What's in the Bag? - Interview with Chandler Griffin, Documentary Filmmaker


Chandler Griffin's feet have always been itchy.  From Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, he's walked around the globe as a documentary filmmaker. His optimistic eyes peer pensively through a thoughtful camera lens.  With human issues at the heart of his unique brand of filmmaking and teaching, he's partnered with UNESCO in Burundi, the Desmond Tutu HIV foundation in South Africa, and FXB in Rwanda.

Griffin, a New York-based documentary filmmaker, runs a non-profit media organization appropriately named Barefoot Workshops. The primary mission of Barefoot is to harness the power of the video camera and emergent technology as a formidable tool for social change. Griffin instills this empowering message through his workshops in filmmakers, youth, and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs): find your unique visual voice. "We've run workshops for kids who are cancer survivors, refugees in Kenya, youth in townships in South Africa, and civil society organizations in the Middle East. The whole point of Barefoot is to give individuals and organizations the ability to tell their own stories, and to use technology and video to implement change in their communities."

Frequently, Griffin is off the grid for weeks at a time. What does he carry in his backpack? What equipment does he use in the field? Curious, I interviewed Griffin at his apartment in New York City to find out.

J.P: Tell me a little bit about Barefoot Workshops.

Chandler Griffin: Barefoot Workshops is a New York City-based non-profit that teaches people how to use digital video, new media, and the arts to transform their communities and themselves. We hold our signature documentary workshop two times a year, and for the rest of the year we host international and local workshops for NGO's, youth, and adults.

The whole concept of the Barefoot Workshops, centers around "voice." Every person has a unique voice, a unique opinion. What you say matters.

It's my job to teach our students how to use video and new media to tell their own stories. Within the past 5 or 10 years, the internet and new media strategies have exploded, enabling their stories to be seen and shared on the internet and mobile devices in addition to local screenings. The whole point of Barefoot Workshops is that every person deserves to have a voice, and every person deserves to be heard.

J.P.: When you travel for months on end without power, how do you manage? How do you plan when you pack your documentary video kit?

CG: Through 10 years of trial and error, I've assembled a kit that fits my particular needs. In 2000 I traveled to Zimbabwe to collaborate with a photojournalist. We filmed a documentary about the HIV/AIDS epidemic there. It was my first documentary in the field, and I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to take. I knew I needed a camera, a shotgun microphone, tripod, and lights for interviews. I didn't have any experience, and so I got there with a truckload of stuff, half of which I didn't use. We even shipped an iMac desktop all the way to Zimbabwe!

I realized quickly that you really have to know your gear, and you have to show up with the appropriate tools. When you're in northern Zimbabwe at an orphanage out in the middle of nowhere and you don't have a vital piece of equipment, you can't FedEx it overnight.

I don't necessarily need the most expensive equipment. It has to be the right tool for what I'm going to be doing. Period. I realized, that's all that mattered. Do I have the right things in my backpack to tell my story? It doesn't have to be the most expensive thing. All that matters is that it's the right thing.

J.P.: Do you go out into the field by yourself? Or do you shoot with a crew?

CG: Often, when I'm hired to film a documentary, I'm by myself. Before I used to go with a crew—a sound person, a camera person, and a gaffer for lighting. I can't do those things much anymore. I usually go out, and I'm responsible for everything.

I evaluate the right sound gear, the right tripod, the right lights. Do I need solar panels? If so, what kinds of solar panels do I need based on what needs to be powered? These are all things I have to consider.

J.P.: What exactly do you pack in your kit?

C.G.: This is the kit I use for Barefoot Workshops. Over the years, I've learned how to streamline my kit. I've learned that I can't take everything. I only take what's absolutely essential. I use a Kata HB-207 equipment bag. The 207 is considerably heavier when loaded, but you can carry EVERYTHING in the bag.

Back of bag Left Side Pouch: Raincoats for bag and camera Right Side Pouch: G-Tech Mini2 1TB Hard Drive Left zipper compartment: Rode NT4 stereo mic Right zipper compartment: Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun mic.

When I pack, I break my kit down into 4 categories—

Cameras, Sound, Lighting, and Power.

1. Cameras and accessories

* Canon XHA1

* Canon WD-H72 72mm 0.8x Wide Angle Converter Lens

* Canon 20D DSLR – I've already tested the Canon 5D Mark II for shooting video B-roll and plan to add this to my kit. The ability to use interchangeable lenses on a DSLR gives me the flexibility to control shallow depth of field.

