Suffocating heat and humidity. Scorpions, poisonous snakes and three-metre predatory caiman. Hunger and extreme exhaustion. Filmmaker Peiman Zekavat faced it all as he took part in and documented an arduous expedition through remote jungle in Guyana to the source of the Essequibo River. The technical challenges were just as great: with only the equipment they could carry, and no access to replacements or repairs, the team filming the adventure had to rely on their kit to perform in the sweltering rainforest conditions. Peiman's considered choice of the robust, lightweight Canon EOS C300 Mark II, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and L-series lenses paid off.
Adventurers Laura Bingham, Ness Knight and Pip Stewart, a group of indigenous Wai Wai tribespeople, plus Peiman undertook the ‘source to sea’ descent of the Essequibo, the third largest river in South America. The group journeyed upstream by dugout canoe until, after 12 days on the river and its tributary the Sipu, the watercourse became too shallow and impassable.
Leaving behind any unnecessary equipment so they could travel as light as possible, the team then battled through the dense rainforest on foot. When they finally reached the source, they turned around and paddled all the way down the river again, to the point where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. There they became not only the first people to reach the source of the river but also the first to make the descent all the way to its mouth. It was a journey of over 1,000km and took a total of 10 weeks.
When the expedition set out, water levels were higher than usual for the time of year. This meant that they could get further than expected upstream in the canoes, but also that they could no longer pass under many low-hanging or fallen trees, and therefore had to cut their way through with machetes and chainsaws. When forced to continue on foot, they had to painstakingly hand-cut a trail into the pristine, dense forest.
"Moving just a few kilometres, which should have taken a few days, ended up taking weeks," says Peiman. They soon ran out of food, and had to rely on what they could catch to eat – while at the same time avoiding being eaten by bloodthirsty insects and carnivorous piranha, alligator-like caiman, poisonous snakes and even jaguars. "The physical challenge was far greater than we all expected," Peiman adds. "It was a test of our endurance in the tropical heat and humidity, where constant immersion in water could result in many illnesses as well as discomfort."
This made filming doubly challenging, he continues. "It was very difficult for me to focus, and the physical fatigue would take a toll on my mental state. It all came to practice and instincts when it came to framing and creative shots. At the end of each day I was so tired I hardly had the strength to frame properly. I just held the camera in front of my face. All our cameras were Canon, so the menus are pretty much the same, which made it easier when I didn't have the strength to concentrate."
Peiman, an award-winning London-based cinematographer and stills photographer, has filmed in 15 European countries, North and South America, Russia, India and Africa, in conflict zones and in the Amazon rainforest. He knew that ease of use, weight and reliability of kit in the tough conditions would be far more important than on any normal shoot.
"I chose the Canon EOS C300 Mark II as the main camera, plus a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, and two Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II compacts for Laura, Ness and Pip to use on their own," he says. "I knew I needed to have a proper broadcast camera as the main camera, for its higher bit rate and capability to shoot in Canon Log to get the most dynamic range."
When it came to the arduous second phase of the journey, the more compact Canon EOS 5D Mark IV came into its own. "For the trekking I used the EOS 5D Mark IV, which is very light. And thanks to its C-Log option, it was easier to match the footage with the footage from the Canon EOS C300 Mark II. And above all the camera is capable of both filming and taking high-quality stills.
"The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is a 4:2:0 8-bit camera, while the Canon EOS C300 Mark II shoots 4:4:4 12-bit in 2K. Based on that, I knew colour grading would be tough. In post-production you could see the 12-bit of the EOS C300 Mark II was amazing in the highlights. The EOS 5D Mark IV had less detail there, so we created a look based on the EOS 5D Mark IV, and graded the PowerShot G7 X Mark II and EOS C300 Mark II footage according to that.
"We didn't shoot in 4K due to practicality. We knew broadcasters wouldn't be showing the final film in 4K and we'd need additional hard drives and would have to change the cards a lot."
Travelling light and protecting the kit were key requirements. The crew abandoned their heavy video tripod on the very first day, borrowing a lightweight version, but Peiman admits this never got used either. There was no capacity to carry accessories, so there were no external monitors, rigs, gimbals, filters or matte boxes. Even the Canon EOS C300 Mark II was stripped down to the bare bones during the trip – Peiman removed the top handle, which also did away with the XLR mic holder. Instead, a small and light video mic that would also work on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV was used.
For lenses, Peiman chose his favourite fast professional Canon L-series lenses because they are weather-sealed, have fast autofocus, and offer the huge range vital for capturing wildlife at a distance. Most also have Image Stabilization – crucial without any sort of tripod or stand.
"I took a number of Canon L-series lenses including the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and, more than any other lenses, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM, which became my all-time favourite as it was wide enough for interviews and the zoom was perfect. I shot 90% of the jungle section with this lens," he says.
Peiman has used the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens and its predecessor since 2008 and knew it was rugged enough for this unique job. "I've dropped it many times and it still works. In conflict zones, and hostile environments with heat and humidity, cine lenses are too big. You are there to shoot first – the quality comes second." he continues.
"If you miss the shot, it doesn't matter how beautiful it might have been. It was an exhausting trip and I hardly had time to concentrate on being creative. But even with EF lenses I can respond quickly in manual focus. My left hand is always on the focus ring, so it's quick, and it gives the camera more stability."
To keep the cameras working, the team had a small generator, used every few days to charge up to six batteries for each camera. To keep the kit dry, the cameras were stored in dry bags – although the humidity played havoc, and the team discovered that putting the cameras in the bags of rice the Wai Wai had brought to eat was an ideal way of drying them out.
The only extra bit of kit they carried the whole way was a laptop, used to download images from the cameras' memory cards. But disaster struck during the trekking section of the trip and the laptop died. "Then I could only film on the remaining cards, a mixture of SD, mini SD and micro SD cards, which luckily the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV was able to use," says Peiman. The lower bit rate of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and correspondingly smaller file sizes compared to the Canon EOS C300 Mark II meant that these cards could still hold plenty of footage.
"Earlier in the journey, I just filmed whatever I wanted, but at this point I had limited space left for the next two weeks, so I had to be more selective about what to film," he observes.
While the main footage came from the two larger-sensor cameras, the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II cameras also provided some of the most emotional shots and audio. "Laura, Ness and Pip did their own piece to camera as their diaries at the end of each day. The footage was amazing, particularly the audio, as the camera recorded good sound quality.
"If they were being interviewed by me, they wouldn't be that intimate. One of them had a bad day, took the camera, went for a walk and came back with some amazingly emotional footage. We wouldn't have been able to capture that without them having the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark IIs."
Despite using three different types of camera, and putting them all through such a tough test, Peiman was able to mix the footage in the resulting documentary, and the final film is breathtaking. There may not be endless drone shots or fancy crane moves, but the emotion of the trip, the toughness of the journey and the amazing story are simply captivating.