Assignment: To film 24/7 the six week decay of a dead five tonne adult elephant in the wild.
Reason: to learn how the death creates six million calories of fat, meat and guts, feeding a whole new cycle of life.
It was in early March 2010 when Tigress productions put in the call to TX for a meeting of minds, to discuss the idea of filming an elephant from the moment of its death until the carcass has been scavenged and decomposed. The even bigger challenge was that there may be only eight weeks to have everything up and ready to record out in Africa.
Remote HD cameras filming 24 hrs a day with a control base over a kilometre away had already been decided, the rest was down to TX to solve at Kenya’s Tsavo National Park.
The first thing was to list the potential problems and try to cover all bases without actually going to or seeing the location in advance. Next was to get the technical team into the board room and let the coffee and ideas flow.
It was decided early on that the tasks ahead were challenges not problems, so hopefully all of them could be solved. Problems arise from lack of planning or unforeseen circumstances and it was down to our team to ensure a smooth successful production for Tigress whilst remembering to keep everything within a tight budget, because we knew that the costs could easily escalate in such unpredictable and diverse conditions.
The list of challenges was long: Danger from the wildlife, dust, heat of the day, cold of the night, condensation in the mornings, high contrast, 24 hr recording, file formats, animals chewing cables, bugs and scorpions getting into the equipment, mounts and equipment protection, continuous power, control of the IR lighting, long distance between the site and control area (transmit data and signals or put it all down fibre optic) and so much more….not forgetting the most important points of all redundancy / reliability.
Choosing the camera systems was the easy part. TX had invested in David Bradley Engineering remote camera systems over the years and DBE’s latest small HDCamballs had a switchable IR mode from the control desk which on command placed an IR filter in front of the camera sensor. Five cameras and two remote camera control desks were used along with a data multiplexer. This multiplexer enabled either of the control desk’s to work any of the cameras which seemed and proved to be the ideal solution. After rigging the cameras, acacia bushes (thorny – locals idea) were placed around the camera heads to keep most animals away and proved a very successful solution.
Up to two kilometres of armoured four core single mode fibre optic cable was allowed for with Telecast Vipers and POV’s at each end. This well supported the requirements to get sound and the data control and signals between the two points. We could also, with a bit of soldering and a few added control boxes, switch on and remotely dim any or all of the IR lights. The armoured fibre cable was chosen as many wild animals find normal cable quite tasty, which on the whole does not help in the smooth running of a production!
Before making the final decisions on the recording format it was important to understand what work flow Tigress productions needed from recording, logging and postproduction. The Sony portable PDW-HD1500’s decks which record and replay XDCAM HD 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 data onto 50 GB Dual-layer Professional Disc proved to be the right way to go. It kept all the media on a removable master format similar to tape and because we were recording 24 hrs a day at times, it then removed the time scale for downloading the files on to other storage medium. A U1 – XDCAM reader giving the ability to dump the footage onto laptops as Proxy files or at full hi-res, was also incorporated. Production could then review and log on location to reduce time in post.
Monitoring was via Panasonic’s BT-LH1760 HD LCD Monitors, served for both camera control and output monitoring which saved on overall freight costs (and did an excellent job). Power was provided for the whole production via a silent generator provided locally and located even further away from the filming area - a few hundred metres from the camp.
Within the design and development of the system, silent cooling units had to be included so as not to disturb the animals or upset the sound department. Very fine wire mesh grills were added to the units to keep out most bugs and scorpions – great place to hide from the heat of the sun.
Once rigged, reliability was key because once filming started, going out to the camera site to fix any technical problems would be a huge risk due to predators and the camera site being located next to the widest part of the stream (with Kilimanjaro in the background – very nice) where the animals quenched their thirst. If you did have to go out there, then armed guards would have to be on hand.
This scenario came about when setting up the IR lighting. You could check it at night from the control area to see what it looked like on camera, but if you needed to adjust the lights, you could only do that during the day, (no one would go out there at night – armed or otherwise). You then had to wait until the following night to check if your adjustments had been successful (three nights and two days to set the lights!).
Overall I have to say that there have been lots of positive comments from many professionals since the programme aired on Channel 4 about the pin sharp images from the cameras set to IR mode – Thank you David Bradley.
It’s also interesting to know that scavengers do not see the red end of the spectrum but have great night vision capabilities. This meant that our IR sources would not deter them in any way. As for the vultures, it was felt that the false tree erected to hide one of the discrete Camballs, was one of the main reasons no pecking took place, so nearly got it all right – those pesky vultures.
One important thing to remember before you head off for an adventure of this nature: once all the equipment has been chosen, prepared and tested, make sure that you have the right technical expertise and the right personalities on the shoot, so that every one gets on. Working and living for weeks in a confined space 24/7 can be a tough call - not that Africa is a confined space of course, but I think you will get my drift!
As a final note, the one thing we had not anticipated, in all the time of discussion and planning, was the smell of the equipment when it arrived back to TX after the shoot, along with a couple of scorpions!
So the cycle of life goes on not only in Africa but here at TX – can’t wait for the next boardroom discussion.
TX has a solid, proven track record having collaborated on several major programmes. ‘Hunting Chris Ryan’ taking them from Siberia to Honduras with equipment such as IR, thermo, night vision and helmet cams. ‘Beyond the Limit’ involving three trips to Everest and providing bespoke systems transmitting signals up to 20 miles in an extreme environment. For Ed Wardle’s ‘Alone in the Wild’ TX provided remote triggering and personal automated filming equipment with solar energy and water generators.