Interview Cameraman Toby Marshall talks about Japan’s quake and his visit at the nuclear plant in Fukushima

The following interview with Toby Marshall is quite long, but in my opinion it is definitely worth your time! Toby talks about his work during and after the earthquake in Japan last year. He also filmed inside the nuclear plant in Fokushima! Toby also allowed me to publish some of his HDR-photographs.

Hey Toby, thanks a lot for your time! Please tell us a little bit about yourself, how did you come into the film business and for whom do you currently work?

I grew up in LA in the 1950s, and divided myself in several directions.
I started as a science nerd, brainy kid doing National Science Foundation scholarships, high  school valedictorian. But I also was very involved in music--playing a number of wind instruments, and finally very involved in photography. I have been doing still photography since I was about 12 years old, film, wet darkroom. So I have a pretty good knowledge of the mechanics of photography. Actually I did not start doing video until the 1980s, when I was taught both video camera and  video editing at a commune in Oregon where I lived at the time.

I came to Japan in 1986 for two reasons--because I had a Japanese girlfriend (now my wife) and because I was invited over by a rather famous keyboardist--a friend--with whom I had been playing. He had moved to Japan to do music in Tokyo and asked me to join him to play together. The music scene didn't work out, and I was looking for work. I eventually got hired by CNN Tokyo as a video editor, based on my very informal experience in the US. That led to a job as editor at the Christian Science Monitor TV, which unfortunately didn't last very long. From there I went freelance and dealt with a bunch of big clients--all the American nets, BBC, ITN, Channel 4, VisNews, Reuters, Swiss TV and then German TV, both editing and shooting. In 1994 I became a full time multi for ZDF, and I am still with them, 18 years later.

Last year after the earthquake in Japan and the following nuclear crisis you shot for the German TV station ZDF. From Johannes Hano’s book I know that the team struggled a lot finding safe places to stay and film. How did you feel during this time?

Since 2007, the Tokyo Studio of ZDF had been incorporated into the East Asia Studio, combined with Studio Beijing, and I had been traveling back and forth between Tokyo and Beijing every month. There generally wasn't much work to do in Japan those days--China was and still is "flavor of the month" in Asia. I came back to Tokyo at the beginning of March in 2011 and had planned to go back to Beijing on the 25th. It was only by luck that I even had filming gear with me, since I needed to shoot a story on a Tokyo fashion show in early March. And then, again by luck, Johannes Hano just happened to come to Tokyo on 9 March to present our documentary on "China's Borders" to the German community in Tokyo.

Johannes had been going through a rough time with the authorities in Beijing, and told me he was happy he had a chance to come to Tokyo for a few days and relax. The showing was scheduled for the evening of 11 March, and we were discussing plans to have a little tour of Tokyo on the 12th, before he went back to Beijing.

Suddenly the whole building began shaking. I am used to that--every couple of months we had some sort of shake. Johannes had covered the big Sichuan earthquake in China a few years before, and he had been through some big aftershocks. He wanted to leave the building immediately. I was like, "C'mon Johannes, this will be over before you even get down the stairs, just relax." Usually such things last a few seconds--even the big Kobe earthquake of 1995 only lasted fifteen seconds. But this just kept going and going. We were on the thirteenth floor, and the building was swaying three or four meters to each side. When things started falling off the shelves I agreed to at least go into the hall.

That earthquake lasted seven minutes--pretty unprecedented, I think. After the main shaking stopped, Johannes told me to get the camera and get outside--both to film and because of aftershocks. I went back into the office, and in the equipment room I found a total mess: the storage racks had pulled away from the walls and were hanging at precarious angles, and our network half-rack had fallen completely over, had wiped out the chair where I had been sitting, and was lying on the floor. But where was the camera? I did not see it. I'm looking all over the floor for it under all the stuff, while Johannes is calling me to hurry up.
Finally I found it, sitting unscathed on the floor in a twenty centimeter gap between the edge of the equipment rack and the fallen network rack. Talk about luck... I have a habit in Japan of never putting the camera where it might fall during a quake, so I did not put it on the shelf but on the floor next to the shelves, and luckily that heavy network rack did not fall a bit differently...

We stayed outside for several hours, riding out a couple of large aftershocks. At one point there came an announcement over the citywide public address system that those on the coast should get to higher ground immediately due to the possibility of a tsunami. The though then occurred to me, "Wait...what if the epicenter wasn't near Tokyo?"

When we went back up to the office we saw the first pictures of tsunami waves washing away cars and houses. "Hmmm...", I though "...might not get home for dinner tonight..." Classic understatement. I didn't even get back to my house for four days, catching an occasional hour of sleep in that time on the office floor, and only got back in time to throw some stuff together and escape to Osaka because of radiation coming to Tokyo with the change of winds.

