We hope you are enjoying this series about Canadian industry professionals. It’s wonderful to see the breadth of talent in our fine country, and to see where some of the items we sell end up. In this case we are going to take a look at Michel Bisson, CSC.
Michel has been a longtime friend of CinequipWhite, and we are happy and honored to have him in this edition of “Spotlight”.
Michel Bisson csc: Shooting in the Third World Is a Moving, Life Experience
by Don Angus, via Canadian Society of Cinematographers Magazine – June 2009
Michel Bisson CSC pulled out a photograph of Jennifer, a five-year-old girl living in the slums of Cartagena, Colombia, and his voice choked with emotion. His eyes watered and his smile widened with joy. He was, he recounted, on a shoot for American-based Children International when Jennifer literally attached herself to him.
“She hugged and held on to my leg,” Bisson said. Despite the urban squalor, “she smiled all the time.” On the spot, the rugged, motorcycle-riding, freelance cinematographer decided he wanted to sponsor Jennifer… and Children International got it done in quick order. “Jennifer’s mother was dying of cancer, and it was very emotional when I told her that I was sponsoring her child. She passed away seven days later.” Because of Bisson’s sponsorship, Jennifer now has her own room in a small cinder-block home and goes to school.
All in a day’s work for the Toronto-based cameraman, whose athletic frame, soft heart and photographic smarts have led him on several humanitarian journeys over the last 14 years to Africa, Haiti, Paraguay and Colombia. Bisson himself claims no selfless philanthropy, other than a compassion for the suffering of people in less fortunate parts of the world. He doesn’t work for free, but he gives the production houses that hire him a discounted rate which includes a state-of-the-art camera and accessories.
Over the years, he has worked in Benin (West Africa), Haiti and Paraguay for the now-defunct Bascombe Group, Toronto (producer/director Kirston Nielson), on behalf of the Christian Children’s Fund; for Northern Lights, Toronto (producer Ian French and director Kim Saltarski), in Colombia and Zambia for Children International; and for Northern Lights again (French and Saltarski) on a Ghana (West Africa) shoot for Plan Canada.
Born and brought up in Montreal, Bisson has had a successful and varied career since he first shot film with his father, news cameraman Jean Bisson, at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. He has shot series, MOWs, documentaries, commercials, PSAs and promos, including a few 3D video projects, and has been virtually a one-man band on some low-low-budget features (see CSC News February 2005). Nothing has compared with the challenges and rewards of capturing images in the Third World for the two-minute-to-half-hour direct-response television (DRTV) programs that charitable organizations screen in late-night time slots.
“The long flights, shooting in pretty bad slums, the language barrier – these television shows are lots of hard work. They have allowed me to travel to many different countries and experience things that most people only see on television. I loved every minute of it. You get to see the real world and how many people need help on this crazy planet. Everyone should experience this at least once in their life. It will change the way you view the world… and appreciate your life and where you live. Canada is a great place.”
Bisson sponsored another child in Asunción, the capital of and largest city in Paraguay, with the help of the Christian Children’s Fund. She was a squeegee girl of about 12 who had been working on the streets since the age of eight. “We shot a piece on her, and I saw the drive she had so I wanted to give her a jump on life. I figured if somebody just helped her out a little bit, she had a chance to get out of the gutters, at least surviving instead of living out of a box.” That girl is now a woman of 25 and doing well.
The first shoot was about 14 years ago in Haiti; the most recent was in Zambia in April last year. The Cité Soleil slums in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, were a jolt to a first-time visitor. “Right away you are thrown into a world of poverty,” Bisson recalled. “It took me about three or four days to get used to it. It’s kind of scary in a way. At one point you’re shocked by the smells, the people around you are in really bad shape; then, after a while, everything seems normal to you. You can never get rid of the smell though. Some places will knock you right over.”
The average shoot is about nine or 10 days. “We location scout at the start for a day or two and get acclimatized because of time and climate differences. It takes about two days to get to Africa, sometimes on as many as five different airlines and five more to get back. One day of rest, one day of scouting, looking at the different stories and then start shooting. We’ll shoot probably three or four days in a row, take a day off and then go back at it for another three or four days.” The shoots are about a year-to-two years apart because funding is always tight.
