Amazing Race: Weathering Extreme Elements for the Iditarod
The Iditarod sled dog race is a notoriously grueling and highly competitive trek through the Alaskan interior. The race kicks off with a ceremonial start in Anchorage and goes for anywhere from eight to 15 days. The competitors endure blizzards that can cause whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds that can bring the wind chill down to -100 degrees.
By the time the sled teams reach the finish at Nome, Ala., they've traversed almost 1,200 miles across tundra, hills, mountains and forests.
This year, the sled teams weren't the only ones battling the elements. The entire race was recorded on video using Panasonic P2 HD camcorders, which had to endure the same rough conditions as the racers themselves. Three video crews were trained and fielded, equipped with five Panasonic P2 HD AJ-HPX2000 2/3-inch shoulder-mount camcorders and five AG-HVX200 handheld camcorders to capture footage of the 87 sled teams.
On the Trail
An official Iditarod crew posted video stories daily on the official Iditarod Insider Web site (www.iditarod.com). Another crew covered the race for the Versus network (formerly Outdoor Life Network), which broadcast a series of one-hour documentaries shortly after the race. Finally, there was a Panasonic P2 crew, which trained the two other crews on the P2 cameras and workflow. Two members of the Panasonic group actually followed the other two groups all the way to Nome to document how the crews and workflows held up under the extreme conditions.
Bernie Mitchell, president of Silver Platter Productions, was part of the crew that followed and documented the production through most of the race. "I am happy to say that all three crews loved the gear and had essentially no problems. The Insider crew was able to shoot, edit and post more daily stories than ever before. The Versus crew reported no P2 camera failures, and I had a great time shooting on the trail."
The groups used an array of vehicles--ranging from airplanes to a helicopter with a Wescam rig (recording directly to a P2 field recording deck) to snowmobiles--as they gathered more than 140 hours of footage. Crews would record on their P2 cards, then send the cards back to the way stations--or "base camps"--for offloading into one of three Final Cut Pro editing systems. Two systems moved with the crews, and one, the Versus offload station, would move from base camp to base camp as the rest of the support team moved.
Panasonic P2 was chosen for the shoot because of its lack of moving parts, making it ideal for the Arctic Iditarod conditions. "I sincerely doubt Mini DV tape would even work at 50 degrees below zero for long," says Barry Green of Fiercely Independent Films, who was one of the technicians who set up the cameras and trained the shooters on the HVX200s before the race.
In the cold weather of Alaska, the internal guts of a camcorder aren't the only cause for concern. Another major issue is power--specifically, how to keep batteries warm.
Each HVX200 crew was supplied with two Anton/Bauer ElipZ 10K batteries, and the HPX2000 crews each used four Anton/Bauer HyTron batteries. The batteries had multiple chargers and were recharged at the way stations every night.
All of the cameras on the shoot were supplied with PortaBrace cold weather jackets, which also aid in keeping the batteries themselves warm. Some camera operators taped chemical hand-warmers to the batteries, a technique that helps to counteract the cold. According to Mitchell, the process was relatively trouble-free.
"A couple of shooters commented on battery issues with the HyTron 140 in the cold, but once [the batteries] got warm, they recovered. They also left the cameras on in standby to keep the batteries flowing and warm," says Mitchell. "I used the Anton/Bauer ElipZ battery and it worked fine."
Green commented that the wind in Anchorage was strong enough to rip the doors off cars, so getting usable sound on the trail, where the wind gets even stronger, was a tricky issue, to say the least. The Panasonic crew shot exclusively with the HVX200 and used a short shotgun mic with a zeppelin, or sometimes just the on-camera mic, depending on the circumstance. The HPX2000 crews had shotgun mics with Rycote Softie windshields. "No lavalieres were used while I was there, and I certainly don't expect that they'll be used out on the trail," added Green.
Taking into account that they're participating in a grueling 1,200-mile race, the mushers were accommodating in terms of interviews with the crews. The less predictable part of the equation is the animals themselves. When asked about how it was working with the sled dogs, Green said there weren't any issues at all.
"The dogs are highly skilled athletes. They're not house dogs--they're focused canine athletes," he explains. "I don't know if they play fetch during the off-season, but when we were, there the dogs were all business and rarin' to go."