Berlin to Beijing: filming an epic road trip with the Canon XA55

Cinematographer Clemens Boecker films Joey and Luke Kelly in Red Square, Moscow, with a Canon XA55 camcorder.
Cinematographer Clemens Boecker accompanied adventurer Joey Kelly on a trip from Berlin to Bejing in a classic campervan, and documented it all for German TV with Canon's compact professional camcorder, the XA55. It was the perfect kit for delivering broadcast-quality footage without attracting too much attention at the many borders they crossed and sensitive locations they filmed in. © Thomas Stachelhaus

Of all the features available to German cinematographer Clemens Boecker on his Canon XA55 camcorder on his latest assignment, infrared mode was the one he least expected to use. "But when we stopped at a gas station in Russia," he recalls, "a guy came up to us and said, 'I have a bear. Do you want to see it?' I didn't have any lights on top of the camera at that moment, but the infrared mode allowed me to make the most of that surprising encounter."

The Canon XA55 proved to be the ideal choice numerous times on Clemens' latest trip with celebrity adventurer Joey Kelly, filming his journey across two continents for a prime time national TV show in Germany. Joey rose to fame as part of The Kelly Family, a family-based band that had great success in Europe and beyond in the 1990s and was known for travelling around in a double-decker bus.

"After Joey stopped making music, he became an endurance athlete, competing in triathlons and ultramarathons," explains Clemens. "Now he's a little older, he's looking for a different kind of challenge, so he came up with the idea of driving from Berlin to Beijing in his old Volkswagen T1 campervan. As if that wasn't challenging enough, he wanted to do the journey without taking any money."

Clemens has documented all of Joey's adventures to date, travelling to Africa, criss-crossing the United States, and walking across Germany on foot – twice. The trip from Berlin to Beijing would prove particularly intense, though, because Joey planned to visit as many capital cities as possible en route. This meant driving through Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China – in a vehicle over 60 years old.

"We were on the road for approximately 30 days," says Clemens. "They were long, 16-hour days too, most of that time spent driving. In the end we did nearly 13,000km with that old car."

Joey Kelly, Clemens Boecker and the rest of the team near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with their VW campervan.
The team setting off from Berlin. The road trip took place in the summer of 2019, so Clemens was able to take advantage of the XA55's built-in ND filters, which helped in controlling the exposure in bright or glaring light conditions. © Thomas Stachelhaus
Clemens Boecker films Joey Kelly and Mongolian nomads seated in the centre of a tent with red and white striped roof.
The compact, unobtrusive XA55 was ideal for filming in Mongolian nomad tents and other intimate settings where a full-blown professional camera setup would have been too intimidating. © Thomas Stachelhaus

A professional camcorder made for travel

Clemens has been a freelance cinematographer for 15 years. For the majority of his work, he uses a Canon EOS C300 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III) as his main camera and a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV as a B-camera. But this assignment required a smaller, lighter, self-contained setup.

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"We were a team of two, just a producer and me, in a campervan following Joey," reveals Clemens. "Normally I would work with a sound guy, but we wanted to keep everything as small and low-key as possible. The last thing we wanted to do was appear as a professional camera team when were crossing so many borders. At border control in Russia, for example, they completely turn over your whole car, and we didn't want to have to answer awkward questions about our camera kit. That's why we decided to keep it as touristy as possible and take just two compact camcorders – a Canon XA55 plus an XF100 [now succeeded by the XF200] and later an XF405."

The Canon XA55's compact size made it a natural fit for shooting in the vehicles, and was also less intimidating than a large-scale rig when filming foreign cultures. "At one point we were in a tent filming Mongolian nomads. They were very shy people, so it was helpful not having to be in their face with a big camera and a sound guy with a boom arm," explains Clemens.

With its 4K 15x optical zoom lens, the Canon XA55 offers a very useful 25.5–382.5mm equivalent range. "The ultra-wide end is really good for a built-in lens," says Clemens. "It came in very handy for shooting in the confined tent and the vehicles, and when a Kazakh family invited us into their small farmhouse. As it's a built-in lens, I was able to react quickly, because I didn't have to waste time switching lenses. Besides, you don't have the possibility of reshooting things on an assignment like this – you just have to be there in the moment."

