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Sotiris Danezis Interview

A war correspondent and photographer, Sotiris has been filming news & current affairs documentaries since 2003, highlighting the stories of people in crisis and the contemporary issues of the world we live in. The awarded War Zone documentary series takes the viewer to the world’s hot spots and the centre of international news developments. Each feature of 60 minutes, is the result of long-term journalist research characterised by cinematic narrative, quality image & detailed editing. War Zone airs on Mega TV Greece.

Script/Interview: Sotiris Danezis | DP: Aris Vitalis

On May 2010 War Zone covered the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. This is the behind-the-scenes aftermath of the mission:

Alex Maragos: • What made you to go and capture the Eyjafjallajökull activity?

Sotiris Danezis: The eruption of the Icelandic volcano had brought European aviation to a near-standstill. Airlines were losing money, (the losses are estimated at up to 2 billion dollars), tens of thousands of passengers were stranded, more than 17,000 flights were canceled. Eyjafjallajökull achieved what Hitler, international terrorism, even flu viruses never managed: all of Europe's major airports came to a standstill and the airspace in 12 countries closed. It is not an exaggeration for one to say that an airport's background noise was no longer the roaring jet engines, but twittering birds.

News networks all over the world, even ours, focused on the impact of the volcano ash cloud. Nobody was paying much attention to where it was coming from and how the lives of the local people were affected. We thought it was a unique story and decided to go after it.

• What was your preparation?

First of all Ioanna Louloudi, the production coordinator of the team with researcher/producer Kostas Kallergis had to find a way to get us there.
As soon as Heathrow became operational we booked the flights and started looking for someone to work for us as a field producer. We end up with a stringer from AFP and we planned almost 70% of our daily schedule with him. He was aware of good filming locations, he booked a small Cessna and the pilot to fly us over the volcano, arranged the interviews with the scientists. Everything was set in less than 72 hours.

• How was your trip there?

The first problem we faced was the cancellation of our flight from London Heathrow to Reykjavik. The minute we arrived Icelandair informed us that the wind had changed and had brought the ash cloud in Icelandic airspace. We had to get on another flight and the earliest was two days later. We went from one desk to another trying to find an alternative solution through Scotland, Denmark, Ireland, but it was a fight for a lost cause. Then another misfortune hit us: our tripod was lost somewhere in Heathrow’s mazy luggage system. Hours and hours of meaningless wait and discussions with the luggage handlers of Icelandair just to tell us that the tripod had arrived from Athens, was traced in the system, but couldn’t be found! To cut a long story short, we managed to get on a flight the next day but without the tripod. Our fixer was already looking to rent one...

• Arrival to Iceland / Arrival to the volcano. Your first impressions of the scenery and the eruption.

We arrived in Reykjavik around 1.30 am, went through the necessary paperwork for the missing luggage, got lots of promises that the tripod would eventually be delivered and met with our fixer. Early next morning we drove two hours from Reykjavik to the volcano area. The weather was very cloudy. We couldn’t see a thing on the crater and it was very frustrating because the weather forecast for the following week was not good either. May 1st was the day we had been waiting for: finally a clear sky, few scattered clouds and very good visibility. The first rather shocking impression wasn’t the ash cloud or the eruption itself. It was the sound of Eyjafjallajökull...

It was very hard to get on tape from a distance – police declared the crater a no-go area because of the fear of dangerous and possibly fatal accidents that could happen in closer proximity. I remember the locals saying that the underground explosions of magma were just the volcano breathing! For me it felt like a giant had been trapped under the mountain and what we heard were his sighs and coughs. It was a bone-chilling experience.

• What was your transportation on location?

We drove a Grand Vitara SUV and it was ok. One day though, we arranged to follow a team of geologists to the bottom of Eyjafjallajökull’s glacier. We booked a Land Rover Defender just for this. It was an unforgettable off-road adventure. Quite similar to the bumpy nightmare we had (embedded with 10th Mountain Division) inside the Humvees in Afghanistan, but of course without the Taliban...

• Tell me about your ground & aerial filming on location.

We approached the volcano from three different locations. The most interesting one is Katla, to the east side. Katla is a much bigger and more dangerous volcano. Its peak is 1,512 meters (4,961 ft) in height and is partially covered by the Myrdalsjokull glacier. We drove into the ash cloud and had some beautiful shots just before sunset.

