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Filming in extreme conditions: Mammals production team reveal all

12/04/2024

Producer/directors Stuart Armstrong and Will Lawson detail the specialist cameras used to capture the footage for the series Dark and Cold episodes

By Matthew Corrigan

Published: April 12, 2024 Updated: April 17, 2024

Producer/directors Stuart Armstrong and Will Lawson detail the specialist cameras used to capture the footage for the series' Dark and Cold episodes

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Sir David Attenborough is once again captivating viewers with Mammals, the latest production from the BBC Studios Natural History Unit. As the six part series continues its Sunday night broadcast, TVBEurope talks to Will Lawson and Stuart Armstrong, respective producer/directors of the Cold and Dark episodes, to find out more about the challenges they faced and the innovative technology they used to overcome them.

BBC cameraman Olly Jelley films a harp seal pup, just days old, on unstable sea ice off the cost of east Greenland You used extremely sensitive cameras to capture the behaviour of the animals. Tell us more about that? Will Lawson, producer/director Cold episode:

For the Cold episode, we aimed to predominantly film during daylight hours, however, filming during winter months at polar (high) latitudes meant day-length was often severely limited. As a result, using cameras that extended the usable light beyond sunrise and sunset was important. For most of our long lens filming (when higher frame rates were not required) we opted for the RED Gemini. It guaranteed us an extra stop (or two) of light (without losing quality or dynamic range), which often made all the difference waiting out on the tundra, sea ice or in dense boreal forests.

For one sequence, to help us increase our chances of gathering less predictable behaviours, we incorporated remote camera traps. We used Cognysis camera trap systems with Sony A7siii cameras for several reasons, including their low light capabilities. Using the A7siiis we were able to extend the filming window significantly and compensate for the extremes of weather and glare that can occur in snowy locations. We could set the cameras up to expose for high glare/sunny days by manually stopping them down and using ND filters, while remaining confident that the cameras' impressive (auto) ISOs would still be able to produce quality results on darker, cloudy days.

Another sequence was filmed in the dark. The aim was to show hibernation, or rather a mammal coming out of hibernation. As the biological process itself involves the mammal warming up, we wanted to film in thermal infrared; to do this we decided to use a combination of thermal cameras - the FLIR 8500 and InfraTec's IR10300.

Director Lilian Todd-Jones and camera operator Max Smith film crocodiles and baboons gathering at dawn at the River Nile, Uganda Stuart Armstrong, producer/director, Dark episode:

We used a raft of different cameras to film at night, with each sequence often requiring a different approach. For low light filming where we were relying on moonlight alone we used Sony A7S3 and FX6 cameras. Both have the same extremely sensitive full-frame sensors, and were the most sensitive available to us during filming. We also increased this sensitivity on some of our A7S3 cameras by adapting them slightly. Filming under moonlight, when light is so minimal compared to daytime, every little helps.

For sequences where we knew the behaviour would only happen on moonless nights, or if the location didn't lend itself to low light filming because of often cloudy skies or forest to contend with, we opted to use thermal technology to film. Thermal cameras have advanced a huge amount in the last decade and the latest systems are incredible, both in resolution and range.

In Trinidad, Greater Bulldog Bats are expert fishermen, raking the water surface to try and spear an unsuspecting fish For a couple of sequences filmed in interior situations (armadillo denning inside an abandoned building and fishing bats roosting in a sea cave) we opted to film in IR to avoid disturbance to the subjects. For armadillos, we used IR-adapted ZCams as part of a fixed rig, operated remotely over 1km away from site. For fishing bats we used an IR-adapted RED Gemini.

How many cameras did you use? WL: When filming in standard long lens situations, one Red Gemini would often be in use. For camera trapping needs we used up to six of the A7siiis at any one time. For the thermal filming, we had up to two thermal cameras filming simultaneously.

SA: For the fennec fox shoot, we had both manned and unmanned cameras. Two cameramen each worked with adapted A7S3s, but we also deployed half a dozen A7S3 camera traps mounted in the Cognysis trap system. For armadillos, we rigged four IR-adapted ZCams on hotheads, to cover all locations within the abandoned building the armadillos frequented.

How were they developed? WL: The only development' we undertook was to 3D print an extension tube for one of the thermal camera lenses - which allowed us a slightly tighter shot and a narrower depth of field than the original lens allowed. This was not a permanent alteration however, but simply a temporary modification in the field.

SA: Modifications (e.g. IR conversions) were done by the camera team.

What advantages did the cameras used on these shoots give you over equipment you have used previously? WL: Apart from what I already mentioned above, the Sony A7siii is very versatile for a pro-consumer camera, delivering broadcast-quality footage at a range of frame rates. Combined with its compact, lightweight size, it meant that when not in use in camera traps, it was a good back-up option for a range of other shots e.g. on a handheld gimbal, in an underwater housing, or for filming northern lights.

Our choice of thermal imaging cameras (and their associated lenses), allowed us to
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