Behind the Lens had the pleasure to talk exclusively to freelance DOP Brian Uranovsky who has a wealth of experience in the industry.
He has filmed with many famous characters during his colourful career such as the late Nelson Mandela – who he described as a “true icon who will never be replaced”. Brian has also worked with Bill Clinton, Bhutto from Pakistan, Dalai Lama and many more.
Brian has filmed four times in the Antarctic despite the extreme temperatures and camera challenges.
It all started in South Africa film many a long time ago, since then you have covered places like Angola, China, Tanzania, USA and back to Europe. During your school years did you dream of being a cameraman and was there someone you really wanted to emulate?
When I was at school I used to watch TV programmes by Jacque Cousteau and imagined filming all his adventures. I met one of his diving colleagues a Gary Haselau who really was a hero to me. After leaving school and completing my military training conscription I met up with Gary and convinced him that I would be a good assistant to him which he agreed. I filmed for 4 wonderful years with Gary under and on top of the water.
Gary’s wife died tragically and this really affected him and he stopped filming. I then was offered a job with SABC TV NEWS as a cameraman / video editor.
I then took the big step from film to video.
I filmed all over Africa under the SABC and filmed the most amazing things from wars, political unrest and basic TV news stories.
Obviously technology has moved on significantly and young camera operators can be trained to use the latest technology, but more importantly in your opinion how can you train someone to capture the “moment” or the emotions of the particular shoot. Can it be taught or is it something you are born with and it comes naturally?
I think that one has to have the aptitude to film and being in this industry its not a job but a way of life. I’ve worked long hours and would never leave a news story until it was finished. I have noticed that the new young people in the industry do not have the staying power. Once their shift is finished they just want to go home
Being a way of life is very important. I have worked in the industry for 38 plus years and feel like I’ve never worked as I love it so much.
I worked on film cameras 16mm to super 16 then to 35mm then took the plunge on video from HiBand umatic to betacam to DVCam then on the latest arris,FS7’s, Panavision. The difficult thing today is keeping up with the technology which changes daily. I’ve shot on tape to cards to memory sticks. I loved tape because once you were finished that was it, now you have to download after your shoot and sometimes into the early hours of the morning.
When was the first time you found yourself in filming in a place of conflict?
My very first riot experience was in Cape Town at the University of Cape Town where about 300 students were protesting and the police came in wearing nazi helmets and whipped the students and were chasing them all over. I was very nervous but soon realised that one has to remain calm in these incidents, to document them well and keep the camera stable without zooming in and out.
I loved this kind of filming as I was young and out to prove myself which I did. We had a helicopter and pilot at our disposal and I was the only one that wanted to fly so I had a ball flying all over the place basically ‘in my private helicopter’.
What precautions can you take to ensure your safety in situations like this?
One has to be very tuned into your subject while filming and I have realised that my army training has helped me tremendously. For example: When you are standing filming political unrest and you watch the crowd, you still have to watch the police or military shouting orders like firing commands and I would then move out of the line of fire. I have been hit with a stone once but not seriously and shot at many times but one develops a sixth sense when filming. I did have quite an advanced first aid kit with drips just in case I or my journalist was hit.
I was once standing on a police armoured vehicle filming when someone started to take shots at us with an AK47 and the journo was hit next to me. That same day a cameraman was hacked to death and died in the ambulance which I filmed. That was a really terrible day.
You have filmed with some famous characters in your career, to name one, the great Nelson Mandela. What is it like working with one of the most influential leaders of our time, was the public perception a good reflection of the man in private?
I had the pleasure to work with Nelson Mandela when I was based in the SABC London UK office. What an amazing man. He always had time for everybody even when the security would say to him not to walk over to people and to go either straight into the car of building, however he would always walk away and shake everyones hands and really talk to them or even sing twinkle twinkle little star to children.
Once I was filming at an aids clinic that Mandela was going to open. On arriving my car gave me trouble at the entrance of the hospital and when Mandela arrived he told me that he would wait for me. So I hurriedly took all the equipment out the car and when I was ready I told him and he then got out of his car. He actually waited for me! What kind of person would do this. He was an amazing man.
I would chat to him sometimes and he gave me great advice for my way ahead. A true icon that can never ever be replaced. A sad day when he stepped down as president and when he died.
I have been with lots of head of states like Bill Clinton, Bhutto from Pakistan, Princess Diana, Dalai Lama, Fw De Klerk, Robert Mugabe must, The Queen, Fidel Castro, Jonas Savimbe from Angola, Jasser Arrafat, Gadaffi and his daughter, and tons more.
I have even worked for Steven Spielberg and filmed lots of holocaust interviews for the Holocast Center in Washington which he arranged. I even have a testimonial letter from him.
