Interview with VICE on HBO DP Benji Lanpher – Exclusive
“That was my introduction to VICE. I was like HOLY SHIT what did I get myself into…is that really 99% pure cocaine?”
I met DP Benji Lanpher last year, after he and I were forced off a boat by British survival expert Bear Grylls for a show called The Island, which aired on NBC in the United States. Benji and I, along with two other fantastic camera ops (Rick Smith and Matt Getz) were charged with filming season one of the survival show, as well as appearing on camera as part of the team.
It strikes me that most people probably meet Benji in unusual circumstances. He’s just that kind of guy. He’s someone you want to hang out with and he’s someone with a million wild shoot stories – all of them true and most of them you listen to with your mouth wide open. It comes with the territory he works in: VICE on HBO, a gig with a reputation for exploring the unimaginable, strange and darker sides of our home planet. The team behind this show pushes the boundaries in every way possible, and that extends also to production.
I sat down with Benji to talk VICE, his career and living as an Emmy-nominated camera op on the edge.
How did you begin working with VICE?
It’s kind of a crazy story. I was working as one of the Directors of Photography for the show “Life Below Zero” on National Geographic Channel. Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Kavik, Alaska, I met up with my brother, who was working as my AC/DIT, and Alex, who was soon to become my travel-round-the-world partner. Having nothing much else to do in this remote place, we filled our days with work and videos. Alex liked some videos that I had shot, and I watched some VICE documentaries he had produced that I liked. By the time we left the military tent we had shared for three weeks, I had the dream to join VICE and Alex kept his word by asking me to join the team.
What is the work environment like on a VICE shoot traveling internationally? How does this work differ from other DP jobs you’ve had?
Airplanes, fixers, small crews, friends, hotels, slums, building and breaking down gear constantly, new languages, new adventures, incredible stories and countries you’ve only read about or maybe never even heard of.
My first shoot with VICE was “The New King of Coke” in Peru. We covered the largest cocaine bust in world history and then embedded ourselves with the cartel. A man named “Walter White” cooked a kilo of coke for our camera. “HOLY SHIT”, I remember thinking. “Nobody has ever seen this before!”.
So, yeah, I guess you could say the HBO team is really tight knit. We have seen things other people can only dream about. We have to depend on each other, sometimes with our lives.
We travel with a very small crew in comparison to most productions. Typically, there are no more than 8 people, sometimes only 5 or 6. That includes one host, one producer, one DP, one B cam, one sound, a fixer and a driver. The number varies depending on the story but in general we travel pretty light. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t get half of what we do.
And let’s face it: the hours can be long. You got to be able to run and gun it through 18 hours days. I’ve gotten pretty good at working on a couple of hours of sleep, and sometimes even prefer the “I feel like I’ve been hit by the bus” feeling. It can be a challenge, but the result and doing what I love to do make it worth it.
As you see it, what is the “VICE” photography style?
VICE in general has a pretty defined style. It depends on what I’m shooting, but for the HBO show it will be a mix of Vérité and 3 camera interviews mixed with the beauty roll. In general though, it’s very doc, raw with some National Geo style beauty thrown in. My style now is the same as it was when I was 14. Then I always had a camera with me and I was always ready to document anything interesting that was happening.
Embedding yourself and caring about the story is the most important thing. I’m happy that VICE and the producers do care and take time with who we are filming to build a friendship and not just do a quick one stop 30 minute interview.
How would you describe the workplace culture within VICE?
Pretty “hipster”-ish, young and “cool” I guess. But I’ve got to say, I don’t spend much time at any of the offices. I’m usually in and out just to pick up or drop off gear.
There’s a lot of skateboarders, surfer types, genius nerds, metal heads and punks. Pretty awesome really. VICE has created an incredible outlet for journalists, writers, filmmakers and all creative types. A bit Wolf of Wall Street, young MTV-ish, but with all the changes, VICELAND International outlets may see some change, I think. With Shane at the helm, though, I don’t think we’ll ever see it losing its edge.
Do you have a response to critics that label VICE as too controversial and not as journalistically balanced as other more traditional media outlets?
Is it possible to be too controversial? I think the traditional form of journalism we are all used to is the 60 Minutes, what our parents used to watch, type of reporting. VICE has done a good job of adapting to the new era of viewers. It has brought a fresh look at the world through documentaries and journalism. It’s definitely not traditional, and I don’t think it should be. Let everyone else be that.
The HBO stories can be very heavy and not always uplifting, but there is a lot of shit happening in the world and it’s better to be aware of it than not. I do think you will see some more positive stories in the next season, so that is something to look forward to!
I’m proud of the fact that we tell the story as it is, not as we thought it was or what it should be. I’ve seen producers change course in the field a few times and, while it screws up plans, it gets the story told truthfully.
How many times do you travel in a year?
Looking at my flight log on my phone… I’m around 214 flights in the last two years since I started keeping track, and by the time you read this about 15 more. I’m headed to 3 countries in 4 days next week then I have a break for about 5 days then 3 more countries in the next month. I could tell you the perks and quirks of just about any airline and plane.
Does this extreme level of travel wear on you at all? How do you stay sane?
I absolutely love traveling and haven’t gotten sick of it yet. I love being on airplanes. It’s about my only time alone and is usually a much needed break. I can catch up on the sleep that I don’t get through the week.
