the child sled we were provided with. The gear bag was a huge hockey duffle bag full of stuff.  We also had two camera bags and two pairs of snow shoes. The sled we had was about 75% the size of the bag so it didn’t quite accomodate the load. Oh, and we didn’t have much rope to pull it with.

After jimmy-rigging the whole system, we headed back to Tanana.  Not 15 seconds into the trip, we hit our first problem.  We missed the packed-down part of trail a bit on a turn and ended up stuck, deep in powder.  We couldn’t get the snow machine out and our only help had just left a minute before. The engine started smoking and smelling bad as we attempted to get out.  Finally, we dug out as much of the snow around the snow machine as possible and I hopped on again and gave it another try.  Josh yanked on the front ski to help as I gunned it and we got it out.  Phew!

Then we went on our way again.  Not 30 seconds after that, I signaled Josh to stop driving because our load was swaying all over the place behind us.  Our rig wasn’t working and the bag was slipping off the little sled.  After some adjusting and re-doing of knots, we tried again. It lasted only about a minute before I had to signal Josh to stop again.  One of our ropes had snapped and the bag was falling off again.  After some more re-engineering of our rig and fortifying it with a vinyl strap we pulled off of something in our bag, we went on our way again. This time, it worked!

We went on for a while. Everything seemed great until Josh stopped the machine again. It seemed like we had possibly taken the wrong way.  Josh thought that we were going around a little island and that we would meet up again with the correct trail, but the island was huge enough that we didn’t know anymore if we were going around an island or if we were going up the wrong river! Josh wanted to turn around but I didn’t want to get stuck in the snow again by trying. So I convinced him to just keep going at least a little longer, at least to a certain point we saw in the horizon. We went and luckily encountered some guys that were riding in the opposite direction.  We signaled them to stop and asked them if we were on the right path to Tanana.  The man said, “Tanana?! You’ve passed it way down there!”  I knew he was joking, thankfully. They then told us that we just needed to stick to the trail for another ten miles and we’d be there.  Phew!

You’ve GOT to be kidding me!

So we finally get to the point where there was a Y-type intersection that we knew would take us to Tanana.  So we stop because Josh wanted to get a video clip of us driving across the frame in our snow machine (the last shot in the video above). So I go off and set up the shot, hit record and make my way back to Josh. We get all ready to ride and I pull the starter cord and the cord breaks from the handle and zips right back into the engine like a spaghetti noodle being slurped up into its mouth. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! Mild panic starts to set in. But before we can get too panicked, Josh figures the cord must be in the engine somewhere.  So we open up the hood and search around for it.  I finally spot it.  It’s only two inches short of disappearing into the engine block.  We pull it out, thread it through the opening of the dashboard, put it through the handle, tie a new knot, close up the hood and pull the cord to start the engine again.  SNAP! Instant replay of the cord being sucked in again!  Repeat as necessary.  We pull out the cord again and, this time, tie a really tight knot using brute strength and pliers… But wait… we forgot to put the cord through the handle!  LOL  So now we have to untie our freshly tied super tight knot, string it through the handle again, tie a new strong knot and try again.

At last, we got the engine running again.  But by this point, it had been about 10 minutes or so and the camera had been running this whole time. The Canon 7D only runs about 12 minutes before shutting off the recording. So Josh took a turn making his way aaaalllll the way back to the camera to restart it.  Oh, but now the camera won’t record.  After a bit of yelling back and forth about what could be the problem, we figure out the card just ran out of memory.  Josh doesn’t have a new card.  So I tell him to just erase the last take.  The last take was only one second.  More confusion… turns out there was only one second left on the card after the previous shot had ended. Anyway, blah blah blah. He gets it running again, he gets back to me, we do the shot, stop, get the camera, and head back on our way.

The last bit of the ride was relatively smooth, except for the fact that now our sled rig has deteriorated in stability and is going crazy behind us. I figure, screw it.  It’s still attached.  We’re almost back. As long as it’s still attached, I’m not gonna worry about it. But then the strap that was anchoring the other straps broke off the sled and the back of the bag started falling off. So we stopped again and figured out another way to secure the bag to the sled (or was it the sled to the bag?). We got going again for the last mile or so of our journey. We finally get back to where we were staying and the crazy journey was over.  I was so happy. Not an hour later we hopped on our chartered plane back to Fairbanks.  We barely made it in time.  All things considered… I call it a miracle. :)

So I am hoping that the rest of our trip will be quite tame compared to those two days.  So far, it has been. We are coming back here in the summer and the fall.  I’m guessing those trips will be less insane.  But you never know.

Goodbye, Tanana! See you in the summer!