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Animal Kingdom: Shooting in 3D on Safari

I spent the first two weeks of August 2011 in South Africa. Two days before my crew and I flew out, I received two HXR-NX3D1U 3D cameras from Sony. We established television history by being the first to record an African safari in 3D.

Buck McNeely with production kit

The NX3D1U’s body is small and lightweight at 2.5 lb. It’s similar to a Sony Handycam configuration. Two elements screw onto the body: an audio pod and lens hood. The dual-channel audio pod also holds a stereo shotgun mic, two XLR cable audio inputs and four channel select switches. This mounts on the top of the body. The lens hood screws into the handle base on the top of the body.

Plug an Actiforce lithium battery in and open the viewfinder. The camera powers on and off when you open and close the 3.5-inch glassless color 3D viewfinder. There is no power switch.

The dual lens has an automatic exterior plastic lens shutter that also opens and closes on power up or down. No lens cap to keep track of. I liked that feature from the get-go.

Each lens records a separate video channel on either SD card/Memory Stick media or the 96 GB internal hard drive. The video is recorded as MVC, an extension of the AVCHD format. Multiview Video Coding (MVC) records left-and right-channel clips as a single file, so footage can be directly handled as 3D clips to enable import of left- and right-channel clips together.

Max and Buck McNeely shoot two Sony
NX3D1U 3D cameras in South Africa.

A silver dial located below the left side of the lens allows manual control, focus, exposure, iris and 3D depth. All the features to manipulate the camera are displayed on the viewfinder. Easy-to-navigate controls allow you to scan and view clips. You can switch the record mode between SD card and internal drive. There’s also a setting to switch to still camera mode to take high-res stills. A switch on the back of the camera allows you to switch between 2D and 3D HD modes as well. The zoom rocker control and record button are located near the back right part of the body for easy one-handed operation.

The Sony 3D camera is a very user-friendly device that we quickly learned to appreciate.

Once in Africa, we put it into play as the B-camera. We used a competitor’s full-size camera with a big Fujinon lens as the A-camera, operated by John Helgren, my other cameraman. My son, Max McNeely, started with the Sony 3D camera, so we shot HD and 3D footage simultaneously. When it was Max’s turn to hunt, I operated the 3D camera.

Still from the 3D footage of white rhinos

As we became more comfortable with the NX3D1Us, we started relying on them more. In fact, halfway through the trip we started using both 3D cameras when we went hiking in the bush because of their lightweight portability. We left the big camera in the vehicle on these excursions.

We spent a couple days at the vast Kruger National Park to film stock nature and animal footage. Visitors are not allowed out of the vehicle except in designated parking areas because Kruger is a wild environment with lions, leopards, elephants, rhino, Cape buffalo and multiple other species roaming free. In the bush, meat is meat; to a lion, man is just another source of protein.

During our visit to Kruger, we drove around and filmed out the windows. Max and I shot the two 3D cameras, while John Helgren shot the big camera. We recorded some stunning close-up footage of elephant, Cape buffalo, giraffe, zebra and others. I rolled up a towel and laid it on the window sill to pad the camera, which worked very well.

On location at the Zingelani Safaris concession, we spent several evenings in ground blinds overlooking waterholes. This tactic is effective for filming animals that come for water. One day we had three white rhinos come to our water hole. They were wary and stood around our blind for several minutes before taking a drink. I shot a sequence with two of the rhinos just five yards outside my blind’s porthole. I composed a shot that featured the closest rhino’s horn in the foreground at five yards and a second rhino’s head about 10 yards behind it, perfectly in line. The depth of field between the two heads made for an incredible 3D shot.

Guide Rassie Rasmussen, Buck and Max McNeely
glassing for big game. Max holds a Sony NX3D1U cam
mounted on a Manfrotto monopod.

The other strength we quickly discovered was the camera’s superior light-gathering capability. At sundown, when the big camera was out of light, we were able to shoot good, usable footage for an additional 15 to 20 minutes.

We shot a ton of footage in Africa—more than 350GB. We filled and downloaded both the 32GB SD cards and the internal hard drive several times. We had a Nexto DI NVS2501 750GB hard drive on hand as our storage for raw files. This new Nexto unit has slots that accept camera storage cards including SxS, P2 and SDXC. Interface ports include USB, FireWire and eSATA. I’ve used Nexto units for a couple of years now, and this is a fast, reliable drive.

We are working on editing this African footage. I’m also filming a documentary on building a new house titled The Day My House Burned Down. I’m shooting it now using these Sony 3D cameras. We have several other productions coming up, including a Colorado elk hunt with a Wounded Warrior vet who was wounded in Iraq by a car bomb.

We fell in love with this new Sony NXCAM camera and expect to put it through its paces in the weeks ahead in a variety of on-location adventure scenarios. More reports to come. We plan to release the 3D safari content in 2012 as one-hour specials, episodes and 3D Blu-ray DVDs.

Africa Field Equipment: