What lies beneath

When former war correspondent and photojournalist Jonathan Ali Khan had had enough of the war, he turned to filming the Middle East’s marine and wildlife. Digital Studio speaks to the man behind the Cycle of Life project.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  January 27, 2004

I|~|jak1.jpg|~|Khan filming marine life in the Arabian Sea|~|Khan and his three-member team have just returned to Dubai after a five-month-long expedition to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, where they have been filming marine and terrestrial wildlife for the Cycle of life — a 12-episode series on Arabia’s wildlife that is tentatively scheduled for broadcast in April. The team has about 409 hours of footage that needs to be cut down to 12-episodes of 26 minutes each. But the post production phase promises be a breeze compared to the challenges of filming life underwater. “Filming marine life is a different story altogether,” recounts Khan, a skilled diver, who admits to ‘literally taking my last breath each time I come to the surface’. The cameraman is talking about one of the most significant safety rules of diving, which he admits to breaking regularly when he’s filming something exciting. “One of the biggest frustrations of filming underwater is that you have to constantly be aware of the physical limitations of diving. There are restrictions on how much time you can stay under water and the amount of air you can carry. It’s extremely frustrating when in the middle of filming an important subject, I realise that I have to go up because I am running out of air,” he complains. Filming underwater requires more skill than just knowing how to wield a camera well. It requires that the cameraman be a skilled diver, who is constantly conscious of his own safety as well as that of his support divers. He also needs to master buoyancy and know how to come up gradually so as to avoid nitrogen build-up in his body. “I find filming on land much easier because logistically, it is less restrictive than the sea, where you need a boat, the right weather, and most of all, you just don’t know what to expect when you go down there. It’s all so unpredictable,” explains Khan. Perhaps the sea is just as, or even more, dangerous and unpredictable as the wars in Africa and Afghanistan that Khan has had to cover in the past. But the comparison ends there. Like the war, no sickening stench of death awaits him here and no sights of what human beings can do to one another. “You can’t do that kind of work [cover the war] for long before it starts to affect you. There was a moment of recognition when I knew it was time to change and move on to something else,” says Khan, who then did a brief stint in commercial photography before he discovered a Panasonic broadcast camera and his passion for “the moving image”. ||**||II|~||~||~|The actual catalyst for change, however, came in 1990 during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, with the burning of the oil wells and the consequent oil spill in the Arabian Sea. “This was a terrible catastrophe and I wanted to know what its consequences would be on the environment. But as a former journalist, I was also aware that this would never get much recognition in the media and people would eventually forget about it. But I didn’t want to. Moreover, I missed the core value of the journalistic approach and I thought it was time to get into action again and cover some real issues. That is how I started out” recalls Khan. That desire led Khan to explore the Middle East region’s natural history, investigate the consequences of the oil spill and gradually get involved in much larger projects that revolved around the region’s terrestrial wildlife and marine life. “I realised that this region’s natural history is terribly understudied. There was a wealth of information out here that nobody had so far explored and if well researched and filmed, this would hold immense feature appeal among both local and international audiences. That’s why I decided to take my new interest in film to create content that reflected the natural history of the Arab region,” explains Khan. “I realised that if we introduced quality films into international airwaves, there would be an awakening of awareness as to who the Arab people are, their art and culture as well as their achievements and contribution to civilisation.” Thus began a six-year expedition to the Arabian Sea, funded by money he earned from working on other commercial assignments. Since then, Khan has come a long way, filming the turtles of Oman, the Jebel Ali reefs, marine life in the Arabian sea — originally intended for regional distribution through the support of the Abu Dhabi oil industry and later telecast on the National Geographic Channel — and more recently, the Cycle of Life series, which has won the support of companies like Jeep, Lufthansa and Sony. ||**||III|~||~||~|Over the years, he has also figured out which equipment works best for the environment he’s filming in, where to source the housing for his cameras at