It is such a privilege to be given access to video something as intimate and remarkable as the birth of a baby. For SummerTime Productions, this week gave us the opportunity to film 17 children making their way into the world at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. We have been commissioned to create an educational video about caesarian birth complications, for use by doctors in hospitals all over South Africa. Mike Burts, a cameraman of 50 years experience and legendary enthusiasm, joined us for the duration.

Sean feeling the muscle burn from hours of balancing on a ladder to get the perfect shot

Sean Gardiner feeling the muscle burn from hours of balancing on a ladder to get the perfect shot. Lighting and angles were challenging for this video production.

There were some challenges to this video shoot, starting with the obvious need to NEVER get in the way of the doctors and nurses while filming in the theatre. Add to that space restrictions, wearing scrubs in what felt like sweltering heat, and being sure to keep sterile conditions. And most importantly from a video production point of view, we needed to get the best view possible of the surgical area. Thankfully, we had planned for a first experimental production day, and that turned out to be absolutely vital. While we captured some great shots, we quickly realised that GoPro’s have their limits, and this is one of them! The intense overhead light, combined with the relatively low ambient lighting meant that the surgical area – exactly the bit we were there to video – was blown out completely in the overhead cameras (which were attached to the theatre lights above the operating table).

Tanya Vandenberg in the tiny doctor's room, dealing with data

Tanya Vandenberg in the tiny doctor’s room, dealing with data


Every production has some kind of learning experience built in, and as time goes by, we find it easier to anticipate the kinds of photographic and organizational challenges that we might face. Happily, in this case, the client had agreed to us filming for one day, and then waiting 3 days before Day 2 of the shoot. I built that into the schedule after ALSO taking a morning to do a recce at the actual theatres, take photos of the theatre layout and so on. I knew we were likely to have issues with setting up cameras and getting suitable angles and exposure. So after much research and frantic phoning of production hire companies all over Johannesburg, I managed to book different minicams (thank you to Puma Video for that!!). While I was doing that, Sean was using his mystifyingly good (to me) engineering skills to come up with a solution for getting the right camera angle to give us the least obstructed view of the tiny area that we needed to capture.

Monday morning saw Sean and Mike arriving at the hospital at the ungodly hour of 6am, just to get parking. Trust me, you have NOT understood parking problems until you’ve been to the third biggest hospital in the WORLD! Meanwhile, I was racing around Johannesburg to get the new Sony minicams. The guys lugged in two long ladders – the low-tech, but very effective solution to our camera angle problem, that included ingenious little tripod platforms. From then on, it was a waiting game – and oh, how we waited. The busiest caesarian theatres in South Africa became oases of calm, while mothers yelled and moaned and selfishly gave birth naturally in the labour ward right next to us.

Waiting, waiting, waiting... Sean Gardiner in scrubs, all dressed up and raring to go!

Waiting, waiting, waiting… Sean Gardiner in scrubs, all dressed up and raring to go!

I wouldn’t wish a caesarian or a complicated birth on anyone (and I’ve had both), but for us, it was agonising to wait and wait and wait, while doctor after doctor said how “it’s never like this here! I’ve never seen it this quiet!” Mike Burts is such a trooper – I love working with people who love their jobs as much as he does. He just wants to get that camera out and film! Seems babies also get camera shy…

But eventually, we had 3 days and 15 caesarians done, with a wide range of fascinating and useful complications in crisp and beautiful video. Along the way, we made friends with the nursing day staff, and were helped immeasurably by each and every surgeon and intern that joined us in the itsy-bitsy ‘doctors’ room’ and in theatre. We saw a total of 17 babies born (there were 2 sets of twins, all healthy), and experienced life in one of the most inspiring places you could ever be in.

Now we get to create this teaching video, and be a part, however small, of saving mothers and babies in South Africa and beyond.