How did I feel? Very unsettled. The Japanese people were being kept in the dark, but we had information from Germany on just how precarious the whole situation was. I was very lucky to have the support of ZDF--their commitment to keep me and my family safe--even fly us all to Europe if things got really bad--we had 24 hour revolving airline bookings. But I wondered if I would ever be able to go back to my house in Tokyo. We knew what was happening was long-term and irreversible, but mostly at the time, we were concentrating on getting out the information. I hardly slept for several months, and in a way that was good. To be active made me feel less helpless. But underneath it all was a great feeling of being uprooted, that things would never be the same.

Did this time change you personally?

It mobilized me, got me off my ass. While there was plenty of work for me in China, I was spending six months a year in Japan with very little to do, and that was not comfortable. Suddenly I was immersed not only in work, but in what felt like a very important mission to get decent information out to the rest of the world about what was really happening in Japan. And this was not a single phenomenon, but a triple disaster. There was horrendous damage and death along the coast caused by the natural disasters, and at the same time a dangerous unfolding drama caused by the Fukushima meltdowns. The two were distinct but interrelated.

The tsunami was an acute event. It came, it did its terrible damage, and it ended. While the effects lingered, it was not going to get worse. It was something surreal to move though the ruined environments, a complete rearrangement of reality. As a cameraman it was fascinating--compelling pictures wherever one pointed the camera. Eerily quiet, but one could smell the bodies, buried in rubble, unseen. And the stories of the survivors were heart wrenching, both for the tragedy, and the bravery and generosity that one saw everywhere. I don't think one can immerse oneself in such environments without being jarred out of the complacency of daily life--facing the edges of existence head on.

The Fukushima story was something different altogether. A continuing threat, an irreversible poisoning of the environment, with the danger of something really catastrophic happening always present. The deliberate under-reporting of the extent of the danger made me icily angry, and focused my energy towards a feeling of being personally responsible to try to get good information out past the fog that was being created.
There were times that I felt that perhaps my whole life was about that moment--about risking certain dangers in order to try to help ensure that such a thing would never be allowed to happen again.


In terms of camera technology, how did you manage to keep running and charging all the equipment while reporting from the destroyed areas after the tsunami?

We did not have a generator in Tokyo, but when our Nairobi team came out for support they brought and left theirs. It was a crazy time. We mostly did have hotels out in the field, or we were at evacuation centers where we could plug in equipment, and modern batteries are pretty good, so we generally did not have problems with charging. But when doing live reports and sometimes edited pieces from the middle of areas of total destruction, things got pretty dicey sometimes. I remember one day in Minamisanriku, one of the most heavily destroyed towns. First we had to find a place to park the van. That was not easy, as only the streets had been cleared; everything else was covered with debris and twisted and destroyed buildings and equipment. We did find one space, and immediately set up a live position, using a Bgan satellite dish to upload or stream to the Internet. Two teams were there, and while one was doing continuous live reports, the second was out filming a story. Night fell and it got very, very cold with a biting wind penetrating everything. The other editor sat late into the night in the back of the van editing a story, fingers numb with cold, while the rest of us huddled in the front around the heater. It was dark and silent, and we had only our generator and lights to keep us going. And that wasn't the only night like that.

Did you have problems with several parts of the equipment in these difficult situations?

Actually the hardware generally worked well. Sometimes it was hard to protect it from rain and dust out in the open, especially since with the satellite link it is necessary to have line-of-sight path, and that can be difficult among buildings and through trees, sometimes necessitating strange placement of the computer and Bgan. The problems mostly were software based, or information based--not knowing correct IP addresses for communications, or those inevitable fatal exception errors that always seem to occur just when you are racing to get something to air. With computer-based stuff, it is really necessary not only to know a lot about hidden settings that might cause trouble, but to have ideas and experience in solving buggy behavior. We spent a lot of time sometimes on phone with technical experts back in Germany when something just refused to connect. In the old analog days, you could pretty much suss out where a problem was: dirty head, or tracking error or a bad cable. These days there are levels within levels within levels, and when it works it is wonderful, but when it doesn't it can be a nightmare.

About one year later you were given access to the nuclear plant in Fukushima. How did you prepare both yourself and your camera to be safe?

I had been going up to the area quite often, and even sneaked into the 20 kilometer exclusion zone. What seems very scary at first eventually becomes quite routine. We were given a good contamination probe by our head office, so that we could check possible contamination of our equipment and ourselves whenever we came out of hot areas. When I was chosen to go into the plant, I was told that protective gear would be provided by Tepco. They suggested completely covering the camera with a rain cover, but I thought that might be a rather expensive proposition if it had to be discarded afterwards, and so bought a bunch of large, disposable clear garbage bags, thinking to generally cover the camera with one. When I got to the briefing room, I was frankly surprised at the level of protection with which we were being provided. For instance, we had protective TyVek suits, with full breathing masks, three pairs of gloves and three sets of shoe covers. We were told to be prepared to throw our clothes and shoes away if necessary.

I found that the other cameramen and soundmen had gone to great lengths to cover every square centimeter of their cameras in plastic, except for the front lenses: camera straps, microphones, cables--all wrapped. The Tepco people had provided plastic sheeting and plastic bags and tape and scissors, so I went ahead and sealed everything.

