Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Shooting In A Sandstorm

In a forthcoming army spot we are shooting in a desert and need to create a sandstorm for about two days. We have choppers hovering above to whip up the sand, and have a talkback system to communicate.
I've asked for an air compressor in the camera truck to clean the equipment with, as well as a spare body.

I'm undecided as to get Arri or Panavision cameras. Which perform better in the desert, and are there any precautions I should consider. I'm concerned about mechanical failure, as well as the authenticity of the sand storm.

Daniel Bronks

Sand gets everywhere - if you open a can of dogfood, the sand will be inside it before the lid is off.

I've done desert jobs where we didn't have a proper camera truck and we set up a camping tent in which the AC set up his changing tent on a couple of apple boxes

In driving wind, especially if it is really fine dusty sand (like what we encountered) sand will get into the camera movement area from the joint between the mag and the camera - it is really depressing to open the door of a 435 and have sand pour out.

In addition to taping the gaps between the mag and camera, I would make a large envelope of clear plastic that the focus puller can slide over himself and the camera and tripod so that he./she can at least change mags in a still air pocket Make it big enough to hang down almost to the ground.

Obviously, keeping that folded (always rolling or folding from the top so you don't push sand up into the top of the bag) is important. Unfortunately static electricity from plastic bags, moving film, etc attracts dust adding humidity just turns it to mud.

Tape ALL openings on things shut - power outlets on your batteries, extra Lemo connectors on the camera battery, everything.

Anti-stat cloths won't really help much but they may make you feel better.

Sand is what they make sandpaper out of - make sure you don't take your air or canned air and force surface dust and sand deeper into things where it can really do damage

when lubricating the camera - wipe off excess wherever you can since it will attract dust/sand and make a lapping compound.

Make sure you let the rental house know that you are going to the desert and they will probably charge an extra fee to tear down the camera and clean it afterwards - this is appropriate.

Consider renting a splash bag for the camera or a surface bag that seals it up - it is a pain in the ass, but will protect your camera from the sand/dust.

It all depends on how much, how fine, how long, etc of course my own desert experiences have all been Arri and Moviecam - can't speak to Panavision - but I would guess that the gap between the Panavision mags and the body might be pretty porous considering how sloppy the fit is when you put a mag on.

Don't forget that desert means dry, not necessarily hot

Depending on where you are, it can get pretty cold at night - or even in the day bring clothes for it.

Consider getting one of those little vacuum cleaners that they use for pulling hair out of computer keyboards - might be more useful than the air half the time

Personally, I would be less likely to use a noisy compressor and more likely to rent a tank of nitrogen and regulator or a couple of scuba tanks with hoses and air nozzles - scuba air is dried and filtered, where as your compressor will be compressing the dusty air all around you - unless you run the air through a dryer and filter, it might be worse than nothing (depending on the compressor)

A 3000psi aluminium 80 tank will give you air for a really long time - first stage regulator will take it down to 100psi or so (I think) and can be adjusted a little bit better have goggles - they will generally either fog up or not seal well enough cover your mouth with a bandana at least - filter mask looks stupid but works better get a box of those fake tears that contact lens wearers use so you can flush your eyes out when you need to...and you will need to.

Mark Weingartner
LA based -

>>Sand gets everywhere - if you open a can of dogfood, the sand will be >>inside it before the lid is off

And it will taste pretty damn gritty...

I second everything Mark has suggested. You can't seal it too much. I witnessed a Panaflex be subject to excessive sand on a windy, ocean beach resulting in a total loss of the camera. And it was covered with plastic. Video and sound should follow similar precautions. Don't even think of opening the camera outside.

Be sure to have separate camera truck that is sealed as well. Maybe create a second door out of plastic visqueen for the entry plus tape and seal all other points of access. You won't believe how well sand can penetrate when blown around in high winds.

Jim Sofranko

Don't know if you're planning on lighting but past experiences (in Sahara, etc) bulbs are made of glass, & glass is made of ???

