Cue the Camels
Copyright © Dave Banks. The right of Dave Banks to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.
FOREWORD by JAY LENO
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Dave asked me to write the foreword to this book. I’ve always known Dave as the guy behind the camera with the very loud laugh. His audible approval of my jokes has always proved wonderful feedback; sometimes, his chuckles would escalate to a full belly laugh that echoed across the stage during rehearsals.
I’d clearly notice Dave’s absence for weeks or months at a time – his giggles only heard in my memories – until, unexpectedly, his distinctive howl would come from behind the camera once again. Dave’s disappearing and reappearing act had been going on ever since I took over the Tonight Show in 1992, but it wasn’t until reading ‘Cue the Camels’ that I learned Dave was freelance – booking out of my show to shoot news and documentaries in the Middle East and North Africa.
As a solo journalist he covered the war in Afghanistan which goes some way to explaining why he always seemed to have a smile on his face. He was just happy to be somewhere he wasn’t being shot at or pursued by a foreign army. He appreciated the warm, comfortable studio and that he was not lost somewhere in a landmine field, however much I like to think it was my jokes and free coffee that kept the constant smile on his face.
Within these pages Dave has written gung-ho, self-deprecating, wildly engaging accounts of his exploits, with all the behind-the-scenes high-jinks that go into shooting news and documentaries across the world.
In his chapter ‘Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark’ Dave perfectly describes his decompression from one of his trips back to the Tonight Show: ‘Forty-eight hours ago I was in eastern Turkey, a target of the Turkish army, avoiding the PKK, dodging Kurdish smugglers and circumventing landmines on a goat trail.
Recovering from jet lag, painfully sore calves, busted blisters and jock itch, I was now hobbling about Stage 3 at the NBC studio lot in Burbank, California. I’d picked up a couple of days’ shooting on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The guests that night were Martin Short and Mia St. John, the music provided by Santana and Rob Thomas (which I was particularly excited about). The best part of the gig was the perks: free coffee, pastries, camaraderie and good laughs.’
Dave welcomes you to both of his worlds.
I once told Dave, ‘Whatever you do, make it entertaining, and don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself.’ I’m glad to see he took my advice and applied it to ‘Cue the Camels’.
‘Doubt consumes the spirit; without risk, our destiny is ultimately written by others.’
‘We were not mentioned in S. E. Hinton’s book, ‘The Outsiders’. We were the nameless kids from north Tulsa whose economic standing was somewhere between the Socs and the Greasers. We were the nerds, the geeks and socially inept when it came to girls. But, with our parents’ Bell and Howell 8mm cameras, we charged other kids 50 cents to be in our war movies. Our little band of brothers found its place in life.’
~ Dave Banks
While watching the History Channel, you may be captivated by a shot of a majestic sunset in the Sahara Desert; Bedouins and their camels enter the frame and cross your television screen, their black silhouettes strolling across the blaze of the sun. This image burns into your imagination and transports you from your recliner to a place you’ve never been. Then the program fades to black and a Snuggie commercial begins. You ignore the ad and replay that desert scene in your mind. A thought may pop into your head from time to time: just how did they capture that incredible footage?
Have you ever wondered who filmed the rock climber two thousand feet up, dangling from the granite walls of Yosemite? Or considered how a cameraman got those claustrophobic shots deep inside the ancient tunnels beneath the pyramids of Egypt? How about the intense handheld footage of the Los Angeles riots – what kind of cockamamie person would voluntarily put himself into that chaos? Well, I’m ‘that guy’. In this book, I’ll bring you a unique glance into the two worlds I inhabit and the difficulties I’ve had to endure.
Few people realize, that to film documentaries in exotic locations, a cameraman, or ‘shooter’ may be forced to brave blinding sandstorms, the blistering heat of the day, ‘bone-marrow freezing’ nights, as well as experience the sharp crack of gunshot followed by the screaming hiss of bullets as they pass by his head. He’d need to survive the projectile side-effects of eating what some cultures call ‘delicacies’, but what we would simply consider ‘repulsive’.
As a result of being dispatched all over the globe, I’ve embarked on the types of trips few travelers ever experience, and I’ve done this whilst lugging thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. I’ve risked life and limb for the sole purpose of sharing the farthest reaches of the world for the audience back home. I’ve covered expeditions, mountain climbs, archeological digs, adventure races, civil strife and war. I’ve been shot at; I’ve been lost in the Sahara desert, and I’ve been chased by a foreign army. I’ve strayed into a landmine field twice and had a bounty on my head. And I’ve also covered a story on fainting goats. For twenty years, I’ve taken huge risks to bring the world into your living room.
It’s quite normal for me to one day be working with celebrities in the air-conditioned studios of Hollywood, then the next, shooting film at hostile locations in the Middle East.