affordable prices and most importantly, how to ensure that he returns in time for air after a dive. “We use a couple of cameras — the Sony DSR 500 and the DSR 570 are the common ones. For interviews, the DSR 570 with wireless microphones is preferred. If I want to shoot some quick footage, however, I almost always reach out for the PD150,” explains Khan. The cameraman also carries a range of different lenses, most of which are from Fujinon. There is the 36x zoom with a 2x Fujinon converter for taking close-ups of wildlife. “The Fujinon is also more economical than the Canon and yields great results,” says Khan. This kit includes the Fujinon 8.5 wide angle and 18x zoom lenses as well. In terms of format, Khan swears by the DVcam format. “The tape format on the DVcam is great,” he says. “The good thing is we can keep using the same camera and go from one camera to the next. This is great economy when it comes to space saving especially on field trips when you are carrying all the tape you can and there is no opportunity to stock. So the compact form of the tape helps plus it is a very stable format,” adds Khan, although he is quick to add that he would love to get his hands on the new HDcam. “I never got to use the Digibeta. Guess there’s no need now. If I move now, it will have to be to an HDcam.” One important consideration for filming underwater is to also have the appropriate housing for your camera equipment so that it is does not get wet underwater. Although Khan does order readymade housing from the UK or the US as they are not available here, there are times when he prefers getting them custom-made. “The downside of this is that you have to send your camera down to them and it takes six weeks to get the housing custom-built. But it is a real work of art. They make it with PVC. If you are taking an expensive camera down, I would recommend that you get the housing for the camera built because then it will match your camera exactly. This will be more stable and gives less problems as well,” explains Khan, adding that custom-built housing is cheaper and more practical than the readymade ones for larger broadcast cameras. ||**||IV|~||~||~|For somebody like Khan, who’s also always risking nitrogen build-up in his body by waiting until the last minute to get to the surface before making a rush for some air, a faithful companion is the diving computer that tells him what depth he is swimming at, how much air time he’s got left, when he’s got to start going up and so on. “I depend totally on my computer so I keep my batteries always fresh. It calculates everything for me,” he says. Although Khan has had a chance to experiment with different techniques and products and understand what works best and what does not, he has also come to realise that there is very little understanding about the region’s natural environment or its marine life. As a result, he has attempted to use his filming platform to enable researchers to find out more about the region’s environment by taking them along on his expeditions. “You have to have the involvement of researchers for this because the region is so badly understudied. You have to literally create content from scratch for this,” explains Khan. Most of these researchers, however, were from Milan, Frankfurt and Africa back then. “We only knew of one UAE national marine biologist in the region and it was not possible for him to come on these long trips with us,” says Khan, who now has Emma Smart, a full-time freshwater fish specialist on his team. Smart, whose prime responsibility is to study freshwater fish, also doubles up as production manager for Khan’s company Ocean World Productions. The team has many exciting tales to relate of the expedition— some of them dangerous, others simply touching. “On one occasion when I was swimming in Musandam, I got caught in such powerful currents, that my mask and regulator were getting pulled off my face and it was an extremely dangerous situation,” says Khan. But there are “moments of compensation” as well. For five months on the Red Sea expedition, Khan was hoping to spot at least one Spanish Dancer [the bright scarlet sea slug, which undulates like a flamingo when it moves]. But he didn’t have much luck, until the last and final night dive of the expedition, ‘when I literally had five minutes of air time and three minutes of tape’. “I spotted one in the distance. And just as I was filming it, my support diver pointed another one out to me. Can you believe it?” asks Khan gleefully. “There I was, looking for a Spanish Dancer on every one of my dives for five months and then, I got to see two. That moment was so rewarding,” smiles Khan. Back at his editing table in Dubai, Khan has a lot of work to do before the 409 hours of footage can be cut short. Some of it will go into the Cycle of Life series. Other footage will be used for shorter documentaries. But at the end of the five months, the Middle East is much richer with well-researched information about its wildlife — and it’s all on tape.||**||

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