The official press release:
Meg Prior knew exactly what type of camera she needed to shoot her latest documentary project, Afghanistan: Outside the Wire. The veteran cinematographer and filmmaker needed something "small, versatile, durable, and rugged enough to withstand the heat and dust" of an Afghanistan warzone, while "always coming up with those intimate looks I wanted." She found the perfect fit in Sony's HXR-NX3.
Prior, a civilian American with no previous military background was given nearly unrestricted access to capture footage as she deployed with different military units in Afghanistan throughout production on Afghanistan: Outside the Wire. Prior was a one-woman camera crew, shooting everything herself for the project she describes as having "incredible purpose and meaning" to her, and one in which she feels accurately "captures unimaginable moments."
"I realized that we back here in the U.S. don't know what those who serve our country do on behalf of us," she said. "This film became a personal responsibility for me to try to cover the variety of missions and show the people that carry them out."
In addition to the generous access Prior received from the military, the Sony camera was equally vital for telling her story. "The equipment afforded me the ability to access and secure reliable footage that I could depend on," she said. "If I couldn't capture really good quality footage, it wouldn't have been worth the risks - number one, to [the military] to have me as a liability with them and number two, for me to feel this responsibility but never be able to convey the story."
Prior has been a Sony user for a number of years, but really became a convert during her work on Afghanistan: Outside the Wire. She began filming the piece in 2010 on Sony's HXR-NX5U, the predecessor to the HXR-NX3, which she filmed a majority of her work on. Said Prior, "At the time, I was just looking to get another NX5, but I discovered the NX3, which is an amazing camera."
Prior explained how she came to choose Sony cameras to film her biggest project to date. "I appreciated the discussions I had with different cinematographers as we discussed the equipment [I planned to bring to Afghanistan]," she said. "I actually worked with another cinematographer friend of mine, John Leonetti, who was wonderful. He is an amazing feature cinematographer and we discussed every piece in my kit. At that time, I was in a situation that when you deploy with the military there were three stipulations: you bring everything you need, you may not use anything with wheels, and you must be able to carry all of your stuff.
So it was really simple. At that time, the NX5 was the solution, and then I had had another cassette Sony camera before that, a predecessor to the NX5. This whole project has been shot on a variety of Sony cameras."
The one feature that Prior mentioned time and again for its importance is the durability of the NX3. "When I first saw Bagram [Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan], I thought it would be challenging on the equipment," she said. "The dust was almost like cake flour, if you poured it in a bowl, dipped your camera in it for a second, and pulled it out, that is what your gear could look like in a couple of minutes, given the right conditions. So, I was very concerned about the ability for my cameras to last the duration. But they proved time and again to handle it."
The NX3 also showed its durability in weather conditions that varied greatly. "Whether it was freezing cold, out during steaming hot patrols, in wind, rain, sleet, dust; I never had [the NX3] go down," she said. "From desert to high desert to air assault units, from climbing to a remote village at 9,000 feet, on a patrol that was more than six miles over rocky, moon-like conditions - the terrain was incredible and the camera never wavered."
The demanding Afghan environment and the importance of being a one-person crew made it clear to Prior that not just any camera could work to meet all of the specifications and rigors of shooting in a warzone.
"I realized early on that my opportunity to be allowed to go on a variety of missions was going to be enhanced by being a single person, occupying a single seat in their truck," she said. "I said, it's just me, if you squeeze me onto as many types of missions, that would be great. In addition, I had to be very mobile and I believe that the kit I was carrying allowed me to be. I couldn't use a backpack at times. Remember, I'm wearing body armor and a helmet, I've got a first aid kit and I'm wearing boots and I've got eye pro on and I'm carrying a compass. I had a lot of required gear that had to be worn, and because I'm a female I had to have a scarf in the event we took our helmets off, since we are in an Islamic environment. Knowing all of that, and realizing backpacks can have things stolen out of them easily, I wanted to make sure I had my equipment with me, on me at all times, as opposed to in a backpack, so I packed batteries in certain special little pockets that were worn on my body armor and that's how I made sure I had my extra battery power. SD cards as well. Everything needed to be with me at all times."
Another inherent challenge of shooting run-and-gun in a warzone like Afghanistan is having just one chance to capture a shot. Prior explained, "I'm doing run and gun. If I'm on a foot patrol, the soldiers move at a certain speed. If I didn't run ahead, stop and film them coming by, and then turn and run ahead, I'd only be filming elbows and butts, so I had to be very mobile. We are always so spoiled by the ability to block and plan shots, when we have that benefit of a scripted setting or project. It is so amazing when you become almost intuitive, and you can film somebody saying something, pan out and then something happens right in front of you that you could try to block 100 times and never get it right. You need to always be prepared, on the fly, always looking for what's happening in front of you. It's the magic of immersing yourself into what you are trying to capture."
The NX3 is also known for being able to capture high quality footage in low light environments, which was a boon for Prior. "I took it into a few rare opportunities on this trip," she said. "One was a girls' school that looks like a hollowed out abused warehouse without any electricity and broken windows. This camera captured what we needed in very dark conditions. I was rewarded with a rare opportunity, that you don't get a second take on - it has to work that time - no one is waiting for me!," she said.
A warzone with multiple terrains and fierce emotions is interesting backdrop for filming. Prior notes, "When I first got here, I wondered how you could make anything look beautiful here? Everything was loud, busy, brash, and aggressive."
But she was able to capture the human element of the troops. "When you're attempting to capture a war environment and you're trying to personalize the people in your pictures, you need to be close enough and need to be intimate and share their expression," she said. "You need to show their eyes, their hands, be close enough that you're not dependent on zoom to get there. That is when I'm looking for a clear, stable, color resonance that depicts smoothness and clarity and the camera always came up with those intimate looks I wanted."
Prior also relied on the zoom function during intense scenarios. "When you're in a combat environment, you have to be showing where the soldiers are looking and you're always concerned about spotting something they are looking for- which is enemy indicators," she said. "I was constantly zooming out at a ridge line or another vehicle or in the air, zooming at the horizon and pushing out on things so people could see what a dwelling looks like from the overhead view of a helicopter. The zoom capability on the NX3 had an additional two times, which was an amazing benefit to helping me compare where we were to where we were going or what we were worried about or to see something we weren't going to approach anytime soon. That was extremely important feature."
Overall, Prior learned a great deal about war, military practices and living abroad. She saw hardship, faced adversity and experienced loss. "People don't understand how challenging it is to walk and shoot simultaneously, and to do that for six straight hours, or be out for 10 or 13 hours on a patrol," she said. "You don't get to go back and plug in gear. Once you are outside the base, once you're outside the wire, you are dependent upon whatever you brought with you."
While it was a transformative experience for her, she is glad she was able to capture all of her experiences, using Sony's durable and portable cameras to help further the understanding and recognition of what the military does to ensure the safety of the American people and she feels privileged that she can soon share this meaningful story with the world.