Now consider trying to zoom, to focus and change aperture through a thick, slippery plastic sheet, wearing three pairs of gloves. Impossible! I finally made the decision to poke a hole through the plastic so that I could at least get my index finger on the lens ring, otherwise, I might as well not even go, because I wasn't going to be getting any footage without at least minimal control of camera functions. It was hell--the camera kept slipping on my shoulder as the plastic bag slipped over the TyVek suit. Nor was getting a grip on the lens with my right hand any fun--getting my heavily-covered hand through the strap covered with thick plastic. I do a lot of scuba diving and it was the same feeling--with all that gear on, even the simplest tasks become a challenge.

We were first taken for a full-body radiation scan, and then wore minimal protection into the plant. When we arrived, we first had to discard our shoe covers; what I hadn't realized was the level of ground contamination around the plant. Everything is hazardously contaminated, and whatever comes into contact with something outside has to be completely decontaminated or discarded before going into a clean environment.

Consider this: the normal background radiation level before the accident in that area was about 0.05 microsieverts/hour. When I arrived--at the main building at Fukushima Daiichi, I was seeing readings averaging 60 microsieverts/hour, so about 1200x normal background. The building--through assiduous decontamination and special air filters, was maintained a level around 2 microsieverts/hour. But if somebody has hot dust clinging to their shoes or clothing, and comes into the building, they are spreading that inside, where is it difficult to get out. So the solution is to be very strict and make sure that all contamination from outside is left at the door.

Leaving the building, we were fully suited, and we got on busses to go to two locations to film. We had on two pairs of shoe covers, and each time we entered the bus after being outside, we had to stop and allow Tepco workers to carefully remove one set of covers before stepping up onto the bus. We were not allowed to let any part of our bodies but the bottoms of our feet touch anything outside. Several times, shooting full tele from my shoulder, I really wished to brace myself against a wall or a tree. Not possible. Neither tripod nor monopod allowed. To be honest, by the end of the day, I had ripped the plastic half off the camera, in order to have full access to the lens and controls. At the final contamination check, everything was fine, but we had been there on a windless day after a rainstorm. I can imagine that if there had been a wind which would have stirred up dust, things could have been quite different. It is important to remember that the contamination there will be around for a long, long time--the level will only be halved after 30 years, and it will take 300 years to return to the nominal baseline.

Which advice would you give cameramen, who will ever come into a similar situation (hopefully we won't have a similar situation soon!) ?

I was lucky to have been given a two day course by the ABC [atomic/ biological/ chemical] experts of the German Bundeswehr on radiation theory and safety, and I had done a fair number of studies in radiation biology in school, so I was, I believe, well informed as to the dangers and the situation. It is important to be informed about any situation you might be entering. If one is needlessly scared, it will not only be stressful, but it will hinder one doing one's job; but likewise it is necessary to be aware of the dangers, and not expose oneself to potential harm--or at least to make an informed decision about how far one in willing to go.

That is the most important thing: get good information--and this applies to all situations, not just dangerous ones. For instance, there is a big difference between external radiation and internal contamination. One can be in quite hot zones for short periods of time with not much risk. In Fukushima Daiichi, the highest zone we passed through was at 1500 microsieverts/hours--30000x normal background--but we passed through quickly. At the end, I received a total dose of 80 microsieverts during my six hours in Fukushima--about 40 days normal exposure, or about the same one receives in an airplane in 30 hours of flight time. This is no big deal. But if I had been internally contaminated by hot particles--either ingested or inhaled, or absorbed through the eyes, even small doses--non-measurable doses, could be quite dangerous in the long term.

So be informed as to the potential dangers, and then make your own decisions based on what level of risk you are willing to accept. I am 61 and I chose to experience it and record it--I might not have done so at age 20 before I had children. And finally--if you feel uncomfortable going into a situation, stand up for your right to say no. Most employers will ask you whether you want to enter a risky situation, and you will not be penalized if you choose not to. If you are being forced or coerced, it might be time to consider a different employer. It is your life; make your own choices as to how much risk you are willing to accept, after informing yourself to the extent possible about what you might be facing.

I fell into my job totally by accident. I never studied journalism, nor did I spend a long time as an apprentice in an established market. For me one thing simply led to another, without planning. The one thing I can say, though, is that you will often have more opportunity in less desirable markets. Not only that, you will probably be given a much broader range of opportunity within your job. I am not German, but if, for instance, I wanted to become a news cameraman/editor in Los Angeles, I have no idea how I would break into the business. I would start at the back of the line and hope to slowly work my way up the ladder. In Japan, since I was there and was not going to require all the expat costs, I was given a chance with minimal experience. In today's market, you will be much more desirable anywhere if you are a multi--if you can both shoot and edit decently, for instance, you are much more desirable than if you can only do one or the other. My ability to do both was a huge
plus for me in the day that it was unusual--now it is almost a requirement. My advice is to stay focused on what you want--keep on despite the winds and tides that pull and push you off course. If you stay focused, you will find the way.

Thanks a lot Toby for your time and the great work!!


Another article about Toby is also available on his blog: tobylog.blogspot.jp