* Canon Zoom lens EF 16-35mm 2.8L

KATA HB-207 close-up right Clockwise – Canon XHA1, Zoom Lens EF 16-35mm 2.8, Canon Wide Angle Lens, Pure Digital Mino HD Flip Cam, Canon 20D, Sennheiser Evolution G2 100 wireless mics, Mini Tripods (for Flip Cam or LitePanel Micro Lights), Sony Mini DV Tapes (10), Nokia Cell Phone (unlocked)

KATA HB-207 close-up left Clockwise – Canon XHA1, Tram TR50 Lavalier Mic, Anton Bauer ElipZ Batteries (2), Leatherman, Litepanels Micro LED lights, Canon 72mm 0.8x Wide Angle Converter, Sennheiser IE7 Noise Isolation In-Ear Stereo Headphones, 4 XLR Cables

2. Sound Equipment

* Sennheiser ME-66/K-6

* Sennheiser IE7 Noise-Isolation In-Ear Stereo Headphones

* Sennheiser Evolution G2 100 Series Wireless Transmitters

* Gitzo 0540 - Three-Section Carbon Fiber Boompole

* Sony MDR-V6 Stereo Studio Headphones

* Tram TR50 - Omni-Directional Lavalier Condenser/XLR

* Rode NT4 - Stereo Condenser Mic

Audio - XLR plug, Sennheiser K6/ME66 Shotgun Mic, Sennheiser MZW66 Foam Windscreen, Ryocote Softie w/ mount and boom adaptor.

3. Lighting

* Anton Bauer – ElightZ (1)

* Litepanels LPMICRO Micro LED on Camera Light

4. Power

When you travel abroad it's essential to have power converters and adaptors. I carry a cube tap with me so I can split one electric line into three.

* Anton Bauer ElipZ 10k Battery Kit (Canon)

* 50 AA batteries – to ensure that all my accessories are powered.

* Cube Tap – available at any hardware store

Tripod Bag

I buy the larger tripod bag, so I can fit more equipment.

* Bogen BO190XPR503HD 190XPR Pro Tripod with 503HDV Fluid Video Head

* Bogen 3281B 45" padded bag

* K&M Tripod Mic Stand

* 8 Anton Bauer ElipZ batteries

* 4 XLR cables

J.P.: Any quick tips and tricks on equipment that you've picked up along the way?

The three most important items (outside of the big camera/mic) in my kit are the G-Tech Mini2 TB hard drive, the Anton Bauer batteries, and the Flip Cam by Pure Digital.

* G-Tech Mini2 1TB E-SATA 7200 rpm bus-powered hard drive – It's brand new! It can hold over 80 hrs of HDV footage, and the bus-powered capability means I don't have to worry about another external power source

* 10 Anton Bauer batteries

* Pure Digital Flip Mino HD Camera and tripod – This is a great tool for video sketches. It's portable and lightweight. A USB adaptor kicks out of the side of the camera. Plug it into your laptop, and the clips are ready to edit or upload to YouTube

* DVM-60PR 60 Minute Premium Mini DV Video Cassette

* Unlocked Nokia Telephone – Having an unlocked cell phone, saves you from trying to line up a phone upon arrival. Buy a local calling card and you're good to go.

* Leatherman – has been a lifesaver. All the gadgets—knife, scissors, and screwdriver— are unbelievably useful in the field

* eSATA adapter for laptop by Gtech –This card ramps up the speed for video editing. The FireWire 800 powers your hard drive, while the eSATA connection enables faster file transfers.

* Cables – Bring at least 2 of each kind of cable for your equipment, FireWire, XLR, USB's. Adapt the cables to your specific needs, and adjust.

* Ziploc bags to organize my equipment.

J.P.: Any advice for people who want to get into documentary filmmaking?

CG: Get a credit card [laughs…]

You don't have a second chance in the field. You can't go back and reshoot. You have to be willing to adapt, and quickly solve problems on the spot.

If you're caught in a difficult situation, you can't say, "the equipment I have is not going to work." That's not the answer. Think quickly and adapt the tools that you have at hand, and make them work for you.

The kit that I take into the field with me is also the kit that I teach with. I've spent years perfecting this kit for my needs. Build and modify your own kit to fit your specific needs. I always think of new ways to make my kit better. Rethink what you already have in your backpack, and find innovative ways to use your equipment in new ways.

Chandler with "A River Blue" Youth

Wrap up

"It's not about film. The process of making a documentary inherently changes our student's perspectives. Documentary filmmaking is only a medium to facilitate that change. It's amazing to see each of their unique voices emerge.

It doesn't just have to be documentary filmmaking. It's media in general. The technology is really important. But it's just a tool. In the end it's how you use the tools to implement change.

Anyone can get equipment and make a movie. It's how you use that tool. What you do with it? How do you use the technology to evoke change? It doesn't matter whether you have a Flip Camera or a Canon XHA1. What matters is ‘What ideas do you have behind the technology?' That's what's important."

For more on Barefoot Workshops visit http://www.barefootworkshops.org

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I have been a student of Chadler Griffin and take the Barefoot Workshops in 2009, I must say that it was amazing and life changing experience for me.

And i hope there is a lot of stories that are yet to come out from Nigeria soon.