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BEST OF 2013, Pascal Depuhl
Miami, Florida
Project: On Wings of Hope, a short documentary telling the story of an aid agency that provides air transportation to all humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan.

© Photography by Depuhl

© Photography by Depuhl

Pascal Depuhl had been creating motion projects with his clients for only six months when he went to Afghanistan to film the short documentary On Wings of Hope, to tell the story of an aid agency that provides air transportation to all the humanitarian organizations within the country.

“Afghanistan is an amazingly beautiful place to film in, but the environments of extreme cold (25° below) and altitude (10,000 feet) make shooting challenging,” says Depuhl. “This is the first motion project I produced without following a script or a storyboard, making it a very formidable task and a great learning experience as I edited the story.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Pascal Depuhl: I’ve been a professional photographer since 1988. I worked as an assistant from 1992 to 1996 in Chicago, Miami and New York, and worked as an in-house photographer in a fashion catalog company until 2003. I’ve worked for myself since then, and I began creating videos for my clients in mid-2011.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

PD: Since 1994, when I was an assistant in Chicago. I am now a Professional (or General) Member in the Miami chapter.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

PD: I photograph people, products and places that range from corporate portraits and commercial fashion to jewelry and images for the hospitality industry, and from shooting on a white sweep in the studio to producing a multi-shooter lifestyle photo shoot on location.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

PD: My eye and my mind. My favorite thing to hear a client say is: “Wow, that’s just what I thought this was going to look like in my head.” Everything else is interchangeable.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

PD: Aside from working as an assistant in Chicago and New York with photographic masters such as Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort and Bruce Weber, I don’t have any formal training in photography. I want to have each image tell a story — even if it’s a simple one.

ASMP: This was your first documentary film; what inspired you to work in this genre?

PD: I had created only a few simple commercial videos, where the story was preplanned. I wanted to see what it was like to work the opposite way: to begin filming and not know where the story was going to end up.

ASMP: You had spent only six months creating motion projects for clients before going to Afghanistan. Please tell us about the motion pieces you made prior to embarking on the Afghan project. Did you show any of these to Pactec or get recommendations from clients you had worked with on your earliest motion pieces in order to get this assignment?

PD: I had created a series of 30 short (15-25 second) videos for a company that builds boats. These are being used in a QR-code guided tour of their yachts. The videos pop up on your mobile device and a spokesman explains the benefits and details of the section of the boat where you’re standing. I had also filmed a series of videos that introduce a product line for a furniture import company. These clips show how to install [the products] and talk about the benefits and features of the products being sold. In addition to those, I created a time-lapse video that shows the setup of a trade show over three days for one of my clients.

Pactec did not see any of these videos, nor did I provide them with any recommendations. I got this assignment because I asked for it. I have a 25-year relationship with their chief pilot and head of security. He believed that, even though I had never produced a film like this, I could pull it off — but this was also the case with the time-lapse project and the QR-code project. I approached my clients, who knew me, believed that my photographic ability would translate into motion, and were willing to take a risk with me.

ASMP: Why did you choose Pactec for your filmmaking, and how did you pitch this project and convince them you were the right person to tell their story? What were Pactec’s expectations when you first approached the organization about this project?

PD: I chose Pactec because they were working in the most remote and challenging place I could imagine. However, my pitch was simple. Here is the text of the actual first email I sent them:

“I want to get your opinion on an idea that’s been floating through my head over the last few months: I would like to seriously consider coming to visit you in Kabul, in order to shoot a documentary video about what you do, which you and Pactec could use to communicate your mission. Would something like this even be possible? Let me know.”

That’s it. Verbatim. I didn’t have anything that showed my capabilities in the environment in which they worked, nor did I have any motion work that was not completely commercial. Pactec expected a story that would let you experience the work that they do. All I had was my relationship and trust. They knew I could create compelling and beautiful photographs and they believed that I had the capacity to translate that ability into video.

ASMP: Unlike your previous motion projects, this was your first undertaking without storyboarding or scripting. How did your processes and techniques differ between your earliest motion projects and the Afghan film? What led you to make these changes?

