HD Discoveries: On Location for "Planet Earth"

When you watch Planet Earth, the 11-part wildlife series premiering this month on Discovery Channel, you are likely to become angry at the use of CG in most nature documentaries. Should you be convinced that no CG was used in Planet Earth, it's still going to be hard to swallow the assertion that most of it was shot in HD.

In the studio, the transition from film to video has been relatively smooth. Monitored soundstage conditions have helped HD video along in its growth toward becoming 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 is 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 1970s, 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, has 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 visible only in the realm of big-budget commercials and features. About 75 percent of each episode was shot in high definition. Footage was captured in more than 200 locations in 67 countries; more than 70 camera operators spent more than 2,000 days in the field for the series.

It is significant to note that preproduction for Planet Earth began five years ago, when tools and workflows for high-definition acquisition and delivery were in their infancy. At that time, BBC co-production companies NHK and Discovery Channel insisted on high-definition delivery. It is also interesting to note that when the Planet Earth series was broadcast in the United Kingdom beginning in March 2006, only a few hundred households--those in the BBC's HD broadcast trial--were able to view the series in high definition.

The workhorse camera of the series was Panasonic's AJ-HDC27 VariCam, chosen because of its distinctly clean image and variable frame rate capabilities (up to 60fps). Sony HDW-750 HDCAM cameras were also used in several instances. In a couple of locations, 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 for a year-long Antarctic shoot of penguins--35mm and Super 16mm cameras were used because they were known quantities and parts could be replaced easily in the event of a breakdown. However, the Panasonic VariCam endured environmental adversity in deserts, mountains, caves, oceans and forests to prove itself to be admirably rugged and reliable.

Another advantage of shooting video is the simple but priceless ability to look at footage on a daily basis. Producers of nature documentaries, which by and large are shot on film, are in the precarious position of never being certain of the quality of footage until the film footage is developed and returned from the lab. A great deal of time, money and effort might be spent capturing a natural phenomenon likely to last only a couple of 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 production team used digital cameras for the show's time-lapse sequences, marking the first time digital cameras were used in this manner on a major wildlife program. The images captured by the digital still cameras were turned into QuickTime movies and 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 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 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."

ARRI SR2 Super 16 cameras were used for high-speed shooting up to 150fps, but Planet Earth's staggering super-slow-motion scenes--including shots of the unique and terrifying great white attacks on seals--were captured using digital technology. These slow-motion scenes were shot at up to 400fps using a Photron camera. Photron has made cameras for a variety of high-speed purposes, including industrial crash-testing, since the 1970s.

The Photron camera used on Planet Earth was equipped with a 2.5-second cache so that, when the camera was activated, 2.5 seconds of footage previous to the "record start" point had already been saved to the camera's hard drive. This functionality allowed the production team to capture the entirety of sudden and unpredictable moments, including great white sharks hunting cape fur seals off the coast of South Africa, 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 in the deep jungle shooting flying frogs.

Another Planet Earth highlight is the series' stunning aerial footage, which employed a Cineflex high-definition gyro-stabilized camera 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 stabilized Cineflex camera system, which was usually outfitted with a Sony HDC-F950 CineAlta camera, and powerful Canon HJ40 40x zoom lens allowed the helicopter to shoot from a long way off, with animals unaware they were being observed. The Cineflex system has been used widely on feature films and commercials, as well as for news and law enforcement work; Planet Earth marks the first time it has been used in a documentary.

Operated by 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 comprises five rotating axes, three of which are gyro-stabilized. Its stability allows the use of very long lenses that would be impossible to keep stable in a standard mount.

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 lb. 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 for three hours at a time, changing tapes as necessary. A film camera system might necessitate landing after only 11 and a half minutes to reload film, and that's shooting a 1,000-foot magazine, because the camera is located outside the helicopter. As is often the case, the simplest solutions prove the most valuable. The convenience factor of HD--not having to land to change film and the fuel savings with the lighter system--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 DP on dozens of feature films, including Mission: Impossible and Black Hawk Down, and countless commercials. With more than 40 years in the industry, Planet Earth was the first documentary he shot--as well as 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."

Kelem adds, "We might use the topography to create a reveal or use something like a tree to give some foreground motion. 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."

Postproduction on Planet Earth was completed by BBC Post Production in Bristol, England. The facility invested in technology to enable a tapeless HD post solution, which included substantial data storage to eliminate the use of videotapes, to edit and deliver the series. The ingest, storage, editing, effects, grading and archive systems put to use are based on a 9TB Sledgehammer HD!O NAS from Maximum Throughput and includes Autodesk Lustre and Smoke.

The 9TB Sledgehammer is capable of holding more than 11 hours of uncompressed HD material, which is then available to artists and engineers throughout the BBC facility.

Once passed through the company's Pandora color corrector for a primary grade, 10-bit uncompressed footage was transferred in real time to the Sledgehammer over Dual Link HD-SDI. The Sledgehammer stores the material according to a user-selected naming scheme as a sequence of DPX files. Any system on the LAN can see and access these frames the moment they are stored, even while the telecine transfer continues.

BBC Post Production also invested in the Colledia for Production logging system from BBC Technology (now owned by Siemens IT Solutions and Services), which proved invaluable for the producers of Planet Earth, enabling them to create storyboards and rough cuts for a pre-edit. The key issue for the ingest was to ensure that all the metadata was downloaded into the system to produce meaningful files for batch digitizing.

The series episodes, as presented by the Discovery Channel in the U.S., 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 U.S. release with a voiceover by Oscar-nominated actress Sigourney Weaver.