The BBC’s South Pacific – 1000 Islands, 1000 Challenges
(as printed in the July 2009
edition of TVBEurope)
Tanna Volcano in Vanuatu, South Pacific
“South Pacific” (2009) is the latest attempt by the BBC documentary team to break all previous records. The six-part series is the first to present a thorough study of a part of the world that is still relatively unexplored.
TVBEurope spoke with veteran BBC producer Huw Cordey about the production of the series. Cordey has been involved in many of the BBC’s landmark wildlife shows. He was a segment producer on “Planet Earth” (2006) and “The Life of Mammals” (2002), but “South Pacific” is his first time as producer of an entire series.
The remit of the series, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, was potentially as wide-reaching as the location itself. Even as broad in scope as “Planet Earth” is, it is still a definable location, but before beginning production on the series, the very definition of “South Pacific” was open to debate. “The most obvious definition,” Cordey says, “is everything in the Pacific that’s south of the equator. But that was too narrow for the series because we wanted to look at it in terms of the cultural and natural history aspects, and these things don’t always respect invisible lines like the boundary of the equator. Covering Hawaii, which is well above the equator, was entirely appropriate. It was colonized by Polynesians from the south and the animal and plant species that arrived there were carried by the same natural forces that populated the rest of the islands.”
With so many locations to choose from, literally tens of thousands of islands, over such a vast area – all the seven continents could be put inside the Pacific Ocean with room to spare – production planning had to be meticulous. Islands large enough and flat enough to feature a grass airstrip were reached by plane, but a lot of crew and equipment travel was exclusively by boat.
The series also had the challenge that very little scientific work has been done on most of the islands. Scientists simply have not gotten around to fully exploring the Solomon Islands or the island of Vanuatu.
Huw Cordey is extraordinarily well travelled. His father worked for Shell and Cordey had been all over the world long before he began his career with the BBC documentary team, yet even he was stunned by how remote the locations were. “A great portion of our locations I had never even heard of.”
The first episode of the series features the idyllic island community of Anuta. Half a square mile in area, with no harbour, and surrounded by reefs and fast current, Anuta Island is accessible only by a carefully piloted boat. From a remote port in the Solomon Islands, it took the production’s yacht – owned and piloted by the team’s cameraman – five days to get to Anuta. Cordey and his crew were dropped off, and with no place at Anuta to anchor, the yacht had to sail away to a nearby port – 75 miles away. The “South Pacific” crew were the first visitors to Anuta in two years. The previous visitors were the crew of the BBC programme “Tribe”. Cordey and his crew had an experience usually thought of as belonging to another century: “The Anutans had gotten wind of our coming only a day before our arrival because they have a VHF radio on the island which they use to communicate with a few Anutans living on the Solomon Islands.”
Filming an Oceanic Whitetip Shark, Hawaii
Surprising television audiences is never easy today, especially when the BBC has set such consistently high bars for itself. “When you’re talking about landmark television, you generally have to do two things. You either have to improve upon sequences that have been done before – either with technology or by showing better animal behaviour. Or you surprise people with something completely new. In some ways it was easy to surprise the audience because so much of it was unfamiliar.”
Varicams were used throughout the series – including the underwater sequences – with four kits shared between the crews of the six episodes. A relatively small number of cameramen were employed to cover the entire series. Having a smaller pool of photographers was more cost effective, and simplified production in not having to reinvent the wheel every time a new cameraman was introduced to the production.
“South Pacific” features all the technical sophistication of its BBC antecedents – and more. The Cineflex camera stabilization mount was used on helicopter shots, the same technology famously employed on “Planet Earth”. Cineflex mounts were rigged onto the helicopters of the obliging Chilean navy, for flights over Easter Island, a Chilean protectorate. The series features the first ever HD aerial shots of Easter Island and its foreboding statues.
Of course, the series features technical innovations used for the first time on nature TV shoots. Even before the series premiere, much buzz had been generated by online video of surfing legend Dylan Longbottom riding waves in super slow motion off the island of Pohnpei. The shots also feature the first slow motion footage showing the details and vortices of massive waves as they form and break. The images are both hypnotising and breathtaking.
