Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail

Taking us on an amazing and perilous adventure, Melbourne-based Cinematographer Jaems Grant ACS details his experiences shooting in real-life radioactive zones for the acclaimed documentary series Uranium: Twisting The Dragon’s Tail for SBS Australia and PBS America.

By Jaems Grant ACS.

In March of 2014, Sonya Pemberton and Harry Panagiotidis of Genepool Productions approached me to shoot Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, a three-part documentary series funded by Screen Australia, Film Victoria for SBS Australia, PBS and ZDFArte looking at the history and science of uranium, written and directed by Wain Fimeri.

Filming would take place in a number of radioactive zones, including in the Ukraine and Japan, so this was a potentially dangerous job. I had worked on projects with Fimeri before including Pozieres (1999), Love Letters from a War (2003) and Revealing Gallipoli (2004) that were all interesting and very challenging. This project was looking to be no exception.

Eight weeks of overseas travel, shooting in Paris, Bern in Switzerland to visit Einstein’s house, Berlin, Prague, Jáchymov with it’s ‘Radium Hotel’, then Kiev, Chernobyl and the town of Pripyat. From there to London, New York, Tucson, Albuquerque, the ‘Trinity Test Site’ in New Mexico where the world’s first nuclear device was exploded in 1945, a nuclear power plant in Watts Bar, Tennessee and to San Francisco to visit a naturally radioactive beach. A quick trip to Kakadu before whizzing off to Japan to explore Fukushima and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, back to Sydney for another nuclear power plant and then finally the Peter Mac Cancer Centre in Melbourne. After digesting the proposed itinerary I was definitely going to do it. Of course I was.

The Uranium crew in Paris – PHOTO J.Wright

I have been lucky enough to travel extensively overseas for both work and pleasure, but here was an opportunity to experience so many places I had never been to. The big question was radiation, and the places of real concern were Chernobyl and Fukushima. My imagination ran wild: would I grow another head, glow in the dark, start to grow more hair (not a bad thing in its self)? Executive Producer Sonya Pemberton and Production Manager Kate Pappas had arranged for Tony Loughran from Zero Risk International to give the crew lessons about what was permissible in a radioactive zone, how to prepare gear for a ‘worst case scenario’ and what action to take if contamination did occur. We had radiation explained to us in detail. It’s quite complicated, so for the sake of this article I’ll keep it simple:

• Radiation (detected using a Geiger counter) is measured in microseiverts per hour, or Ms/hr.
• There is a constant background radiation all over the world due to small amounts of natural radioactive atoms in the Earth. The world average is 0.24 Ms/hr and the average reading of background radiation in Australia is around 0.20 Ms/hr.
• If you fly in an airplane you will be subjected to approximately 3.0 Ms/hr, more than ten times the normal background radiation. This is because radiation comes from outer-space and at high altitude there is less atmosphere to shield you from it.
• At the time of our journey the most common level in contaminated zones we were visiting would be between 2.00 and 8.00 Ms/hr (but may go as high as 100+ Ms/hr).

You can’t actually see radioactive particles; radiation is invisible. It is in the dirt on the road, in the trees, on the outside of houses and when the wind is blowing, it is in the air. It all has to do with the environment on the day. This meant that wearing protective clothing would be dependent on contamination levels and weather conditions. We had to cover up, and I mean completely cover up. Goggles, gloves, booties and fully ‘rated’ suits. No bare skin and a special dance ritual to get out of the contaminated gear afterwards. Our suits would not block out all the radiation, but they would prevent us from carrying radioactive dust with us on our clothes and skin once we left the contaminated area. They would also ensure that we didn’t ingest or inhale any of the radioactive particles.

Drone crew filming in the town of Prypiat near Chernobyl – PHOTO J.Wright

I was very aware of the restrictions of shooting wearing goggles as I had done it before. I wear glasses so there is always the annoying possibility of fogging up. Loughran had explained what to do if the gear were to get contaminated. The cleaning process would be arduous due to the fact that we could not use any liquid. The contaminated dust particles have to be blown or brushed off, and you have to remain suited up for the job. We were also told that the contamination level and weather conditions might mean we could not film through open van doors/windows, and all air units would have to be switched to recycle as the contamination can be pushed up into the car from the tyres stirring it up from the road. So the long and short of it was; be prepared for the worst. Hope it rains the night before to keep dust down and that there is no wind, especially if it’s dry, and be careful about brushing against any foliage or surfaces when working in cramped spaces.

