Wildlife Film Festival Illustrates Global Format Change

Documentary producers balance quality with flexibility.
Author:
Publish date:


JACKSON HOLE, WY.—The biennial Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival has mushroomed from an intimate Euro-North American event into a truly global gathering attended by pros in the wildlife film world from virtually every continent (except Antarctica). In 2011, there were over 500 entries from five continents, and more than 25 nations, making it a "melting pot" of video formats and a major challenge for festival organizers.

Acclaimed wildlife fi lm producer Rick Rosenthal used film, plus tape and file-based cameras on his latest project, “Hot Tuna.” In the early days of the event, many films were still projected with 16mm, 35mm and larger film projectors and with SD video projectors fed by Betacam and DVCPRO playback decks. Then the key question for either tape format was: PAL or NTSC? Fast forward 20 years to a far more complex world with programs being originated and delivered in many, many flavors of SD, HD and upwards to 4K. Moreover, today one can add a third dimension to all of the rest with 3D.

"The good old days of Beta SP in PAL or NTSC are long gone," said CR Caillouet, technical director for JHWFF. "Today, we live in a multiformat, multi-codec, multi-standards world and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle."

THE 'HIGHEST QUALITY' MATERIAL

For Festival staff, this meant reducing playback permutations so that all could be viewed in their best light, at full quality. "We want region-free, or ideally NTSC DVDs, for preliminary judging," said Festival Director Lisa Samford. "Then for the Festival screenings of finalists we ask for the highest quality we can get."

With the ever expanding variety of video formats, displaying the finalist programs posed the greatest challenge for Caillouet's team. "For best quality, we stick close to the native [output] format," he said. "We were set up to play programs from tape, discs and drives with HDCAM SR decks, Blu-ray and DVD players and a server for file-based programs."

All content was fed to four theatrical screens, including the 20x11-foot screen in the main auditorium. There, all sources were fed to a Sony 4K SRX-T420 (large venue) projector in HD-SDI via an Evertz X-1202H 12x2 HD-SDI router. Presentation and clip playback computers were routed through a Kramer VP-729 (analog) HD switcher and converted to HD-SDI for inclusion in the projector feed with the tape and disc media. For some sessions, a live HD-SDI switched feed was also routed to one or more projectors.

3D files and clips on HDCAM-SR and Blu-ray were converted from HD-SDI to HDMI using Blackmagic Design's HD DeckLink and were then distributed to 3D consumer displays. All other 3D clips originated on HDCAM-SR tape or on a Dolby DCP server and were fed to a Barco Digital Cinema projector via a Dolby processor for display on the main screen, according to Caillouet.

Festival entrants were also urged to encode their programs in universal codecs like Apple ProRes, Quicktime, H.264 and MPEG-2. Material sourced from the HDCAM-SR deck was recorded either in HDCAM and HDCAM-SR formats at 24, 25 and 30 fps. No 1080p/60 content was projected, although ARRI's Alexa and RED's Epic with 1080p 60 capture were both displayed in the exhibit area.

There was also some 4K content, but only as part of a Sony 4K 3D technology demo. This entailed reconfiguring the Sony SRX T-420 4K projector with 8 HD-SDI cables versus only one, to accommodate dual stream 3D in 4K.

“African Wild” is an original 3D wildlife documentary series airing on the 3Net 3D channel. TAPE, FILM STILL BEING USED

Underlying the need for this impressive matrix of playback and display technology is the fact that today, natural history docs are being shot on a broad range of digital and even analog formats at various frame rates from 24/25p to 50/60i to 60p, using various codecs. They are then edited in a variety of codecs and platforms, albeit primarily Apple and Avid.

Many wildlife shooters still originate on tape, and even film, for pragmatic reasons. Two-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Rick Rosenthal used film, plus tape and file-based cameras on his latest project, "Hot Tuna."

"I used my high-speed ARRI SR2HS [Super 16mm camera] for slow motion because we couldn't justify renting a Phantom while in the field for weeks at a time, for just a few hours of possible use," Rosenthal said. "Also, the Super 16 footage upconverts nicely to HD these days, and it doesn't cost me a penny to bring my own camera along, just in case. He also used the Sony F900 for much of the underwater shooting. "The F900 and housing is my old workhorse for underwater work. Quality-wise it's excellent and dependable. In the large housing, it is a bit clunky to handle topside, but once in the water it's very stable and sometimes helps ward off overly curious sharks and swordfish," he said.

British filmmaker Mark Dodd used a Panasonic HDX900 tape-based camera to shoot "The Man Who Saved the Desert" a finalist in the conservation category. "I chose the HDX900 for its film look, specifically the 'film-neg' capture settings by ex BBCer, Alan Roberts," Dodd said. "They proved vital for handling high contrast in the African desert. I used DVCPRO, 50i and was amazed at the picture quality, better than 35mm film, but with no dust, scratches or gate weave!"

3D also had a pervasive presence at the festival, including "Born to Be Wild 3D," "Flying Monsters 3D" and "The Last Reef." During a 3D marketplace panel, Tim Pastore, vice president of 3Net, the 3DTV network carried by DirecTV, encouraged 3D filmmakers to think of 3Net when producing documentaries. "We're looking to have a library of 35-40 hours of native 3D wildlife and natural history programming by the end of 2012," he said, adding that he also seemed open to the use of new economical 3D camcorders, like Sony's NXCAM and Panasonic's 3DA1. "Their mobility has allowed many shots and scenes to be pulled off, on location, on budget and on schedule, without sacrificing quality."

To that point, GoPro sponsored a 3D production workshop by U.K. stereographer Phil Streather ("Meerkats 3D"). Participants conceived and shot a video with the GoPro's 3D Hero camera, edited it with GoPro Studio and showed it in the auditorium on LG 3D monitors at week's end. Strangely portending the possible future of wildlife filmmaking, award-winning producer Mark Shelley ("Strange Days on Planet Earth"), said "The quality of the HD and 3D with the tiny GoPro is amazing, and even my 7 year-old could handle it."

Cheaper, smaller, better—a familiar refrain in tech circles, even in the high Rockies at the world's premier wildlife film festival.