Cameraman Bali Strickland with TyphoonHD4
This super slow motion footage was captured by the TyphoonHD4 camera. Like the Photron camera used on “Planet Earth” to shoot South Africa’s breaching great white sharks, the TyphoonHD4 records continuously to a hard drive cache, at extreme shutter speeds. The TyphoonHD4 is able to retain full HD resolution up to 1000fps. Its light sensitivity – essential for underwater shooting – was what made it Cordey’s choice.
Dr. Rudolf Diesel, the German mind behind the system, was asked to designed a waterproof housing for the camera’s first foray under the sea. The unit would be making its debut in big surf, with a reef two meters below, and would need to be manageable by a single, swimming operator. Diesel, both an engineer and an expert in marine biology, was literally adjusting the camera housing until minutes before shooting.
Bali Strickland, a 29 year old Australian who has shot some of the world’s greatest surfers and greatest surfing footage, operated the TyphoonHD4. In partnership with Dylan Longbottom, he wrestled twelve foot waves and the massive camera housing, and managed to capture some of the series’ signature shots.
Even Strickland, however, was apprehensive about the job. “There was very little room for maneuver,” Cordey explains. “Bali Strickland had to use all his skill to keep himself safe, and the camera too. He said to us right from the start, ‘Look, if I get in danger, I’m sorry, but I’m letting the camera go.’” To confirm just how treacherous the shoot was, Longbottom, who some call the best surfer in the world, moments after getting one of the shots, was pushed into the reef by a wave. He managed to get the surface, almost knocked out, with blood pouring out of one ear.
Rudy Diesel has developed a second generation housing for the TyphoonHD which weighs in at 11kg – as opposed to the series’ 20kg prototype. The “South Pacific” camera was also only able to capture two 2.5-second shots at 500 fps before it had to be returned to the boat, opened, and the footage downloaded. The latest iteration of the system allows almost as much recording time as batteries will allow.
One of the great messages of the series is that life is determined and will always find a way to flourish. Cordey points out “Every single one of those thousands of islands. has been colonized by something. In the South Pacific there is no such thing as a deserted island.”
THE SOUNDS OF NATURE, PART II:
Sound Editing in Nature Docs: The Second Narrator
Neal Romanek (as printed in the October 2007
edition of TVBEurope)
If the nature documentary is one of the most important genres in British broadcasting, could Kate Hopkins and her colleague, Tim Owens, be among British broadcasting’s most important figures?
Hopkins and Owens have been sound designers on many groundbreaking wildlife documentaries, including the recent “Planet Earth” (2006), the BAFTA-winning “Blue Planet” (2001), and Sir David Attenborough’s“The Life Of Mammals” (2002). Should anyone dare suggest that documentary is a less “creative” genre than narrative programming, a conversation with Kate Hopkins will set them straight.
Kate Hopkins and Tim Owens work out of their Bristol-based company, Wounded Buffalo. It takes them roughly three weeks to cut a 50-minute segment. Cutting sound on 50 minutes of “reality” TV would take a bare fraction of that time. In the case of the nature documentary, as much work – or more – must be done as on any narrative film of that length.
One of the great secrets of the nature doc, is that virtually all sound design is created in post. Sync sound, excepting commentary by Sir David Attenborough as he crouches next to a Bower Bird, is virtually never available. Wild tracks and atmospheres may be recorded at the location, but in most cases it falls to the sound editor to create the entire soundtrack from scratch.
The irony of designing sound for a high-quality nature documentary is that although the sound editor may be manufacturing the entire soundtrack herself, the final result must pass the kinds of rigorous tests of authenticity and accuracy that no other sound track must undergo. If a humpback whale song is cut into an underwater scene shot in Hawaiian waters, it must be the humpback’s traditional Hawaiian Islands song, which is utterly distinct from the song the animal sings, say, off the coast of Alaska. Few would notice such a difference, or even care, but this is what distinguishes a film that entertains from one that educates, enlightens and captures the quintessence of life on earth.
The other invisible artists of the nature doc sound design are foley artists. All non-specific sound – rustles, footfalls on leaves, snow crunching under paws, crabs clattering over rocks – are done in foley sessions.
The stunning aerial shots of “Planet Earth” were shot using the Cineflex helicopter mount, which allowed stable close-ups to be shot from thousands of meters away. The real sound captured at the scene is merely the roar of the helicopter. But once the foley artists have had their crack at it, and those effects have been edited and mixed, an entire new level of information is brought to the fore. Even seemingly innocuous sound cues, a crunch here, a splash there, are profoundly powerful storytelling tools.