The material in this book has been adapted from years of journal entries that started as dry, factual lists, production notes, itineraries and equipment checklists. The handwritten notes on these lists grew to be the heart and soul of this memoir. Increasingly, my journals have become utterly treasured; in some cases, they literally kept me sane during my riskiest adventures.
They’re tales that I have lived, not imagined. You’ll glimpse what happens behind the scenes and the lengths I’ve travailed to capture those magic moments or ‘money shots’, always with a zany, international cast and crew close behind. This book brings to the reader the hardships and escapades that go into filming on location, with a (sometimes dark) sense of humor. Hopefully, it will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of how anonymous shooters like me see the world, and what we endure in order to make a living in our chosen profession.
This book also offers the reader the unique opportunity to view many of the clips I’ve treasured, via QR technology, as I refer to them within these pages.
At times, the search for the fabled money shot means stepping away from the familiar, and into a place where life seems to balance on the razor-edge of reality.
CUE THE CAMELS
Assignment: Shooting Eco-Challenge Promo
Location: Sahara desert, Morocco
Mr. Abdul Salam, my Moroccan fixer and driver, had found the perfect setting for the money shot. A perfectly stunning, cinematic backdrop that could have been borne from Lawrence of Arabia; we imagined a bright azure sky, puffy white clouds, the Sahara sand expanding towards the horizon and the midday sun hanging in the air.
The Betacam was on the tripod, locked off and shooting directly into the sun. The idea was for five Tuareg riders on their camels to circle the camera, creating silhouettes against the desert sky. As each Tuareg passed, a burst of sunlight would splash, striking the lens, hopefully creating great B-roll. At least, that was the plan.
As I started to set up the shot, and without warning, I was subjected to a forceful whack to the back of my head. As I lay semi-conscious, face down on the hot, sun-baked ground – and with the legs of the tripod entangled in my lower limbs – I heard a loud, gassy belch.
The attack was not by some crazed Jihad but a long-necked, long-legged, wooly dromedary with a Chris Brown attitude. The twenty-seven pound camera teetered on my back and shoulder, the lens resting on my head. Interrupting the faint sound of the camera’s internal recording heads rolling was another belch: a loud, guttural siren accompanied by a violent, sputtering snort. Fumes of rotten vegetables contaminated the otherwise unsullied air and a cloud of scattered earth fell over my face.
The heat from the desert floor forced its way through my clothes, searing my torso and palms like a steak. I opened my eyes to a vertical world and immediately recognized the image inches away from my face: a hairy camel hoof with two protruding toenails on a broad pad about the size of a dinner plate.
I then became aware that fluid was trickling down my forehead, behind my right ear and towards my neck. ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘I’m bleeding!’
Still disoriented, the sensation that the back of my scalp was soaking wet and that my shirt was firmly plastered to my back made me reach for the nape of my neck. I just hoped my hand wouldn’t come back red. I quickly deduced that I wasn’t horrifically bleeding. Why was I so wet? Jesus, did I urinate on myself? If so, how did it get up here? Pawing at my neck, it came to me why I was drenched in such foul-smelling gunk.
There are two myths about camels spitting. Firstly, camels do not spit habitually, they only spit when provoked. Secondly, camels do not ‘spit’ saliva but the partially digested contents from the chambers of their fore-stomachs.
When camels are angry or threatened, they ‘burp up’ some of their cud. Once the cud is in their mouths they angrily wield their heads like mad birds. The cud is propelled from their mouth onto their droopy lips, which they fling in the direction of their victim, which, in this case, was me. The amount of camel spittle foisted on a victim could cover their upper torso, and the color is tied to their dietary intake. It appeared that this camel had been eating dates, grass or wheat, as I was covered in a sickly, tea-green colored ‘smoothie’, not that it looked appetizing or nutritious sliding off my skin.
The camel’s slobber was sticky and thick, like cheap hair gel. With helping hands and laughter from the Tuareg, the tripod and my legs were divorced without damage to the camera or the lens, though I couldn’t say the same for my ego. I turned the camera off (it had been in recording mode, capturing the attack in all its disgusting detail), making a mental note to review the footage later in the day.
The laughter and pointing of fingers continued as I dusted myself off and tried to regain some composure. Turned out my baseball cap had been knocked off during the camel’s SmackDown, and as I looked at my reflection in the lens of the camera, I could see that my face had been powdered with beige earth. A huge cow-lick of hair came straight up from the back of my head – sort of a backwards Donald Trump coiffure.
With my breath and a soft brush, I swept sand and grime from the exterior of the camera, using my toothbrush to clean the nooks and crannies around the lens. Fortunately, there was no camel drool on the equipment.
