AMIRA goes wild in Kenya

ONE PLANET, a major new series produced by the BBC's world-famous Natural History Unit, will begin broadcasting in 2016, a decade on from its landmark PLANET EARTH series. By shooting in HD, PLANET EARTH broke new ground in 2006, but technology has moved on and many wildlife productions are now embracing the cinematic look afforded by large sensor cameras. The ALEXA gave natural history filmmakers a taste of what was possible, but the documentary-style AMIRA looks set to become a favorite camera within the genre. ARRI spoke with director/producer Chadden Hunter and DP Susan Gibson (who both have Emmy nominations for their previous work with ALEXA on WILD ARABIA) about taking AMIRA along for the first ONE PLANET shoot, in the savanna grasslands of Kenya.

When I look at the organic and earthy feel of the AMIRA image it strikes me as an ideal way to capture the natural world.

Why did you choose to take AMIRA on this shoot?

 

Chadden Hunter: With ONE PLANET we're trying to take a holistic approach and give an experiential feel of the wider habitat, which means we can use slightly more toys and techniques to create an immersive viewing experience. Given that, and the fact that this was the first shoot of a big series, we took out a lot of new equipment and experimented with it for the very first time. I wanted to get a feel for what the top high-end cameras available now are, and which would deliver the best results for wildlife filmmaking. Sue had used the ALEXA before, so she was really pushing for us to get our hands on the AMIRA.

 

Susan Gibson: I knew that the AMIRA was a doco-style camera with great ergonomics, and it just seemed like a compact, lightweight option that wouldn't have lots of wires hanging off it when you're shooting. I've used the ALEXA before and was blown away by it, so a camera that has the same technology in it but is more compact can only be a good thing.

What benefits did AMIRA bring you in the field?

CH: Something that's really important in the field is simply having a happy camera operator. A lot of people might think that's a bit frivolous, but it makes a huge difference when your operator is comfortable with the camera they're on and feels like they're able to express their skills on it. There are other cameras out there that frustrate operators and for me as a director that's really significant. 

SG: It's great being able to change the AMIRA's frame rate very quickly at the flick of a switch in the field, and customizing the buttons to the frame rates you want. We filmed herds of buffalo with loads of cluster flies around them and we wanted to really show the volume of flies and all the mud the buffaloes were flicking around; the 200 fps really brought that out. And we only went through about three batteries a day, which is amazing given how often we were shooting at 200 fps. I thought the battery life was brilliant, especially compared with some other cameras. 

Did the internal ND filters prove useful?

SG: We were often filming at dawn or dusk, when the light changes very quickly, so being able to easily adjust the amount of ND was very useful. You don't really want to be moving around in front of the camera when you're trying to film an animal, so the internal ND filters are a lot better than fiddling around dropping filters into a matte box, because you might scare the animal off.

How did you rate the look of images coming from the camera?

CH: There's a tonality to the image from ARRI's sensor that I just love as a field director working with natural light. Some other cameras and formats have a less realistic color balance to them. I don't know how to describe it technically, but when I look at the organic and earthy feel of the AMIRA image it strikes me as an ideal way to capture the natural world. The images and the colors are simply more beautiful and real. There seem to be two camps with the cameras out there at the moment -- pixel number versus pixel quality, and I certainly prefer the pixel quality that ARRI gives us. 

It's great being able to change the AMIRA's frame rate very quickly at the flick of a switch in the field.

SG: You don't seem to be able to under or over-expose with the AMIRA -- it's fantastic. We were putting it through quite a lot, with dark buffalo backlit against a rising sun, but the tonality was incredible. I also experimented with filming jackals and hyena after the sun had gone down completely, and the images were totally useable for situations when you're trying to capture animal behavior.

 

How easy was your workflow with the CFast 2.0 cards?

 

CH: It was incredibly easy because we could just take the cards out of the AMIRA and plug them into any old laptop in the car, and instantly watch 200 fps shots of a lion hunt at the right speed, without any extra software. It enables you to make very proactive directing decisions, so for example half-way through shooting a baboon fight we could review the frame rates we were shooting at. I haven't had such a straightforward workflow for a long time, which is fantastic for a director.

 

SG: The workflow for downloading and viewing is brilliantly easy. The CFast 2.0 cards store a great amount; ARRI lent us six 120 GB cards but we only seemed to use one or two cards per day. Clips are saved as .movs and instantly viewable in QuickTime on any laptop, without processing. So simple!