The core of the sound designers job is understanding the peculiar twist of the human brain when an action is accompanied by a simultaneous sound, the human brain makes the assumption that the action itself was the cause of the sound, and an action that creates a sound takes on greater importance than one that does not. Thus a simple bit of foley accentuating one movement or another, or subtly emphasizing the rustling of a stalking lion, literally leads our eye to very specific places on the screen at very specific moments. Watching the real scene unfold in nature, we would be very likely to miss little details of action, intent, cause, effect that are integral to the sound design. BBC nature docs have two narrators – Sir David Attenborough, and the sound effects themselves.
“Planet Earth” is a milestone in broadcasting, not only for being a start-to-finish HD production, but for its 5.1 surround sound. “We knew it was going to be that right from the beginning, which helps a lot. Within a 5.1 mix, you tend to hear more. You can spread things around much more. It’s nice for atmospheres because you can have even more atmosphere in the surround, but still not lose the voice over in the middle. Most of the sound I’ve done has had the capability to be in 5.1. There were always enough layers there. But it’s whether there’s time in the mixing.”
Bird songs represent a textbook instance where a lack of sync sound recorded while shooting presents a potential nightmare. A bird’s song may be distinct not only to a particular species in a particular location, but to a particular bird performing one particular step in a mating ritual.
Hopkins notes, “The birds of paradise, for example, have calls which are very complicated. Even experts don’t always know exactly which call is which. Sometimes if a producer likes something, sometimes the accuracy can drift a little bit because dramatically it works better.” But more often than not, a researcher is called in with expertise in the appropriate area. “Tim did a scene with the capercaille, which is a bird notoriously difficult to lay sound for because it has such a complicated call. We had various people come in to check that it was right, and in the end it was absolutely fine. Bird calls are always the most difficult. One of the worst we had was trying to get a Mandarin duck calling her chicks. We put in the only recording that we had. It was the most awful recording. It was full of hiss, and at one point I thought, We just cannot put this in because it is so horrible. But it was accurate. And within the mix, between us and the mixer, we EQ’d it and put it through a lot of software. In the end it worked.”
One of Hopkins most challenging shows – and perhaps most rewarding – was “Blue Planet”.
Her ongoing collaboration with Tim Owens allows for a thematic unity throughout the series she works on. In the case of “Blue Planet” where whole sets of effects were being created, the clear and ongoing communication characteristic of their collaboration was essential to stay on course. To some degree, the creating of sound for “Blue Planet” was like building a sound track for a science fiction movie. Creating the effects in Earth’s most unexplored regions yielded some daring choices.
“Obviously, most of ‘Blue Planet’ is underwater. It could have been just music and a general underwater track. But we decided, between the producers and the sound editors, that we were going to go for something different, because no one knows what you could actually hear underwater. There are some very natural sounds that you hear – humpback whales and shrimp clicking. But I added some much bigger noises – the fish going past – because it just adds to the strength of the images. And then there were some very tiny creatures too that I added some very strange, very designed noises. Whether it was real or not, I’m not sure that that mattered. It worked with the picture.”
Those who have seen “Blue Planet” will understand how much certain sequences hinge on their sound effects. The truly frightening scene of tuna tearing into a bait ball, for example, gains extraordinary impact from the “sound” made by the attacking tuna as they rocket past. We don’t for a moment forget the tuna is one of the fastest fish in the sea.
“If you have a huge bait ball swirling round and round and round, you just feel like you need to hear something. And I think that is what sound editing is all about – adding strength to the images. And you don’t always want to have music going through it. You need to hear what you think you might hear if you really there.”
THE SOUNDS OF NATURE, PART I:
How BBC Natural History Producers Use Sound Design To Make
The Real World Sound Real
(as printed in the September 2007
edition of TVBEurope)
The BBC nature documentaries, most recently “Planet Earth” (2006), have invariably offered stunning image upon stunning image, showing us scenes few people in world have ever glimpsed before.
