Unscripted television shows have long been bringing viewers on journeys to extreme locations and delivering some intense moments. CBS’s Survivor, marking its 20th anniversary this year, remains one of the format’s earliest innovators; stranding contestants in remote locations, with little more than the clothes on their back, and forcing them to team up or fend for themselves.
Here’s a look at two shows — PBS’s Expedition with Steve Backshall and Animal Planet Canada’s and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s
Biggest & Baddest — and what it takes to deliver compelling content from out in the wild to viewers at home.
EXPEDITION WITH STEVE BACKSHALL
The new PBS series, Expedition With Steve Backshall, follows modern-day adventurer Backshall as he tackles unexplored regions of the planet. The 10-episode doc series premiered in early January and will wrap up by the end of May. The show’s goal is to reveal to viewers that there are still parts of our planet that are yet to be discovered. Explorer and naturalist Backshall pursues various journeys and world firsts — tackling unclimbed peaks, unexplored cave systems and uncharted landscapes — setting foot where no human has been before.
“In Expedition With Steve Backshall, PBS gives a glimpse into some of the incredible parts of the world that have yet to be explored,” says Bill Margol, senior director, general audience programming & development for PBS. “The world is full of surprising discoveries and journeys to be made, and we hope to spark viewers’ curiosity and ignite their spirit of adventure.”
According to Backshall, “There are still countless expeditions to be conquered and world discoveries to be made, and I am honored to have had the ability to be among the first to set foot in these incredible places. It is thrilling to not know what you will find next. That’s what exploration is all about.”
To capture each and every step, a stellar behind-the-scenes crew takes to the wilderness, and then sends the footage to post, so the network can deliver the final product to viewers at home.
According to Susanna Handslip, series producer at the show’s production company True To Nature, some of the biggest production challenges include facing some pretty intense conditions and finding the right gear that will step up to the task.
“All 10 expeditions were filmed in extreme conditions — ranging from the deserts of Oman to the jungles of Borneo and the flooded caves in the Yucatan to the white-water of the Himalayas,” she says. “We needed cameras that would be robust, flexible and relatively lightweight. We needed to find cameras that could deal with 90-degree humidity, heat of up to 50 degrees, cold Himalayan nights — the Panasonic Varicam LT and Panasonic EVA1 dealt with everything without failure.”
Breaking down each of the camera choices, Handslip says the Panasonic Varicam LT features, such as the dual ISO ranging from 800 to 5000 “allowed us to capture great quality images in dense jungle where not much light filters through to the forest floor. The moment the noise appears you can change the ISO to make it disappear. The compact form of the Varicam LT allowed us to shoot with a CN7 lens — giving us 4K image quality at a manageable weight.” She continues that the Panasonic EVA1 offered the team dual ISO functionality ranging from 800 to 2500, which “worked well with the Varicam in terms of image quality” and the team used the Canon 18-80mm lens with the EVA1, which was “compact and easy to use whilst remaining robust. When running around the jungle and hiking up limestone karst pinnacles, this was important.”
There were audio challenges to overcome as well. Handslip says that when the team was in Bhutan, they needed to film the kayak team paddling unsupported each day. “The sound recordist had to rig a system that could run independently for 12 hours,” she says. “The kayak team stopped regularly to scout each set of rapids — this meant that the mics had to be rigged so they could get in and out of their kayaks without dislodging the mics.”
For these types of conditions, mics need to not only be waterproofed, but be able to withstand complete submersion. “The kayakers often rolled underwater and the mics had to continue recording immediately on surfacing without any loss of coverage.”
All sound was recorded to a Zaxcom device and then downloaded at camp each night. The team had a small generator to power the laptop and drives for the media download.
Once the media was offloaded onto mirrored LaCie Rugged hard drives (the Zaxcom SD cards were backed up onto the LaCie’s as well), media was copied from the LaCie Rugged hard drives onto master G-Technology G-RAID drives and all media copied onto shared storage at the post facility.
All post is completed at UK-based Films at 59. Post producer, Miles Hall, walks us through the workflow.
