To the Ends of the Earth

Nature videographers adapt to evolving gear in harsh climates

BUFFALO, N.Y. Seven years ago, after shooting film for many years, National Geographic cameraman Bob Poole had to begin shooting HD video with Sony's F900 Cine Alta camera to help NatGeo build their HD library.

"Video was a bit intimidating at first, especially the black and white viewfinder," Poole said. "Color is critical for wildlife, especially in static scenes. Bright colorful things vanish in black and white scenes. One time a red duffel bag appeared in the lower frame in a series of wilderness interviews when I didn't notice it until afterwards."

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Neil Rettig, cinematographer and co-producer of "American Eagle" on PBS' Nature series, goes eye to eye with his subject. Photo Credit: Laura Johnson Poole solved this problem by acquiring Sony's color HD viewfinder for the CineAlta when it became available. "It helped right away while in India to capture its color and pageantry for Discovery's HD Atlas series," Poole said. "Knowing that I was capturing what I was seeing helped us get the color we needed on a tight schedule. It also helped me relax and enjoy shooting in HD."

For others, like raptor specialist Neil Rettig, an Emmy-Award winning nature cinematographer, the availability of long zoom ENG lenses provided added impetus to forego film for HD as in his new documentary on the bald eagle for Nature, which was produced by WNET Thirteen and premiered on PBS last month.

"I used Canon's 10-400 mm lens with a Varicam for much of it," Rettig said. "The 10-400 mm is an amazing lens. It helped me cover most of the action around an eagle nest from my blind, nearly a football field away. There aren't any zoom-style film lenses with that kind of range. It does the work of two lenses."

Poole concurred. "Really long cine lenses are all fixed focal length and you miss a lot in the extra time it takes to find and focus on the animal," he said. "Adapting 35 mm still lenses, like Canon's 150-600 mm with PL mounts is the best alternative, but it requires extra support and a heavier tripod, and they aren't as fast as the long video lenses."

Lensmakers recently im-proved HD lens options for shooting wildlife with lighter mid-range telephoto-zoom lenses like Fujinon's HA25x16.5 (–413), which is light enough to mount on a 2/3-inch HD camera without a support bracket.

"The 25x has great range [16.5–413 mm] plus 2x, and is pretty fast [f2.8 at 16.5mm], and I can swap it fast for a wide angle zoom when I need to," Poole said.


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A long-tailed Jaeger pays a visit to wildlife cinematographer Mark Smith. For all wildlife cameramen, many of whom work at the ends of the earth, camera dependability is key. Over the past few years, Ian McCarthy, a BBC cameraman whose credits include "Planet Earth," has come to rely on the Varicam.

"I have been impressed with how tough the Varicam has been both in very cold conditions and in the heat," he said. "It got so hot while filming in India for Planet Earth that I couldn't keep my hand on the top of the camera for more than 2 seconds, but it just kept on working."

McCarthy e-mailed his comments from a small boat in the Antarctic while using a Varicam, often at well below zero Celsius and without incident. Fellow BBC cameraman Mark Smith had similar luck with the Varicam on Arctic pack ice.

"To prevent fogging, we kept it running, in a flight case, while it bounced over frozen pack ice in a skidoo at 60 kph," Smith said. "The Varicam worked perfectly the whole time and also in Svalbard at minus 20 degrees Celsius, even without an insulated jacket."

Poole had his doubts about the Sony F900.

"It seemed ill-designed with switches in the wrong places, a battery that got in the way and way too much plastic for so expensive a camera," he said. "Also, its designers seemed more concerned about how it fit on a shoulder than on a tripod. I was afraid to hike around with it while on the tripod, because I didn't trust the adapter plate, like I can my ARRI which is rock-solid on a tripod. Since then I have carried the F900 around on a tripod, but cautiously."

McCarthy is also a reluctant convert from film to (HD) video.

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Bob Poole on assignment filming elephants in West Africa, using a Sony F900 and Fujinon 25x lens. "At first I didn't like the switch from film," he said, "but now I really enjoy shooting HD which has its advantages, and disadvantages. HD camera rigs are heavier and more cumbersome than 16mm gear so it has become nearly impossible to film on your own any distance from some sort of a vehicle, be it car, boat or skidoo. Still, I haven't used my film camera for almost two years and I don't really miss it."

Bulk and mobility aside, many wildlife cameramen have been late converts to HD partly due to the difficulty of over and under cranking frame rates for slow motion and time lapse effects. "You can run the ARRI HSR at up to 150 fps for really nice slow motion," Smith said. "The Varicam can do 60 fps at 720p, which doesn't compare [with the ARRI HSR], but it is enough for most situations."

But not all HD cameras are equal in that regard. "With the F900 you can shoot 24 fps, or mild slo-mo at 30 fps, which I do to smooth out motion," Poole said. "I just got the new XDCAM [PDW] 700 so now I'll be able to shoot at higher frame rates, although not at 24p, until the upgrade next year."

For super slow motion Poole prefers the Phantom from Vision Research. "It captures up to 1,000 fps in 1080p," he said. "That can make almost any movement really interesting—from birds and bees in flight to frogs jumping. Even water splashing is amazing and we've only cranked it up to 500 fps."

Unfortunately wildlife docs can't entirely be done in slow motion. Rettig's new documentary on the bald eagle included many slow motion shots, but he warns that "there is a danger of using too much slow motion. Each shot should help the story." Although he also used the Phantom for the bald eagle doc, he shot most of it with a Varicam.

But he also used smaller HD and even DV cameras as needed. For one sequence on eagles scavenging, he put Sony's HVR Z7 inside a pig carcass for a unique POV shot of bald eagles tearing at the carcass. He even used the old reliable VX1000 (DV) for a split surface/underwater shot of an eagle with a dead salmon in Alaska. "I don't get hung up on the high-def aspect, especially if you can get something really cool that helps the story," Rettig said.


One thing that wildlife filmmakers can count on now technology-wise, is even more change. After decades of shooting wildlife with a handful of 16/super 16mm film cameras, with HD, their options now include the full spectrum of HD cameras, and soon the new generation of 4K and 2K cameras.

"In the old days of 16mm most of us were owner-operators, but today there are so many formats," said acclaimed underwater specialist Paul Atkins. "One project may call for 4K or 2K, or a particular flavor of HD, and the next may require 35 or 70mm film, depending on the circumstances. To keep busy, I have to be flexible."

Atkins, who is currently working on an IMAX project, "Voyage of Time," added that technology is undergoing another paradigm change in his specialty. "Right now HD is the best format underwater," he said. "It is better in low light with higher contrast than film. Soon there will be underwater housings for the new 4K/2K cameras, like RED One, which are even better than HD. I know other wildlife specialists who are selling their HD cameras now and are investing in cameras like RED One for the superior image quality.

"The fact that they capture files on flash cards and hard drives instead of videotape also makes them quieter with potentially fewer problems in the field," Atkins said, adding, "but that remains to be proven."