So now there was the question: what gear to take? After a number of scripting sessions it became apparent to me that we needed the gear to be light, as we would need to be very efficient and experimental in our approach. Not an unusual realisation, but nevertheless an important one. My main camera of choice is always the Arri Alexa. I love the design and easy-to-use menu, but that was out of the question due to weight, size and budgetary constraints. I would be working on my own. That is no assistant.

On my last couple of overseas jobs, The Time Of Our Lives (2013) in Vietnam and Breaker Morant: The Retrial(2013) in South Africa and the UK, I found the Cannon C300 a terrific small camera with a good range of capabilities and in the end a great look.

At the time of scripting, Panagiotidis was thinking of buying an Amira camera and asked me if I would be interested to shoot with it? I’d been doing research on the Amira since it was announced back in early 2013 and was very eager to have a look at one. Early in August of 2014 he and I flew to Sydney to pick up only the second Amira to be released in Australia. He also decided to purchase two Fujinon Cabrio zoom lenses, the 19–90mm and the 85–300mm. Both were on the weighty side, but great pieces of glass and more than enough for the job. Harry also threw in an Optics zoom lens 11-16mm, just in case.

It was decided to give our documentary a bit of class. Movement would be nice, so Panagiotidis put me onto the Digi Dolly. I popped over to John Barry and found it was an Australian design, manufactured in Melbourne. It was very simple to set up and not too problematic to cart around which was good for the camera crew of me, myself and I. So with a very small lighting kit (an Octodome, a Lowell Tota, a 1x1x1ft Led Panel Light, a led Brick light, Flexi hard and soft, Flexi Scrim and my trusty box of light globes with dimmers) we were right to go.

Our skeleton crew consisted of Director Wain Fimeri, Martin Keir on Sound, Josephine Wright as Field/Line Producer, Dr Derek Muller our on-screen presenter and myself as DOP/Camera. Muller, a 32-year-old physicist whose wealth of knowledge paramount, as it turned out, was a great contributor to the team.

Before we got to our first radioactive zone we had time at various locations, notably Paris (0.14 Ms/hr) where we shot various standups with Derek with the Eiffel Tower as our background, and at the ‘Marie Curie Museum’ where Curie discovered radioactivity during the early 1900’s. It was truly amazing being in her office and seeing the desk and laboratory where she worked all those years ago. There were still traces of radiation on the door handle into her office (1.80 Ms/hr) and on the back of her chair (2.20 Ms/hr).

Jaems Grant ACS and Dr Derek Muller in Kakadu – PHOTO J.Wright

Jáchymov is a beautiful town high in the Ore Mountains near the border of Germany in the Czech Republic. Jáchymov is famous for a number of reasons, but mainly for the discovery of Silver in the 16th century. It was here in the early 1900’s that Curie discovered the element of radium in the waste from the silver mining (for which she won her Nobel Prize for Chemistry). We filmed in an old silver mine and I saw my first uranium in a rock that Muller illuminated using ultraviolet light. From Jáchymov we drove to Prague to catch a plane to Kiev (1.75 Ms/hr) in war-ravaged Ukraine (thankfully we were nowhere near the conflict). A three-hour drive took us to our first radioactive zone… Chernobyl.

I woke early and went for a walk as I was interested to see my first Russian town at daybreak. It was a beautiful morning, cold with the sun low in the sky and slight moisture in the air. To my surprise everyone looked normal. Just one head, two arms and two legs. All walking briskly, breathing in the cold radioactive air. After an early morning breakfast of pickled everything and bad coffee we packed the vans with boxes of protective suits, goggles, masks, plastic sheeting to cover the ground, and lunch.

After passing through the checkpoint we learnt that the weather had been a bit damp and with no wind it was permissible to do some shots out of an open car door. When we arrived at Chernobyl we were told we would only have to wear booties. Terrific.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant site (6.0 Ms/hr) was very tidy, clean and ordered. The authorities are building an incredible 120-meter dome over the damaged reactor. This dome will replace the old crumbling one that was installed after the accident in 1986, and enables them to maintain and control the emission of radioactive material from the plant, and this cover, we are told, will last for over 100 years. The radioactive uranium, however, is well buried on the site and will last for billions of years. We created some fantastic long-lens shots of smoke stacks in the morning light, as well as a few general landscape shots. We managed to take a few standups and also shots of workers on a bridge just going about their normal business. We were also made aware of some gigantic catfish down in the river that had grown to an enormous size because, as we were told, “no one is eating them”. So other than a few restrictions on where we could go and what we could look at, and the giant catfish, everything seemed normal. Nothing weird here; I sort of liked the place.