PD: Filming a documentary is the reverse of filming a commercial video, where you create the story first, or at least you have it outlined in broad strokes before you begin shooting. Editing then becomes the process of cutting together all the pre-planned pieces, based on your script or storyboard. A documentary begins with filming; you have to find the story as you’re capturing footage. You begin building a rough outline in your head, creating a shot list for your B-roll on the fly, based on what the people you’re interviewing are talking about, while you revise and redirect it, as you go along. The edit is like completing a puzzle. You just don’t have the picture of the completed puzzle as a guide. And you don’t know if you have all the pieces until you’re sitting in the edit bay.

ASMP: What kind of pre-trip preparations were involved in your itinerary for this project, and how much time did you allocate for this? In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

PD: We planned this trip for about half a year — the initial email was in May 2011 and I filmed in Afghanistan in January 2012. My pre-trip preparations consisted of putting together the right equipment to create this, while keeping the kit light enough, since I traveled there by myself. I also devoted much time to reading about how to create documentaries (although I didn’t watch any documentaries) and asked for much advice from directors, news cameramen and producers. Pactec took care of all the paperwork, work permits and in-country travel. It’s hard to say whether I would have changed anything in hindsight, since I had no experience in producing documentaries whatsoever. However the whole trip worked out without a hitch. (I did lose a dead cat for my shotgun mic on one of the early days and didn’t have anything to replace it with). For a single-shooter documentary, you have to take a really good guess at what problems you might be facing, from the battery life of a Canon 5D MkII in -25º Celsius to how to work at 10,000-feet elevation — remember I live in Miami at about four feet above sea level. Then you do your best to prepare for everything — or just deal with the issues in the field.

ASMP: How long were you in Afghanistan, and how many days total did you spend filming? What percentage of time did you plan to be filming but were stopped by unanticipated occurrences?

PD: I had planned to be in country for two weeks and I filmed every day. 90 percent filming to 10 percent planning. I never had to stop filming; however I did get snowed in at Kabul and had to stay three days longer than planned.

ASMP: Why did you decide to visit during the winter? What special preparations did you make in order to cope with the weather in terms of personal gear and photo equipment?

PD: The timing was based on Pactec’s schedule and my availability. Once I realized that winter in Afghanistan was going to be slightly different from the Florida winters I’m used to, I bought a bunch of cold-weather gear — gotta love Gore-Tex and today’s engineered clothing. I also grew a full beard to keep my face warm, and I contacted every manufacturer of the equipment I was planning to take with me. All companies except for one told me that I was going to be working well outside of the operational specs of their equipment.

ASMP: How did the weather affect when/where you shot? Were there any issues with your photo equipment not working due to extreme conditions? If so, how did you deal with those issues?

PD: Weather affected us more in terms of where we could fly than where we could shoot. The huge benefit of not being nailed down to a pre-set shot list is the fact that you are completely flexible. All of my equipment worked perfectly, even in those extreme conditions, thanks to extensive pre-planning and being prepared to keep equipment warm and dry. You don’t want to get stuck at 10,000 feet at 10 below zero with no way to keep your camera batteries and gear warm and working — or by freezing yourself.

ASMP: Other than weather, what challenges did you have to overcome and how did you overcome them? For example, please tell us about filming the pilot in the cramped and noisy cockpit.

PD: Filming in the cramped cockpit was a challenge, but I believe filming the pilots in flight adds a lot to the story and the feeling of the movie. The fuselage of the plane is 4 feet wide — that includes the two seats on either side. There’s barely enough space to set up the tripod, light stand and to find a place where I could sit to conduct the interview with the pilot.

The more challenging issue is the sound — a turbo prop aircraft is an incredibly noisy environment to work in, let alone to record sound in. We got around that by patching the digital sound recorder into the actual intercom of the plane. (I have a blog post where people can listen to the audio from the plane and the raw audio from the intercom.) The nightmare was trying to sync the sound that the camera recorded, which was the ambient noise in the plane, to the intercom recording. A six-foot mic cable would have solved that problem. It just took a lot longer in the edit, but I got it done. The best time to overcome challenges is in the planning process and in being prepared once you’re working. Redundancy and multiple options to attacking the same problem are key to getting the job done.

ASMP: At what point during your trip did you learn about the injured boy and the rescue flight? Did you recognize immediately that this would be a great focal point for the film? Did you extend your trip or change your plans so that you could film the boy returning home after surgery?