“We started off shooting the shows with [Bisson's] Betacam 400, then moved to a rented Panasonic SDX-900 in NTSC because the client wanted 16:9. Then we shot on HD with my Panasonic HDX-900 at 24p, which gave me more latitude in the dark huts and cabins that don’t have any electricity at all. Once inside, I used the clear filter on the wheel and changed the colour temperature in the camera’s menu to 5600K. That way I could get 640 ASA. The HDX-900 records on DVC PRO 33-minute tape that helped us out with the high-shooting ratio. In six days of shooting, we shot 30-to-35 tapes. If we had to render all that footage on to a computer every night from a card, I would not have gotten any sleep.
“I brought two Fujinon HD lenses – a wide-angle zoom HA13x4.5 and a telephoto zoom HA22x7.8. The wide lens I used about 80 per cent of the time because we were mostly up close and personal. The telephoto lens I used to shoot the locals in the village – usually hiding beside a hut to catch them going about their lives – on a two-time extender which gave me about 340 mm. Once they saw us it would be all over; we would get swarmed.
“I also brought one 36-inch round and one California bounce 4 x 8 reflector that I used most of the time in the huts and interviews, and my never-go-anywhere-without Easy Rig, my poor man’s Steadicam. When you are shooting hand-held in the sun for eight-to-10 hours a day at 30C and 90-per-cent humidity, it will save your life. Of course, I brought a lightweight O’Connor 1030 tripod with baby legs, a Panasonic 17-inch monitor for checking the shots at the end of the day in the hotel, along with a portable monitor with a wireless transmitter for the director [Saltarski], who enjoyed showing the shots to the kids. They loved that.
“At first I brought a lot of lighting,” Bisson continued. “But later I brought only one Kino Flo Diva-Light 400 that works 110 to 220v and has 32k and 50k bulbs and a portable Ultralight 30w just in case. The natural light with a reflector works best and gives a great look you really capture the mood of the location.”
Northern Lights has engaged Bisson for a three- or four-week shoot in Rwanda for Plan Canada in late August or early September.
When Shooting in the Third World, Be Prepared
Shooting in underdeveloped, third world countries can be tough, says cinematographer Michel Bisson csc – long flights, hot climates, bad slums, open sewage, insects, few if any production resources, customs problems and language barriers. So, like the Boy Scouts, his motto is Be Prepared.
Besides a careful selection of essential camera and lighting equipment (covered in the main story), Bisson has some tips for survival in conditions most Canadians can barely imagine. Clothing, for example: “On one trip to Haiti, the producer brought sandals because of the heat; she ended up spending the day in the Jeep looking at the wireless monitor and the next day she had shoes on. Lots of times we were shooting on top of garbage dumps, open sewers, even slogging through the jungle. I wore shoes that covered my ankles, thick wool socks, not cotton, and T-shirts in a material that wicks away moisture (from Mountain Equipment Co-op). A hat with a large brim, and not black, is a must. I have had sunstroke three times in my life; it will knock you out for 36 hours.
“Another thing is getting the right shots (inoculations) for the area you are going to. One trip I got up to $1,600 worth of shots and medication. Also, make sure the production company gets you health insurance. I also get my own just in case someone messes up at the office.” As for travel documents, Bisson says you must have a passport of course, “but it can’t be within six months of expiry or you could be turned back.” Make sure your carnet is valid wherever you go, too. “You have to check not only the country you are traveling to but also the countries that you travel through to get there, especially the United States. We did not need a carnet to enter Colombia, but when we changed planes in Miami on the trip home the customs agent said we needed a carnet to enter the U.S. After about an hour he let us through. We just made our plane.”
Also, he advises, “make sure all the serial numbers match the descriptions of the equipment you are travelling with. Once I was flying to the Middle East and the Canada Customs agent did not like a couple numbers on the paper so she held us up for two hours. On that note, when you are leaving a third world country always give yourself at least four hours at the airport before boarding. In Benin, West Africa, we used every second.”
Bisson, with more empathy than rancour, suggests that in some places a camera crew should maybe consider hiring a local bodyguard. “It’s not that people are that dangerous,” he says. “it’s just that we carry expensive equipment that can disappear quickly,” and it has. “One time in Paraguay we went into a village where we made the guard stay with the Jeep and toured the area with the local priest. We were in safe hands; nobody messed with the priest. As for the guard, he was glad to see us at the end of the day. He was all alone and the local kids were throwing things at him and teasing him. We had the priest on our side.”