Two new C4 shows - Mutiny and The Polygamists - reveal how the fixed rig is becoming ever more flexible. Their producers explain how the rig is now just one tool among many for telling a good story.
Big Brother famously ushered in the era of fixed rig production. The technology employed on the reality format was used on the first fixed rig ob doc series The Family in 2008 and then on One Born Every Minute in 2009.
Since then, the rig has become a staple filming device in hospitals, police stations, schools and hotels, allowing programme makers to film people in an authentic way in spaces where they couldn’t easily put crews.
Recently, the rig has started to move out of these traditional TV precincts into smaller, more intimate spaces. In 2015, Channel 4 – acknowledged as the home of fixed rig docs – broadcast Renegade Productions’ The Tribe, which took the rig to a tribal village in southern Ethiopia. More recently, Rogan Productions placed a fixed-rig of cameras inside a small, family-run gun shop in Michigan for Channel 4’s Gun Shop.
The rigs themselves have changed too. Often the rigs are smaller and more flexible, and are used in combination with observational handheld cameras.
The BBC, which for many years eschewed the fixed rig, has started using mini-rigs in this way too – as just one tool amongst many to capture a story.
For example, Keo Films BBC1 cancer documentary, The Big C & Me, used a mini-rig to film in a room where people are given chemotherapy. BBC1’s Ambulance also had a mini-rig in ambulances, but also made use of footage filmed by handheld cameras.
Two new Channel 4 shows – Mutiny and The Polygamists (w/t) – are good examples of how the rig is moving into newer, more adventurous spaces.
The Polygamists, from Keo Films, uses a rig as well as handheld cameras to film the complex dynamics of Fundamentalist Mormon family life.
The 4x60-min series features a group of Fundamentalist Mormons living in the Utah desert, in a community where their homes have been carved into the face of a vast sandstone rock. The homes have all the mod-cons of most houses – it’s just the family set up is different. One family, for example, consists of one husband, three wives and 12 children.
Vicky Mitchell, series producer of The Polygamist, says the production team debated long and hard about whether the beautiful Utah environment was the right place for a rig, which might tie them to a domestic setting and feel too claustrophobic.
So they decided on a balance between a rig and handheld cameras. “We felt this at its heart this was a series about plural marriage and juggling multiple relationships. And what the rig is incredible at is giving you those unguarded moments of intimacy. We felt the rig would capture the more subtle dynamics of the relationship between the husband, wife and sister wives.”
The house of one Fundamentalist Mormon family house was rigged, with 14 cameras and 17 positions placed in the communal living spaces. Two traditional handheld crews also filmed. In the end, some 70% of the footage was captured by traditional filming, and about 30% from the rig, which was set up by Ben Hoffman at the Complete Camera Company.
“I think that is the way things are going these days. We’ll see more and more shows that have a rig element to them – the rig is becoming another tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal like a GoPro or an Interretron,” says Mitchell.
One of the big concerns for the production team was how to balance the rig and handheld footage. The latter was shot on an FS7 with prime lenses, giving it a filmic quality. Even though rig cameras have come on in leaps and bounds, they are no match for FS7 footage. However, Mitchell says this is not such an issue for audiences. “When rigs were starting out, people agonised about how to marry up the two styles. These days it is less of an issue. If the audience is engaged with your stories and your characters, then I don’t think they really care if one thing looks ever so slightly different than the other.”
Another good example of how rigs are adapting is Mutiny. Airing this month, the doc sees nine men replicate the long journey in a tiny open boat across the South Pacific made by Captain Bligh and a handful of loyal men after the Mutiny on the Bounty.
Produced by Windfall Films, footage of the journey was captured by two embedded crew as well as a handful of fixed rig cameras attached to replica 23ft wooden boat. One, for example, was placed at the top of the mast, giving good coverage of the boat. Others, says Windfall chief executive David Dugan, were excellent at capturing footage when the embedded crew were too busy to film, or to pick up unexpected moments, like dolphins swimming past or quiet, unguarded moments of conversation on the boat.
The boat was rigged by Steve Selfe, the founder of on-board camera specialists Extreme Tec. He says: “The main challenge was to make a system that was easy to change over by very tired crew in all weather condition and carry on working for 60 days in extreme conditions.”