“The material is uploaded to an ISIS network here, at proxy resolution for the edit, which is all done on an Avid,” he says. “Then we link back to the high-res media that was kept on the LTO 5 or 6, and then that was restored for each of the online processes of the media. That was all done in Avid and then we did an AAF workflow from the Avid in a Baselight system, where it was graded. Then an AAF back into an Avid for the final online processes. Audio is similar, as we receive an AAF from the edit with laid time tracks in the edit, we track in Pro Tools and then we mix on the Avid S6 desk.”
According to Hall, one of the biggest challenges the post team faces is the grading. “The principle part of the grade is to try and tie the material from the different cameras together — and create a sense of atmosphere. There were certain shots, the wides for example, where we tried to make quite cinematic. What is key in the grade is basically trying to make the cameras match.
“Really the colorists' biggest challenge on this show was trying to keep those various cameras and shots together, (and) create a coherent piece, so it didn’t feel like you were looking at lots of different shots. A sense of place and narrative, not only within sequences but between sequences. So that’s really the colorist’s art really, in anything, to try and create that sense of uniformity and to maintain the narrative so that it doesn’t seem disjointed, which I think they did really well here. I think the results were great.”
Hall also points to audio challenges, for both the production and post teams, saying that anything received from a location took “quite a lot of work to make usable whilst sort of keeping it real and supporting the idea of jeopardy and excitement of the show. A lot of work was done on ensuring that the sound quality was there — sound noise reduction was done to make sure that all the location sound was audible and clean as it could be. We obviously waned to keep the sound audible, but without taking away the colors, the rough edges. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t do anything that was too highly polished, and kept our sense of place of atmosphere.”
BIGGEST & BADDEST
In the wildlife adventure series, Biggest & Baddest, biologist Niall McCann gets into some dicey situations as he investigates human-animal conflict around the world, brought on by global warming, deforestation and human encroachment into wild places. Season 3, which is produced by Gryphon Productions/Wild Planet Productions for Bell Media/Animal Planet Canada and ITV Studios Global Entertainment (which also handles worldwide sales outside Canada & the US) and is distributed by Dick Clark Productions in the US, will begin airing first in Canada on March 26th, with dates pending for the US and worldwide.
Photo credits: Andy Dittrich
Writer/director/executive producer Peter von Puttkamer, who has spent much of the past 35 years dedicating himself to bringing audiences content that he feels makes an impact on the world with his company Gryphon Production Ltd. (www.gryphonproductions.com), is behind the production and post on the series, while also working closely with post house 24 Frames Digital Films (www.24frames.ca) in Vancouver, Canada. Here, he talks with Post about some of the show’s biggest challenges technically, as well as the various dangers the crew faces while capturing footage amidst some of wildlife’s most threatening creatures — such as polar bears, King Cobra’s and alligators — and in some of the planet’s harshest environments.
“I certainly don’t want to downplay the danger on the production side of the job — other than marauding polar bears, elephants and gators, we have venomous snakes to deal with at every turn,” says von Puttkamer. “We acquire special medical evacuation insurance to chopper us out of most situations — as long as the bite and venom time limit is dealt with in time.
"Most of the time, we’re out of harm’s way. But when we’re walking in the jungle, where the tigers are, or walking at night on the leopard trails or the elephants, you know, there’s always an element of danger and risk involved in this kind of production. We did this one segment with Niall in a storm drain, and it was one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever done. It was a little crazy. With global warming, there’s more alligators in the suburbs, and they’re spreading into these towns. Someone at Gator Country got a call that an alligator was spotted in a ditch — somewhere — they didn’t know where it was. And then they’re looking down the storm drain. And sure enough, they can see a little eye shine of this gator and they don’t really know how big it is. So Niall’s job is to push the alligator, using a found garbage can, and push it out the other end while someone else ropes it as it comes out. And that was crazy because there was a moment when it was smashing into the garbage can and then scraping and trying to get his head underneath — that it could have emerged under the garbage can and God knows what...So that was scary. And he’s just a very brave individual — Niall once rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat with a friend in 60 days. And he’s crossed the polar ice caps in Greenland and done all kinds of things.”
