We interviewed Alastair at the 2004 Wildscreen Festival in Bristol after we both watched Volcanoes of the Deep in the IMAX theatre. The film took you three miles down to the thermalvents where the Earth’s boiling core breaks through the thin crust.
Only a few people have witnessed the events that deep. "I wanted to see the film because of the HD and you could see it didn’t really cut it. I’ve been down there so it was interesting to see." It was a throwaway statement that he had been one of those few but it made you realise that Alastair was someone who had seen extraordinary things and it was great that he wanted to show the rest of the world and in the best way possible.
"Personally having had a two year struggle I do believe HD is a very beautiful format and a wonderful way to work, particular for us who are in a business where picture and sound quality has always been the thing that we have particularly valued. Our audience, survey after survey, when the question is asked ‘What do you most enjoy about wildlife film?’ the thing they always say is the quality of the pictures.
"Planet Earth is half way through production in its five-year span. Alastair is a veteran of the big natural history production but by his own admission was a novice in using high definition at the start of production. "Our experience with HD was initially complete terror with a middle phase of ‘Oh my god I’m just beginning to understand it’.
We had terrifying decisions about what cameras to buy because we had to buy a lot of them. None of our cameramen owned the kit so we had to give them what they needed. Then there was another terrifying period when the team were going out and trying to deliver the images. I have to say it was really amazing because many of them took to it like a duck to water. I’ve been very firm and said we’ll shoot on super 16 when we need to, we’ll shoot on 35 when we need to – if we want to do low-light infra red we’re going to have to shoot in SD because there isn’t an HD camera out there. Through the understanding of people like NHK we’ve had to learn what took 40 years to learn in the film world – its been a very new experience, but a very positive experience, a wonderful experience."
The BBC co-production companies NHK and Discovery Channel initiated the high definition road map. They both required high definition deliverables and acquisition. Alastair negotiated 75% HD and 25% SD for mostly slow motion purposes.
"We had no choice to shoot anything else although we insisted on 25% SD for the slow motion element. Discovery is our major partner in the States and insisted on the use of high definition, they basically said that they weren’t willing to give us a SD budget unless we were willing to deliver in HD. At the same time NHK in Japan had said that they would love us to deliver it in HD as well.
"Frankly I was really frightened about it because if you’re doing a more straightforward documentary, I mean one that can be shot by a single cameraman with a single camera, its relatively straightforward – go to people you know and hire the right camera and you can muddle your way through. Planet Earth is a classic multi location shoot even worse than Blue Planet, we’re doing everything, every kind of animal and every type of technique we have spent forty years developing on film. I knew very, very well that the key success of Blue Planet in the UK at least was people seeing new behaviour they had never seen before.
"I wanted to use all the top wildlife cameramen, none of whom had used any of these new cameras, many of whom had never used tape at all. It was frankly a very scary process."
Advantages of SD
"One of the important things was how firm we were in the beginning, and we were supported by NHK in this, that we had to deliver up to 25% in SD. Clearly high speed photography is vital to an awful lot of what we do while filmmaking and at the moment the fastest HD tape camera runs at 60fps which is just not sufficient for the work that we need to do.
"In wildlife we don’t have a tradition of hiring gear that you have in documentaries because of the length of time in the field the only way the films are economic is to have owner operators. With Planet Earth the only way we can handle it was to buy the cameras ourselves and make that investment.
If I were a one-man band then I would be very worried about buying a camera because when you put your foot in the market, it’s changing so quickly. It’s almost the manufacturer’s fault – they’re constantly promising the next move. You’d hope your camera would be future proofed but then Sony brings out HD SR and Panasonic talk about bringing out a 1080 Varicam or a double speed Varicam. 60fps is useful but the Arriflex will go up to 125 and allows really good slow motion for birds of prey, running cheaters. For those we need at least 75 fps.