So if you're using Hmi's expect to lose bulbs & fresnels/lampholders. Anything that you can remove the lubricants from, do so before hand. Stands, tripods etc., we removed as much as we could using petrol on the least sensitive items.

You'll be amazed at the lubricating properties of sand, but when mixed with oil you'll grow to a grinding halt. & clown tyres 'May whatever you Devine Being is' bless them.


James McGuire
Dublin (Baile Atha Cliath)

How about camera platforms?

A geared head sounds like it could come a cropper. Should I go hand held under the down draught of a military helicopter in sand blizzard?

Sounds like it could be interesting. It'll narrow down my camera choice.

Dan Bronks

Why not use an underwater case for the camera?

Here's a website with a case used for environmentally un-friendly places:


John Babl

Dan Bronks writes:

>>How about camera platforms?, a geared head sounds like it could >>come a cropper. Should I go hand held under the down draught of a >>military helicopter in sand blizzard? Sounds like it could be >>interesting.

Everything Mark Weingartner writes is only too true. Oftentimes the sand is almost too fine to see or feel except in quantity. This is because the lightest sand is carried by the wind -- as the wind changes it will carry the lightest particles back and forth until they are ground to an extremely fine, but very abrasive, powder. It will get into everything.

Again under these circumstances, I would recommend only using something expendable like an early edition Arri 35 III. A camera with some mileage is less likely to "grind to a halt" and is relatively disposable. I would also recommend using older lenses. With all that dust blowing around ultra sharp lenses are not necessary and can be quickly ruined.

Believe it or not, it is a lot easier to clean sand from a geared head like a Worral with compressed air than a fluid head. Be sure to remove all lubrication from the gear train. If sand gets in a fluid head -- and it will -- it's a major repair. Likewise I would use wooden legs rather than Ronford or Sachtler.

For handheld, I would use a IIC or maybe a IIIC. I not sure I'd jump at the chance to be under a large helicopter landing in sand.

Allow a lot of time for cleaning the gear and preparing the gear for shooting the next day. Shooting in the desert is exhausting.

Best of luck.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


Done a few jobs as assistant in the desert. There are already some excellent tips but would like to add. My best friend is cling film.

Wrap wrap wrap.

Everything you can. It is amazing stuff. Especially on the electronics parts. You can easily keep on working but everything is protected. Easy to unwrap, change mag, wrap again. Trick I learned from some friends on the Paris Dakar. Even your light meter, talkies, palm whatever.

Also clean only necessary vital areas of operations, leave the rest until moving setups or even at wrap. Clean everything back at base. Transport flight cases everything. No point in cleaning thoroughly on location it just gets everywhere. Choice of camera might make it easier: Arri III or Moviecam, but that depends on your requirements. There also have been previous discussions about working in the desert so might want to check archives as well.

My two cents.

Emmanuel, London

Assistant Caméra - Camera Assistant - Kameraassistent
European based
+491608036889 - +447910034443

>>Should I go hand held under the down draught of a military helicopter >>in sand blizzard?

More 'could' than 'should' I'd think. Since you'll be challenged just standing up in that sort of assault you might consider using an Easyrig ;

You'll be able to support an Arri LT or a Moviecam SL with one and you'll possibly feel a little less concerned about it getting blown off your shoulder.

If you need to put an arm out to find your balance the whole shooting match won't hit the ground either.

Tom Townend,

Ja, stick with a rubber head - if it were me, I would probably rent an old O'Connor 100 - less downside risk if it fills up with sand.

If you go with a nice head, I would recommend fitting a plastic bag over it everywhere except where the QR plate attaches to the top - punch a hole for the pan handle etc but that's just me.

I would stay away from carbon fibre sticks because the sand will work in and grind down the tubes and jam - anodised aluminium or steel would probably be best bet - or an old pair of wood some I can rent you if you want me to ship them over.

Mark Weingartner
LA based

On 2nd unit Mission to Mars we used heavy plastic bags taped around the tripod base... we then blew air into the bag with a filtered leaf blower to create positive pressure... that kept sand out but reloads were time consuming. I don’t remember the operator being thrilled by the contraption either.

John Price IA 667

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