To capture it all, von Puttkamer and DP Todd Southgate rely on the 2/3-inch 4K ENG-style Sony PXW-Z450 as his A camera and the Sony PXW-FS7 lightweight Super 35mm sensor camera as his B camera.
He says the PXWZ450’s 2/3-inch CMOS 4K sensor has “great sensitivity in low light, as well as sharp, colorful images overall, and its workflow is made even more flexible with HDR (Slog and Hybrid Log Gamma) capabilities. Compared to most larger sensor cameras, the Z450 is an ergonomically perfect fit for the mobile camera operator, with no add ons such as monitors, cables or focus knobs that might be knocked off or snagged by vines and bushes.”
For the team’s B camera, which von Puttkamer operates himself, the team uses the Sony FS7, “which I feel is the best of the lightweight Super 35mm sensor cameras that I’ve encountered — although, for our purposes, it doesn’t quite match the versatility and ease of operation of the larger, shoulder mounted Z450, but the FS7 handheld is perfect for either tripod shots or run-and-gun shooting to capture fast action.”
The team saves all of the content on-location on G-Technology SSD drives and then brings the footage back with them for post production. There, 24 Frames completes most of the post work on the show, but von Puttkamer says he does the editing himself.
“I actually discovered Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve for editing,” he says. “I’m really, really happy with it. I mean, you’re cutting on Avid, Adobe or Final Cut and then, ultimately, you go in for color and it’s always on DaVinci. And there’s a conversion that always has to happen there. So why not just edit in Davinci Resolve and you send the lab the DRP file, they have the masters, right? Then all you’re sending over is the DRP DaVinci Resolve Project file, everything opens up in Resolve and away you go. Using DaVinci Resolve was seamless.”
Von Puttkamer says that as far as challenges go, it’s mainly matching all of the different cameras and formats that the footage was captured in, once it gets into post.
“If you’re doing a dramatic TV show and you’re going to a post house, it’s relatively simple because you’re essentially shooting on three matching Alexa cameras or three matching Red cameras. And you have a DIT on set doing the color correction and pre-editing segments. So it all moves into post very clean and uniform. When we do these types of shows, though, it’s never clean and uniform because we are a global production with almost viral video elements involved. There are multi formats, multi codecs. On any given production, we have our main camera, HDR to consider, the FS7 camera. Then we have numerous GoPro cameras, a DGI Osmo, which is essentially like having a drone on a stick. We’ve also had a night vision camera, trail cameras, DGI Mavic drones. That’s a lot of formats and codecs.
“We’re shooting 4K and we’re shooting 23.98 frames per second, in some cases, we also buy a little stock footage and sometimes that comes in as 60i or 50i interlaced and then conversions have to be done. Sometimes we buy viral videos, like if we want elephant attacks or leopard attacks, things that you can’t possibly get in a few weeks of shooting. Sometimes we’re dealing with amateur video or iPhone footage, too. So you’re adding all of these dynamic elements to the show. So for the post house, it’s really a challenge trying to balance everything.
“When Niall went down into that storm sewer for the alligator, we had GoPros mounted on his chest, on his head, mounted on the barrel he was pushing. Every situation has a slightly different requirement, and in post, we have to match up those different formats and codecs. And that’s definitely a huge challenge.”
According to von Puttkamer, the team is simply trying to create “a show that is cinematic and beautiful to look at. We’re shooting it at the highest resolution possible given the circumstances, which [are] ever changing, ever changing weather, ever changing environments, animals, people. And then we have a rough and ready kind of feel to it where we’re catching animals at night. Or we’re having to rely on local people to give us their viral video. It’s just so you get a realism and a news feel to it, so that it’s not just this pristine, wildlife footage. We’re on a mission to explore why these animals are attacking people in the field, trying to educate and prevent future problems between wildlife and man, so it requires a whole range of cameras and a different look, so it really comes across like we’re on an adventure. It’s not as if we simply set up in a tent and set out a camera for six months to film cheetahs and gazelles. It’s not like that. We’re on a mission with our host to explore the world and meet these people and encounter the animals.”