Given unprecedented access by the U.S. Navy to the USS Nimitz and its personnel, a production team shot nearly 2,000 hours of HD video from May to November 2005 for the 10-part series CARRIER, which premieres on PBS this month. It follows a core group of characters, from the admiral of the fleet to fighter pilots to scrubs, as they navigate personal conflicts around their jobs, families, faith, patriotism, love, the rites of passage, and the war on terror.
The project originated when co-creators and executive producers Mitchell Block and Maro Chermayeff discussed the rich possibilities of setting a character-driven series in a high-stakes environment. Chermayeff had experience with several documentary series set in intense environments, having produced and directed the PBS series Frontier House, among others.
“I knew the potential of finding great stories in a setting where the actions and events of the location speak and heighten the experiences of the subjects,” said Chermayeff, who also directed CARRIER. “The stories play out organically. The themes are realized and expressed through the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”
Leap Of Faith
Few settings for a documentary series are as unique as an aircraft carrier. The USS Nimitz is 24 stories high, three football fields long, and carries 85 military aircraft. It also houses 5,300 Navy personnel with an average age of 19, who live beneath the runway of a major airport and sleep on the roof of a nuclear power plant.
Along with producer/feature documentary director Deborah Dickson, Chermayeff and Block secured the access with invaluable assistance from the consulting producer Capt. David M. Kennedy (retired). Once permission became a viable reality, Chermayeff and Block brought the project to Icon Productions, an independent motion picture production company founded in 1989 by Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey.
“It was quite a leap of faith for the Navy to allow a 17-person team to embed on a carrier for a full deployment overseas,” said Chermayeff. “But after a meeting between Rear Adm. Peter Daly, David Kennedy, and myself in April of 2005, we were able to go through specifically with him what we needed to make this work.”
What was needed was full access for a deployment, with the production company maintaining final editorial control of the materials. “Rear Adm. Peter Daly ultimately came to trust that our intention was to tell an honest story about the Nimitz and the Navy through the eyes of shipmates,” said Chermayeff. “This series reflects the hard work and willingness to serve that characterizes our military, not because it omits troubling events, but because we have captured — fairly and accurately — the essential spirit of today’s Navy.”
Each of the three field producers had his own storylines and about 10 sailors they followed, based on Chermayeff’s outline, plus each field producer had a crew that included a cameraman, sound person, and PA.
Matthew Akers was one of three field producers on board the USS Nimitz for the production. “We became sailors,” he said. “We were eating meals with these guys and living with them in order to capture what they go through.”
The video crew was provided with officers quarters for sleep. While it was much more luxurious than where the enlisted personnel sleep, there were only three rooms — and all the production gear was stored there as well. “We had to be economical with the way we used our space so we weren’t all on top of each other,” recalled Akers.
They shot in HD using Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam camcorders. On the rare occasions when space constraints required a smaller camera, they used Panasonic AG-DVX100As (the footage from the SD cameras was upconverted to HD).
About 90 percent of the footage for the series was handheld, though tripods were used during interviews and for shots on the flight deck of planes taking off. “Having a tripod on a ship is not easy because there wasn’t that much space,” Akers explained. “You couldn’t setup a tripod in the galleys (hallways). And the ship’s crew was in constant movement. The verite stuff, which is a huge part of the show, is all handheld.”
Three elements that became quite intrusive for shooting on the ship were noise, time, and space. “There was an extremely large volume of noise,” said Akers. “It was hard to find a space that not only was available but that was low enough in the bowels of the ship to get away from the flight deck noise.”
Sometimes, the crew would wait for moments between flights to conduct interviews. “We’d ask a question and they would answer — and we’d do everything in between the catapult launching a plane off the flight deck,” he added.
The ambient noise inside the ship consisted of noise from various machines, the flight deck catapult, and the engines that run the ship. “The ambient noise was a huge issue and it’s part of the series,” said Akers. “It’s part of the experience of being on the ship. I hope that comes through. It was almost overwhelming at times and that’s what the sailors have to live with.”
Between equipment and personnel, there is very little free space on the USS Nimitz. “We would have to negotiate with the Navy and all the people we were following just to borrow a little space here and there for a small amount of time to shoot,” said Akers. “Figuring out the rhythm of how they live on the ship and work was a challenge. It’s really ordered. It just seems like chaos because we’re not in the Navy.”
All personnel were working full time, flying missions every day. “The core interviews with each of the main subjects we were following were very hard to schedule,” Akers admitted. “It was always up to the subjects.”
Other technical challenges came with the territory. According to Akers, the crews had extreme issues at first with radio frequency hits on audio and video recording. The carrier has enormous radar equipment on the flight deck. It also travels in a fleet of ships, one of which has an even bigger radar equipment on it. This caused a problem particularly on the flight deck, but also sometimes in the interior of the ship.
“We had special radar jackets custom designed for the cameras by PortaBrace,” said Akers. “We went through multiple variations until we finally got the right jacket made up of two layers of radar-protective material.” They couldn’t completely eliminate the noise in the picture and audio, but they were able to minimize it.
With two nuclear reactors on board, power was not a problem. “The crew of the Nimitz were extremely accommodating,” said Akers. “That ship can power a small city, so there was plenty of power for us and our chargers.”
It wasn’t extremely bright in the interior of the ship, but Akers was pleased with the low-light capabilities of the cameras. “Almost the entire time we were shooting wide open,” he said. “We were at the widest aperture on the camera. We would have to push gain every once in a while. That would add a bit of noise, but in general we were able to stay away from that.”
For interior lighting, the crews used LED instruments from Litepanels. “They had just come out with them a few months prior to our departure,” recalled Akers. “The LEDs consume very little power and you get that little bit of fill that you needed.”
CARRIER was funded the CPB/PBS Challenge Fund, which was created in 1987 as the Program Challenge Fund by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In FY07, CPB and PBS redefined the purpose of the fund in an effort to bring additional impact to the National Program Service schedule. It will begin to more fully fund high-visibility, high-impact limited series and feature-length documentaries that offer a definitive take on a subject or break new ground in popular, public service media.
Sort Out The Story
The series started the editing process at Motion Picture Enterprises (MPE) and later moved to PostWorks in New York City. “In both locations we were cutting on Avid Adrenalines networked with Avid Unity, so all the editors had access to all 1,500 hours of material,” said editor Howard Sharp. A team of assistants led by Grace Klein logged the footage as it came in, and a proprietary database, PilotWare, was used to search for shots.
Each editor was assigned two episodes and was given a lot of autonomy on this series while working with Chermayeff and Jeff Dupr for direction. They started by developing character arcs and then had a big screening before moving on to build them into the theme-based programs.
“The division of the character arcs between episodes was in some cases quite fluid until late in the process,” said Sharp. “Throughout we were swapping characters and sequences, but the theme of each show remained pretty close to Maro’s original conception.”