I always say that if my camera could talk it would tell one hell of a story.
As a camera operator do you worry you may not capture the personality or enormity of a situation, so viewers get the real story?
I have always prided myself not to take sides. But one has to be switched on all the time and in constant talk with the journalist to change picture or zoom in to show emotion. In an interview when all is falling apart around you, you have to be cool enough to tune into your subject and also to have eyes in the back of your head.
In the old days one could float between sides and film but nowadays one cannot – it would get you killed.
I would say that everything in the world today has become very polarised. It’s a great shame as the new people have not experienced this type of freedom to work in.
If I don’t know the background of the interviewee then I much depend on a good director to brief me thoroughly as that will enhance the value of my filming of the subject correctly and in the right light/ with the depth of feeling/emotion.
My director partner Julika Kennaway would do this.
Moving onto a few technical questions Brian, getting the light right for a shot is so important. Without giving away your trade secrets can you divulge how to use light effectively and what is the best artificial light?
When I was working in TV news we had a time factor in our stories. We had to move fast but I always used my set of Redheads and Kinoflos which worked ready well. This did take time – I used available light and used blue gels with spun (diffuser). I always took pride in my lighting no matter what. I used different light temperatures and colours to create mood and depth but kept everything looking natural. This always worked for me. Nowadays the lighting has changed radically using lights that don’t get hot and work with my v-lock batteries and are much quicker to put up. You just dial in the daylight or change to tungsten. Its quite amazing what we have nowadays.
From light to sound. Audio is another important aspect of the shot to get right, it saves so much time in the edit. What is in your audio kit box?
I used to work in a two man team, Journalist and cameraman, sometimes I had the luxury of a soundman. But I had a kit of a short and long Sennheiser rifle mic and two sets of radio mics also Sennheisser. I found these tough and really good.
I still use this kit but nowadays I also have the electrosonic radio mics – these are amazing and waterproof. I still use my rifle long and short but now have a soundman on shoots if the budget allows.
Data storage, security and transmission, has it changed much over the years, technology wise and budget wise?
I was trained old school starting on film which I loved. I then had to make a decision do I stay in film or go the video way. I went the video way, then going to tape. Starting with Highland u-matic half inch then beta cam then going to DVcam and finally data cards. I loved beta cam as I worked on this system for years at the SABC TV NEWS (South African Broadcasting) and it was great filming and in the evening, you just relaxed now you spend the whole day filming and downloading far into the night.
The cards one uses today took me a while to get used to but I still find it strange deleting or formatting cards with data on. Its a strange feeling.
Technology today is amazing one never ever stops learning and one has to make a special effort to keep up-to-date.
Most camera operators have a favourite piece of kit, what is the one you could not do without and why?
Well I would say my favourite piece of kit is my camera. This is like another limb which is part of me. I always take great care of my camera and kit. I have all my old cameras which I cannot part with as I become really attached to them. I always say that if my camera could talk of what it has been through it would be an amazing story.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
I would say that the Antarctic was amazing as I flew down there with the Russians first on a rescue mission then went back again with them to spend a week on one of their bases called Molodesnaya. I was the first western journalist to go to a Russian base with my reporter. We made a news story of the rescue and then a documentary of the Russian base. We witnessed a rocket launch of a ‘weather’ satellite which was amazing as one could hear the stages coming off as if flew.
Next I would say spending time with Nelson Mandela filming him all over UK, Europe and the USA (New York and Washington). One quick funny story was that we were in New York and Mandela held a press conference at 07:30 one morning. When question time came an American photographer put up his hand and told Mandela that to have a press conference at 07:30 was very unAmerican. I did notice that from that day on nothing was ever that early again. Mandela actually listened.
The thing with Mandela is that he would always get up very very early so 07:30 to him was probably like midday.
If you could have your choice of any camera on the market, what would it be?
This is a very difficult one as cameras change so much nowadays. I have alway been a Sony man. At present I have my own Sony FS7 mark 2 and a Sony PMW 500 with lots of different lenses. The problem is today as the technology changes so fast one cant keep up so if you buy something its already out of date by the time you bring it home. When I film wildlife I find that the Panasonic colour codecs are really good and look really natural. I have so much gear all over the house that my partner always asks me to move them to a lesser trafficked area.
Finally, if you could interview anybody in the world who would it be and why?
I have been very fortunate in TV news to have filmed and chatted to many famous people and those memories will stay with me forever.
If only I could call Nelson Mandela down from the other world, sit him down and ask him what his thoughts are on the current situation in South Africa – the country and people he fought for all his life with all his heart. It is always deeply inspiring to listen to people who can share an extraordinary sense of humanity, compassion and understanding.