It still trips me out how you can wake up in one country and be halfway across the world by the end of the day. There’s times I forget what country I’m in. I wake up really confused a lot.
Here’s a story we shouldn’t tell VICE. About two months ago I was in Florence, Italy. It was our last day of shooting, so we took to the streets for our wrap party. The crew and some new friends danced until 5 am when my driver showed up. I don’t remember much but I do remember him helping me through check-in. I opened my eyes when we landed in Rome but I didn’t wake up until Los Angeles. Not the best representation of myself, but sometimes you just need to have some fun, you know, to keep your sanity. I also have a wonderful girlfriend who sets me up and down for every trip and encourages me to keep living my dream.
I imagine your camera packages must go through a lot. How do you keep everything working? Have you had moments where you’ve needed to repair parts of your kit on the fly in the field?
We put our cameras through Hell and, somehow, I have had very little problems with our gear… knock on wood. I really don’t know how I haven’t completely destroyed equipment. The worst situation I found myself in was last year in Rwanda, Africa. I was shooting the AIDS doc Countdown to Zero with Bono from U2, the RED One delegation and Suroosh, the co-owner of VICE. There we were, out in the middle of nowhere, ready to shoot the classic VICE walk and talk with Bono and Suroosh when, as I was prepping my Movi, it fell, flopping around in the dirt like a fish out of water until I could turn the switch off. Too late, it turns out. It was totalled. Real bad timing for that to happen. I blame Al Franken, who I was teaching the day before. Still, we made the best of it and shot it on the trusty C300 and went about our day.
Have there been moments when you wondered if your crew would get out of a particular situation safely?
Oh, yes. There have been a few, along with a couple of goodbye letters you’re one of the first to know about. But fortunately, I have come out every time in one piece.
Shooting The New King of Coke in Peru, which you can see on YouTube, was dicey. It included a fake taxi cab drive by a cartel member, sleeping in the dark alley of a slum, and of course, a full pat down to make sure we weren’t carrying weapons. I said “HOLY SHIT” to myself a lot during the course of that shoot. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That was my introduction to VICE. I was like, “HOLY SHIT what did I get myself into?”, and the other half of me was like “HOLY SHIT, this is amazing! Nobody has ever seen this before!” and the other half – yes there’s three – was like, “Is that really 99% pure cocaine!?”
I don’t do war zones. I’m not interested in the unpredictability of war. But I do love the adrenaline rush I get from shooting anything where I walk a fine line between getting something spectacular on film and getting injured. I work well under pressure and luckily have a knack for getting alone with all types of people which is very important in this line of work.
What’s your favorite camera/lens combination for shooting VICE doc projects?
The Canon C300 is a workhorse and my personal favorite camera for doc shooting. I have had that camera taped with 5 hand warmers in -80 degree weather in the arctic. I have tortured the living shit out of it all around the world… and had only one go down. My own fault on that one. I let it get wet while filming a storm on a disappearing island in Bangladesh. We threw it in a bucket of rice and what do you know, two days later it turned back on. I love that camera.
If I’m following our host in a tight situation where we don’t know exactly what we’re getting into, I’m usually strapped with a C300, a Canon 16-35 or 24-70 with a polarizer, 24-105 nearby, and a Sony A7s for photos and a backup if needed. For the (B)eauty Roll I could work with the Canon 70-200 all day.
VICE manages to capture incredible stories on very tight production budgets. How do you manage to balance these available resources in the field and still come back with a phenomenal show?
Without complaining. I think using what I have is what may have gotten me the job at VICE in the first place. My interview, or at least it seemed like an interview (because I was hired afterwards, but I’m still not sure if this was their way of interviewing or testing me out) I was given half working gear and one of their biggest sponsors/clients in-house at our office in Venice. I had 20 minutes to shoot them a video they had come up with on the spot. My tripod was broken, camera wasn’t turning on and everything in-between. Some other guys in my same situation across the room where asking for new gear, and yelling “This doesn’t work,” I got busy screwing parts back together and Gaff taping what I couldn’t. I don’t mean to make it sound too Sandlot, but there is definitely a bit of that feel, and I think we all embrace it. Sure, we could be off working for someone else where we have AC’s and media managers but, at the end of the day, I think most of us kind of like it this way. I think that will change soon with how fast VICE is growing, so I’m really embracing the low-budget, small crew, sometimes not everything works perfectly, “figure it out and make the best of the situation in the moment”-thing we’ve got going. It’s kinda like we’re batting with two bats sometimes, but when things do align we step up swinging.
Name another Director of Photography that has been an inspiration to you and your work.
My late friend Oliver Standfast Lynch. He’s the reason I am where I am in my career today. He fought for me to get on “Life Below Zero” and taught me everything he knew. Without him I never would have moved up as fast as I did. I keep in my bag the camera notes I wrote from the days we worked together and I never go a day without seeing them and being thankful for him. I’m actually shooting two star lapses as I write this with the settings he taught me, and a little twist of the lens on the 5D Mark III (a little trick if you don’t already know it). Thanks Oliver!
If you have one tip for a new camera operator starting off his or her career, what would it be?
Want two tips for the free price of one? Get a camera and start filming! Make sure you’re passionate about it; it’s much more fun when you are. You don’t have to know everything. Just be willing to learn, have a great attitude and keep the vibes good!
Follow Benji on Twitter HERE to go behind the scenes of National Geographic and VICE.