"We’ve used the Arri digital slow motion camera at 1000fps and we were very pleased with the footage we got from it but many of those cameras are designed for use in the studio. You really have to work on them to make them practical for the field and obviously you still have the limitation of the memory on the hard disc. They are very useful for key applications but they’re too expensive and too specialised. The Arriflex SR2 hasn’t been the workhorse of wildlife filmmaking for so long without good reason. It’s a very robust, very capable, very nice camera – that is one of the issues.
"If you’re fortunate as I am to have had the investment in a big series when I can say ‘I’ve got eleven hours so I can amortise the cost of that' then I can buy the cameras - but even that is a massive issue for us. At the moment we have two Sony 750s and four Varicams."
HD In Practice
"There are amazing advantages of HD – the low light work is brilliant, HD cameras are much more sensitive than many film cameras. We‘ve been using them on helicopters in a way that you never could with a film camera because you have to land the helicopter every ten minutes to change film roll, simple little advantages like that and I can list many of them, which have been wonderful and very beneficial. In macro the fact that they tend to have a much greater depth of field, which some people sometimes hate, gives a wonderful benefit to macro photography.
"Another thing is the power of the lenses, the HD chip is smaller than Super 16 which makes all your lenses much more powerful, many of the video lenses are really powerful. We worked with the Canon HJ40 lens that is equivalent to1100mm on Super 16 and it also goes right down to 10mm – it is the most beautiful lens for wild life photography.
"One of the wonderfully advantages of tape underwater is it has this strange benefit of clearing murky water effectively. You get lovely colours that you would never get on film.
"If you work hard you can get a very filmic look out of these cameras if that is what you want. Certainly that is what we wanted and our audience wants. You can get effectively ‘grainfree’ film, it takes sometime but I quite like some of the results.
"I think the way to approach it is to think of it as another tool and to recognise the power of the tool and recognise the weakness of the tool. In the end though the product is stunning."
Digital Slow motion
"There is a camera out there which gives you variable frame which is the Panasonic Varicam that happens to run at 720. To be honest we all know in wildlife film making that slow motion is vital, I don’t just mean more than 60fps, I’m amazed that almost all of the rushes that we’re getting topside back from the field are at variable frames rates. Experienced wildlife cameramen know that at 40fps an elephant looks more beautiful than at 25. The audience won’t know because it doesn’t seem to be slowed down, but it is. So until Sony bring out a variable frame rate camera people will go on using the Panasonic 720.
"You can get into timecode nightmares very quickly when changing from the variable speed tapes to normal speed tapes through the frame converter box. There are more problems but if you work with a good postproduction house I don’t think it is any more frightening than SD."
"I think you should split acquisition and delivery when you're talking about high definition. To be honest I don’t think anybody can define what high definition is – different commissioners have different demands that have a lot to do with the broadcast system they have to use. People tend to think of high definition as being tape acquisition and that simply isn’t the case, you can use film and tape to deliver high definition images. Engineers will tell you something but all engineers have different levels of demands and applications.
To be honest I don’t think you can define it, what you can say is that you know it when you see it.
"At NHK the particular taste for their Japanese audience is the wonderful clarity of HD. As soon as you start seeing grain that effect disappears. The technical chaps at Discovery explained to me that their issue is to do with the broadcast compression. They have found through testing that the compression they have to do for HDTV broadcast will potentially break up with the presence of grain. Discovery’s subscribers who have invested in the big televisions are saying ‘I’m paying for HD and its breaking up’.
"Kodak are reacting to it very cleverly and I think they have a two part strategy, one is these new Vision stocks which are certainly an improvement and the other is this grain reduction box which I saw about a year ago and it looked very impressive. Most of the grain reduction techniques that I’ve seen have created motion artifacts and what they showed me was pretty impressive.
"We’re deliberately not transferring our film rushes to the HD level yet, what we’re doing is transferring them all to SD in the hope that when we finally conform the programmes we can get the very latest grain reduction software.
"The folks at Discovery are learning as well and all they know is they have got to be able to broadcast it without break-up. Anything that they can broadcast that won’t break up they’ll go for!
