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Live From the Rainforest

There is hardly an area of rainforest anywhere in the world that doesn't have a production crew lurking somewhere within it. Between the National Geographic and Discovery channels, drama productions recreating every battle ever fought, and the recent spate of reality television productions, the average rainforest now sports almost as many cameras as a Michael Jackson press conference. Australia, as a country with experienced production crews, many civilized amenities and an ample selection of tropical rainforests, is currently teeming with reality TV productions.

It should come as no surprise that in September 2002, U.K. media giant Granada plc chose an Australian rainforest in northern Queensland as the setting for its wildly successful reality TV production "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!" When it came to producing a season of "I'm a Celebrity...etc." for ABC in the U.S., followed closely by an encore season for the U.K., Granada Productions chose Australia once again. This time however, the company took a one year-plus license over an area of privately owned rainforest at Murwillumbah in New South Wales. On this site Granada set up a production facility that would service both productions, with an eye to the possibility of others in the future.

The lighting director for these projects was David (Dizzy) Scandol, an Australian drama LD who found his way into reality television through his work on the Australian version of that most clichéd of all reality TV programs, "Big Brother." Scandol's experience with the infrared lighting on "Big Brother" brought him to the attention of U.K. lighting designer Tom Kinnane, with whom he collaborated on the first U.K. season of "I'm a Celebrity..." When Kinnane's commitments in the U.K. left him unable to get to Australia for the next two productions, Scandol stepped into the role for Granada. "It's great to be working on these productions," said Scandol. "It's quite rare for an Australian LD to be given the opportunity to light primetime productions for both U.S. and U.K. networks."

CELEBRITY SHANANIGANS

If you didn't get to see this production, and nobody in your family has yet bought the highlights DVD, a brief description of the format may be in order. A group of celebrities with either a sense of humor, a desperate desire for publicity, or nothing better to do were enticed into spending a couple of weeks "isolated" in the jungle, with all manner of nasty native slithering and crawling things to keep them company.

Each day, "challenges" (usually in the form of an activity designed to scare the celebrity witless) were undertaken by various contestants in order to supplement their very rudimentary diet. In the usual way, the viewing audience selected which contestant would face the challenges, and who would be eliminated from the contest. Activities were conducted in three production areas: the isolated camp site, the challenge area, and a treetop open-sided "studio" some 25 feet up into the rainforest canopy.

Quite a few cameras were used to cover these activities 24 hours a day for the duration of the production. The three recorded picture streams were sourced from 16 Sony BVP-550 production cameras, six Panasonic AW-E800s on various remote control systems, and 13 Sony CVX-V18NS night shot cameras to cover activities after lights-out. To supplement these were seven autonomous ENG crews, using mostly Sony DVW-709 digital Betacams.

ROUGH AND GRITTY

In adapting his style to this production format, Scandol's first challenge was that the producers were looking for a rough, gritty style to the pictures, something quite alien to Scandol's normal approach to his work. It was believed that this look would help convey a sense of the uncertainty of the contestants' situation and emphasize the real level of risk involved.

In the campsite area, this look was achieved primarily through the use of 20 practical fittings: modified "Tilley lamps" (the U.K. equivalent of the Coleman camping lantern). Instead of running on gas or pressurized kerosene vapor, these fittings contained a 500 W CP83 (FRH) lamp and reflector, and were controlled through acoustically quiet dimmer racks located in the camouflaged camera hides. The Tilleys were augmented, where necessary, by weatherproof 1 kW parcans painted jungle-green, and suspended discretely from brackets mounted high-up on tree trunks. These were also fed from the dimmers. The nighttime exposure on the production cameras under these conditions was wide-open iris, with +9 dB gain, which certainly met the criterion of raw and gritty.

After the campsite lights were extinguished each night, the contestants' nocturnal activities continued to be recorded, courtesy of the 13 night-shot cameras hidden throughout the campsite area. To augment the infrared LEDs mounted on the cameras, Scandol used six infrared floodlights that were originally developed for security surveillance work.

Scandol's work was further complicated by the need to keep the contestants isolated from production activities, while remaining live-to-air for two entire weeks. Without the opportunity to tweak his focus on the run, he had to provide coverage for a wide range of possible contingencies. When it came to operational maintenance, Scandol and his head technician Robbie Burr decided to run all fixtures at 90 percent on the dimmers to prolong lamp life. They also had complete replacement fittings prepared to allow a rapid changeover, rather than attempting to diagnose and repair the equipment during filming.

In the treetop studio, the situation was almost completely reversed. Here the challenge was to deal with huge and variable levels of daylight in an open-sided studio with the rainforest as a backdrop. Scandol had a reasonable equipment inventory, with 12 x 12 kW Dinettes (Dutch Dinos) for basic fill light and 16 x 2.5/4 kW and 10 x 1.2 kW HMI pars for punch. Nevertheless, he sometimes found he was struggling to balance his pictures against 5,500 footcandles of the Australian summer sun. In one particular two-shot, he actually needed more than 60 kW of fill light, just to match exposures.

WEATHER OR NOT...

Light levels were also extremely unpredictable, due to the weather variations experienced during the shoot. Right up until the end of rehearsals, the Murwillumbah area, along with much of Australia, had been suffering from a long and devastating drought. However during the production, the area received 21.6 inches of rain-more than twice the average rainfall for the entire month of February. Light levels were so variable that while the studio was on air, one of the lighting crew would act as a weather observer for Scandol, who was located in a control room some 700 yards from the treetop studio.

As this was live television, there was only the duration of a commercial break in which to set up each contestant interview in the studio. Scandol's technique was to start each interview with several HMI pars running and then drop out those that weren't needed once he had seen the shots. With the Dinettes on dimmers and the ballasts of many of the HMIs under DMX control, he then attempted to ride the levels during the interview.

Anyone who thinks that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants live television died out with the development of the affordable videotape recorder should take a closer look at reality television production. My conversation with Scandol certainly reminded me of the adrenaline rush of live television at its best/worst.