The Nevada desert in late summer is probably the last place a camera would choose to be. The dust, wind, and heat are unbelievable. People do all kinds of things to protect their camera ... taping the edges of compartments, putting it in a plastic bag, even putting it in underwater housings. I've found that frequent air blasts and lens cleanings are about the best I can manage. Each time I take my camera to the desert, I immediately take it in for a professional (expensive) cleaning upon my return. When I go to pick it up again, the clerk at the facility usually asks, Hey, where were you?
Phase five: To the desert
The time had come for Pepe and a small crew to load up a big truck with the eight temple-guardian sculptures, a ton of tools, and all the materials to build the set and the Rudran camp. I followed, shooting the construction on-site in Nevada for three weeks before the festival opened to the public. This began another kind of unique shooting challenge.
A wind sock or foam screen on your microphone is absolutely necessary to prevent big boomy noises in the audio recording. A UV filter is a great thing to have over your lens to protect it from scratches and knock down some of the light intensity. Controlling brightness is a real art. The worst thing about shooting in DV for potential broadcast is capturing at too bright a luminance level ("blowing out" the whites) to where you can no longer see much detail in them. At the same time, the colors in the desert light are so stunning that you don't want to knock down the exposure to the point that things start to look dull. I found a careful balance of exposure control by using the exposure dial, the built-in neutral density filter, and the -3db gain setting in the menu of the VX1000. The combination yielded good results, but it was a situation I was constantly monitoring and updating. I was glad to have experimented with these kinds of settings before I left home.
Documenting life in the growing Temple of Rudra camp was like watching the arrival of an ancient nomadic tribe. As the days wore on, more participants drove up and pitched their little camps in our large private area until the temple was nearly complete, and there were about 200 people in our little village. My friend Ladd McPartland, who shot second camera for me in the desert, arrived with his Sony DSR200 and began grabbing some great footage right away. The DSR200 is an on-the-shoulder version of the VX1000, and it takes pro audio with XLR connections and shoots DVCAM, Sony's pro version of mini DV, but the camera's front end is identical to the VX1000, so our footage intercut very well. Rehearsals of the opera, now totaling almost 300 participants, began in earnest. But these weren't rehearsals in a typical theatrical sense. The Rudrans were living in a self-mythologized society, which took months to plan, and were more interested in the rituals and personal experience in the world they had created than in acting out a role in a performance. I loved documenting the little things that showed this transformation: a gift from one sect to another, a chant, a dance. I felt lucky to be in the right place at the right time, always alert, my senses keenly straining to capture any sincere moment.
The best thing that happened out of this whole experience was that I gained the sensitivity I needed to document someone experiencing a personal moment. I felt that this unique group of people let me access their private thoughts and feelings in a very intimate way. I felt acutely sensitive to when it was OK and not OK to turn a camera on somebody. More often than not, having established a little trust and projecting an honest, nonexploitive intention, I was able to capture moments of great humanity in the midst of all this madness. It comes through on the screen.