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Nocturnal activity caught on camera for the first time

Nocturnal activity caught on camera for the first time

The biggest prize in natural history filmmaking is to capture animal behaviour in a way that's never been done before. Offspring Films achieved this in its eye-opening document of Tarsiers in their natural habitat.

The sequence is part of Monkeys: An Amazing Animal Family, a three hour series produced by the Bristol-based indie for Sky 1. Through intimate monkey encounters, sumptuous photography, field demos and a CGI family tree – biologist Patrick Aryee shows how key members of this primate family evolved bizarre body-types, intelligent behaviours and tight-knit social groups to thrive in some of the planet’s wildest landscapes.

One member of the species which the team wanted to film was the Tarsier, a tiny nocturnal hunting creature identifiable by its large bright eyes. 

“Tarsiers have been filmed before using very bright lights which not only disturbs their behaviour but causes their pupils to contract as if they are blinded,” explains director Clare Dornan. “They've also been filmed using infrared which does capture their natural behaviour but only in a black and white image. Filming them in colour, undisturbed, in their natural environment had not been achieved before.”

Advances in technology mean it could be done with right camera. Wildlife cinematographer Mark Payne-Gill worked with Offspring to test the production's principal acquisition format, Sony PMW-F55, alongside that of specialist low-light camera Canon ME20F-SH, hired from VMI. Payne-Gill had first used the model for BBC show Stargazing Live.

“The Canon is not only a much more suitable rig for run and gun shooting than a DSLR-style camera it was also clear, after tests, that the Canon's output held up much better in low light,” he says. “Because we didn't know quite how far we'd have to push the sensor on location we didn't want to risk not being able to capture the footage so we decided to take it.”

Since the Tarsier would be filmed in the dense and remote Indonesian jungle, Payne-Gill wanted to strip back the camera's form to make it easier to operate under tricky conditions.

“I asked VMI's help in minimising the amount and weight of batteries and other peripherals to make it functional, lightweight and easier to operate – essentially to try and make it into a camcorder rig,” he explains. “The communication with VMI was brilliant. I got exactly what I wanted with expert advice.”

The set-up devised by VMI included a Vocas support plate mounted on 15mm bars to the front and back of the ME20F-SH and a small Hawkwood battery mount. The kit also included a  TV Logic Alphatron viewfinder and Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q recorder with its own power. 

At the Tangkoko National Park in Sulawesi, Indonesia, local guides helped the team locate the Tarsiers in their tree-dwelling habitat. Payne-Gill began shooting with a Nikon 70-200mm lens at f2.8 and found that he didn't need the faster 85mm and 50mm lenses shooting at 1.5 and 1.4 stops because of the Canon's extraordinary low light performance. Seeking even closer up shots of the animal he selected 600mm Canon glass shooting f5.6. 

The canopy was so dense it acted like a massive nd filter over the forest floor, blocking out much of the light even in day time,” he says. “Even when the light had gone we were still shooting with the Canon 600mm and it gave us another hour of filming. Only when it was properly dark did we use a small ARRI LoCaster LED panel which really only gave a mild moonlight illumination. I pushed the Canon to 45db, the equivalent of 144000 ISO, and we were all blown away by the results.

The ME20F-SH has a ISO rated at 4 million so the camera technically had a wide headrooom of sensitivity to play with but Payne-Gill was concerned to achieve a signal to noise ratio acceptable for TV. 

“It was stunning that we could shoot at those high ISO ranges using a slow lens that you wouldn't normally consider using in that light,” he says. “We got close-ups of the animal's faces with their massive pupils and in colour so we could properly tell their story.”

Tarsiers are most active at dusk so they began filming on the F55 before switching to the Canon. The results was so remarkable that the producers decided to make the change of camera part of the editorial. 

“To help explain to the audience that these creatures are nocturnal we showed the presenter explaining to camera that we can't follow them after dark unless we use a new high tech camera that can film at night without disturbing them,” says Dornan. “When we did so the effect was impressive. The results looked as if we were filming in daylight again.”

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