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Carmen Roberts – It’s just me and my small camera

FasttractBBC Carmen Roberts

MARCH-APRIL 2010

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Carmen Roberts has been a journalist for Fast Track, BBC World’s flagship travel programme since 2003 and has reported from over 60 countries. After the Asian Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, Carmen cut short her holiday in Langkawi, Malaysia to report from the devastated resort town of Phuket. Carmen’s most recent reports about liquor licensing and buying property in Bali was telecast on Fast Track. http://www.bbc.co.uk

Read Carmen Roberts articles in LE Mag
Fast Tracking
It’s just me and my small camera
Dancing with criminals in jail !
A Working Holiday
Chernobyl and a marriage proposal
Off the beaten track in Japan
Where are you from?


“What, just you? And that small camera? Where’s the production crew with stage lights and the make-up truck?”

I’m sure these are just some of the thoughts that have been running through the minds of many an interviewee when I turn up on location for a shoot.

Presenter, reporter, producer, video journalist – I could safely say I come under all of the aforementioned job titles. Multi-skilling is my middle name. Indeed that’s the way the media industry is going these days. Gone are the days of just being a television reporter.

Video journalist is possibly the most controversial of all job descriptions. The thought of pint-sized lass like me wielding a camera will raise the ire of many old-school cameramen and die-hard unionists. But modern technology has moved on in recent years and in this YouTube era, operating a broadcast quality camera has become a lot easier and more accessible.

I have to say, learning to film was one of the smartest things I’ve done in my career so far.

In fact, it was this very skill that got me a foot in the door on the Fast Track travel programme all those years ago in 2002. Actually, it was all down to a little, white lie. I over-stated my filming abilities and promised to single-handedly produce a 3-minute TV report from Verona in Italy.  In truth, I’d not picked up a camera since my days at university and I’d spent most of my career thus far working with experienced cameramen.

But surely, it was like riding a bike? Or so I thought.

I arrived one sunny Saturday morning in Verona with a camera borrowed from the BBC’s features department, only to discover that a vital part of my kit was missing – the base plate. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this kind of equipment, this is the key part that connects the camera to the tripod. This was a true slap your own forehead moment.

So, being a resourceful reporter, I proceeded to rest my camera on any number of inanimate objects – park benches, fences and there were many low angle shots, filmed from ground level.  But my footage consisted mainly of shaky, hand-held shots – which, needless to say, are every editor’s nightmare.

I really came unstuck when it was time to do an interview. It was filmed sitting at a table in a café near the grandiose Arena, the stage for the summer season of outdoor operas. Not only was the Mayor of Verona filmed from an unflattering angle, with my camera perched on the table, I also shot the interview in the wrong colour – and Signor Mayor looked a little bit like a blue-tinged smurf.

These are classic amateur mistakes and I crawled back to London and confessed to the commissioning editor that I’d failed spectacularly.

Fortunately for the BBC, I was still a freelance journalist back then and my boss had the foresight to only promise payment on delivery of a finished product. But he saw through my game immediately and offered me a ‘real cameraman’ for my next report idea. Why didn’t you say so in the first place?!

A few years later, when I was on the staff payroll one of the first things I requested was camera training. But it wasn’t until 2008 that I officially filmed my first 5-minute TV report. And believe me, it was a baptism by fire.

A snake safari in Kenya was my first solo full-length project. Yes, we were tracking snakes – five of the world’s most deadliest snakes to be exact: the Puff Adder, Python, Cobra, Boomslang and Mamba.

The group was lead by the legendary ‘snake man’ of Kenya otherwise known as Royjan Taylor. Together with five snake trackers, we set out combing the vast plains on the outskirts of East Tsavo National Park. Much like an African Steve Irwin, Royjan was a natural in front of the camera, literally leaping on top of a slow moving python and pushing the dripping fangs of puff adder right into the camera lens.

There’s something quite surreal about seeing life through the viewfinder of a camera. The reality is, you are concentrating so intently on focus, exposure and composition that you completely forget you are up close and personal with a deadly viper.

This was hard work, fanning out across red earth plains under a hot African sun lugging a camera and at times running to a location when a snake was found – only to arrive huffing and puffing, and then switch on the camera and start filming with supposedly a steady hand. After all this, I was expected to wipe the sweat from my brow, slap on a bit of make-up and stand in front of the camera and try and say something intelligent.

This meant placing the camera in a static position on the tripod, pressing record and then running around in front to do what’s known in the industry as a ‘piece to camera’ or ‘stand-up’. Beginner mistake number 3: pressing record without first attaching and turning on the microphone. This resulted in a curious sequence captured on tape of me peering and reaching down my top.

My most recent solo filming adventure was on a 7-day mountain biking trip in Laos at the start of the year. Filming yourself on a bike is no mean feat. I had a very patient group of 16 well-travelled cyclists who were willing participants in my foray into adventure holiday filming.

Every morning, I’d set up the camera on the tripod, beg our van driver to watch over the camera after I’d pressed record and then fall into line as the group coasted past the lens on their bikes. I’d then have to double back and pack up the equipment, load it onto the truck and play a game of catch-up. This was good for the fitness levels, not so good for the stress levels.

I must admit, my filming skills have improved over the years, but this is no substitute for a fully qualified cameraman. More often than not, the Fast Track program does provide me with a proper crew and I definitely think my reports are better for it.

But the fact that I have the capability to film has made me a more versatile journalist and afforded me some trips that might not otherwise have been possible due to budget and timing constraints.

“Yes, it’s just me, and my small camera.”


© Carmen Roberts