The Uranium crew filming in Kakadu National Park – PHOTO J.Wright

The next day we went off to Pripyat (between 2.00 and 10.00 Ms/hr), the town that was right in the path of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. With a population of 49,000 it was completely evacuated in the two days following the meltdown. The drive into town was filled with trepidation and wonderment. No one has lived in Pripyat for twenty-nine years. No one has been mowing the lawns, no one has been cleaning the streets. It’s completely overgrown by nature. Most concrete roads are cracked and have trees (5.00 Ms/hr) growing out of them. There were lots of very Russian-looking high-rise apartment blocks, all empty with overgrown gardens and letters still stuffed in their letterboxes. The overall impression was of a town with no human life, but with a very healthy vegetation system that was stealthily regaining control. Very quiet and ultimately surreal.

We wanted some aerials of the town’s abandoned ‘fun park’ (between 6.00 and 20.00 Ms/hr). Who wouldn’t? Our team in Melbourne had arranged a drone crew to meet us there and after I instructed the operators to take a few risks and try something new, we left them to it. We went searching for the Hospital where the hapless firefighters were brought after fighting the inferno that occurred after the initial explosion at Chernobyl. We were told that this was a mandatory suit up situation. Terrific, our first real test.

We spread out our ground sheets and planned very precisely, as we were taught back in Melbourne. There were four of us going down to the basement and we were instructed not to stay down there longer than ten minutes. I started to assemble the Amira covered with plastic due to concerns with potential contamination. The day had warmed up and I found it was impossible to see through the eyepiece. My mask and my glasses just completely fogged up and I wasn’t going to be able to remove them at any stage when we were underground. So I decided not to take the Amira, and to shoot on the Cannon 5D Mark II. I knew this was a possibility and had prepared a small plastic bag as a cover.

Muller would shoot on his 5D Mark III. We also had a GoPro 3+ that was rigged to a Geiger counter. Back in Melbourne Panagiotidis had built a clever rig so the Geiger counter was always in frame and only the environment changed.

For lighting underground we had tested small helmet lights and a couple of hand held lamps. Keir had to spend a bit of time stuffing microphones into masks, hiding leads and generally preparing to avoid possible contamination. After some final checking we were right to go. We had all done tests and prepared as best we could back in Melbourne for this moment, but as always conditions and circumstances on the day demand a bit of tweaking.

We descended the staircase (1.00 Ms/hr), being careful not to trip on various objects like bottles, planks and rags. With Fimeri holding a small light we ventured down into the dark and messy rooms (1.70 Ms/hr) strewn with boxes and trolleys. Muller and I got some great footage in the gloom of the long corridor with it’s various doors. Our Geiger counter was ‘going off’ as Muller panned his camera over the floors and walls (25.0 Ms/hr). It was warm, damp and stuffy, my goggles had started to fog up and I had to duck my head to avoid low-running pipes around the ceiling. Swinging the camera around I saw a large pile of clothing, boots and a couple of fire helmets. Muller delivered a brief monologue to the camera and then showed me a Geiger counter reading 2000+ Ms/hr (literally off the scale). Our ten minutes were up and we were out of there.

Filming in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone – PHOTO J.Wright

It was a relief to get out into to the fresh cool air and see Jo Wright our producer all suited up, waiting on the tarp prepared to methodically help us disrobe. This had to be done systematically. First we did a Geiger counter test on our clothing (0.50 Ms/hr) and it was very low so all was fine. Phew. Next we unwrapped the gear and then ourselves. Everything was rolled up and put safely in a plastic bag to be left at the checkpoint. We checked the footage that night as it was being downloaded and were very pleased with our first fully suited up effort. The next time we would get completely covered up would be at Fukushima and I was determined to use the Amira.

From Pripyat we left Europe via some filming in London (0.14 Ms/hr) before heading to the USA. In New York (0.24 Ms/hr) we completed a three-hour interview that noise levels made impossible, in Albuquerque we had fun with Muller in a red convertible on the way to the ‘Trinity Test Site’ (0.80 Ms/hr). Trinity was the site of history’s first detonation of a Nuclear Weapon. There we were able to shoot some beautiful late-afternoon footage, and in Tennessee we shot from a helicopter over a nuclear power plant. I won’t go on about all of the amazing places we went to in the seven weeks, or the endless hours we spent at airports dealing with flight schedules.

