B. Sean Fairburn may have been sent to Iraq to shoot combat footage, but there was no doubt in his mind on April 7, as he gazed into the viewfinder of his high-definition video camera, that he was a Marine first that day.
What he saw was an Iraqi truck speeding toward tanks from the Delta Company First Tank Battalion 7th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division, shortly after they crossed the Dejalah River, entering outer Baghdad.
The long lens on Fairburn's HD camera allowed him to be the first to spot what turned out to be a suicide bomber driving explosives toward the bridge Delta Company was crossing.
"Because my mission was to film combat, I was able to see much further down the road than typical tank optics could, giving me greater situational awareness beyond anything else in the area," recalls Fairburn, a reserve Chief Warrant Officer in the Marine Corps, a Gulf War veteran, and a professional Hollywood camera operator. "I didn't know there was a bomb on that truck, but I could see they were coming up on our position awfully fast, so I radioed for the unit to coordinate tanks into position, and they shot up the truck. The bomb must have been on a timer, because a few minutes later, the thing exploded, blowing a 12-foot hole in the ground. That could have killed a lot of Marines."
Fairburn's "superior optics" were part of the Marine Corps' attempt to document the latest combat chapter in its history. He was called up to serve in Iraq specifically to shoot high-definition combat footage for a joint Marine/Navy project called Movietone 2. The purpose was to acquire front-line combat footage that could later be incorporated into a series of newsreel-like short films promoting the Navy and Marines.
That first, short film in the series is being produced by American Rogue Films in Santa Monica, on behalf of the Marines and Navy, and is scheduled for exhibition in Regal Cinemas this year. Fairburn's commanding officer, Maj. John Arsenault, says others likely will be made, and some of the footage will eventually become available for use in documentaries. (A five-minute predecessor, called "Enduring Freedom," featured footage of air crews and combat patrols from Afghanistan and was shown last year in Regal Cinemas. That project marked the first time high-definition cameras had ever been used by combat photographers, and the Iraq war marked the second.)
"We have always had cameramen, both still and motion-picture, in the Navy and Marine Corps, but the goal of this project was to use HD cameras to capture cinema-level imagery, rather than lower-end video footage, to make it more the quality of the [35mm and 16mm] feature film material captured in previous wars by combat cameramen for newsreels," Arsenault says. "The purpose is to allow the Marines and Navy to document our own history, tell our own story of combat."
Arsenault sent out two "crews" during the Iraq war -- 14 men total. One group went with Fairburn on a Humvee accompanying the Marine tank division across the Iraqi desert, and another group toured American Naval vessels during the war, with Navy Chief Petty Officer Johnny Wilson shooting most of that footage.
Fairburn's crew, however, journeyed to the front lines, accompanying the Marines across the Kuwait border, all the way into Baghdad. He filmed several skirmishes and a couple of major battles, including a firefight near Basra and the Dejalah River bridge battle, near Baghdad. Long before combat started, however, Fairburn's effort suffered a blow when a support Humvee toppled off a causeway into about 8 feet of water.
"We lost extra tapes and several hours of precombat footage I shot with Marines in Kuwait -- interviews and so on," Fairburn says. "I also lost my tiny color monitor to view my footage." The loss left Fairburn short on HD tapes, and just before entering Baghdad he realized he would soon run out, so Arsenault returned to Kuwait to find more tapes. The major was gone six days but returned with a fresh supply shortly after the Marines entered Baghdad, limiting Fairburn to a single day without any tape for his camera.
During his time in Iraq, Fairburn used a Sony CineAlta F-900 HD camera, provided by Panavision, Woodland Hills, and configured "ENG" (electronic news-gathering) style with lightweight lenses. Fairburn says the equipment worked well in the Iraqi desert, mainly because he kept the camera zipped up and out of use during the wicked sand storms that battered the Marines early in the fight and because Fairburn cleaned the camera religiously.
Always film the faces
Generally, Fairburn traveled the battlefield with his crew in a soft-covered Humvee, sometimes with the camera on a tripod on the moving vehicle; sometimes, he lugged its 22 pounds around on foot.
The technical challenges, however, were nothing compared to the safety and creative issues that Fairburn faced.
"Mainly, whenever possible, I focused on filming faces -- dirty, young faces," Fairburn says. "When you show a wide shot of the battle, you don't always get a good sense of what is going on because there is so much movement and smoke and dust. But when you focus on faces, that's when you get a sense of both danger and heroism on the battlefield. You constantly think about how to get the shot without getting hit yourself. What I worried about going in was that I might become desensitized to weapons fire, and there is a little bit of that because you are concentrating so much, trying not to flinch."