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Rob Anderson, aerial, ground (and volcano!) cinematographer
Rob Anderson, aerial, ground (and volcano!) cinematographer

Meet Rob Anderson.

He’s a Creative Director and the Director of Photography with Blackwood Camera, a premium Las Vegas camera rental house and post-production facility. He’s a VR/360 guy, and has noodled or shot with everything from the Ricoh Theta S right up to the Jaunt VR and Nokia Ozo systems. Of these, he’s particularly partial to the Ozo – and Blackwood has two of them.

The Nokia Ozo - $45k worth of 4K stereoscopic VR goodness
The Nokia Ozo – $45k worth of 4K stereoscopic VR goodness

“It’s awesome,” he says during a phone interview. “To be able to reign in eight cameras, and output 4k is awesome.” (As it should be, considering it’s somewhere around $45,000. We would *love* to just see one of these units some day – just saying.)

It’s easy to get lost in a conversation with Anderson. His grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project, the development of the first atomic weapon in the United States. Anderson clearly knows a *lot* about that project, and has been to the test site where the sand itself was melted.

The first test of an atomic bomb in the world. July 16, 1945. Wikimedia/Life Photo Archive
The first test of an atomic bomb in the world. July 16, 1945. Wikimedia/Life Photo Archive

It seems only fortuitous, then, that a project called Where the Wind Blew took Anderson to Kazakhstan, where he worked on a documentary with Dr. André Singer about the impact of the Soviet nuclear program on the villagers who live near the former test sites (the film also examines the parallel issue in the United States). He’s a very thoughtful and articulate guy, who speaks like a seasoned member of the diplomatic corp – and just happened to live for a year with Marilyn Manson. (Yes, he really did.)

All this, at 33.

In Kazakhstan, formerly part of the now-defunct Soviet Union, Anderson became fascinated with Kazakhstan’s people and history: When the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly-independent country found itself with one-third of the world’s nuclear weapons. There could have been posturing, war-mongering, aggression. Instead, the country went in the opposite direction, asking the world for help in securing what it did possess and drastically reducing its standing army.

“I was really kind of blown away,” he says. “It’s one of the unsung stories – this country could have really set the world on fire, but chose not to. Specifically, it chose peace.”

Anderson brought along his Inspire 1 (black edition) – even though it was not part of the original plan for the documentary. The device, he says, really intrigued the former KGB agents who were assigned to watch him during his time in the country.

“The Inspire 1 was really non-threatening to them,” he says. “They really liked it.”

Rob on the ground
Rob Anderson near a radioactively contaminated crater lake in Kazakhstan, with his Inspire 1 (black edition). He was permitted just 24 minutes in this location due to the high levels of radioactivity

The aerial camera work obviously brought a new perspective, being able to film former test sites from the air at a fraction of the cost and logistics of getting a helicopter shot. That new perspective, along with the quality of the X5, caught Singer’s attention. And Singer, as fate would have it, collaborates regularly with acclaimed documentary film-maker Werner Herzog. It wasn’t long before these aerial shots (and other work of Anderson) caught Herzog’s attention.

As a semi-aside, Herzog, in addition to his collection of renowned documentaries, starred in the Tom Cruise film Jack Reacher. In it, he played a villainous character known as The Zec. One of the movie’s more memorable scenes involves The Zec demanding that a man chew off his own fingers. (Yes, this actually is relevant – skip to 0:19.)

Anderson knew that scene. And that made what happened next all the more unreal.

“So I’m in this very surreal place, with former KGB following me around, and I got a Skype call on the computer,” he says.  “And Werner Herzog comes on the screen and he’s got one light above his head, and he’s in full Jack Reacher mode.

“It was great because he has such a backhanded way of talking,” laughs Anderson. “He tells me: ‘I saw your demo reel…but there are some problems.’ He basically rips me apart on Skype, which was also a surreal experience.”

Soon, Anderson was on his way to the first of several countries where he would be filming volcanos using both a RED Epic and an Inspire 1 (black edition) with the X5 camera. The film would be called “Into the Inferno,” and it would be the most incredible experience of Anderson’s life. He vividly recalls the first day of shooting at the lip of an active volcano.

“We’re standing on the rim of the volcano, that burning sulfur smell, our eyes are burning and nose is stinging. And he gives me this whole speech (insert Herzog accent here): ‘…I need you here and you’re crucial to this production. I want you go to off and find beautiful shots…'” 

“I take this camera and the DJI drone. I go and walk around (the rim of the volcano, searching for the perfect angle)….I get the camera ready and I’m looking through the EVF (electronic view finder) and I hear his voice in my ear:

“’More the left, more to the left. Down some.’”

Rob AndersonNetflix
The crew of the film, excluding Rob Anderson – who took this photo for Netflix

HARSH, UNFORGIVING, SMELLY

And the volcanos themselves? An unbelievable environment. Wearing masks that filtered out the noxious sulfurous fumes and heat-protective suits (which merely provided the illusion of safety), Anderson describes a volatile and unpredictable world where concussive super-heated shock waves could blast through the air at any given moment. Those blasts of heat, combined with the height of Vanuatu’s 1100-metre Mount Yasur volcano, created incredible winds near the rim.

“Really strong winds,” he says. “It would feel like the wind was pushing you into the volcano itself.”

You guessed it – those were not ideal conditions for the Inspire 1, nor for any drone.

“The drone isn’t meant to fly in this air – nothing is. We’d put the Inspire up, and it would be sucked into this vortex, and it would be pulled into the volcano and down.”

Inspire 2 and volcano

The force was so great Anderson couldn’t fight it. Like a swimmer caught in the fury of a rip tide, he simply let the vortex carry the aircraft down, down toward the surface of the magma. At a certain point, it would break free and he could regain control. But it also meant Anderson had to get right up on the lip of the volcano to maintain radio contact with the craft.

“I had to run to the edge of the crater, line-of-sight for radio, and let it get free of the vortex and pull it up.”

In fact, the conditions were so extreme they pulled the card every single time they brought the aircraft down. It was insurance against losing any shots if the drone didn’t come home the next time.

Wow. Wow.

“The big thing I credit DJI for is building such an incredible craft,” he says.

“The battery life was great; the control surface of The Inspire is really great. That thing can hold up in really intense wind. Even if you don’t get a great shot, you can save the thing. We could always fly, always come, home, and the camera would always produce a picture worth looking at. There aren’t a lot of drones that could have done that.”

CHOOSE YOUR TARGETS

The Inspire survived that trip, as did the RED. But the acidic environment took a heavy toll on both. All the screws on the RED corroded out, and by the time Robertson got home the Inspire motors had also been eaten by acid. It took an effort to hand-turn them after all they’d been through. (Which was, after all, multiple flights through three volcanoes.)

The documentary examined six volcanoes in all, along with the people and mythology that surround them. Anderson flew on half of them, and says what he learned from Herzog has forever changed the way he shoots – both on the ground and in the air.

into the inferno

It’s a simple lesson, and one Anderson willingly shares. Once again, he uses Herzog’s measured inflections and accent:

“’We’re not garbage collectors, we choose our shots,'” says Anderson-Herzog.

“He likes to think of a crew a like a sniper shot.”

Did it change him? Absolutely. And irrevocably.

“I was definitely the heavy machine gunner before him. I hear his voice in every shot that I shoot now.”


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