"Discovery are even testing the new Sony HDV camera and early signs are quite promising. The BBC has got one which Alan Roberts was looking at. That’s an interesting market, the present camera is a consumer camera although they are talking about a professional one coming out in February. My interest in it is size, a lot of the things we do require real portability of cameras. For instance we’re doing ‘making ofs’ which will be great and Discovery HD Theater love them but I can’t deliver it on HD because I want to be able to use portable handheld cameras which capture those human moments.
People really like that so we’re doing that for Planet Earth as well.
"As for the transmission of high definition in Europe and the arrival of HD DVDs, the sooner the better. The one thing that really excites me is HD DVD because with Blue Planet for instance in the US the TV series did very well. But you’re talking about a 3 or 4 million audience, which is massive to Discovery, but not when you have 250 million people in the country. The DVD sales though of Blue Planet were fantastic and to be honest that is how I want people to watch them with no adverts. Financially the DVD sales were the biggest part of the whole Blue Planet machine.
"I think most people in Britain will see HD in home cinema type situations before it’s broadcast. Although we’ve just done a very interesting test with Windows Media 9 and our Planet Earth trailer which downloadable from the BBC web site."
"I think what is also is very exciting at the moment is this parallel technology of digital intermediate, there seems to be a great synergy between that and HD at the moment. For us when we made Blue Planet we used every single format from 35mm to DVCAM, which had to cut the mustard on 35mm.
Nobody has commented on the picture quality of Deep Blue, yet it has a whole sequence shot on DVCAM. You can get away with it when you’re under water and people don’t know how clear it should be necessarily. But that would have been completely impossible without digital intermediate.
Basically what you do is squeeze the best out of everything – you then match it. "The other wonderfully thing they have at a place like VTR is the real time grading which the Spectre provides with the Pogle on the front. The thing that I find very fascinating is the almost mystic chemistry of going from digits on a computer back to celluloid.
"The promise that VTR gave me was will ‘what you see on the screen in the grading suite will be what you see in the cinema’. It’s a frightening process because when you finally burn out your big 35mm print you have spent a lot of money. I’ll never forget it, we worked all through the summer with Mick Vincent and Lauren the fantastic French VTR technician and then finally we went into the cinema in Soho and sat down and watched the whole film mute.
I was expecting to grimace but it was beautiful and I don’t know how they did it to be honest. I don’t think they knew how they did it either! "These two worlds of film and digital are meeting, the guy who can grade in a bath is not the same type of guy who can write computer programs. Its lovely seeing the two come together."
"For Planet Earth we’re actually tendering at the moment for the post production work and what we’re saying is ‘this is what we’re going to put at the beginning and this is what we’re going to take out in the end - you tell us what you’re going to put in the middle’.
"I’d love to post it in Bristol because of the pure logistics of not having to use Great Western trains too much. There are some fantastic people in London that I would love to work with but our problem is that we’re going to be post producing the first five while we’re still shooting the second six because they are going out in two lumps on the BBC. So we really need to be in Bristol where all our team are and who could be nipping in and out of cutting rooms and post suites. If you want to do an hour in a grading suite in London that is a day out of your life. There is no way you can do that.
"Overall I have been pretty impressed with the HD kit, I was terrified that all the cameras would break down because everybody told me they would – they have been actually very, very reliable in the field. I’d love a 1080 VariCam – I’d love a single button on the Varicam that would allow me to change frame rates easily; I’d love a colour viewfinder on the Varicam, a lot of people wouldn’t, I would. I’d love a Sony camera with variable speed; I’d like a really rugged field recorder - we did a couple of tests with SR but I had to draw a line in the sand and its been a headache just to get to HD - but maybe for the next project. The wonderful things that SR provides especially their recorder which is fantastic for 3D, I can see why Hollywood are very excited about it, but I don’t think its such a driver for us yet.
"God only knows what will come round the corner for our next set of programmes. HD is just another tool and you’ve got to use these tools for what they are good at and not what they’re not good at."