Clemens Boecker used a Canon XA55 camcorder to film Joey and Luke Kelly in front of their VW campervan.
"Canon's menus follow a certain logic, and I immediately felt at home with the XA55's layout as it's structured more or less the same as my other cameras," says Clemens, who has been a professional cinematographer for 15 years.
The Canon XA55 professional camcorder.
Audio was recorded via the two-line XLR inputs on the camera's handle. Clemens' usual setup was a shotgun microphone mounted on the camera for line 1, and a small wireless mic for line 2.
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Shooting sharp images on rough Mongolian roads

One of the highlights of the trip for Clemens was Mongolia, a country he'd never visited before. "Once you're over the border, the landscape completely changes within just a few kilometres," he says. "We drove around a small hill and came across a herd of wild horses standing in a pond. I managed to approach really close to film them, and they didn't run away – something I've not experienced before."

The condition of the roads in Mongolia was less of a highlight, but the Canon XA55's Dual Pixel CMOS AF and 5-axis image stabilization were real assets in this situation. "I usually use manual focus, but it was impossible on some of the really bumpy roads. Using the XA55's face detection, however, meant I could just concentrate on the framing and be sure the subjects would be in focus.

"The Image Stabilization was also really helpful. I was mainly shooting handheld in the car, and it did a really good job of keeping the image stable. It also performed well when I had to follow Joey walking around locations. I always had to be quick to react, as he would often stop at the side of the road, jump out of his car and start talking to people. There was no time to set up a tripod or sound equipment – I just had to grab the camera and start shooting."

Clemens Boecker uses a Canon XA55 to film as a number of people look into the engine bay of a VW campervan.
"Joey's Volkswagen T1 was always drawing a crowd," Clemens reveals. "It's a 60-year-old car that everybody knows, but they don't see it very often in those countries." The XA55's 15x zoom lens made it suitable for everything from crowds to close-ups.
Clemens Boecker stands by the open tailgate of a VW campervan filming Joey Kelly cooking on a trestle table by a lakeside.
Travelling without money meant Joey had to ask fans on social media to help him out on his journey, and he would cook their donated food on the trip. "In the end, his campervan was completely stuffed with food," says Clemens.

Delivering a superior Full HD image

The Canon XA55 is a 4K UHD camcorder, but Clemens recorded in Full HD at 50.00i, because that was a requirement of the TV station he was working for. But through its Over Sampling HD Processing, the Canon XA55 delivers a superior Full HD image from the 1.0-type CMOS sensor. "For the size of the camera and the sensor, the image quality is amazingly good," he says.

Clemens also found the Canon XA55's battery life impressive. "I knew from my experience with Canon camcorders that it would be. That was important, because we could only charge batteries in the car while we were driving."

Four men standing around a dusty old green car, front doors open, with Clemens filming.
Clemens shot in XF-AVC, with the recording method set to Relay Recording so that the XA55 automatically switched to the second card when the first became full. The equipment proved completely reliable – the challenge was often how to handle the irreplaceable footage. © Thomas Stachelhaus

Being constantly on the road made it vital to create a reliable backup routine too. "We had a laptop and three hard drives, and every other day we would back up footage to the duplicate drives and store them in different vehicles. We tried to send some home from Moscow, but we were told that no data is allowed to be sent out of Russia. So we sent one hard drive back with a car, which was picked up by a driver from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia."

Finding a way to get the precious footage back to the production company might sound tricky, but the biggest challenge Clemens faced was fatigue. "Driving on Russian roads at night while being tired, that was really challenging – and very dangerous. The roads were generally in bad condition and pretty narrow too."

Add to that a chance meeting with a bear at a gas station, and the benefits of travelling with a compact, versatile pro camcorder become clear. And Clemens wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he's already planning his next trip with Joey and the Canon XA55.

Skrevet av Marcus Hawkins

Clemens Boecker's kitbag

The key kit pros use to film their road trips

Clemens Boecker filming with a Canon XA55, with large cruise ships in the background.


Canon XA55

A compact 4K camcorder with 1.0-type CMOS sensor, Dual Pixel CMOS AF, 15x optical zoom lens and 3G-SDI. "For the size of the camera and the sensor, the image quality is amazingly good," Clemens says.

Canon XF405

Clemens' backup was this professional handheld camcorder offering broadcast quality UHD and Full HD footage.

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