Stephen Fry's Planet Word
The BBC 5-part series, Planet Word, takes the viewer on a global tour of language and different forms of human communication. The presenter, Stephen Fry, wanders amongst the Turkana people of Kenya, mingles with evolutionary experts in Germany, investigates historical artefacts and has countless encounters with diverse cultures and world-leading academics in the quest for linguistic understanding. The filming of this mammoth quest was shouldered by the main DP, Simon Ffrench.
The principal camera selected by ffrench was the Sony PDW-F800, hired from London's VMI Camera Rentals. He comments: “The F800 handles well, it's sturdy and its workflow lends itself to shooting on-location.”
However, it was the image quality in all environments that was of utmost importance. ffrench says: “Modern documentary making on a global scale means travelling light. We rarely had more than a panel light or an on-board LED and frequently we were relying on practical or natural lighting. So selecting a camera with first class low light capabilities was crucial. The F800 performed well at low light, and even at 12db there was little trace of noise. We found that a slight variation on the BBC's recommended settings gave us quite flat images that could be pushed hard in the grading suite to deliver truly wonderful pictures. Shooting low contrast images meant that it was also straightforward to match the Sony footage to film shot by other second angle cameras in post.”
Although the industry is increasingly adopting card recording systems such as SxS technology or magnetic disk-based capture devices like the Nano Flash, ffrench was reassured by the F800's use of optical disks. He notes: “In my experience, they are simple, robust and secure and have the large 50Gb capacity I need. But what I find most appealing is firstly that they don't require you to be continually downloading data onto on-site back up devices – the XDCAM HD discs are complete with meta data and already in a sound archive-friendly format. And secondly, the disks are reliable, durable and big enough not to be mislaid. For a production department to receive the data on first-generation full-size disks is somehow quite reassuring.”
Armed with a Canon 22x zoom lens, and little more than a matte box, tripod and power supplies, the crews were able to capture all the action from the challenges of the African desert to a darkened room in a hushed, sterile museum. ffrench concludes: “During the four month shoot we crossed the world, sometimes flying in to shoot for a scene lasting less than a minute on screen. Using a relatively light-weight cameras like the F800 was ideal. Stripped of the usual dollies, rigs, lighting and other paraphernalia, it showed us what today's digital camcorders can achieve.”