Meet the Cinematographer Who's Recording a Year-Long Documentary Around the World with Just One Fstop Bag

Meet the Cinematographer Who's Recording a Year-Long Documentary Around the World with Just One Fstop Bag

You may have already read about Steven Holleran in a recent Fstoppers article. If not, let me briefly fill you in: Holleran is an extremely talented and accomplished visionary behind the lens. He's been commissioned by companies such as Google and Nike, and was the daring cinematographer for the popular Netflix series Fire Chasers and the award-winning Sundance film "A Boy. A Girl. A Dream." Plus, he's a badass.

His current project? Holleran is traveling the globe filming a documentary for the Watson Foundation. Thomas J. Watson, Jr. wanted to give young Americans who graduated college a chance to travel abroad and see the world, and to come back to the US as better global citizens. In doing so, the Watson Fellowship was founded, which is a program dedicated to providing college grads with a chance to see the world while pursuing year-long self-made projects. "If you come back to the States during the year you forfeit your membership and scholarship," said Holleran. "It's a very severe cutoff from the American bubble, but there aren't many opportunities like this for young people in America." 

Holleran's documentary follows five Watson Fellows who are studying journalism, sports as a means for change in poverty-stricken communities, minorities through animation and graphic art, music in Islam, and natural disasters' impact on small communities. What makes this project even more interesting is that this year is also the 50th anniversary of the Watson Foundation. 

A past-Watson Fellow himself, Holleran knew he wanted to be a filmmaker while attending Bowdoin College but didn't quite know how to achieve his goal. While traveling for a year as a Fellow, Holleran studied the impacts of commercial overfishing in the South Pacific. He worked with fishermen in New Zealand, lived with spear fishermen in Samoan fishing villages and coastline Chile all while documenting the impacts of global fishing on local markets. For the film, Holleran won an EPA Environmental Award. 

Rather than traveling as a Watson Fellow himself, Holleran is following five Fellows around the globe over the course of a year, documenting their journey, transformation, and self-discovery. "A lot of these kids have never left the United States, and a lot happens over the course of a year," said Holleran. "There is a lot of culture shock and homesickness while Fellows are forced through the structure of the Fellowship. They have to find a way to deal with and accept their new reality, and they carry those lessons with them for the rest of their lives." 

To film the documentary, Holleran is meeting with each Fellow twice throughout the year - once at the beginning of their journey and once toward the end. By doing so, he's hoping to map their change physically, mentally, and psychologically. So far the process has taken him to places like India, Nepal, Chile, and South Korea. All of the traveling can put a strain on the filmmaking process. After traveling for up to 36 hours, Holleran has to shake off jet-lag and be fully-ready to show up prepared to shoot. One specific struggle was when Holleran's train broke down in the middle-of-nowhere India, surrounded by rice patties with no facilities, and water and food filled with parasites. "Sometimes I have to turn the camera off because I have to look for water or other survival-situation needs," said Holleran. "That part of the process can be challenging because I have no backup or support."  

While traveling, Holleran also needs to take into consideration the packing of his gear: he has to stay mobile and inconspicuous. "I basically have to take an entire camera team and fit it in one bag in the overhead of an airplane," said Holleran. "But that could mean that the airplane is a jumbo jet or a turboprop commuter." In order to make this documentary possible under such strict packing guidelines, Holleran is fitting the "entire camera crew" into one Ajna f-stop camera bag. In it he's packing a Sony A7s II, a set of vintage Canon Fd lenses, a second camera, the DJI Osmo X5, eight to 10 different types of mics including wireless lavs, a zoom recorder, and on-board mics, four rugged hard drives, a laptop, tripod, suction cup mounts, portable Belkin power strips, and a tilta-cage for the Sony A7s II. "Basically I'm a completely mobile one-man documentary package," laughed Holleran. "The Ajna f-stop bag just fits everything when entirely loaded, plus no one bats an eye when loading it in overheads." 

Having only one gear bag for the entire filming process means the value of each piece of gear is crucial. The cinematographer noted that not only does the handheld gimbal offer great tracking shots, but he can control the gimbal remotely with his phone. This means he can suction-cup it to the side of boats or cars which adds a lot of production value to the kit.

