Cameraman, Director and Editor, Matt Ziniel travels the world capturing footage for the Outdoor Channel. It takes him to locations that tests both his and his equipment’s endurance. He shares some of the adventures of his travels and the importance of having gear like the Cool-Lux Shift Baseplate that can withstand the challenge:
Tell me about what kind of shooting you’ve been doing? Where have you been going?
For the last three years I have been directing and shooting for a show called "Uncharted" that airs nationally on the Outdoor Channel. It's an adventure travel show where explorer and host Jim Shockey travels the world in search of all things still wild. It's all international travel that has me on the road roughly 200 days a year. The show has brought me to over 20 countries on 6 continents in just under 3 years. Some of those countries include Pakistan, Chad, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Morocco, Croatia, Greece, Spain, Poland, France, Mexico, Canada, Kazakstan, and seven separate trips to Russia.
What are some challenges you’ve had to face?
Challenges are really the name of the game when it comes to filming in these remote locations. They are a daily, if not hourly occurrence, but overcoming challenges and breaking through is half the joy of the job. The travel itself can sometimes be a big challenge. You have multiple days of initial travel across time zones, but then once you arrive in country, the travel challenges really start. We are usually traveling deep into these countries to places not frequently visited, so many times it means multiple days of driving on terrible roads. Powering equipment in these locations, that more often than not don't have electricity, is another challenge that is usually solved with a generator. The language barriers can be another challenge. Then there's vehicle breakdowns, bad weather, equipment failures, sleep deprivation....the list goes on and on. But those are all external challenges. The real challenges are the internal challenges, the head games, but overcoming those are what make you stronger. Most of the trips last between 20 and 45 days, and those are not 8 hour days, they tend to be upwards of 18 hour days and we don't get days off. So staying motivated, ever present, and searching for new angles and storylines can be challenging. Being away from family for such extended periods is mentally tough too. Due to the nature of the job traveling with a large crew is just out of the question. Most of the time it's just me and the host and at most we will have a third crew member as second camera. So traveling with the gear is often a big challenge. Last year we were on a 45 day backpacking trip in Russia, all self supported. My pack was 70 pounds and we were hiking between 10 and 25 miles per day. I am a tall skinny guy and I lost 25 pounds on that trip, weight I didn't know I could even loose. Being mentally tough and taking it one day at a time is a big part of being able to do things like that.
What have been some of the rewarding or enlightening experiences you’ve had?
Every trip has its moments of awe, wonder, appreciation and realization. Travel has really put my life into perspective, humbled me, and made me realize I cannot take anything for granted. One trip that sticks out the most to me is Pakistan. I have actually been there twice, and of course most people I told before leaving asked "Are you crazy?" or "Why would you go there?" I had my own reservations, but I try and never let fear take hold of me, and I am grateful I didn't listen to anyone, because the hospitality and kindness of the Pakistani people is truly amazing. They treat their guests like royalty and will share whatever they have with you, and most times they are people who have very little. Another trip that really sticks out is visiting Masai land in Tanzania, Africa. We spent nearly a month immersing ourselves in the Masai culture. It's humbling to see the way they live in the thatch and mud “bomba” huts, survive in part on the protein from raw cow's blood, and still practice many of the ancient traditions they have been practicing for hundreds of years, such as earlobe stretching and jump dancing.
Just recently I had one of the best days of filming in the three years working on this show "Uncharted." We were high in the Peruvian Andes at over 15,000 feet and driving through a small village on our way to a new area, when we saw a mass of traditionally dressed locals overtaking the streets. We of course stopped to see what was going on. We had just so happened to stumble upon the highly anticipated yearly celebration and parade called "The Day of the Farmer." Immediately upon stepping out of the car, the locals surrounded us and greeted us with giant smiles and hand shakes. I don’t think many of them had every seen “gringos” in person before. They invited us to the head table to view the parade and brought us trays of different snacks and treats to eat as we viewed the parade from the best seats you could have. After, they thanked us for being there, and invited us to the next village over to continue in the festivities. We agreed, of course, and when we got there, there was an amazing dance taking place with people wearing costumes and crazy masks. All that, and then there was a bull fight where they actually invited me down into the ring where I filmed from behind one of the clowns protection shields! After the bull fight, I think every single one of the 200 viewers came over to get their picture taken with me on their flip cellphones. The people were just so friendly and so happy we were there to celebrate with them. It's was a really special day for me.