“Planet Earth” featured spectacular helicopter shots using the Cineflex camera mount that allowed an unparalleled intimacy. We raced along with wolves chasing down caribou – the terrified caribou huffing, the desperate footfalls trying to outrace each other. “The Blue Planet” (2001) showed us stunning scenes of hunting dolphins whooshing through the water like rockets. “The Private Life Of Plants” (1995) showed a scraping, crunching bramble in time lapse as it crept its ruthless way to dominance.
In each of these sequences we were treated not only to visual wonders, but to the intimate soundscapes that accompanied them. Via the sounds it made, we could tell whether a subject was wet or dry, angry or tired, close or far, cautious or hell-bent.
So fans may be shocked to learn:
When the heart-pounding footage of the caribou chase was actually shot, the only sounds that could be heard were the roar of the helicopter and shouted communications among the camera crew, producer and pilot. And those mesmerizing sounds of the growing bramble? Of course, no one has ever heard the sound of a bramble growing, much less recorded it.
The truth is that, with the exception of those shots in which Sir David Attenborough addresses the camera crouched behind a bush, the great mass of a nature documentary soundtrack is deliberately and meticulously constructed in post-production. Atmospheres and sound effects may be gathered on location, but these are virtually never captured simultaneously with picture.
Some might find this disappointing, but upon closer study what is revealed is the incredible creative machinery that makes for a first-rate nature documentary, the apex of which is “Planet Earth”, featuring a 5.1 surround mix as sophisticated, as that of any science fiction movie.
I spoke with veteran nature producer Huw Cordey about his approach to the sound design of the landmark shows he’s worked ono, including “The Life Of Mammals” (2003), “Planet Earth”, and most recently the BBC documentary, “South Pacific”. Cordey’s work as a producer covers as wide a spectrum as any in the industry, going from spending days beneath the surface of the earth in one of the most spectacular caves in the world to making creative – at times purely artistic – decisions in the post-production process. In fact, it could be said that the sound editing stage is the most creative of the entire natural history cinematic process.
“You ignore sound at your peril,” Cordey began, “It tends not to be noticed – unless it’s bad, then everybody notices it. Often when I start talking about sound there’s this huge sense of disappointment. Until they understand it, there’s an initial feeling that you’ve broken the rules of documentary.”
Of course, this exposes the nature of all documentaries, and raises again the eternal discussison of whether objectivity is ever possible once the camera starts running. It is the job of the nature documentary producer to make these aesthetic decisions virtually invisible, so that as little as possible comes between the viewer and the experience of really being there in the wild.
One of Cordey’s great adventures on “Planet Earth” was the filming of the exceedingly rare wild Bactrian Camel in the icy wastes of the Gobi Desert. The extremely long lenses and camera stabilization equipment allowed intimate glimpses into the lives of these animals. Months of waiting produced only a few minutes of footage, but those few minutes were precious. Simultaneously recording the animals’ sound was not even on the table.
But the final sequence is filled with the subtle grunts, snorts, and rumbles of the camels, which make a memorable sequence verge on the magical. These camel effects were recorded by the crew on a Mongolian breeding preserve. Their domesticated status allowed recordings up close and personal. Such sound effects can describe the visceral shape and flavour of a subject in a way that the image cannot quite match.
On “The Life Of Mammals”, Cordey’s crew was very lucky to capture footage of a babirusa, a wild pig of Indonesia armed with spectacular tusks. They were not able, However, to record sound of the animal. The BBC’s massive sound libraries came to the rescue and the grunts and squeals of a real babirusa were located and employed in the final sequence. These babirusa effects had been originally been recorded in London Zoo in 1932.
It is a matter of pride on the BBC docs that the natural sounds, though not recorded in the same time and place as the images – or even in the same century –maintain impeccable scientific accuracy. Atmospheric tracks are collected at the location whenever possible, or – as is increasingly the case – existing library sound of the actual location is used. A jungle is never simply a jungle. If the original shoot took place in the Amazon, only atmospheric ambience and effects from the Amazon are employed.
This points out the superior longevity an audio library can have. It would be virtually impossible to cut in stock video or film footage into “Planet Earth”, for example. Sound effects, on the other hand, in part because they contain less data are far more forgiving of post-production equalization or digital clean-up and can lend themselves to a wider variety of uses. In addition, they are not always inextricably bound to a specific time, place, or action.
