Camera kits

Pioneer Productions and Canon ME20 captures secret world of Nocturnal Britain

Pioneer Productions and Canon ME20 captures secret world of Nocturnal Britain

Sport’s broadcasters have a reputation for advancing live production techniques but wildlife filmmaking routinely pushes camera technology about as far it can go in efforts to explore the natural world. While infra-red imaging opened up the hitherto secret realm of night time behaviour to viewers, the results have never been good enough to justify more than a sequence or two in programmes. Until now.

For the first time, an entire wildlife series has been filmed at night. What’s more, it’s in colour and only possible because of recent advances in low light camera technology.

“When you know that 70 percent of mammals are nocturnal what low light photography does is open up a secret world into their natural behaviour,” says Pioneer Productions Head of Factual, Peter Collins. “It’s something we’ve never been able to see before.”

When you know that 70 percent of mammals are nocturnal what low light photography does is open up a secret world into their natural behaviour, it’s something we’ve never been able to see before.”

Pioneer Productions’ 3 x 60-minute Nocturnal Britain is a new flagship commission from Channel Five. It examines the activity of familiar creatures of the British Isles including badgers, otters, pine martins and foxes, in televisually unfamiliar night time environments.

While lots of cameras can film IR, there aren’t many that can capture colour in extreme low light. Pioneer knew this, pitched and won the commission, and headed to VMI to make further tests of the Sony AS7 II and Canon ME-20F SH.

“At VMI we wanted to work out the optimum parameters for shooting in low light and which camera performed best,” explains Hannah Ward, who with Rob Wilcox was one of two shooting PDs on the project. Natasha Fellows was a shooting AP. Series producer is Adrian Cale.

We tested both cameras in pitch blackness and then with a bit of light, gradually taking them up by gain and ISO to work out where the sweet spots for shooting were in terms of a minimal grain to light ratio. We didn’t want to go over the limit or the image would be too noisy or go lower than a certain point and not have sufficient quality to grade.

In terms of the Canon, what worked was a range between 30db and 42db with the limit at 48db. A gain at 54db could be used; “if behaviour was so amazing it couldn’t be captured otherwise,” she says. Shooting was in C-LOG in HD which suited the channel’s delivery.

The A7S’s 'sweet spot' (at higher ISO) was 128000 to a maximum of 320000. Picture Profile Cine 4 was found best for this production.

The results led Pioneer to select the ME20 as the main camera and A7S as B camera.

“With the ME20 you can switch to IR if needed,” Ward says. “Capturing wildlife behaviour was our priority but we agreed we could move to IR as a last resort. These were our limits, our style guide if you like, for the shoot.”

The shoot schedule coincided with the ‘Beast from the East’ weather conditions in late February, knocking any hopes of a full moon out of the equation.

Not to matter, since the cameras were up to the job.

“The final images aren’t murky and dark – they almost looked too good. We had to take care that it didn’t look like daylight. If you grade it too bright you forget its night time.”

The final images aren’t murky and dark – they almost looked too good. We had to take care that it didn’t look like daylight. If you grade it too bright you forget its night time

That said, the cameras needed a little help from some external light sources.

“There’s a misconception that these cameras can ‘see in the dark’ as clear as day. It’s not as straightforward as that,” advises Ward. “These aren’t ‘no light’ cameras they are ‘low light’ and that’s an important distinction. You can’t expect this to be the perfect solution. It’s not a magic camera.”

There’s a misconception that these cameras can ‘see in the dark’ as clear as day. It’s not as straightforward as that,

The brief for the filmmakers was to film animal character-led stories. This led to them filming a pack of wolves during a night when a dispute left one of its members isolated, and of a hand-reared pine martin struggling to survive in the wild.

At some of the locations, such as Bristol Zoo, the animal enclosures had some night lighting with which the animals were habituated. In other locations – such as a back garden, garden centre and a safari park - using additional light to film required great care not to disturb the animal’s normal behaviour.

“We generally used a 1x1 bi-colour LED light panel and tried to keep everything as natural as we could.”

A handheld Canon C300 was used to film each of the presenters (Steve Backshall, Miranda Krestovnikoff, Lindsey Chapman and Philippa Forrester) explaining the situation to camera. The low-light imagers were mounted on tripods and fitted with 100-400mm and 70-200mm lenses.

“You might be looking down the viewfinder of the ME20 and thinking it’s not be as good as want it to be but when you try looking with any other camera then it’s impossible to see anything at all.”

Nocturnal Britain Screens on Channel 5 on XXX

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