PD: The little boy was critically injured two months before I traveled to Afghanistan. This turned out to be one of the factors that determined the timing of my trip. As soon as that opportunity of being in Afghanistan to film the return flight presented itself, we knew that it would be the central storyline of the documentary. We did postpone filming from late 2011 to early 2012 to be able to witness the boy’s flight back. However it was never guaranteed that the weather was going to cooperate in the two weeks I was in-country, since the airfield is basically a bunch of packed snow at 9,000 feet in the mountains.

ASMP: Although you didn’t script this film, did you have a general plan of action for the types of scenes you wanted to shoot while there? Did this change once you learned about the rescue flight for the injured boy?

PD: The return flight was planned. Everything else revolved around it. I started with interviews, and filmed general B-roll when no one was available. Once you have the interviews, the topics brought up in the conversations dictate the scenes you need to capture before you go home. So your plan of action expands with every interview you record.

ASMP: Was any discussion or negotiation needed to get the cooperation of the boy’s family to take part in the film? Did you (or Pactec) get them to sign any kind of model release or other agreement?

PD: Pactec and the NGO that had chartered the medivac flight approached the family, and they had all the discussions and negotiations about letting us film the family and the boy. We were especially honored to be invited to film in their home. Since this is a documentary film, we did not need nor did we ask for any type of release.

ASMP: Please describe a typical day during the filming of Wings of Hope? Or was every day different with a variety of logistical issues?

PD: Every day was different, some with two flights in a day, some with none. Some with short one-hour flights, some with long five-hour flights in the most remote areas.

Here’s what an average day looked like: I’d get up at five o’clock in an unheated house. (The handmade stove pipes may leak carbon monoxide, so all fires are extinguished when you go to sleep — I for one would rather wake up cold than not at all.) Drive to the airport in the dark with Pactec’s chief of security and go through multiple check points to get into the airport. I’d film on the ramp or activities around the hangar, before having breakfast with the pilots and maintenance crew. After that we’d plan the day based on where they’d be flying and who was crewing the aircraft, since I interviewed all pilots in flight. I’d film in the airport, with the mechanics or ground personal as they were plowing snow, fixing engines and so on. I’d also film interviews, if we had the time. When it came time to board the flight, I’d set up cameras after take-off and interview pilots and passengers. Once we’d land, I filmed around the exterior of the plane and on several occasions I’d be dropped off on the landing strip while the pilot took off and I filmed multiple take offs and landings in order to get all the angles needed. I’d do more filming on the flight back to Kabul, and then around five p.m., I’d head back to a different staff member’s home for dinner and another interview with their families. Then I’d head back to the house where I stayed with a Pactec family. Finally, I’d ingest all the footage from the day, charge all batteries, prep and clean equipment, turn off the stove and go to sleep.

ASMP: You worked alone when filming. Had you considered bringing along or hiring an assistant or crew?

PD: For this project it was essential to work with a small footprint. It was already sometimes a challenge to get me onto the flights that I needed to be on, especially in the smaller planes that only seat four to six passengers. In addition to that, one of the reasons for going alone was to push myself hard — I wouldn’t have learned as much if I had been able to rely on another team member.

ASMP: Did you engage any support staff such as fixers, translators, or other locally sourced assistants while in Afghanistan? Do you have any recommendations for connecting with local resources in such remote locales?

PD: The people from Pactec have lived in Afghanistan for a long time, many of them for well over 10 years. They speak the language, know the customs and are extremely security-conscious. Since I was filming specifically for them, it was a great marriage of having ‘local’ people who organized my movements and spoke my language as well as that of the people we filmed. This film would not have been possible without all the extra time and work that Pactec put into my stay. I’m extremely grateful for all the effort they put into making this project successful. I would not have worked in Afghanistan without that level of support. My recommendation for connecting with local resources is to source them through people you know. Let the organization you’re filming for utilize their experience in making the connections for interviews, travel, lodging, safety and so on.

ASMP: Was this a self-funded project or did you use crowdsourcing like Kickstarter or to help cover expenses? If not would you consider this for future projects?

PD: This project was a mixture of being self-funded and commissioned by the client. I’ve looked into crowd sourcing for projects like these, and a friend of mine just finished filming footage for his documentary in Afghanistan, that was funded via Kickstarter. It’s very helpful to have a large and well-organized social media presence online in order to to launch a successful crowd-sourcing campaign.

ASMP: Please describe the gear you used to make the film. Did you experience any issues bringing the gear into or out of Afghanistan? Was there anything you did to troubleshoot this in advance?