Still unaware of what had pissed the camel off, I moved more cautiously and drafted Abdul to stand sentry behind me. Abdul didn’t want to be there either, but since his name means ‘Servant of the Peaceful One’ he had no choice. Without further incident I got the pretty silhouette shot I was going for.
Before leaving the location, I played back the tape to check that: a) it had recorded, and b) that there was no break up or other problems with the image. I then gestured to each Tuareg to look through the viewfinder at what we’d shot. Regardless of their image, the Tuareg had all their teeth, something I noted when kindly rewarded with smiles of approval at the footage.
We wouldn’t be able to come back and reshoot the sequence which, I think, after departing any location is the worst phone call a shooter can get. Such instruction is usually from the editor or executive producer, saying the footage is damaged, unusable, or a combination of the two. It’s often referred to by a technical term: ‘Shit!’
This has happened to me on a couple of occasions; each time I felt the blood draining from my veins and my self-esteem turn to liquid. It takes weeks to recover from ‘the call’. As a result, you learn to be militant when cleaning the camera gear and checking the tapes. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver sparkling footage that is in focus and not overexposed nor underexposed, which has no swish pans or tilts, and with just the right amount of headroom. The terrifying truth is that when you fuck up, people will see your mistake. And, in some cases, when you fuck up, millions will see your mistake. It’s every shooter’s fear.
We take every precaution, including hand-carrying the camera and footage onto flights, using leaded bags and DHL delivery. Our reputation – the only marketing tool we have – is based on what we deliver. As we often say: ‘You’re only as good as your last shot’.
With the Land Cruiser loaded, I sat in the cab. I grabbed the Snoopy air freshener from the rear-view mirror and deeply inhaled, hoping for a little relief from the stench of my sweat mixed with camel smoothie. My shirt, now dry, was grafted to my back and needed peeling from me like dead, sunburned skin. With the windows down, we headed back to our base to wash off the stains of the day.
My practice, while on location, is to have two changes of work shirts and trousers. When I’m back at base, I stand in the shower with all my clothes on, lather-up with a bar of soap and scrub them clean. This is an old practice that has worked well over the years. After rinsing and wringing, I then hang them on a makeshift clothes-line made of parachute cord, which also makes up part of my kit; come morning, my clothes will always be dry.
My shirts are ExOfficio – they’re as expensive as hell but worth every cent. They’re quick drying, sun-protective and they have great pockets. Cargo pants are Columbia’s convertible trousers; they also dry quickly and (most importantly) they have a gusseted crotch to help facilitate freedom of movement for increased comfort. With regards to my underwear and socks, I just estimate how many weeks I’m gone and simply toss away the skivvies and socks at the end of each day. Someone once suggested that I should buy ‘Depends for Men’; a very stupid idea: in the desert your ‘boys’ need to breathe, not drown.
On one occasion I’d underestimated my stay on a shoot in the Sahara and was forced to turn my underwear and socks inside out for over a week. With no stores in sight and as cotton takes forever to dry it was easier to toss aside and go commando. What a mistake! I suffered horrific chafing and the worst heat rash I’ve ever had. Both my inner thighs were rubbed red-raw along with my testicles: for three weeks I had to continually apply medicated cream to my infected crotch before the rash cleared up. I walked as if I had a spiked bowling ball between my legs. It was a very painful lesson to learn.
After a hot shower – a definite rarity – we went for dinner. The meal consisted of (stringy) chicken shawarma pitas and my favorite food: fried falafel dipped in hummus, washed down with warm orange Fanta. Our schedules, jam-packed with driving to locations, shooting interviews and gathering B-roll, afforded little time to eat; once we leave the plane, we hit the ground running, existing only on Balance bars, Coca-Cola and espressos.
We ate dessert outside under the Milky Way, which seemed almost within our reach. Little separates heaven and earth in the desert.
It’s customary in the Middle East to socialize in the evening, smoking shisha (apple tobacco from a hookah pipe) and mulling over the day’s events. Sitting in molded plastic patio chairs, we smoked, drank hot tea, and watched an Arab soap opera on a black and white television. One of the antennas was wrapped with aluminum and had been sculpted to look like a rabbit. The TV was connected to a car battery that had been decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. In the distance, breaking the serenity, I heard a camel bellowing. Any more relaxed and I’d have been in a coma.
Before going to bed, I viewed the tapes once more, labeling them with dates and a quick description. I cleaned the gear, charged batteries, made production notes, did some petty cash book-keeping, read the itinerary for the following day, checked the map for locations, and finally set three alarms for 5 a.m. to shoot the sunrise. It was 2 a.m. before I finally got to sleep.
