'Beagle' gives viewers HD view of historic Darwin voyage

To reconstruct and document Charles Darwin's historic voyage aboard HMS Beagle for one of the longest reality-television productions in the history of broadcasting, Netherlands-based VPRO broadcast network relied on five Camera Corps Q-Ball robotic minicam systems.

The nine-month voyage, which traced Darwin's journey around the world, was shot aboard the clipper Stad Amsterdam. The voyage has been broadcast to audiences in Belgium and Holland, as well as globally via the Internet.

"The objective was to produce more than 1000 hours of reality television in 1080i HD," said Ronald de Graaf, who supervised engineering aspects of the voyage from its commencement in September 2009 to its completion in June 2010.

"The Q-Balls simplified what would otherwise have been the very difficult task of capturing video efficiently from many angles and in all weather," he said. The robotic minicams proved to be easy to use and delivered "consistently excellent HD pictures in daylight or with infrared lighting at night," de Graaf added.

The Q-Balls were mounted in strategic locations around the ship — on the main deck, at the forestay, in the chart room and on the mizzen mast. The fifth Q-Ball was nominally a spare but proved to be a useful auxiliary attached to an Egripment Genie Jib, de Graaf said.

HD video from all four of the permanently-mounted Q-Balls was recorded 24 hours per day, seven days per week, to an Avid Airspeed, from which content was selected and edited. The outputs from these Q-Balls were also sequentially switched and downconverted to a 175kb/s Windows Media stream transmitted by satellite to VPRO's Hilversum headquarters as the basis of round-the-clock live Web coverage throughout the entire duration of the voyage.

VPRO's 35-part series, "Beagle," commemorates the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book “On the Origin of Species.” The project reconstructed Darwin's five-year long voyage.

The clipper Stad Amsterdam is a three-mast sailing ship with advanced scientific measurement equipment. Besides being a sailing scientific laboratory, it also has a built-in TV studio from which parts of the series were produced and broadcast.