How would you describe your shooting style?
I would like to say that I shoot in cinematic documentary style. Much of what I do is run and gun, but I am always focused on the story and scenes. There is no narration in the show, so every scene needs a beginning, middle, and end and there needs to be smooth transitions between scenes. The fact that there is no narration means you really have to be on top of your game at all times because you can't rely on that to cover you if you missed something while filming. You always need to keep the storyline in the front of your mind and always shoot for the edit by covering all your bases.
Can you give some examples of how you’ve gotten certain shots? Things you’ve had to do to get the shot?
Oh man, lots of crazy things like hanging out of helicopters trusting your seat belt to hold you in. Dangling out the truck window shooting on the Karakorum highway with a thousand foot drop to the Indus River below. Standing on cliff edges, hiking razer blade ridges. One trip where the whole trip was a challenge to get the shot was filming way up north in the Canadian Arctic in the dead of winter. It ranged from -30 to -60 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. Every single thing is difficult in those temps, and adding that challenge to filming was really intense. In order to keep the gear from fogging up and getting soaked with condensation, we actually stored the cameras outside at all times. We had to keep the batteries warm so we taped heat packs to the batteries and stored them inside our clothing.
-What’s some of your best advice for your fellow shooters, maybe those new to the industry?
The best advice I can give someone is work your ass off. Work ethic goes a long way, and it seems like it's harder and harder to come by these days. I would always hire a good shooter with a great work ethic over an exceptional shooter who is lazy. Never be lazy. When it's cold and snowy and everyone's inside warming up, go get shots of the snow coming down, when everyone's going to bed, go shoot a night timelapse, wake up before everyone else to shoot the sunrise. Going above and beyond gets noticed, and can set you apart from the rest. Some other advice I have is to never pass up an opportunity to talk to others or reach out to someone you admire. In my early years of shooting, I met my best client on a chairlift while skiing. I got the job I have now by sending out a Facebook message with my demo reel to the producer whom I admired. Put yourself out there. If you have the passion and the work ethic you can make it happen. Oh and lastly, don't burn any bridges, you never know what can happen down the road.
Talk a little bit about the Cool-Lux Rig. What do you like about it? What made you buy it at NAB over all the other options there? How long have you been using it? How many places have you taken it? (Several continents?) How does it perform in the field? (Balance/Time Saving/Build Quality/Something Else?)
I can honestly say the cool lux shift shoulder rig is one of the best investments I have ever made in terms of camera gear. Since buying the rig at NAB 2015, I have been using it non stop, taking it to 12 countries on 6 different continents in just over a year. The shooting conditions are extremely demanding, but I have never had a single issue with the cooI Lux rig. Thinking further on that, it may be the only piece of gear I have had that has not broken or malfunctioned. I bought the Cool Lux rig on the show floor at NAB in 2015. I went to NAB that year with the sole purpose of finding a shoulder rig for my RED Epic. I visited every single booth and settled on the Cool Lux for multiple reasons. It was lighter than all the other options I looked at, it's versatile, and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Having the ability to go from shoulder to tripod quickly with zero adjustments is absolutely mandatory for the type of work I do, and this is the only rig I found capable of that. As a testament to its balance, my RED camera fully rigged weights 23 pounds, but because of all the hiking we do, I actually shoot on a pair of lightweight carbon fiber sticks with an old Manfrotto 701 head. That's an embarrassing camera/tripod combo I know. The tripod head has a payload of probably 8 pounds max, but I can whip my 23 pound rig off my shoulder and onto the tripod and it is fully balanced and ready to go, which is totally necessary because if it wasn't, that tripod would tip right over with all that weight. That fact alone has allowed me to get countless shots in run and gun situations that I simply would have missed if I had to rebalance going from shoulder to tripod. One other thing I love is the added stability provided by the shifting baseplate against your chest when the camera is on shoulder. You can pull the camera nice and tight into your shoulder and be steady as a rock. I frequently shoot handheld at 400mm with this rig. Oh, and I can't tell you how many compliments I have gotten on the wooden hand grip.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
I am fairly active on Instagram with the username @mattziniel and my website is mattziniel.com
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