Assignment: Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt Shoot
Location: approximately mid-way between Dakhla and Bahariya Oasis – Western Egypt
Mark Hufnail, executive producer and long time friend, hired me to shoot ‘The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt’ documentary. We were deep in Egypt’s interior, beyond Bahariya Oasis, and we’d been shooting non-stop for days. I relished shooting at midday, capturing waves of heat rising from the scorching sand and apparitions of lakes beyond our reach.
I appreciated the power of the sun from the very first time I went to the Sahara. I’d rested my cheek on the side of the camera while looking through the viewfinder; my face burned with such intensity that, for a couple of days, I had a large, red, rosy birthmark on my cheek. From that first experience, I learned to soak my kefflyeh (scarf) with water and wrap it around the camera to keep it cool.
For late afternoon shooting, I picked a location facing west to where the sun was due to set. The stage was a large, symmetrical star sand dune (star dunes are pyramidal mounds with slip-faces, on three or more arms, that radiate from the high center of the mound. They tend to accumulate in areas with multidirectional winds, a supreme annoyance I often have to deal with).
It was to be the last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all went well, this would be the money shot. I’d planned the scene with two Bedouins in the foreground. As they led their camels across the top of the sand dune they’d appear as silhouettes against the giant orange ball that was the setting sun. I just hoped the camels would prove to be co-operative.
Camels are known as the ‘ships of the desert’; they can travel across desert sands with a speed of up to eight to ten m.p.h. They can maintain this speed for longer periods of time over great distances – about thirty miles a day – even with extremely heavy loads.
With this knowledge, I decided to start shooting three minutes before sunset. Inwardly pleading for all the planets to be in alignment and for a little luck to go my way, I hoped to get one good take of the Bedouins and camels passing in-front of the setting sun.
Houston, we have a problem. As I started recording, the winds picked up. Sand started to blow in all directions, spiraling around me.
‘Holy crap! Not now!’ I muttered.
I was shooting on a long lens with a two-time extender, which meant that any small movement of the camera, no matter how subtle, caused the image to be shaky. Out of fear of getting ‘the call’ and being told that the footage was unusable, too shaky, or too shitty, I went into madman overdrive.
I’d already taken precautions by tightening the tilt and pan head and dropping the legs of the tripod to their lowest point above the ground. I dumped all the contents from my backpack and filled them with camera batteries, my Nikon 35mm camera, bottled water, rocks, sand…anything I could get my hands on that would hold weight. I took the anvil case and tried building a protective wall around the camera. The camera’s shaking stabilized, in spite of the many gusts of wind.
I grabbed the walkie-talkie. I had less then three minutes left to get the shot. I called out, ‘Mark, cue the camels. Mark!’
‘Copy. Cue the camels.’
I had two minutes and twenty-four seconds left before the sun set. The frame was empty, no Bedouins or their camels in sight. With adrenalin in my throat, I barked, ‘I don’t see them! I don’t see the camels. Cue the camels! The sun is setting!’
There was a pause. Then Mark replied, ‘They’re going…and they’re going!’
Looking in the viewfinder I saw the first Bedouin enter the frame. Jesus! It was such a relief to see them. ’Okay, there they are… there they are… keep them going… keep them going. Good, good.’
Two minutes and twelve seconds until sunset.
A gust of wind blew hard against the camera and my face was spiked with sand pellets. As the last Bedouin and his camel exited the frame, I had one minute and fifty-six seconds left before the sun went to bed.
I needed them to turn around and cross the frame again. Straining not to overreact, I grabbed the walkie-talkie. ‘Mark, turn them around. Turn them around! Hurry, hurry…turn them around. Turn the camels around!’
‘Okay, we’re turning them, we’re turning them. Stand by…’
I could see the sun accelerating in its fall. One minute and forty seconds of light left. Now I was pleading: ‘Hurry! Hit them in the ass or something!’
‘We’re hurrying! Camels don’t turn on a dime, Dave, we’re hurrying!’
The first camel had its tail up. ‘That camel better not take a crap,’ I warned.
Mark, very calmly, replied: ‘Nothing I can do about that, Dave, sorry.’ I held my breath and prayed that the camel didn’t evacuate its bowels. Slowly, the two Bedouins and their camels sauntered across the frame without incident and exited the shot.
‘Dave, Dave, did we get it? Are we done?’
I stopped recording and checked the tape. I’d managed to get three good passes with just a little shaking that could be minimized in post-production. After a deep sigh, I put the walkie-talkie to my mouth. ‘That’s a wrap,’ I said. I celebrated this small achievement with a little ‘end zone’ dance before sitting down by the legs of the tripod to enjoy the sun’s departure from the day.
My adrenalin had faded and I became aware of a great stillness surrounding me. The Sahara had toyed with me but now, as I sat in the desert, I felt blessed to be there, with only Mother Nature as an audience.
There was a silence. A silence so great, I could actually hear the earth breathing.