For the 3x60-minute David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef for BBC1, Atlantic Productions wanted to push the tech as far as it could. Series director Mike Davis explains how
What was the driver behind the series?
David [Attenborough] first went to the Great Barrier Reef in 1957 in Zoo Quest. He was using a scuba tank that Cousteau had invented just 15 years before and a wind up Bolex 16mm camera. There was no sound or certainly no synch sound. To go back with the latest technology was one of the USPs of the series.
What were the key pieces of hardware?
We had access to the 56m research and exploration vessel The Alucia, so we were able to get the latest camera equipment into remote parts of the reef. Also we had access to a helicopter with a stabilised nose mount to get amazing aerials. Most importantly we had the Triton 3300/3 submersible. That was the key piece of tech to allow David to get down to 1000 feet and spend time looking at and getting samples of coral.
What about cameras?
Our underwater camera throughout was a RED Dragon 6K as we were keen to film in high resolution. The Triton takes three people - the pilot Buck Taylor, David and the cameraman Paul Williams. He was on board with a Sony F55 filming David’s pieces to camera. We had cameramen outside the sub, cameras mounted on the sub looking out and looking back, GoPros littered all around.
Did the extreme depth cause probems?
When we did our deep dive that became challenging. You have battery life issues and underwater cameramen can only dive to 60 metres or so. When you’re at 1000 feet you’re limited to the cameras on board. They’re controlled by one cameraman and he’s also holding a camera to film David. There are limited points of view. In some ways that informs the grammar of a deep dive; people expect the resolution to drop.
You made a VR version too for the Natural History Museum?
We had a Jaunt rig inside the submarine so you could sit with David and hear him talking to you. Outside we had the Kolor Abyss spherical rig with 6 GoPros in an underwater housing system. We could capture scenes with fish swimming all around you and also see the submarine in the distance. You can hop in and out of the sub and really feel immersed.
What other units did you have shooting?
We used timelapses on beaches to capture the turtles on Rain Island for instance. Things like coral fighting has to be done in controlled conditions in tanks just off the reef. In those we shot timelapse but with focus stacking which allowed us to choose which area we wanted to bring into sharp focus in post. If the coral’s fighting and a tentacle goes off to attack another piece of coral in the background, you can focus in on that. It meant huge amounts of storage was required. The sheer physicality of some of this imagery was a problem. Shooting 6K is great but there are only so many hard drives you can take on board and fly back with.
The BBC's head of documentaries, Patrick Holland, speaks about the kinds of shows that have worked well for his department recently, and what he is looking to commission in the year ahead in this interview.
Holland was interviewed at Televisual's Factual Festival late last year where he picked out BBC2’s recent access doc The Detectives, which centred on the Greater Manchester Police’s specialist sex crimes unit, to illustrate what he wants from indies. He argued that the access the production team had gained was important but it was also the team’s ability to “stay with the story and the intensity of their focus,” that made the show. “It isn't just about access, it's about the stories you're going to tell and what questions are you going to ask” when you get it.
He said that on many access docs, “you feel the questions stop when they get to the front door” and that he was tired of “profiling documentaries that just describe process.”
On rig shows, he argued they have a danger of losing a point of view. “Great documentary has the presence of the director catalysing what is happening. We need to empower producers to drive stories with a point of view.”