Two man crews on a budget - Filming BBC 4 Britain’s Treasure Islands By Simon Vacher
22 April 2016
Stewart and Simon, Chagos Archipelago, Credit Jon Slayer
I never imagined quite what a casual conversation could lead to, until I had an e-mail from the naturalist Stewart McPherson asking would I like to travel to around the globe filming a documentary on the fourteen UK Overseas Territories (sixteen if you separate Ascension and St Helena). Such a journey would take us to every corner of the globe, from the far reaches of the icy wilds and rich wildlife havens of the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falklands, to the luxurious climates of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the searing heat of the mid-Atlantic, then the ancient island of Pitcairn in the South Pacific and finally the home UK Territories in Europe. The resounding answer was a Yes!
Initially, Stewart has imagined the project to take one year to film. In the end it took us nearly four years spread over six separate filming blocks to complete the film project, and when complete Stewart then began to write to Britain’s Treasure Islands book, the same title as the BBC 4 broadcast series.
EX1 and nanoFLASH in time-lapse mode on Ascension Island - Credit Simon Vacher
In the early stages of the project, we didn't clearly identify that this project could potentially make it to broadcast, but shortly after some discussions between myself and Stewart, we decided it would be worth investing in a camera that would allow us to record 50mbps 4:2:2 broadcast-quality footage, on a budget. In early 2012, I found the
most budget way of acquiring this quality was by purchasing a Sony EX1 along with a nanoFLASH data recorder. In the early stages of the project, we didn't clearly identify that this project could potentially make it to broadcast, but shortly after some discussions between myself and Stewart, we decided it would be worth investing in a camera that would allow us to record 50mbps 4:2:2 broadcast-quality footage, on a budget.
In early 2012, I found the
most budget way of acquiring this quality was by purchasing a Sony EX1 along with a nanoFLASH data recorder. The whole recorder would balance rather badly on top of the camera, and was a real pain to operate with! Every so often, the SDI cable connecting the camera to the nanoFLASH would cause a dropout, so we sometimes missed a take but soon learnt to keep an eye on the nanoFLASH record status. It served us well though, and acquired the footage we needed. By early 2013 for our Antarctic trip, we had brought the Sony PMW-200, a really compact yet broadcast-quality camera that allowed us to be fast on our feet while still recording the quality we wanted. It was a game changer for me! Light, portable and no cables to go wrong. Now, we see cameras like this flooding the market and it’s hard to imagine anything
During the first few filming trips, Stewart was working in between trips to try find a producer to get the series to broadcast. He would tell me “Oh, I’ve spent hours meeting with a production company, or meeting this person or that person”, and a potential lead would suddenly seem very real and solid, until they would tell him they had no money or simply wanted all the rights with giving nothing in return. Finally, coming close to the mid-way in our project, Stewart found producer Steve Nicholls, then part of the Warehouse51 team. Steve understood Stewart’s vision, then took the idea up and proposed it to the Warehouse51 team, and before we knew it there was fuel in the engine!
Although I was responsible for camera, sound (radio mic usually) and data management it also meant we could keep light and fast on our feet.
I can remember one of the early trips on Ascension Island when Stewart left me to film Masked Boobies for an afternoon, the peace and serenity will stay with me a lifetime, filming these beautiful seabirds circling in the mid-Atlantic sea thermals. I would be concentrating hard on the eye piece, when suddenly I would hear these unearthly ‘ping-ping’ noises just above my head, like a
metallic musical instrument. I would look up, and see the fluttering white angelic object of the Ascension Fairy Tern, a delicate little bird that looked as though it was a sheet of pure white paper abreast on the breeze. It’s large dark, round eyes would look inquisitively at me, wondering who or what this new object on the cliff top was!
These birds captivated me in a way I can’t describe.
Black Brow Albatross runway and camera crane - Credit Simon Vacher
Later on in early 2013 for the Falklands, Antarctic and South Georgia segment, Stewart and I had become a neat and well rehearsed team. His presenting skills had become far smoother and more natural with far less takes (far less than the 72 takes we did in underground bunkers earlier on the Ascension trip!). I also noticed that my camera work had improved, mainly because we’d invested in a better tripod (never skimp on a good tripod!), and on this this next trip to the Southern Ocean we’d brought along a Libec JB30 crane, second hand from a colleague of mine. I remember some short over- land expeditions we did while sailing around the Falklands.
Black Brow Albatross in flight & nests - Credit Simon Vacher
Watching any albatross take flight is an example of the best aviators at work, and I can't express the sheer joy in my heart watching those birds, those natural breeding sites unaffected by humans and the rest of the world. Pure magic.
Our filming schedule was pretty packed, and I have to admit any five minute rest, on a rock or a beach, or even an iceberg was well needed! Some of the most enduring conditions come in the form of sea travel, especially at 60 degrees South, where the Oceans of the nutrient rich Antarctic waters well-up to meet the South Atlantic. We spent around a month on the boat, and probably about two non-consecutive weeks at sea. Let me tell you, I didn't quite realise how badly I suffered from seasickness until I went to Antarctica. But, would I do it again? Any day! Just a chance to see those wildlife spectacles again, the friendly waddling penguin, the albatrosses and the intimate moments of humpback feeding on huge quantities of krill next to our boat, and finally the haunting depth and colour of South Georgia’s landscapes and glaciers. Truly an unforgettable experience.
So, it can be done. Regardless of your background, if you have a passion and an idea, give it a go and never give up. We are incredibly proud of the results we have achieved, and hope that the efforts of these films and Stewart’s book will contribute to the ongoing protection of these vitally important eco-systems around the world to which we, the UK citizens have a say over it’s future.
During January 2012 we filmed on Ascension Island & St. Helena in mid- Atlantic which comprised presented led scenes on volcanic spoils and wildlife scenes during day and night.
September 2012 filming on Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, Turks & Caicos, Cayman Islands. Filming presented led scenes, mangrove swamps, underwater, historical and wildlife. Careful use of equipment in extremely harsh environments.
Block Three Seven weeks - Southern Ocean
Block Four Three weeks - Pacific Ocean
January to March 2013 at sea filming around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula, returning for pickups on Ascension Island. Countless scenes on land and at sea, including species of penguins, whales, albatross, seals, icebergs, whaling stations, historical and presenter led sequences. Careful use of equipment in extremely harsh environments. Unique use of crane for special filming angles. - vimeo.com/61915237
Block four filming - Three weeks. May & June 2013 at sea filming Pitcairn and Henderson Island. Filming ancient settlers including traditional life scenes and wildlife, including presenter led sequences.
Block Five One week - Gibraltar
Block Six Three weeks - Indian Ocean
September 2013 on Gibraltar, filming closing sequences to documentary and historical secret WWII tunnels, including presenter led sequences.
August - September 2014 at sea by wooden dhow and sailing boat from Maldives to the Chagos Archipelago, Indian Ocean. Filming on pristine coral reefs and islands, including presenter led sequences.
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