PD: This is another benefit of having a small footprint. I don’t look like a film crew when I travel. A large duffle bag, a trekking backpack, a Think Tank camera bag and a small backpack is all that went with me. My most critical issue was redundancy in all equipment, since I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to rent, fix or purchase any replacements. However traveling with luggage that does not look like camera gear makes it easier to move around airports.

My main camera was my Canon 5D MkII, with some Canon Zooms and Nikon prime lenses. I had a Canon 7D with me, but that was strictly as a backup camera. 2 GoPro Hero 2 cameras and a Canon 5D Mk I for time-lapse photography rounded out the cameras.

My 5D sits in a custom Easom cage that protects the camera, but also allows me to operate it on my shoulder and gives me a rod system. That allows me to attach the audio recorder, microphones, Letus follow focus, Zacuto External View Finder and hand grip, …

I record audio on a separate digital audio recorder, so I brought a Tascam DR 100, two pairs of Sennheiser G3 wireless mic sets (again, to be redundant) and a Rode NTG2 shotgun mic.

To move the camera while shooting, I had a Sachtler Cine DSLR tripod and a Cinevate Pegasus slider.

All of this gear breaks down to travel easily and is rugged enough to withstand the harsh environments where I filmed. None of it failed.

Since Pactec had set up the travel and paperwork into Afghanistan, I had no problems with getting gear into the country. It was harder to get through Kabul airport security when we entered the airport every morning — but that’s another story.

ASMP: Please describe your workflow for the film. Did you view, edit or share any footage while in Afghanistan or did you wait until you returned to Miami?

PD: By the time I came back to my home base from filming all day, I barely had enough time to transfer the files onto my hard drive. I travel with ioSafe drives — those drives are literally waterproof and dropproof, and are great for storing data in hostile work environments. I glanced at some footage, but more to make sure that it had been transferred correctly from the CF cards to the computer. It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, since looking through footage in Kabul meant that I was several flight hours from the location where I had filmed that day. I got my first look at all the footage once I got back into the edit bay in Miami.

Once back in Miami, I viewed all the footage, comparing it with the notes I had made in the field, and started cutting sequences together. Over the next year, versions of the film would go to people I trusted and respected for critique and feedback.

ASMP: Your final piece is a 15-minute documentary. How many hours of footage did you shoot to arrive at a final product of this length?

PD: Honestly, I don’t know, but it’s well over 600 GB of data. I had up to three cameras rolling at the same time. It’s hundreds of hours of footage.

ASMP: With the exception of the original music score, sound design, the graphics and title slides, you were Producer, Cinematographer, Audio Engineer, Digital Media Wrangler, Editor, Social Media Promoter. In addition to editing, how much post-processing was necessary for the documentary and what tools did you use?

PD: First of all, I film with dual system sound, which means that I record all my audio on a separate digital recorder when I film. The camera compresses the audio track too much. That means that every single sound has to be synced to the video file. Fortunately there is a piece of software called PluralEyes that takes the camera’s audio track (I feed a scratch track from the audio recorder back into the camera) and matches with the audio files from the Tascam recorder. It does a really good job about 90 percent of the time. When the camera has bad audio — like the ambient sound in the cockpit — no software can help you and you’ve gotta do that manually.

I edit in Premiere. No specific reason, other than Apple had just released Final Cut X when I started to compare editing software and all the professional editors were up in arms about that, so I went with Adobe.

All footage on the Canon camera was shot with a very flat and very desaturated color profile by Technicolor, which requires that every clip get color graded. I did a rough grade when importing clips into the edit and a fine grade once the whole piece was done. All GoPro footage is graded as well to match the Canon footage.

ASMP: Considering your previous experience as an advertising, fashion and product photographer and your recent commercial motion work, what skills (technical and creative) did you call on from your past work to make this documentary?

PD: Every single skill. My experience producing still photo shoots definitely helped in producing this project. I believe that a still photographer can draw on his or her experience in composition, color and light to create beautiful video images right off the bat. Creatively, I believe that framing, composing, lighting and recording a shot are all skills that I hone every time I pick up a still camera — these are almost second nature, so they translate very well to motion work.

As still photographers, we have to learn how to move the camera; we have to learn sound and we have to learn how to tell a story in the edit. I had begun learning these skills in the smaller jobs I filmed before going to Afghanistan. Filming this documentary definitely increased my abilities in all those areas.

Lastly, you have to be flexible and take risks. Today’s equipment — especially the little GoPro cameras — make it possible to record shots that were physically impossible just a few years ago. You just can’t hang a five-pound camera from the wing tip of an aircraft or place it on the tip of a propeller.

ASMP: Conversely, what, if anything, will your experience making this documentary bring to your work as a commercial photographer?

PD: Making projects like On Wings of Hope hones my skills that I use in creating corporate documentary films for my commercial still photography clients. I’ve been offering motion to my clients for a little over two years now and it’s about half the billing in my business. Plus On Wings of Hope is a nice piece to show to clients. If I could create that as a one-man crew in Afghanistan, I think I can create pretty much anything they throw at me.

ASMP: In your experience, has the business climate for photography gotten tougher in recent years, or are you finding more opportunity out there now? Given your transition from stills into motion, please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense.

PD: Motion work should be in today’s photographers’ toolkit. Just like we use large-format cameras to achieve a certain photograph, I believe that video is something we all need to be able to create, in today’s era of the mobile Internet. Your client’s customers expect to see things moving on iPads and in their browsers, and if your clients haven’t figured that out yet, they will soon. Remember the switch from film to digital? We’re at a similar point looking at motion.

I don’t believe that still photography is going away. I do believe that there’s an increased need for good content, and motion makes excellent content online. Visual media has always been in transition. All I know is that every single one of my still-photography clients that I approached about shooting a motion project had one waiting to go — but they were not thinking of contacting their still photographer to create it for them.

ASMP: How are you promoting the film? What role is social media playing in this process? What areas of your promotional efforts have worked best and why?

PD: As I said earlier, this film is a commissioned film, specifically created for Pactec. It’s not a project I conceived and am now trying to monetize. That being said, I did have an exciting opportunity earlier this year, as one of the planes I actually flew and filmed in was in Florida to get new engines and a general avionics overhaul. We jumped on this opportunity to have a live movie premiere, which wasn’t planned or budgeted. I held the event in a 20,000-square-foot hangar with the plane parked next to the screen and used social media to promote the event. In the week before the screening, the film’s hashtag #OnWingsFilm was trending on Twitter and tweets about the premiere were making over 100,000 impressions on Twitter daily.

ASMP: Since making this film you’ve shown it to local schools and organizations in a presentation geared to assessing audiences’ knowledge of the people and culture of Afghanistan. Please talk about your vision and goals for this aspect of the project.

PD: On one occasion in particular, I showed an early version of the movie at a local college that polled their students before the film with a live tweet-in poll and directly after the film again, letting me see if the film had been successful in changing perceptions. We’ve all heard a lot about Afghanistan in our news media for the past 10 years, but it’s only been a sliver of what that country is about. I’m thrilled to be able to show another piece of that land, one that consistently surprises people and makes them rethink their assumptions. I wrote about this more extensively on my blog in “How to change 100 minds in 15 minutes,” but I was blown away the first time I saw the data of those two polls. I doubt a traditional photo essay or photo exhibit would have made the same impact in a quarter of an hour.

ASMP: What was the most rewarding aspect of making this documentary? Is there anything you had hoped to achieve with this film that didn’t quite meet your expectations?

PD: One of my favorite days in my life was the day we flew the little boy back home. Not only was that event in itself beautiful but the day was perfect. Filming the air-to-air footage from the chase plane was a lot of fun and the air at 9,000 feet is crisp and clear with little ice crystals glistening in the sunshine, making you forget the biting cold, 15º below zero temperature. Back home, many (actually almost all) people had told me that planning to go to Afghanistan was a mistake and that I was foolish to go. Crazy. Now those same people are riveted to the screen when they see the movie for the first time. Footage from the film has aired on National Geographic and BBC documentaries, and PBS is looking at it right now. Having those companies licensing footage from my first documentary film is rewarding and validates the fact that a still photographer can become a good cinematographer in a short time.

Since this was my first documentary film, all I had hoped for was a film that would enable Pactec to communicate their mission to their donors. I got a lot more out of it than that.

ASMP: What’s next for you? Are you currently planning a new documentary? What topics do you want to explore in the future?

PD: I recently returned from Peru, where I was filming a documentary in the jungle. And, beginning later this year, I’m going to be producing videos dealing with the subject of human trafficking.