DP Tim Hawkins scales the Himalayas for ‘Todd Sampson’s Body Hack’

Tim Hawkins climbing Lobuche East for Todd Samson’s Body Hack with his Sony PMW-F5 and PXW-FS5 cameras and with Mount Everest in the background.

Shooting in the cold is hard, but shooting in the cold while climbing a mountain in the Himalayas is something else entirely, according to Sydney-based cinematographer Tim Hawkins. 

“I’ve been a Sony F5 owner for almost two years and a Sony user my whole career," said Hawkins. "Of all the Sony cameras I’ve owned the F5 is most definitely the one that has revolutionised my shooting style. Put simply I love the pictures it produces. when I was asked if I’d be willing to shoot the Himalayan Sherpa episode of Body Hack I knew it was the perfect camera for the job.” 

The production chose to shoot on the world’s most difficult trekking peak, Lobuche East, which sits just below Mount Everest’s peak at 6200 metres. The trek would take 17 days, including a final push to the summit in which the crew would ascend 1100 metres in a single day in extremely difficult climbing locations. 

“After accepting the role I started thinking about the camera," said Hawkins. "I really wanted to shoot the episode with my F5 and cine lenses but had concerns with how it might function at extreme altitude, something every cameraman has to consider when shooting in the Himalayas. I also had to take into account how the F5 would handle the dust and dirt below the snow line and what would it do above that snow line in minus 20-degree temperatures."

The camera was only the first of several questions for the crew to resolve: there was also the issue of how they would travel with the F5, how they would power it and wrangle data.

“I was determined to give the episode a cinematic feel so large sensors were the only option for me. Our director, Jeff Siberry, agreed. He was a Sony FS5 fan and reckoned it would be a good choice for run and gun. He also owned a Sony A7S. I knew the A7S well and I think it’s the best second camera or gimbal camera going, but the FS5 was new to me. Jeff was happy enough to make the FS5 the main camera but I wasn’t convinced and wanted the F5 on the shoot. On paper the FS5 looked bloody good though: large sensor, S-Log, built in variable ND, high frame rates and small size. But I still had my concerns, [as] I knew what the F5 was capable of.”

Hawkins and Siberry decided to use all three Sony cameras, travelling with the F5 as the main camera whilst using the FS5 as a run and gun camera. The A7S would be used by Siberry to shoot additional elements.

“The preparation for this shoot nearly made my brain explode," said Hawkins. "The logistics were complex and I was on a mission to get as fit as possible. Apart from my three Sony cameras and multiple lenses, we traveled with a Movi M5 gimbal, two Miller Solo tripods, two LED light panels, two MacBook Pros, five GoPros, a little 1m slider and a drone. It felt like a lot of kit for an expedition but I just couldn’t lose anything without losing production value.”

“Our first scene was flying into Lukla airport. Known as the world’s most dangerous airport. I’d picked up the FS5 to shoot a PTC with Todd in the cabin and to shoot the landing and began to wonder whether Jeff’s predictions about the FS5 were starting to come true. It was the start of a pattern that continued the whole month. The FS5 was always in my hand or close by in my backpack whereas the F5 was carried by a Sherpa in a backpack."

"That said, I really did try to use the F5 as much as possible. The FS5 was used when it was run and gun, but honestly most of the content below 5000 metres was shot on the F5. Shooting in Cine EI mode on Cine S-Log 3 using the LC-709TypeA LUT, we shot a lot of off-speed and I used the interval record mode to shoot all of the time lapses. I decided before leaving that I would try not to move the ISO EI rating off 2000 ISOEI as I didn’t want to create any confusion with the new clients in post production. I wanted them to also apply the same LUT and have correctly exposed pictures from the get go.”

“I drove the Sherpas and Jeff crazy as I changed my Matte box ND filters a thousand times to get correct exposure. I was committed to keeping the EI ISO at 2000 while shooting with the lens open. The fact that I did meant the results at those lower altitudes were magnificent.”

Data wrangling was its own challenge: "It kept me up late each night when I needed to get sleep. Sleep and rest are a huge factor when attempting to fend off altitude sickness. Things were going well as we ascended; the days were ticking by and we had a very happy productive crew. The rushes were looking good and while sleeping with my camera batteries to keep them warm was uncomfortable, we had no technical problems. At Everest base camp we encountered our first major drama and that was my health. I was crook and the doctor said I had altitude sickness. So we all needed to descend and I needed to rest. Suddenly not summiting was looking like a possibility.”

When the symptoms waned, the DP ended up pushing on up past Everest base camp and onto Lobuche lower camp. Lower camp is 5600 metres and minus 16 degrees.

"Ultimately it was the last stop for the F5. We did shoot some scenes with it up there and it didn’t miss a beat. It powered on and to my surprise the batteries even held charge. The FS5 was the main camera from then on but I had a big worry about its usability in the rough conditions. I’d been using Canon L series lenses with it and was worried that I wouldn't be able to use the zoom or focus at that height, in such low temperatures and in the dark as I was already struggling with these issues at lower altitudes."

Siberry suggested pulling out several Sony Zoom lenses he’d brought with him.

Says Hawkins; “I figured out very quickly that they not only looked good enough but integrated with the camera much better than the Canon lenses. I suddenly had a servo lens zoom and auto focus plus facial recognition. I’d never used a servo on a lens in 15 years and never used auto focus but in this situation they were a godsend. I was able to use the servo lens with my gloves on and use the facial recognition with the auto focus. I was a little worried about the batteries for the FS5; we only had three of them and they hadn’t been tested at such low temperatures. In the end we decided I’d sleep and carry the spares on me to keep them warm."

The crew packed up the F5 and kitted up the FS5 for a 2am attempt on the Lobuche East summit.

“For me, it was quite a challenging technical climb and after cramp-on-point I was a broken man on a hill at extreme altitude and had no right to be shooting. I really had a rough time. With all the different kit I was carrying 17kg in my backpack, which wasn’t the smartest decision. Camera work was not at the forefront of my mind on summit day, survival was. I couldn’t operate well. It was a point and shoot situation."

"The camera performed really well in full auto mode and my fear about battery life was unfounded. I didn’t even burn through one battery all day. As it turned out the pictures from the FS5 looked great. I used the zoom and everything was in focus. We summited a little after 10am after an exhausting eight hours. A servo zoom and facial recognition auto focus on a Sony FS5 really saved my bacon."

Todd Sampson’s Body Hack is currently airing on Ten Play and Discovery Channel International.