The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin was celebrated during 2009 by a variety of TV programmes studying the background to his 1859 book 'On the Origin of Species'. One of the most ambitious tributes was a 35-part series planned and produced by Dutch broadcaster VPRO. Rather than hire a studio, they commissioned the three-masted clipper Stad Amsterdam which looks every inch the part with its 256 foot long deck, 34 foot beam, 14 cabins and 2,200 square metres of sail. Unlike the original Beagle, it also has an engine capable of delivering a respectable amount of electrical power.
In the early 1980s, not quite so far back as Darwin, we developed the world's first stand-alone remote pan and tilt camera head: the Hot-Head. One feature of the design was always uppermost in our minds: it had to be capable of withstanding all the conditions it would be subjected to 'in the field'. Our background as working camera technicians had shown that a lot of film and television equipment is designed by people who have never been outside a development office; all very fine on the laboratory bench or in a warm and dry studio but useless under real shooting conditions.
The Hot-Head was initially used mainly for feature films but was soon in demand for studio and location TV programme production, OBs of very large-scale events such as the Olympic Games and World Cup, and for reality television. Vibration, rain, high humidity, dust, intrusive insects - all had to be contended with, not least by our own production crews as they delivered live coverage of major sports activity from every continent this side of the Antarctic.
Our achievement with the Hot-Head was recognised worldwide, including a Technical Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Hot-Head became the generic name for all remote heads that followed. We continued developing remote camera systems: the Hotshot, the Minishot and the Microshot. And we always kept in mind how they were likely to be used on location.
Thirty years on, my colleague Jim Daniels and I compressed six man-decades of OB experience into a robotic HD camera system that would work reliably under practically any exterior or interior conditions. A key design feature was that the camera should look attractive enough (or unobtrusive enough, depending on choice of surface finish) to appear within view of other fixed or robotic cameras. The result was the Q-Ball which we introduced to the US market at NAB 2009 and to Europe a few months later at IBC. One of its first applications was to capture images from the American series of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, working in partnership with Gearhouse Broadcast. A total of six Q-Balls were provided for the series which was set in the Costa Rican jungle, as steamy as it gets quite apart from the antics in front of the camera. Six more Q-Balls would follow for the November/December 2009 UK ITV series from the equally humid Australian jungle.
A few weeks on from Costa Rica, we were asked by 021 Television to field Q-Ball cameras in what was (pre-Beagle) the longest HD OB project ever undertaken. The brief was to provide video coverage, for Sky Arts, of Antony Gormley's 'One & Other' project from the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square. Every hour, 24 hours a day, for a consecutive 100 days. The Q-Balls were used to accumulate content for regular one-hour reports on the event transmitted to UK viewers on Sky Arts 1 HD. Also, an HD feed was downconverted to deliver 24/7 video coverage of the event for its entire duration, streamed via the Sky Arts website. Two high-gloss chromefinished Q-Balls with rain-protection covers were mounted above the Fourth Plinth, plus an additional camera on the roof of 021 Television's production room.
While we were pre-planning the robotics for 'One & Other', a call came through from Holland. Could we supply six Q-Ball systems for a project that would make even 100 days of live OB look a simple proposition? The Dutch-registered vessel 'Stad Amsterdam' was being converted into a floating production facility including a fully equipped studio. was being equipped with advanced scientific measurement instruments that would allow specialists from various disciplines to perform ongoing experiments aboard a wind-blown science laboratory. The objective was to produce 1,000 hours of television on the theme of Charles Darwin's voyage, allowing viewers to experience a journey stretching from Patagonia to the South Pacific, from Australia to St Helena then westward back to Holland.
VPRO had been interested in our Q-Ball demonstrations at NAB. After further demonstration of the system and subsequent discussions with Ronald de Graaf (who supervised engineering aspects of the voyage from its commencement in September 2009 to its completion in June 2010) and his colleague, VPRO cameraman Hans Fels, detailed discussions were held about potential camera positions and the Q-Ball's ability to tolerate salt-water spray during the 10-month trip.
Many camera manufacturers stop short of recommending their kit for use in highly saline conditions, let alone when strapped to the mast of an ocean-going clipper. Camera Corps has specialised for years in designing, producing and using robotic cameras for aquatic sports coverage, including underwater pan/tilt/zoom equipment and, perhaps most challenging of all, providing onboard video from the contending vessels during Oxford & Cambridge boat races.
