In fall 2014, cinematographer Renan Ozturk and five fellow explorers set out on the daunting mission to scale Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi. The goal was to determine which mountain in the far-eastern Burmese Himalayas is tallest, it or neighboring Gamlang Razi, measured a year earlier via GPS at 19,259 feet. The group consisted of elite climbers accustomed to pushing themselves to their limits. Earlier that year, Ozturk had shot the documentary Sherpa on Mount Everest, but Hkakabo Razi would turn out to be a different challenge, even a step above Everest in difficulty.
“It’s more remote, more challenging,” explains Ozturk, the 35-year-old co-founder of production company Camp 4 Collective, speaking from his HQ in Park City, Utah. “It’s the anti-Everest. There’s no infrastructure in place to make it to the bottom of the mountain. Just reaching base camp is a huge accomplishment. There are no Sherpas carrying your load, you’re making your own decisions, and you’re figuring it all out along the way. There’s no helicopter support available or anything like that.”
Other members taking up the challenge included expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill, Cory Richards and Mark Jenkins, shooting pictures and writing, respectively, for National Geographic, and film assistant/base camp manager Taylor Rees, who co-directed the edit. She and Richards also provided additional camerawork. The endeavor was supported by The North Face, along with a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant.
With each pound carried making a difference, Ozturk selected the carbon-fiber RED EPIC DRAGON as his primary camera. He stripped it down to its four-pound Brain and lens mount, a move shaving off more than a pound of weight from the standard aluminum EPIC model with a titanium PL mount.
“The EPIC DRAGON is the dream camera for expedition films,” Ozturk feels. “This was made possible when the technology became lighter. As an artist trying to capture images while being part of the adventure and climbing with the team, it’s truly state-of-the-art. My goal was to get the camera as high I could, capture images and shoot in a wide dynamic range, plus switch around frame rates, then bring it all back as best I could.”
Ozturk mostly opted for the highest resolution, shooting in 6K full-frame REDCODE RAW at 23.98 fps with 10:1 compression to save card space. To capture small slow-motion details, he selected 240 fps in 2K full-frame with 6:1 compression. Ozturk also used a Sony a7S E-mount camera, giving full-frame CMOS capture in a body weighing a mere 17.9 ounces. He shot at 1920×1080 at 24p, sometimes ramping higher to 60p to slow down the action.
The team commenced their journey with a 700-mile trek to Hkakabo Razi from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, traveling via bus, sketchy planes, dusty trains and hazardous off-road motorcycles.
After 16 days of travel, they finally reached the claustrophobic northern Myanmar jungle. One hundred miles of treacherous trails lay ahead before reaching the mountain. Eighty miles in, Ozturk made the painful decision to cut much of their gear. Food supplies would be scant, plus change of clothes, nonexistent. What started off as 10 duffel bags of gear was whittled down to one small pack.
Ozturk left behind equipment including a Freefly MoVI stabilizer and fluid-head tripod, opting instead for a lightweight micro carbon-fiber unit. Adding to the discarded gear was a broken RED monitor. As a result, he contemplated leaving the camera behind, but decided to bring it along, even if it meant shooting blind.
“The monitor was completely saturated,” he recalls, noting he also had no EVF. “Luckily, I had a few keys mapped on the camera, so I could change ISO, but had no keys set to change frame rates. I was basically guessing on exposure, focus and framing. We carried a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and a card reader, so I could take shots and then plug it into the computer and see how they turned out.”
As if shooting in the jungle in this manner wasn’t labor-intensive enough, the absence of a monitor meant additional steps to the creative process, making optimal results elusive.
“I had to run ahead as fast as I could to find my shot, then go back and forth between camera and computer to check focus and exposure,” Ozturk explains. “Then the team would arrive and I’d press the button to get the shot.”
There were no retakes. “I either got the shot or I didn’t, but sometimes the out-of-focus images were cool, too, and used in certain parts of the film as they had something about them.”
For power, the team used four REDVOLT batteries (providing about 20 minutes each of shooting time) and a pair of Automated Media Systems lithium-based disposable Expedition Battery packs (tailored to harsh conditions, allowing around 40 minutes of use each). There was also no way to recharge, unfortunately. Although they carried a solar charger, the overcast weather and jungle canopy provided insufficient sunlight.
