Mojo hack: place solar panels on the dashboard to keep your electronic devices topped up

Credit: Cassius Rayner

When film maker and cinematographer Cassius Rayner flew out to South America to shoot a documentary about a famous elephant's journey across the continent, he opted against the use of high-end camera equipment.

For five years, he has been using mobile equipment to shoot documentaries. In this, his latest shoot, he used three different iPhones to film from the back of a moving vehicle, as Ramba the elephant was police-escorted from Sao Paulo to an undisclosed sanctuary. Why?

"I love the speed I can work out, I love the fact that filming out on location I’m left alone and I don’t stick out drawing unwanted attention. I can shoot multiple angles and in difficult situations I can move quickly with little equipment," explained Rayner.

The documentary, still in post-production, was shot from 19 hours' worth of driving across four days of travel across the continent. He explained to Journalism.co.uk about some of the challenges and solutions to shooting in the heat of South America and while on the road.

Compensating for the weather

Shooting in hot conditions of nearly 40°C, any mobile journalist will tell you that is sufficient for a smartphone to stop working. With the added processing power needed to shoot in 4K and with FiLMiC Pro, Rayner found this was a constant problem - but he was prepared.

Rayner took with him three iPhones: a 7 Plus, an 8 Plus and 11 Pro, and rotated as the need arose. As much as 80 per cent of the shoot was recorded on the 7+ and 8+, and he was switching device nearly every 10 minutes to allow the others to cool down. Cooling pouches have recently entered the market, he said, and could be an investment for some mobile journalists to add to their toolkit.

What you will also find when shooting in South America is drastic weather changes. There are sudden storms and downpours which last all of 20 minutes. Some people would stop and wait for it to subside, but not Rayner. He was willing to get his devices wet if it meant getting the key shot. A waterproof case, he admitted, would have been worth trying.

There is also the issue of wind and sandstorms, which often resulted in lens getting dirty and constantly needing cleaning.

"You just have to persevere to get the perfect ten-second shot," he said.

Adjusting to exposure

With these sudden changes to the weather, getting consistent exposure in the shots is one of the main challenges that he expected.

This is where FiLMiC Pro saves the day, Rayner said, as it allows the user to lock exposure in the shot. In between changing devices and shooting clips, he was constantly adjusting the exposure to make sure it is as even as possible.

Finding power

In South America, power cuts are frequent and some motels even had to re-route electricity from neighbouring towns. It means you can never depend on being able to charge up at night time.

"There were plenty of times I was low on juice," Rayner said. His solution is to bring four power banks and solar panels lined up on the dashboard of the car to absorb the sun rays.

Keeping these topped up means there is always a source of power to replenish phones that are in constant use.

Securing WiFi

Rayner also needed to send large clips back to the FiLMiC Pro studios (who were producing the documentary) to use for social media behind-the-scenes content.

That did not prove straight forward as data connection - particularly when out of the main cities, but also within them - was very poor. WiFi connection at motels were not guaranteed to work either.

The lesson is to take full advantage of the connection once it becomes available, as it may not present itself again any time soon.

Working in the back of a moving vehicle

Rayner was often shooting and editing clips in the back of a car. Though it never exceeded 50mph, this still can cause a number of issues.

Editing on LumaTouch can be fiddly at the best of times as you need to make clean edits with a small interface, and this is not helped by a jostling vehicle. It is something to be aware of going in, Rayner said.

To get the best shots from inside the car, Rayner used a monopod and attached a gimbal to the end. He leaned out of the car while holding the gear, to achieve powerful, aerial shots.

"This gives huge versatility in-shoot and in car exterior filming," he said. "It can achieve extreme height, so much that people think it's a drone."

The wind pressure means that lightweight gimbals tend to get blown upside-down. This is a case of being determined enough to keep re-attempting the shot until it is flawless.

The advantage of using the Zhiyun Smooth 4 gimbal means that it has a little-known technique of pulling focus when shooting with FiLMiC Pro by using the wheel.

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