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Broadcast kit behind BBC’s Planet Earth Live

“Planet Earth Live is a potent combination of the big landmark global spectacles that the natural history unit at the BBC is known for -- with a new innovation, digital innovation of live broadcasting and realtime story telling. We were out there around the world telling the story of the earth, as it happens, as nature writes the script.”

“Planet Earth Live is a potent combination of the big landmark global spectacles that the natural history unit at the BBC is known for — with a new innovation, digital innovation of live broadcasting and realtime story telling. We were out there around the world telling the story of the earth, as it happens, as nature writes the script.”

Those are the words of Tim Scoones, executive producer of Planet Earth Live. The programme – which aired across several global BBC platforms during May – involved broadcasting in six different time zones, across five diverse continents, in seven locations.

“We chose May because this is a critical month for the young animals’ struggle for survival,” explains Scoones. “The lives of the Earth’s youngest animals truly hung in the balance over the course of the series including baby elephants in Kenya, black bears in Minnesota, macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka (pictured), meerkats in South Africa, grey whales in the Pacific and lion cubs in the Masaai Mara.”

Even with its considerable experience of covering numerous animal and mammal related stories, the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) needed over a year to plan such an extensive undertaking.

“Our location in Ely, Minnesota, had been filmed recently for BBC2’s The Bear Family and Me, and the producer on that series was able to offer his time and expertise in arranging filming once again,” states Senior Producer, Colin Jackson. “It was a similar tale for the Meerkat location and the Macaques in Sri Lanka. And while this helps with the potential animal stories and access to the locations, we did need to reccie the areas to locate suitable places for the live infrastructure.”

Locations via IP

A mixture of traditional OB facilities was used to provide the live coverage. In Kenya, from where the shows were presented, a Fly-away kit supplied by Presteigne Charter was employed, while in the USA, a scanner provided by local supplier PSSI Global Services was used. IP kits were the choice for South Africa, Sri Lanka and California locations. It meant the programme had live facilities at six different sites at any one time.

“The live programmes were ‘compiled’ from a UK base in BBC Bristol,” says Jackson. “Here, we were able to manage the incoming mixed-feed from USA and Kenya, and also to play in the material sent from the other locations via IP. Having a Bristol TX base also gave a further degree of resilience to the broadcast.

“For example, if the Kenya feed was to be lost due to heavy rain or technical failure, we were able to call on the USA team to pick up. In addition, as we had the material sent from Kenya to Bristol earlier in the day, we were still able to report on those stories while they fixed their problem. This would also have been true if the USA had gone off air for any reason.”

He adds, “Thankfully, it never came to using our emergency plan — but it was there all the same. A further benefit of the Bristol base was the ability to use the NHU’s extensive archive, if required, to help tell a breaking story in the field.”
On a project of this scale, one of the major problems involved communication between locations. Not only did crews spanning up to numerous time zones have to be in voice contact, it was also essential that everyone had access to other services, such as email – a facility not easily available in the Kalahari desert or in the middle of the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

“The solution was to install VSat connections to allow us to use satellite broadband to communicate by email and VoIP,” reveals Jackson.

This satellite broadband facility was also important for the filing of broadcast material. “To make best use of our budget, it was not cost effective to have a full traditional OB uplink truck in South Africa and Sri Lanka. So, we designed an editing and production workflow that allowed us to edit on location, get feedback from the Executive Producer in the UK and then send final, full-resolution material back to the UK base where final mix and dub could take place. The same equipment would also allow the teams on location to have live 2-way conversations with the presenters in the USA or Kenya.”

Specialist units

To complement the ‘live’ elements of the programmes, the BBC used a number of recording techniques to capture specific animal behaviour. For example, a thermal imaging camera developed by Ammonite (an independent Bristol-based wildlife production company) was used to show nighttime activity.

This is a modified industrial camera that records its best image quality to a PC as an .avi file. One drawback, however, is that when deployed for ‘live’ shots it has to use a composite output converted to SDI. And because it is a 4:3 format camera, the output needs to be ARC’d for transmission.

Although some quality is lost, it still enables images to be shown that would otherwise prove impossible. However, when used in PSC mode, the image is a significant improvement on older style cameras and the range of lenses that can be used is also increased.

“To secure pictures of the bears in Minnesota, a ‘den cam’ was installed by specialist wild life producers,,” explains Jackson. “The camera is a small Sony unit with a 4:3 aspect ratio that provides a composite output. Again, quality is sacrificed for access on this occasion.”

Jackson continues, “We have to strike a balance between ease of use and image quality for certain situations. Using camera traps to confirm the presence of elusive animals is something we do a lot, and for these purposes we often use Bushnell Trophy cameras, which are easily deployed and work over long periods of time in remote locations with little power requirements. What we lose in terms of image quality we gain in getting unique footage of animals we would not have normally captured using traditional methods.”

Creative techniques

When it came to shooting more traditional wildlife material, the choice was Panasonic P2 Varicam cameras shooting AVC-I 100. “This is the workhorse camera for most recent Natural History Unit epics, and allows for filming at speeds up to 50 frames per second. This gives us the ability to shoot in slow-mo to help with the cinematic nature of the production.

“To this end, we also had to film the material in progressive rather than interlaced. To achieve a consistency of look across the footage, we shot sync material also on Canon XF305 cameras – also in progressive mode.”

Jackson says that Canon HJ40 lenses were used for extreme close ups of subjects such as lions and elephants. For Meerkats and bears, where cameramen were able to be very close to the animals, HJ22 and HJ11 lenses were employed.

Editing was done on location for all of the major VT material. “The editing for the Kenyan and USA footage was completed entirely on location. However, the material from the Meerkats and Macaques stories benefitted from extra dub and mixing time at the Bristol base after the completed VT was sent from location. We used Avid Media Composer 5.5 across the series. We found this allowed for easier workflows when working with multiple formats and multiple resolutions.”

Jackson concludes, “The aim of the series was to bring some of the most charismatic stories to the screen. We used five different teams of natural history producers, directors, camera operators and OB specialists to film a host of different animals from across the globe during the crucial month of May when many of those animals’ young are taking their first breaths. And I believe our purpose was achieved with outstanding success.”

By Philip Stevens