Because the cinematographer has been a Watson Fellow himself, he was excited for the opportunity of recording the experience and sharing it with the world. In the final piece, he wants viewers to share the emotional impact of what it's like to be on the road for a year. This means he is more selective in what he chooses to shoot. Some of the footage is semi-run-and-gun while the rest is a stylized poetic piece. "Before I meet with the Fellows I speak with them and have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to film," said Holleran. "But there are also moments I can't plan for which I definitely try to make room for while filming." Other than the trailer, Holleran hasn't started assembling the footage just yet. It's the longest amount of shooting on a single project he's ever done, so it's crucial to have a solid plan for every stage of the process. As an artist, doing so takes away a lot of anxiety, especially while shooting alone. "I really have to start from the beginning with a really good plan and a system to manage the plan," said Holleran. "There's a checklist and things to follow. After a few trips, it becomes a ritual and a rhythm." 

The documentary is set to be released in the fall of 2018. 

To view more of Holleran's work, visit his website, Instagram, or Vimeo

All images are used with the permission of Steven Holleran. 

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20 Comments

Alex Armitage's picture

I'm actually trying to plan a 7 week trip to Europe without a checked bag. Which isn't that hard clothing wise until I try to figure out what camera gear to take.

Very curious how he travels with his gear + clothes.

Tim Behuniak's picture

My apologizes I didn't mention the clothing bag in here. He packs his gear as mentioned in the article. For clothes he said he uses a small duffel with a few select items. So a small duffel with clothes plus the Fstop Ajna bag is all he uses. What are you thinking of using/what do you have so far? I might be able to suggest a different set up depending on your gear/clothes.

Alex Armitage's picture

I'd LOVE some recommendations/help. I've spent... more time than I'd like to admit trying to figure out my gear/bag situation.

Here is the basic restriction - My girlfriend and I are "backpacking" through Europe for 7 weeks. Thus we want to be able to walk from train station to airport etc essentially with just a bag on our backs. So I purchased the Osprey Farpoint 55. Biggest restriction with this is figuring out how to have a bag full of clothes that you can leave behind in your room, while also having a "day pack." The farpoint 55 does this by having a detachable 15L bag, which isn't much but you can get by.

At first I told myself my photography gear came second. Basically whatever I can get away with and I came up with > Camera, 16-35, CPL, Tripod. That's it. However, that has changed a bit as we will be visiting the alps/dolomites/norway and I'd really really regret not having my 70-200 I think. Also wouldn't mind my filter system but might be able to get away without it.

My plan was to use an internal camera bag that I use with my Brevite bag > https://brevite.co/collections/removable-modular-inserts/products/the-pr...

This currently holds my Camera + 16-35 + 70-200 + Accessories. It "stuffs" into the 15L farpoint bag. But I'll admit it's pretty heavy and that bag isn't super comfy with a lot of weight. But it's something I might have to just deal with.

My biggest challenge is meeting the requirement of being able to carry 1 bag on my back that has everything, clothes includes. While also having a bag to daypack around that is comfortable/roomy enough for the gear. I can easily move the ICB (Internal camera bag) to the larger bag during transit. And I can even take out the ICB in the event I have to check the bag on a flight. Not really worried about clothes because I plan on buying some smartwool shirts and just packing REALLY light to accommodate my camera gear.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Not sure I'm fully understanding the issue ... sounds like a weight/comfort issue and sounds like you have it figured out with the Brevite bag? Please correct me if I'm wrong, though :)

You should think about purchasing a Capture Clip or some sort of Lowepro bag that you can sling across your body, think something along the lines of the Adventura SH 160. This could allow you to keep your camera as a shoulder-bag type option while still having room in your other bag for clothes and other gear? Let me know if either of these options work for you and if not I'd love to help further!

Alex Armitage's picture

You aren't wrong. I "technically" have it figured out. I just can't have everything I want lol. My preference would be to have a small/comfortable day pack, that somehow fits into a much larger bag for transits.

I guess there isn't much else to really look into and is mostly up to the sacrifices I want to make at this point! I appreciate the reply, and reading my essay :)

Alex Armitage's picture

Should be noted that I've looked into fstop bags but then I'm stuck with only having 1 bag, so my "day pack" would be the bag that holds my laptop/clothes/etc. So it doesn't seem like a great option.