Then we were back in Melbourne for a couple of days pre-production for the Australian leg of the shoot. This gave me time to make a more robust and user-friendly anti-contamination cover for the Amira with the help of my wife, Georgina Campbell. We came up with a great ‘bag’ for the Amira made out of protective suits cut up and sewn to fit. We put a window on the side so I could view the various buttons and I could easily change batteries and cards via the zip without too much fuss. The only part of the camera that would be exposed to contamination was the front element of the lens and the eyepiece cover. If push came to shove, we could unscrew the filter at the front and replace it, and the eyepiece had a chamois cover so we could just chuck it.

Jaems Grant ACS behing the camera in Fukushima, Japan – PHOTO J.Wright

Because it was possible that I would be handholding the camera for at least an hour it was decided to encase my EasyRig as well. After a short week filming at Kakadu National Park where the soles of my Blundstones melted onto the rocks, we left for Japan to start work in my sort of temperature.

In Hiroshima we did a couple of standups with Muller around the Aioi Bridge (0.20 Ms/hr) and the Prefectural Industrial Hall, which was one of the only structures left standing after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. It was autumn and there was a team of people raking the coloured leaves in a beautifully meticulous way. It is quite a serene place

We had a day off and decided to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as we were shooting there the next day. The west wing is a no-holds-barred explanation of exactly what happened after the blast. Very little is left up to the imagination. It was a rather emotional, exhausting and somewhat sobering experience.

Fukushima was next on the itinerary and our base for visiting the radioactive zone from where hundreds of thousands of people had been evacuated in March of 2011. We were going to shoot in a small three-bedroom house that the Togawa family had left following the explosion, and subsequent meltdown, at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. At the checkpoint we were told that the weather conditions were on our side, so suits, booties, gloves and masks, but no goggles. Good, no fogging.

The house was overgrown with vegetation and we had to get up to the second floor (2.00 Ms/hr). Muller with his Geiger counter in hand, pushed forward through the foliage keeping us informed as to what level the contamination was as we made our way up the stairs. We spent about forty-five minutes in the house whilst the owners talked us through their experience. The Geiger counter was getting a high reading from the ceiling (about 2.00 Ms/hr) due to the remaining deposits of radiation on the roof! Everything was just left, dishes in the sink, clothes in the washing machine, plates and reading material on the dining table. After a couple of standups with Muller we left and busted our way out into the clear cool air. We did a test for contamination on our gear and found almost no readings at all (0.30 Ms/hr). A big relief, so smiles all around.

Australian Cinematographer Jaems Grant ACS in Fukushima, Japan – PHOTO J.Wright

After de-suiting we drove to a second location near Okuma where there was an evacuated shopping strip. On the drive we passed villages that had been either flattened by the tsunami, destroyed by the earthquake, or had been evacuated due to radiation contamination. Fields we passed had rows and rows of black plastic bags containing contaminated topsoil. There were many blocked off roads and detours all with military vehicles and smiling Japanese soldiers at checkpoints, waving flags and directing us away from the ‘no go zones’.

We stopped in the street (Ms/hr), suited up and shot some overlay footage. We did a couple of dolly shots past shops with half pulled down shutters neatly displaying their goods, and some handheld shots of Muller with shop sale signs displaying slashed prices. Then long-lens shots with very large roadside vending machines full of goodies in the background and nearby mops still in buckets waiting to clean up after a days trading. Washing was still on the lines and material was stuck on wire fences as if trying to escape. Traffic lights still working, blinking amber. It was weird. Time suspended.

A logistic nightmare aside, the whole Japan experience was moving and unforgettable. In hindsight, I was a little bit sorry that we didn’t get to use the Amira’s little protective suit after all that effort.

What an extraordinary time we all had on this documentary. Not only did I discover the people of Ukraine do drink a lot of homemade vodka, but the Japanese eat far too much raw fish, London has the best underground, ordering coffee is just too complicated in the USA, and ‘yes’ San Francisco is brilliant! I also discovered that a Director is very efficient at setting up a dolly, a Line Producer can be adept at focus pulling, a Narrator is great at lighting, and that a Soundie can be at times a great camera assistant. Collaboration was key.

We arrived back in Australia convinced that we all had experienced something extremely unusual, and ironically we probably got more radiation exposure from all the flying we did from the radiation zones we visited. Uranium: Twisting The Dragon’s Tail screened on SBS to coincide with the 70th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Jaems Grant’s is an award-winning Australian cinematographer whose various credits range from short films to music videos, dramatised documentaries, television series and feature films including Stingers (2001), Halifax FP (1997), Head On (1998), Penicillin: The Magic Bullet (2006) and The Time of Our Lives (2014). He has won over thirty awards for his Cinematography including three ACS ‘Golden Tripods’ with his most recent for Australian on Trial (2013).

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