Skip to main content

Producer's Blog: Capturing 28,000-Year-Old Mammoths in HD

Waco, Texas PBS station KWBU was recently tapped to produce a 15-minute HD video about the Waco Mammoth Site for the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University. Located on 110 acres at the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers, the Waco Mammoth Site is owned by Baylor and the city of Waco.

Since discovery of the site in 1978, Baylor scientists have unearthed the remains of 23 Columbian mammoths, making it one of the largest mammoth digs in the world. The prehistoric creatures--essentially the warm-weather cousins of woolly mammoths--are thought to have been killed in a mudslide about 28,000 years ago.

The HD video is being produced by 16X9 Productions in Los Angeles to be seen by visitors to the Mayborn Museum, as well as to help raise funds to preserve the Waco Mammoth Site. We asked executive producer Joani Livingston to blog the unique HD shoot for HD Notebook, and here is the first of several installments:

"DAY ONE - A Waking Dream (and Nightmare)

"While prepping for this week's shoots over the last couple of months, I've received a lot of good-natured ribbing around the office each time I mentioned our 'mammoth' project ... as if we had some unbelievably 'ginormous' task ahead of us. I was looking forward to the shoot on a recent Wednesday in late March for two reasons: One, our clients at the Mayborn Museum are visionaries. They 'get it' when it comes to HD, and are forward-thinking in using the technology to its fullest extent.

"And two, I was finally getting to fulfill a long-time desire of working prep-to-post with valued colleague and friend Kristen Cox of 16x9 Productions fame.

"The location definitely had its challenges. A previous site visit ruled out the possibility of the use of any type of jib or dolly. The maximum number of crew allowed among the delicate bones in the dig site was limited to a producer, director of photography, a gaffer and talent. Without question, generators would be needed to power the lights and monitor located back in the wooded area.

"But the stickiest wicket of all was lighting. The dig site was covered by a huge red and white striped tent. The severity of the tent's angles, along with the yellowish red tint it created, posed quite a challenge. The idea of helium balloon lights was floated, but the pitch of the tent was asymmetrical and too steep. After much discussion of various options with DP Allan Westbrook, we decided on HMIs to combat the color funk.

"Sunday morning while Kristen was in transit, I had received an e-mail from the Mayborn Museum's director, Dr. Ellie Caston, requesting an emergency meeting the following day before we started on the shoot. I quickly texted Kristen to let her know she needed to be in Waco earlier than planned. After rescheduling another meeting I had on Monday morning, we set out to meet with Dr. Caston, Sarah Levine (museum marketing director) and Tom Proctor (associate director) to make sure everyone was on the same page with the questions we were to ask the interviewees, and for us to learn the finer points of 'museum-speak' -- like the fact that a curator is not at all the same as a collections manager, and why it's a 'paleontological' site rather than an 'archeological' one.

"Somewhere toward the end of our discussion a bomb was dropped: As casual as tossing another bon mot, Dr. Caston mentioned that the congressman called, wanting to hold a press conference on Wednesday morning about his securing $200,000 from the Save America's Treasures grant program for preservation of the mammoth site. And he wanted to hold it at the mammoth site ... on our first and only shooting day at the mammoth site, no less!

"As we left the meeting to cement our final locations for the interviews, my mind raced through a myriad of contingency plans, none of which was inexpensive to implement at this late date. I took comfort in the fact that the museum staff were scrambling too, and were going to do all they could to convince the congressman to hold the presser at the museum rather than at the actual dig site. But they could make no guarantees. My waking dream had taken a turn for the worse."

(To be continued.)