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The Future of Natural History is 8K

NHK has teamed up with British production company Icon Films and the Botswana-based Natural History Film Unit (NHFU) to produce Okavango: A Flood of Life, an 8K exploration of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.

Photo courtesy of Icon Films, NHFU Botswana & NHK.

This article first appeared in TVBEurope.

Last year, Japanese public broadcaster NHK launched the world’s first 8K channel. This commitment to producing programming in the highest visual quality available benefits content producers across a variety of genres, perhaps none more so than the world of natural history. The broadcaster has teamed up with British production company Icon Films and the Botswana-based Natural History Film Unit (NHFU) to produce Okavango: A Flood of Life, an 8K exploration of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.

“I was born there and grown up there my whole life and I’ve been making films there for 25 years,” says NHFU founder Brad Bestelink, the filmmaker behind Okavango: A Flood of Life. “What excited us about the Delta really, in terms of the 8K, is it’s the place we love and the place that I’ve grown up and you tell stories again and again and again out of that area on different subjects. To be able to show what the Delta really represents to us in such detail is what we’re really attracted to.”

Bestelink notes that the crew’s filming practices did not have to change much to accommodate 8K, but that processing all the extra data is the biggest challenge. “Beyond that I think that you’ve got to be a lot more decisive and a lot more specific about how you shoot it,” he adds. “Because it has so much resolution, it has very little room for error.” He speaks of the risk of 8K images looking “too real” if imbalanced: “You’ve got to really use the backlight, you’ve got to use the harsh environments, to sort of soften the slightly electronic look that that amount of resolution gives you. But you balance those two things together and it just becomes a totally absorbing experience.”

Photo courtesy of Icon Films, NHFU Botswana & NHK.

For Bestelink, 8K is the future of natural history cinematography. “I think as cinematographers we’re trying to engage people on the sort of visceral level. Natural history is very foreign to people. So the higher the resolution, the more immersive it becomes, the more of an experience and the more visual experience it is,” he says. “And I think that there’s no better way to watch natural history other than in the detail that 8K gives you. Watching films that we’ve done in 4K, and then watching back sequences that we’ve shot in 8K, there is a substantial difference to us and it becomes more of a visual experience than merely relying on the narrative and story. I’m going to find it very difficult to go back from shooting 8K really.”

Coming in Spring 2020, the film was shot using RED Weapon Helium cameras with super 35 8K sensors. “We have several of those in the field, we’ve got three teams, and we’ve been working on the Okavango film for about 16 months,” Bestelink explains. “About 80 per cent of it [was shot in 8K]. Where we haven’t used 8K has been for ultra high speed, where 8K hasn’t got that sort of ultra high speed frames for that.” NHK has also developed 22.2 immersive sound, though Okavango’s audio is more conventional. “We haven’t got the gear to do that,” says Bestelink, “so sound for us has been very similar to what we’ve done in the past. We have external recorders, we have various mics, and obviously we’re recording very little of it sync. It’s gathered during the production as we go.”

Given the Delta’s protected nature and high tourist intake, it’s important for Bestelink and his crew to limit their impact on the area. “We are albert recognized filmmakers, which means we have a very sustainable model,” he says. “We live in vehicles completely. We don’t even set up camps. We sleep in the vehicles, eat in the vehicles, we never build fires, we never do anything. And because of that, we have very lightweight crews. So in terms of our environmental footprint, it’s incredibly small in relation to other production companies and other productions that go on. We’re not flying crew and kit all over the world.”

Not only does this help protect the environment, it also serves the purpose of capturing the best nature footage. “We’ve grown up with wildlife, and we are about getting behavior,” says Bestelink. “So the best behavior that you’ll get from animals is when you don’t impact on what they’re doing. The amount of time we spend in the bush with this very light footprint enables that kind of behaviour to come to the fore. We pride ourselves by having the least amount of impact.

“You work with a leopard and if you’re impacting on the way that she hunts in terms of sound, in terms of noise, in terms of harassment, they’ll lose you quickly or they’ll just stop hunting,” he continues. “We’ll be working with a leopard, she’ll be hunting, and the minute a safari vehicle comes in she’ll just stop hunting. The minute the tourist vehicle goes and we’re there, she knows she can trust us and she’ll carry on hunting. So we get a lot of acknowledgement from the animals and the behaviors that they do to know that we’re not impacting on their lives. And I think that’s been the success of a lot of the stories; all the films that we do are very behavior-driven, and we get that because we have a very light touch and very little impact on the actual animal itself.”

Are other broadcasters embracing 8K as NHK are? “I’m not sure that many are,” says Bestelink. “I think the 8K issue is having the platforms to broadcast and how they transmit that signal into everybody’s home. I think Japan is one of the few countries that is really geared for 8K. And I think it’s going to be a slow phasing into other countries. Having said that, I think that people recognize that 8K is definitely the future. I think it’s as far as we can go in terms of resolution that represents closest to what our eye resolves. I think a lot of people will shoot in 8K, and they will down-res it to the formats that they can distribute on currently, so they’re future-proofing for redistribution when 8K becomes a more commonplace format.” Who says a leopard can’t change its spots?

This article first appeared in TVBEurope.