Until about 2001, the BBC deployed dedicated sound recordists to the locations with the camera crews. They recorded atmospheres, effects, and the location narratives of Sir David Attenborough, and others, either boomed or fitted with a lavalier radio mic. The library of past sound recordings has become so vast, that sending a dedicated sound recordist on a shoot is not a priority, in the absence of an on-location presenter. Producers have sometimes taken up the slack and, in a pinch, acted as the shoot’s location sound recordists. DAT’s advent as the sound equipment of choice, replacing larger, heavier analog recorders, made it all the easier for a limited crew to manage the recording.
But the animal you are most likely to hear in any nature documentary is a human being. All the non-essential sounds, the creeping footsteps of a lion, the rustle and crunch of a lizard devouring a spider, are all done in foley sessions.
“In a project I worked on a long time ago, we had a shot where a monkey was tearing the husk off a a coconut. The foley artist used gaffer tape peeling off a camera case.” The foley done on tentpole projects like “Planet Earth” is among the most sophisticated that foley artists can do. It requires skill and experience, and competent editing and mixing, to convincingly create the sound of a polar bear’s feet in the snow with no other sounds available in the Arctic waste to mask any problem spots.
“We delivered ‘Planet Earth’ on 5.1 surround. I think one of the great developments for TV is better sound. Look at our television sets – fantastic picture, but usually with just a tinny little speaker next to it. It’s always the weakest part. Why do people enjoy going out to see things on the big screen? Very often I think it’s the sound that has you on the edge of your seat. ‘Planet Earth’ is all about a cinema-style experience and sound is used to enhance that experience.”
When you watch BBC-produced “Planet Earth” – an 11-part wildlife series making its US premiere March 25 on Discovery – you probably become very angry at the increasing use of CGI in nature documentaries.
Should someone somehow convince you that, in fact, no CGI was used in “Planet Earth”, it’s still going to be hard to swallow the absurd assertion that the series was shot in HD.
In the studio, the transition from film to video has been relatively smooth. Monitored soundstage conditions have helped HD along in its progress toward become the standard motion picture recording medium. But the wild unpredictable world of documentary filmmaking, where the authenticity and transparency of the image are of paramount importance gives HD technology the chance to really show its colors – or its flaws.
“Planet Earth” is another product of what must be one of the consistently great filmmaking entities of the last 30 years – the BBC documentary department, often in collaboration with Sir David Attenborough. From the beginning of Attenborough’s tenure at the BBC in the 1970’s, the BBC pushed the envelope of what the nature documentary could be. He demanded the best technology and technicians, providing the best footage and the best science available. In a sense, every documentary series the BBC has produced has been an attempt to outdo the last one.
Alastair Fothergill, executive producer of “Planet Earth”, had been producing groundbreaking wildlife series with Attenborough since “The Trials of Life” in 1990. It was Fothergill who brought nature documentaries fully into the 21st century, by deciding to invest in equipment and techniques normally out of the budget range of nature films.
As a result, “Planet Earth” features extraordinary images of a type and quality previously only visible in the realm of big-budget commercials and features.
The workhorse camera of the series was the Panasonic VariCam HD, chosen because of its distinctly clean image and variable frame rate. The Sony HD Cam was also used in several instances. In a couple instances, where the loss of an HD camera would prove too great a risk for the continuation of the shoot – in the remote jungles of Guyana, for instance, and also a year-long Antarctic shoot – 35mm and Super 16mm cameras were used, because they were known quantities and parts could be easily replaced in the event of a breakdown. However the Panasonic VariCam endured enough environmental adversity in deserts, mountains, caves, oceans, and forests to prove itself to be admirably rugged and reliable.
Another advantage of shooting in HD was the simple, but priceless, ability to look at footage on a daily basis. Nature documentaries, relying heavily on shooting film, are also in the precarious position of never being certain of the footage quality until it returns from the lab. A great deal of time, money, and effort might be spent capturing a natural phenomenon likely to last only a couple days, only to discover a week later that it was all for naught. Looking at real “dailies” also aided in planning the next day’s shoot.
The dilation and compression of time is a tour-de-force element of “Planet Earth”. The series used, for the first time on a major wildlife program, digital cameras for time-lapse sequences. Digital still cameras captured images which were turned into QuickTime movies, and these were then rendered out to high definition images. The same benefit conferred by shooting real time HD footage was enjoyed in the time-lapse sequences. Progress on the time-lapse could easily be checked on a laptop, again reducing the chance of potential surprises when the footage was finally replayed at speed. Producer Huw Cordey, veteran of David Attenborough’s “The Life of Mammals” series, shot jungle, desert and cave sequences on “Planet Earth” and used digital time-lapse extensively: “One of the biggest problems with doing a time-lapse, because you’re not actually watching it in the time-scale that you’re filming it, is you can’t tell if it’s any good or not until you’ve seen it. Shooting film, so many of these time-lapses would be N.G. The ability to look at it saves you a lot of time, and in the end you get better sequences and better shots.”
Super 16 Arri SR2 cameras were used for high-speed shooting up to 150 fps, but “Planet Earth’s” staggering super-slow motion scenes – including shots of the unique and terrifying great white attacks on seals off the coast of South Africa – used digital technology. These slow motion scenes were shot at up to 400 fps using a Photron camera. Photron has made cameras for a variety of high speed purposes, including industrial crash-testing, since the 1970’s. The Photron camera used on “Planet Earth” is continuously running, recording to a hard drive, always maintaining a 2.5 second cache, so when the camera was activated, two-and-a-half seconds of footage previous to the “start” point has already been recorded. This allowed capture of the entirety of sudden and unpredictable moments which would have been a monumental challenge to shoot on film. “Planet Earth” was the first production to use the Photron system in the field, let alone out on the open ocean shooting great whites, or the deep jungle shooting flying frogs.
Another “Planet Earth” highlight is the series’ stunning aerial footage, which employed the Cineflex camera stabilization system. Helicopter shots can defeat their own purpose on wildlife shoots, because the noise and motion of the helicopter frighten any wildlife the helicopter approaches. The Cineflex allowed the helicopter to shoot from a long way off with animals unaware they were being observed. The Cineflex has been used widely on feature films, commercials, and news. This is the first time it has been used in a documentary. Operated by via joystick, the system consists of a gyro stabilized camera system that sits in a 14.5 inch diameter ball turret in the nose of a helicopter. It is comprised of five rotating axes, three of which are gyro-stabilized. Its stability allows use of very long lenses which be impossible to keep stable in a standard mount. A 40x zoom lens was used for “Planet Earth”.
The shooting of HD using the Cineflex brought other benefits too. Compared to bulky 35mm film camera systems, the Cineflex is fairly lightweight at about 85 lbs. In helicopter flight, even a slight weight difference can affect fuel consumption. The savings in weight allowed the aerial crew to stay up in longer, sometimes forthree hours at a time, changing tapes as necessary. A film camera system might necessitate landing after only 11 1/2 minutes – and that’s shooting a thousand foot magazine. As is often case, the simplest solutions prove the most valuable. The convenience factor of HD – not having to land to change film and the lighter system and the savings on time and fuel with the lighter system and not having to land to change film proved invaluable to the crew in terms of time, money, and ability to capture footage.
In addition to springing for technology, Fothergill went for the best crew. Michael Kelem has been the aerial D.P. on dozens of feature films including “Mission: Impossible” and “Black Hawk Down” as well as countless commercials. With over 40 years in the industry, “Planet Earth” was the first documentary he ever shot – as well as being the first production on which he had to please eight different director/producers.
The aerial photography crews consisted of three people: the segment director/producer, a helicopter pilot who was sourced at each location, and Michael Kelem. Working on a documentary brought its own set of creative challenges and also great rewards:
“For me, the shot reveals itself as I’m working. The idea comes to me in the moment and I have to be able to communicate that to the pilot on the spur of the moment and hope that he is able to see what I’m seeing and act upon it because you may only have one chance at it … We might use the topography to create a reveal or use something like a tree to give some foreground motion. Or with a really long zoom lens you can have the background spin wildly as you circle around a central point of focus. In essence, you create the shot as you see the action unfolding in front of you given the circumstances which you’ve just discovered. It’s a challenging way to work but it teaches you to go with your instincts and to be open to all possibilities.”
The series episodes, as presented by the Discovery Channel in the US, are slightly shorter than those that originally aired in the U.K. The original voiceover narration by Sir David Attenborough has been replaced in the US release with a voiceover by Oscar-nominated actress, Sigourney Weaver.