Sound Devices captures sprinting cheetahs

When Director of Photography Greg Wilson was challenged by National Geographic magazine to create a shot tracking a sprinting cheetah — in the spirit of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 image of a running horse — he turned to the Sound Devices PIX 240 Production Video Recorder for the shoot’s dailies, monitoring and backup.

Combining the resources of National Geographic and the Cincinnati Zoo, and drawing on the skills of an incredible crew, Wilson and his team were responsible for simultaneously capturing motion picture images as well as high-resolution stills of the cheetah for use in the magazine. Employing a Phantom Flex high-speed camera filming at 1200fps to 1600fps, the team zoomed alongside the sprinting cheetah, capturing every nuance of the animal’s movement as it reached speeds of more than 60mph. For the still images, the crew used three Canon EOS-1D X digital cameras, shooting at its fastest speed, at full resolution.

To succeed, Wilson needed to move a camera system, configured with the Phantom camera and the three Canon 1D X cameras, all at the same speed. When in action, the system needed to reach 65mph in 40ft, hold that speed for 300ft and then decelerate safely back to a complete stop. Wilson and his crew teamed up with Doggicam Systems in Los Angeles to design and build the custom dolly system that would move the camera along the 410ft track. Using a modified version of its Super Slider System and a Sparrow 200 remote head, along with high-powered motion control motors provided by Romano Stunts, the camera was able to reach a speed of more than 65mph in less than three seconds and then return back to a resting position accurately and safely.

Wilson’s first AC and Phantom technician Edward Richardson built a control unit for the DSLRs. It allowed the DSLRs to run in sequence at 14fps with zero overlap of the images and a perfect cadence, allowing the system to effectively capture 42fps at 18.1 megapixels per frame. The small crew didn't have the resources for a standard video tape recorder in the field, so it used the Sound Devices PIX 240, which provided an ongoing digital library of all the takes. This gave the crew ability to reference any shot over the entire three-day job.

Wilson and his crew faced several environmental challenges. The greatest concern was that the cheetahs might be afraid of all the gear and wouldn’t run. To resolve this, Richardson used the battery-powered PIX 240 not just as a recorder, but as a portable monitor as well. After each take, Richardson walked to the end of the field with the PIX 240 and used the on-camera controls to save the take. He then recorded the shot into the PIX and brought it back to the main monitoring area for everyone to view.

Another major challenge was syncing the dolly system with a wild animal like the cheetah. The cheetahs would chase a lure/bait attached to a long line, using a hand controlled on/off switch held by one of the cheetah handlers. At the speeds the cats were traveling, a quarter of a second or a few feet per second off and the gear could result in a 100ft off by the time the cat hit the lit area of the track. Working with five cheetahs, it was also difficult to anticipate how fast they would come out of the gate and what their top speed would be, among other parameters.

Video footage can be found here (opens in new tab). Additional behind-the-scenes footage is also available here (opens in new tab)