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WASHINGTON
With its menacing, dagger-like teeth, the Goliath Tigerfish has lived in relative obscurity for ages in the depths of the Congo River. But "Monster Fish of the Congo," which premiered as an "Explorer" episode on the National Geographic Channel on Feb. 10, brought this ravenous predator and other aquatic wonders to light.

Capturing HD footage of this giant, piranha-like fish and other underwater mysteries of the Congo River was no easy feat. It meant traversing the Congo, the swiftest and most powerful river in the world, fraught with whitewater rapids, deadly whirlpools, and other lethal dangers.

Under these harrowing conditions, a video production crew—led by veteran DP Thierry Humeau—ventured into the Congo and shot more than 40 hours of HD footage using a Sony XDCAM HD422 PDW-700 and two Sony PMW-EX1 XDCAM-EX format camcorders.

The camera crew was part of a month-long expedition that transported a team of scientists, anglers, and kayakers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the summer of 2008 to make and document discoveries about the evolution of aquatic life, including the elusive Goliath Tigerfish.

A HARROWING JOURNEY

"Monster Fish of the Congo" which debuted on the National Geographic Channel last month, profiles the elusive Goliath Tigerfish and other exotic creatures. Lugging 20 cases of camera equipment, six kayaks, and 30 cases of scientific, survival, and camping gear, the team flew from Washington to Paris, and then on to the DRC capital city Kinshasa.

One of the Sony PMW-EX1's was enclosed in a custom-designed, watertight housing and mounted on the front of one of the six-foot, one-man kayaks the crew used to explore the river. This "kayak-cam" provided unique angles from a kayaker's point of view as he careened down raging whitewater rapids. The compact, rugged, and lightweight EX1 cameras were used to capture B-roll footage in situations requiring utmost portability and agility. A lipstick-sized, waterproof SD camera was also attached to a pole that was submerged into the river to capture views of small fish and other aquatic life.

Principal photography was captured on a Sony PDW-700, which Humeau determined an ideal acquisition medium for this challenging production. Because of the harsh, remote conditions, commonly plagued by water, spray, rain, fine sandy beaches and strong winds, the cameras needed to operate flawlessly because there wouldn't have been any way to get them fixed or replaced on location.

"My goal was to replicate the natural, pristine beauty of the Congo," said Humeau, who is based in Washington. "So I didn't want to use artificial lights because as soon as you do, you destroy the natural mood and setting, and it looks as if you're shooting news.

"For this reason, the 700 camera was really key because the exceptional performance of its [three 2/3-inch power HAD FX] CCDs enabled me to really push filming in available light," Humeau continued. "The camera adapted easily between silhouettes of people at sunset, campsites at sunrise, bright sunlight reflecting on the water, and other contrast, latitude, and color challenges. Even after cranking the camera's gain to 9 or 12 dB, the footage showed very little noise."

For audio recording on location, Humeau used Sony's digital wireless system, the DWR-S01 dual-channel receiver paired to a DWT-B01 transmitter.

SHOOT, SCREEN, STORE

Humeau recorded up to 100 minutes of continuously recorded 1080i HD footage on the PDW 700 XDCAM HD camcorders. The discs served as both the record and archival medium, which was a time-saver and logistical convenience.

The EX1 camcorders record onto Sony SxS PRO Express Card Memory cards; two 16 GB cards record 140 minutes of 1080i HD. The 1080i HD footage shot using the EX1's produced HD imagery was complementary to the PDW-700, which made it possible to intercut the B-roll with principal photography without a noticeable quality difference.

Each night, the EX1 footage was uploaded from the memory cards to a laptop PC for screening, and backed up onto one of four 500 GB Lacie hard drives for safekeeping.

Scenes shot using the PDW-700 could also be viewed as thumbnails on the camera's LCD screen; the footage could also be transferred, screened, and logged to laptops.

"Much of the time, the camera crew and scientific team traveled with all our gear down the river in two Pi-rogues, which are 50-foot dug out canoes powered by motors," said David Clair, a Los Angeles-based independent producer who produced the show. "There were times when I'd be sitting in a Pirogue as it moved swiftly through the water and I'd actually be viewing and logging the footage on my laptop. The ability to record digital files, and screen and log that footage on-the-run, saved many time-consuming steps in post production and gave us a jump-start on the editorial when we returned."

DANGERS & DIFFICULTIES

According to Clair, tape-based acquisition would not have allowed them this level of flexibility and convenience.

DP Thierry Humeau paddles a kayak outfitted with a Sony PMW-EX1 "kayak-cam." "If our boats had been sucked under by a whirlpool, or if the camera gear fell overboard and floated away, it was comforting to know that the optical disc-based media could potentially survive and our watertight Pelican cases would protect the cameras," said Clair. "While some of the scientific gear, water filtration pumps, and other equipment malfunctioned, we never had a problem with any of the cameras, and never lost any of our media or data."

Additional screening and logging was done by Todd Wendel, a Washington, D.C.-based independent producer who served as the show's field producer and writer. Wendel said they followed a very strict itinerary throughout the trip because it is extremely difficult to travel around the DRC.

"Everywhere we went, we were constantly being asked to show our permits and other paperwork by local officials or militia," he said. "Since Thierry Humeau and David Clair were the only ones in our party who spoke French, they handled these encounters as diplomatically as possible on behalf of the expedition.

"Because we were white Westerners with cameras, government officials were very suspicious of our motives, or simply wanted to extort bribes, which we occasionally caved in and paid to avoid frustrating production delays. Our kayakers were even roughed up and had some of their personal belongings stolen, so we did fear for our safety."

Much of the drama that took place behind-the-scenes was not included in the show, Wendel said, because it was primarily a scientific documentary for National Geographic, where the sole focus was on how aquatic life evolved in the treacherous waters of the Congo.