Flying over the volcano was a rather... interesting experience, lets say. Omar a 70 year-old journalist/documentarist offered his Cessna and his services as a pilot. When we took off and approached the crater we didn’t know he was going to open the window of the plane, let the rudder go, grab his small camera and start filming. He has filmed more than 20 volcano eruptions in Iceland. In his words, he is the “son of Katla” and the “brother of Eyjafjallajökull”. For us he is an amazing guy and one of our main characters in this doc.

• What workflow did you establish?

As you know when the weather is very bad you have no option and you go after the interviews. Unfortunately we had plenty of time for that in Iceland. But usually we start filming very early in the morning to take advantage of the light, we have a short lunch break and keep on filming until late. In this case we had to wake up at 5 am and drive 2 hours from Reykjavik to the volcano area. Iceland has perfect light conditions in this time of the year. The sunset is around 22.30 and the twilight until 23.30. The truth is we didn’t sleep much...

• What equipment did you use?

Usually Aris Vitalis, our cameraman, uses the Sony DVW-790WSP Digibeta and a Sony PDW-530 XDCAM, both with an ultra wide Canon Lens J11EX 4.5 b and a standard Canon J17EX 7.7 b4. We also have a Sennheiser MKH 60 lightweight short gun microphone and a Miller Arrow 40 carbon fiber tripod. We try to be as light as possible. For the still photos I use a Canon 5D Mark II with two Canon lenses: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM and EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM. We drove around the volcano system to capture the proper images and get the farmers’ stories. The day we followed the scientific team, we had to walk for an hour on the west side of the glacier. At that point we got the most striking pictures of the melting ice (because of the lava and the heat) which created a river of huge “ice cubes” and ash mud.

• Where are you editing the footage? What's your editing workflow?

The editing suite is in Mega TV and it’s an Avid Media Composer Nitris DX. Dimitris Gerardis is the editing director who works on the script and the footage with Kostas Christakopoulos (our main editor), Pavlos Kontogiorgis and Alexandros Konstantis.

• What about the Score and Sound Design? What music you're going to use to accompany the images of the eruption?

The last three years we are happy and proud to work with the awarded composer and guitarist Yiorgos Magoulas and have original score on every documentary we produce.

Fire and Ice Soundbite #1 | Original Score: Yiorgos Magoulas

Yiorgos can maneuver easily through different genres and compose scores even for the most challenging scenes. We feel that with our interviews and Yiorgos music we don’t need a voice over. “Fire and Ice” has no voice narration. Most of the times we have the necessary context and can draw the audience in emotionally without a narrative structure.

War Zone Opening Sequence | Original Score: Yiorgos Magoulas

• When the Eyjafjallajökull documentary airs on Mega?

We’ve already finished editing and we are waiting for the subtitles on the final copy. Mega will air “Fire and Ice” on Thursday June 10, 2010.

• The revolution of HDSLR filmmaking: As the time goes by, more and more filmmakers, journalists & documentarists around the world, are using DSLR’s to film their pieces. MSNBC’s David Friedman covered the Haiti earthquake with a Canon 5DmkII, BBC used a 5DmkII to cover the Burma’s Kachin army preparation to fight civil war, Al Jazeera’s Matthew Allard uses the 7D to shoot the tv news and Janek Zdzarksi reports for Polish TV using also the 7D. What is your opinion on HDSLR filmmaking?

Digital cinematography is changing so rapidly these days. I know that a lot of people have been experimenting with and delivering 1080p HD video projects. I guess because they deal with a highly sensitive yet relatively inexpensive DSLR still cameras. One may say that when shooting documentaries and I mean interviews and lots of locations and setups in minimal time frames, it is more of a hassle than a traditional video camera and I don’t want to be misunderstood: I don’t consider documentary shooting to be more like TV news shooting, i.e. run 'n gun, all handheld, no lighting, etc. One thing is for sure: if you have a great story and limited resources, you can make it happen with a DSLR. I haven’t tried it yet and honestly I don’t have a good excuse for that.

Script/Interview: Sotiris Danezis | DP: Aris Vitalis

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All stills, audio & footage courtesy of Sotiris Danezis
Copyrighted material of War Zone Documentaries & MEGA TV

Watch the documentary online here