The Q-Ball itself is a full dual-mode robotic colour camera with highresolution pan and tilt drive mechanism, 10:1 zoom optics and infrared night-vision capability, all housed in a highly robust, 115mm diameter sphere machined from solid aluminium. Pan and tilt can be operated at any speed from 4 seconds to 20 minutes per revolution through an unlimited number of turns. Integral low-noise motors allow the camera to be repositioned smoothly during live shooting rather than merely between shots.
Designed to allow rapid exterior or interior rigging and derigging, each Q-Ball weighs 1.3 kg including mounting shaft and can be operated at any angle. The integral camera incorporates a 1/3 inch 2 megapixel 16:9 CMOS sensor delivering 1080i/720p HD or 625/525 SD, both at 50 or 59.94 Hz and in 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio. Signal-to-noise ratio is greater than 50 dB. Focus can be controlled manually or automatically. The Q-Ball is fully compatible with Camera Corps' range of pan/tilt and CCU controllers. Its interface delivers up to four channels of audio embedded into the SDI feed. It operates from 9 to 18 V DC power supply. The camera heads are available pre-painted to match any required colour scheme, including jungle camouflage.
A total of five Q-Balls were purchased for use in various locations on, above and alongside the Stad Amsterdam. All were finished in gunmetal grey to blend in as much as possible with the sea, the sky and the vessel's rigging. The entire production was shot in HD so the Q-Ball's 1080i-native capability, combined with its compactness, infrared night-shooting capability and very high-spec robotics, made it a logical choice. The heads can all be operated via a single joystick.
Each Q-Ball was given special hard anodised treatment on its outside and inside surfaces. Stainless steel bearings ensured that the camera drives worked efficiently in high levels of salt-water spray. Internal and external cables were fully sealed.
Practically everything on deck was completely watertight so drilling holes in the Stad Amsterdam's woodwork was not an option. Optimal fixed camera positions were identified. One Q-Ball was mounted on the main deck, one at the forestay, one in the chart room and one on the mizzen mast. The fifth Q-Ball was nominally a spare but was used in various locations via a special clamp on an Egripment Genie Jib which allowed it to be mounted quickly and firmly even in strong wind. This allowed shots to be started just above the water-line before swinging up and into the boat. The Genie Jib was configured to carry a Q-Ball as well as a standard ENG camera.
In addition to the 35 scheduled programmes, scientific findings made during the journey were reported, along with video logs and personal journals about life on board made by the production staff, sailing crew and guests. These were updated on a daily basis. The entire route of the voyage was watchable via the internet. All the onboard cameras and control systems operated successfully.
The Q-Balls were used in a variety of roles during the HD broadcast programmes, including high-level point-of-view shots of activity on the main deck plus shots of the surrounding seascape. They are normally operated via a single panel in the main control room but can be set and left to provide, for example, a forward-facing view for continuous live streaming on VPRO's Beagle website. The downconversion is quite severe, to 240 x 135 pixels, but even that resolution effectively conveys the ocean swell when expanded to full-screen viewing size.
A minor issue was salt build-up on the wide-angle adapter lens of a camera operated over the side of the vessel to give views from just above sea level. Repeated close exposure to ocean spray resulted in this head being returned to our Shepperton base for lens cleaning after three months at sea. It was temporarily replaced by a spare Q-Ball which had been taken on the voyage for exactly such a contingency. After cleaning, the camera was flown back to the Stad Amsterdam with spare adapter lenses which can be cleaned on site by the vessel's camera crew.
HD video from all four of the permanently-mounted Q-Balls was recorded 24 hours per day, seven days per week, to an Avid Airspeed from which content was selected and edited. The outputs from these Q-Balls were also sequentially switched and downconverted to a 175 kilobit/s Windows Media stream transmitted by satellite to VPRO's Hilversum headquarters as the basis of round-the-clock live web coverage throughout the entire duration of the voyage.
A concluding quote from Ronald de Graaf:
"The Q-Balls simplified what would otherwise have been the very difficult task of capturing video efficiently from many angles and in all weather. They proved easy to install, easy to use and delivered consistently excellent HD pictures in daylight or with infra-red lighting at night. One Q-Ball was mounted on the main deck, one at the forestay, one in the chart room and one on the mizzen mast. Our fifth Q-Ball was nominally a spare but proved a very useful auxiliary attached to an Egripment Genie Jib. The Q-Ball drive system accelerates and decelerates very smoothly, allowing pan and tilt to be adjusted while on-air. Would I recommend the Q-Balls for comparable future projects? Absolutely!"
A DVD set based on the Beagle reconstruction can be ordered via http://beagle.vpro.nl.