The Land Rover G4 Challenge is the biggest communications exercise in the car company's history. Meticulously planned for more than three years, the month-long challenge consists of 18 competitors navigating their way over 4000km in Thailand, Laos, Brazil and Bolivia. The event builds on the success of 2003's G4, itself an indirect successor to the Camel Trophy, which ended in 2000.
BHP Sport, which specializes in corporate productions for motor sports clients, has been involved in every Camel Trophy since 1990 and covered the previous G4 for Land Rover. Sony also has been a long-standing partner in our business, at least since 1990, when I was shooting in Beta SP.
For this year's challenge, we selected XDCAM HD and took three PDW-F350s and two PDW-F330s with five PDW-F70 playback decks. It was a bit of a calculated gamble because the technology had never been put to such an ultimate test, but when weighed up against the format's speed and workflow advantages, we decided it was a risk worth taking.
This year, the Challenge commissions included six 30-minute internationally sold series that aired last month. We also produced several pre- and post-event promos; four-hour competitor-specific versions for each of the 18 competing nations, and five 10-minute satellite-fed weekly video news releases, which enabled broadcasters to stitch together their own news reports or feed into magazine programs.
We'd already decided we were going down the HD route because of the clear business and creative advantages, but it was only after talking to Sony and determining which way their technology was headed that discs suddenly came onto our radar. Land Rover was also keen to use HD for archive and corporate presentations and to entice broadcasters to take the series.
Nevertheless, apart from a December test with a demo unit, we didn't get our hands on the equipment until two days before flying out to shoot the first stage in Bangkok back in April. Our camera-ops, Nick Guy and Daryl Kibblewhite, spent a day setting up the units for consistency of look and tested a range of HD lenses. We were trying to enhance the look we'd achieved with Digibeta in 2003. The important thing working in these environments is to get the color temperature right so the tones slightly exaggerate the warmth and richness or the crisp cold daylight of what you're shooting.
The second day's shoot in a stunning forest location in Laos proved one of the production's most satisfying. The pictures were fantastic, but it was also a relief that the XDCAM HD system worked in 45°C heat. The competition traveled in vehicle convoys over rugged terrain and into extreme climates of humidity and high-altitudes, where temperatures drop below -20°C at night.
The heat and billowing dust clouds were also major concerns for us with what — at that point — was untried camcorder equipment. Of course, instinctively any camera-op will protect his equipment as much as possible, but you do still need to trust that the equipment isn't going to develop a physical fault on a shoot. The XDCAM HD did its job well despite the dust, high humidity and temperatures.
There were occasions where we took the environmental conditions to extremes at BHP too. My crew has just about forgiven me for forcing them to endure hotel rooms and vehicles without air-conditioning to maintain a constant camera temperature. If you land in a country and open the flight case, the humidity is usually extraordinary. The last thing you want to have to do with any camera is start playing around with temperature controls. We acclimatize the cameras once and keep them that way.
From a shooting schedule point of view, we would select one location from the six daily competition venues as most suitable for television coverage. With a GPS and map, we marked coordinates for camera positions, split the five camera crews among them and recording travel times between venues. We knew before we set-off exactly how we were going to cover the story.
When it comes to playback in the field, I've gone from heretic to believer. I used to worry that someone would hit the record button or that moving backwards and forwards would scuff the tape. With discs, you can go into record mode automatically without any risk of recording over existing footage.
While some might see disc-based camcorders as suitable only for ENG applications, we've been impressed with the quality and speed at which images have been captured. The XDCAM HD images are of exceptional clarity. And, with all the extra fiddling you have to do with tape, there's no way we'd be able to get as much work shot, finished and delivered. As such, we're now planning to acquire a PDW-F350 and PDW-F70 deck on return to the UK and will continue to use it for the workflow benefits it provides — chiefly the easy access to thumbnail and footage information, combined with the high-quality production values we can achieve.
Post-production is established at the end point (a city) for each stage, which meant the crews were often hundreds of kilometers away from the action. For a multicamera shoot, we'd normally have an OB and a line of monitors, and I'd be calling the shots. Instead, rushes were couriered to post-production each evening with information about the day's shoot, relayed by sat-phone to Lawson.
We knew at the outset we were going to benefit from the option of accessing clips instantly from the disc. We could open up and play thumbnails in-camera, discuss specific stories with each other and begin to see how the shots match-up. Random access to the footage allowed us to tell the post team where to build the stories and enabled the editors to open up recordings and immediately understand what to do. This proved a huge advantage over tape. Reviewing footage in thumbnail form makes the entire editing process in Apple Final Cut Pro some much more streamlined and instantly rewarding.
There were also a couple of unexpected fringe benefits of going tapeless that revealed themselves during our constant jigsaw-packing of 112 flight cases into three Land Rovers together with crew, driver and camping/personal gear. In 2003, we had a boot full of tapes. This year, the discs proved a vital space saver and gave us room for two additional camera bodies. Using discs also reduced our freight costs by a considerable margin.
Simon Fitzgerald is co-owner of BHP Sport.