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Thursday, 17 March 2011 22:56

Shooting Polar Bears on Arctic Ice, in 3D, with a Thin 2D Crew

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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ShootingIn3D_IMG_0201SFWWhen planning to shoot a 3D documentary on polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, Filmmaker Adam Ravetch, an Arctic wildlife doc veteran, needed a rig that was capable of vertical and horizontal configurations. He used a prototype of Element Technica’s mid-sized Pulsar 3D rig coupled with Sony P1 HD cameras. “With the Pulsar we could configure the cameras side by side, or one atop the other in the beamsplitter mode,” reports Ravetch. “This enabled us to keep our weight to a minimum while having multiple 3D shooting options, depending upon how close we were to the subject that day.”

Under normal conditions, the Pulsar can be switched from one mode to the other (in under 15 minutes) by an experienced hand. But the challenging environment and extreme cold of the Canadian Arctic’s late fall weather made changing modes in the field iffy at best. “Switching modes [from side-by-side to beamsplitter mode or vice versa] involved using bare hands to handle small working parts,” explains Tech Stereographer Maninder “Indy” Saini. “It’s not something you want to do in a windswept ice field. You need to be in a secure, sheltered place to do that, so we only tackled that at base camp, at night. We had to stick to one mode for a day at a time.” Saini and Ravetch decided which mode to use (beamsplitter or side-by-side) after reviewing the day’s footage, based on the kind of shots they needed and their proximity to the bears.

“We used the beamsplitter mode whenever we thought we’d be 30 feet or closer to the bears because with a side-by-side [configuration] you can’t adjust the interocular enough if much closer than that,” Saini says. “We also chose the beamsplitter mode to provide an immersive [3D] experience with [wide-angle] vistas. It just wasn’t feasible to switch modes in the field. Not only would we have lost valuable production time, but it would have been very tough to make all the adjustments with frozen fingertips.” Their Pulsar rig was subjected to enough adversity as it was. “For a while we were shooting in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero, plus wind chill,” says Saini.  “Several times it got cold enough that the electronics wouldn’t work and we had to make the interocular adjustments manually,” explains Ravetch. Saini adds, “Sometimes we had to shoot in blizzard conditions and wrapped the lenses tightly in sheepskin to keep them warm. We worked really hard to keep snow off the lens elements and mirror [in beamsplitter mode] to maintain the integrity of the 3D image.”

Another major challenge was coping with all of the environmental and technical challenges with a crew of only two versus four to eight crewmembers on a 3D feature set. When approaching the bears they had to keep the crew to an absolute minimum: two plus a guide/guard. This sometimes required Ravetch and Saini to do double duty as sherpas as well. “I had to carry roughly 75 pounds of gear in a backpack whenever we left the sled behind to approach closer to the bears,” says Saini. “I had a 12-inch Transvideo [International] 3D monitor, two AJA Ki Pros, a time-code generator and two bags of batteries weighing 35 pounds.”

At 65+ pounds, Ravetch’s camera rig/tripod package was slightly lighter, but he had to carry it mounted on a hefty OConnor 2575 tripod, all while stalking the bears. “One of my goals is to demonstrate that it is feasible to shoot wildlife in 3D with a minimal crew,” says Ravetch. “It’s not easy, but it is possible. With 2D, you have only one of everything and it’s much easier to run and gun. But with two cameras, lenses, recorders, etc., all of which have to be in perfect sync, it takes a few minutes or so to reconnect everything after [detaching and] moving. In the process you do miss some things, but overall we got at least 90 percent of what we were after. We were in an area with a lot of bears, so we had plenty of opportunities to shoot the interactions we were after.

“Ultimately, it is all about the story and about utilizing 3D as a storytelling technique rather than as a gimmick,” Ravetch concludes. His underlying goal is to keep the gear and crew lean and light so that he can get close enough to the bears to capture all of their behaviors that comprise the main story elements all in good 3D. In the future, Ravetch hopes to add a few more helpful tools, including a small boom-mounted camera, an underwater housing, a dedicated remote camera, a jib and a Martian-style rover to haul all the gear over the rugged tundra and ice fields.

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