I did several trips with just a backpack, 60 litres one.
I do camping every weekend and I bring heavy clothes for the night, food, water, sleeping bag, tent, tripod, camera kit lens + astro one.
A did a road trip in NZ for 5 weeks with the same stuff
3 weeks in Thailand
2 weeks in California
2 weeks in Barcellona

I never checked in a bag in my life. I have to say, the fuji kit lense is an amazing option. I miss the telezoom option sometimes, but I would use it once per week, so is not really worth

Alex Armitage's picture

How'd you get away with not having to check a 60 liter bag?

European here. flown with cheap airlines as EasyJet, Ryanair (which should be more stingy on this), SwissAir, Alitalia, SAS and never had a ​problem. they don't really care as long as you have it on your back and act natural.
British Air, Qatar and Emirates also had no problem, except once i was caught by Qatar as the allowed weight was 7kg and I had 15kg. Was hard to explain, but i started wearing everything, holding books etc and they got so annoyed and bored that they let me go.

Also is not written most of the time but you are allowed a second smaller bag up to 4kg, so I also have a small backpack rolled inside which take same space of a pair of underpants, and in case i distributed up to 11kg between the 2, which happened only once.

Just act cool and nobody tells you anything if it looks like a light backpack on your back.

Im surprised you never seen anybody boarding those?

Alex Armitage's picture

I’ve had trouble boarding with equipment. And I’ve read a lot about trouble with the 55L so I was surprised to hear about the 60L.

I’ve also switched weight around and they have gotten annoyed. It’s kind of a fun game of who gets more annoyed!

actually is the 70liter one! you can see it in the picture, not filled. Never had problem bringing the guy on a plane as it easily fit in the "thingy"
https://www.instagram.com/p/BUVCScGlxJE/?taken-by=dan.faiz

Matt Whitby's picture

What's an "fstop bag"?

Tim Behuniak's picture

Pretty decent camera bags, some could argue the current leading company for photographer's bags. https://fstopgear.com/

Alex Armitage's picture

*current adventure bag.

I'd say Peak Design and a select few others have competing quality bags, but not necessarily for adventure/backpacking

Tim Behuniak's picture

definitely agree - thanks for catching that!

Michael Kuszla's picture

I had a 1 year trip in South-East Asia with my old Dakine 30L. Because I had an old and heavy DSLR (and Dakine bags were heavy in 2009, approx 4Kg), I travvelled with 13Kg on my back, plus 10Kg af clothes, mini-laptop and accessories... I'm not so impressed by the set-up as the F-Stop are big and heavy, and less you bring with you when you travel (in life?), and more you are creative.

Actually I'm moving light with a Peak Design 20L and one DSLR, 2 lenses, and one Pika200, accessories for photo and video (max 7Kg with the bag), and 5Kg of clothes.
23Kg at first to 12Kg now? I could reduce weight by using mirorless (but I don't like the battery autonomy).
Experience of your needs is your best friends on trip.

Did I mention that I do not shoot with a drone? If so, I surely use a Peak Design 30L.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Definitely agree that the less you bring with you the more creative you're forced to be (for the most part). But what's impressive is that Holleran is using this set up to create a feature-documentary film, not just any old quick 5 minute film.

Michael Kuszla's picture

Yep. I agree. This is a documentary film set-up. Making films need heavy (or multiple) pieces of gear. But anyway, he could have something lighter.
Even they're great, F-stop backpacks are to heavy and not so functionnal. I know I know... finding a good system of camera luggage is always a head breaker.
If I love Tilta gear (as the new G2x), SmallRigs make lighter cages.

But yeah. I don't like to cumulate gears, so the one you know, the one you're using everyday is probably the best. Even it's finally heavier than a "travel" oriented gear. :)

Pedro Quintela's picture

I tried very hard to get an Fstop bag in the late 2017. I needed a bigger one to carry my Canon 5ds, 5 lenses, filters and other stuff. Read lots of reviews and even a chinese brand offered one in trade of making a review for them.
Though unfortunately getting one in Europe became almost impossible. Even posted in my fb group if someone could help getting it, but with no luck. I continued with the lowepro brand but my heart still ticks over a Fstop!

I keep telling myself and to my better half that someday will change all my arsenal to a mirrorless and 3 lenses top. Definitely our trade is finally going on the direction of less is better, or at least, small is also good. :)

I´m willing to see the final output of this amazing story.

Michael Kuszla's picture

Well, I think you could buy one online in an European store, Amazon, or, what I suggest in a mountain shop as ski/snowboard photographer love them at all.
F-stop website seems to deliver also in Portugal.