Behind-the-scenes: BBC NHU Wildlife Camera Open Day

Last week, Bristol’s creative quarter was in a more hustling-and-bustling state than ever, as Digital Bristol Week events had beginners and professionals get together in a variety of departments, from 3D games to production development.
I managed to join the BBC NHU for a day to attend their wildlife camera open day event, held on Tuesday. Originally aimed at people who had worked with the BBC in the past 12 months I was able to get a ticket, though quickly realised why the original ticket restriction was in place.

Besides the fact that there is a wealth of young talent that is trying to make it as a wildlife camera person and the venue in which the event was held was relatively small, the level at which the tone was pitched was by far for the more advanced camera operator. Rather than a training day, the main session in the morning was mainly Mike Gunton (executive producer on Africa and up-coming show Survival) reading out a list of one-part or multi-part shows that are currently at various stages of commission by the BBC, whether on BBC One or BBC Two. For most programmes there was a little promo video included, made from stock footage, but one thing that I noticed was that stylistically these tended to be fast-paced and suspense-inducing. Whether this is what the tone of the show will be, I don’t know but it may be the best way to draw in commissioners and other collaborators.

As you may have noticed, I tend to say ‘camera operator’ or ‘camera person’. Although I don’t have any problem with the term ‘cameraman’, I think the whole industry is trying to shake this image of being male-dominated, with top-class camera operators like Sophie Darlington or Justine Evans. But when I was sitting in that room, surrounded by 50 odd other people, about 90% were men, and the majority of those were in their 50s, not of the smallest build and had some short, grey stubble. I wonder how they viewed me.

After this initial sales pitch of BBC programmes, there was a run-through of the various camera technologies that are currently used in broadcasting, and sometimes the pitfalls that come with them. A list is:

–       HD/Large format  (issue: small depth of field resulting in soft footage)

–       Aerial as a cheap alternative to cineflex (issue: compensating for stabilisation the crop factor is huge)

–       Underwater filming, nowadays camera operators required to do topside and underwater

–       Night-time specialist cameras (issue: very difficult to use technically)

–       Timelapse is being attempted in HDR (issue: requires A LOT of time)

–       Remote trapping

–       Macro

–       High-speed phantom miro

For a camera operator to be able to use these specialist techniques to their full limits it is important to know just what can be achieved realistically in post-production and what can’t (such as noise reduction, stabilising, sharpening etc).

After this rundown there was also a short intro about shooting in 3D, which is very difficult to do in natural history, and almost requires a complete reworking of one’s framing techniques etc. Sky Vision have honed in the 3D department, and swept David Attenborough away for it, but they did show a little clip of something they are working on with chipmunks and owls, and it looks like it will be quite spectacular.

During lunch there was a technology showcase with the various cameras. The chance to network was here, really, but most cameramen were engrossed in conversations – people like Doug Allan and Gavin Thurston were there.

The afternoon session was serious, but not quite as intense, with a rundown of safety techniques that should be in practice when filming on ledges in the tree canopy, or when diving with sharks, looking only through the viewfinder. Good general advice, not always easy when the animals approach you (think Gordon Buchanan’s polar bear episode). A final word on large format and the question as to where technology is headed (is it 3D or 4K HD?) to round off a day of a lot of information in a very short burst of time.

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