The system worked as follows: four broadcast quality, miniature HD waterproof cameras in fixed positions were connected to a hub that provided power and mic pre-amps. In turn, the four cameras and sound were connected to a master Odyssey recorder which could record for 12 hours if needed. 800 watts of lithium batteries powered the system and needed changing twice a day.
All video and audio was time code synchronised to a master clock on board a support ship, which followed about two miles behind. The live pictures were also transmitted back to the follow ship for the production team to log. The support boat was crucial, but tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, says Dugan. “We were typically two miles behind. We obviously wanted them to have the experience of being adrift in the Pacific without us interfering too much. But it meant we could monitor what was happening, partly as a safety issue and also so our edit producer could just see what was happening. The stuff we picked up was not broadcast quality though, so we still needed to retrieve the hard disk and swap them over. “
In fact, the kit was changed over twice a day via a complex but rudimentary method which saw fresh recorder and cameras loaded into a waterproof barrel and thrown off the back of the support boat on a 200m line for the Bounty’s End to pick up and swap over.
Footage from the rig and embedded cameramen was also complimented by pictures filmed by DoP John Livesey, of Floating Focus Facilities, who captured the boat to boat sequences and operated a drone used on the shoot. Dugan says the kit held out well despite being given “the most horrendous punishment” in a unforgiving environment. “Sea water is just the worst thing for any kind of cameras system.”
Case study: Mutiny, C4
Windfall Film’s C4 series Mutiny recreates the 1789 Pacific journey of Captain Bligh after the Mutiny of the Bounty
Why did you use a rig on the boat? “We had two embedded cameramen who were getting quite a lot of material. But because they were also crew members, things sometimes got too busy. Also we wanted the opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations that might just occur when they were not filming.”
Tell us about the rig. “We had tiny little cameras, rigged at various places. One looked down from the top of the mast – it gave a lovely top shot of them all.”
How did you get it to work out in the Pacific? “It involved quite a bit of engineering. We used an Odyssey system, which meant all the material recorded on to a hard disk which we then had to retrieve twice a day. We also had a wireless link to our support ship which followed a couple of miles behind and could pick up the signal.The stuff we picked up was not broadcast quality though, so we still needed to retrieve the hard disk and swap them over.”
How did you do that? “In a very complicated way. We had a complete change of kit, so the cameras, the Odyssey etc, were loaded into in a waterproof barrel and thrown off the back of our support boat on a very long line. The Bounty boat would slow down and sail in, hook up the barrel, take out the fresh cameras and hard disk and put in the old ones.”
What kind of footage did the rig provide? “It provided coverage. It was really good when you had rough weather or things happened like dolphins swimming past when we didn’t have the camera recording. It was different. It just gives sense of what it’s like, with wide angle shots, of being on this boat.”
How did the rig stand up to the sea? “It was given the most horrendous punishment and sea water is just worst thing for any kind of camera system. These cameras were pretty amazing. The thing we were most worried about was the connectors to the Odyssey hard drive, we didn’t want to get water into that. So we had a very well thought out, protected, bag with water proof seals on it. The boat could have turned over and righted itself and it would still have been fine.”
Case study: The Polygamists
Keo Films’ The Polygamists is an upcoming 4x60-min series for Channel 4 about a group of Fundamentalist Mormons living in Utah
What did you rig? “We rigged one of the houses used by a family with one husband, three wives and 12 children. The house is split into three apartments. Each wife has their own separate apartment – and all are interlinked – and the husband spends a night with each one on rotation. The house is in an extraordinary place, blasted into an enormous sandstone rock in middle of Utah desert. We had two exterior cameras, then cameras in each of the communal spaces in each wives’ apartment. We had 14 cameras and 17 positions.”
Where was the production team based? “This Fundamentalist Mormon community is entirely off grid. Each family has solar shed to power their houses, about 100m from their houses. Our team set up home in the solar shed. It was in the middle of the baking desert heat – it was pretty unbearable. We set up our gallery in the solar shed, then had to dig trenches to run cable to the houses. The rig team was very small – there was four of us. We had two traditional handheld crews there as well.”
What were the challenges of filming in a domestic setting? “It is not action packed drama like you get in a hospital or school. You sit through a lot of people washing up or watching TV. You have to hold your nerve and trust that something will happen. The magic is in the detail. It is in the tiny interactions. Particularly with something like plural marriage, the rig allowed us to capture the fault-lines and foibles of the relationship in a way which traditional filming couldn’t do.”
This article is taken from the March issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here