The storage situation was equally precarious. All spinning hard drives failed due to altitude and humidity, leaving the team with a couple of SanDisk SSDs and 512 GB cards, plus two RED STATION REDMAG 1.8-inch SSDs. All footage shot on the Sony a7S resided on SanDisk cards, and the filmmakers had just a few REDMAGs, which they couldn’t dump.
“We couldn’t format to reshoot on them anyway because we didn’t have a monitor,” Ozturk adds. “We were worried about falling in the river and losing those cards crossing unstable bamboo bridges and dropping gear into the water below. For most of the trip, we only had one pack, no backups and no power.”
Ozturk managed to capture stunning images, however, including shots of the sun peeking through the village huts’ bamboo slats, catching wafts of smoke from kitchen fires, plus close-ups of giant pods of hatching spotted yellow butterflies.
“We had to choose those moments,” Ozturk reflects. “You take chances and see how it works out. If you think, ‘The sky’s great now, I’m going to drop in for a three-hour time-lapse,’ you have to remember it’s also a huge drain on battery and card space.”
In one case, he did precisely that, setting up a time-lapse shot of the evening stars passing over the roofs of village huts. He used the Sony a7S, which, he says, “shines in low-light conditions,” with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon T* ƒ/2.8 lens, while improvising lighting. “I took one of our climbing headlamps and placed it under the huts to expose them,” he reveals. “I was able to shine a little bit of the headlamp through a bamboo basket to create a cool, wide latticework shadow on the trees in the background.”
Ozturk adds that this lens was also good on the EPIC DRAGON. “It isn’t quite as shallow, and you get a better chance to get something in focus,” he says, also using a Zeiss 35mm Distagon T* ƒ/1.4 and 50mm T* ƒ/1.4.
He also likes shooting wide open, using ND filters, when necessary, in bright conditions. As the trip progressed, however, much of the gear was stripped away, leaving only the Zeiss 15mm Distagon T* on the EPIC DRAGON and a Sony 24-70mm ƒ/4 Vario-Tessar T* FE OSS zoom on the a7S.
As they neared the summit, the group decided that only Ozturk, Richards and Jenkins should press on. Ozturk carried the EPIC DRAGON up to 18,000 feet, where he took a couple of shots before switching exclusively to the a7S. After some nerve-racking technical climbing and bone-chilling weather, the trio made the heartbreaking decision to call off the rest of the climb.
“We were faced with the decision to potentially freeze to death and still not make the summit, or to come down and keep our fingers and toes alive—making those calls is always hard,” Ozturk says.
A 25-minute version of the film can be viewed on Vimeo (vimeo.com/136761532), along with Breaking Burma (vimeo.com/143080068), an eight-minute behind-the-scenes video documenting the incredible adversity the filmmakers confronted. In their words, “This is called barely making it happen.”
According to Jenkins’ altitude reading, they had reached 18,840 feet before they turned back, estimating the summit to be another 800 feet above, thereby making it Myanmar’s highest peak. With no summit, however, they didn’t have the factual evidence.
What followed the team’s descent from the mountain was a difficult trek back through the jungle. They finally split up in Yangon, where Ozturk and Rees found a production company in possession of a RED Touch 9-inch monitor. After a great deal of convincing, Ozturk borrowed the monitor, finally allowing him to format their cards. Ozturk and Rees, who are now engaged, then were able to travel to the ancient temple city of Bagan, using the EPIC DRAGON and its new monitor to shoot local culture and the rituals of its maroon-robed monks before ending the trip.
“You can’t let limitation paralyze you,” says Ozturk on the challenge of capturing the expedition with limited gear. “When you have constraints, you need to rebalance as you go along. You conserve, but you don’t let opportunities pass you by. My overall philosophy is to shoot as you see things, because you might not see them again.”
A 40-minute cut of the documentary Down to Nothing screened at the 2015 Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, winning the event’s Cinematography Award. It was picked up for a one-hour broadcast slot on the National Geographic Channel.