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HD, Served Cold

Jun 28, 2005 2:45 PM

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Cinematographer Michael Bowie has a tip for anyone shooting HD in the dead of winter in really cold places—bring along large Ziploc bags, insulated containers, and tons of batteries. These were among the simple but effective precautions Bowie’s camera team took while producing imagery for an upcoming PBS documentary called Fire and Ice, which details the little-known Winter War of 1939-40, when Russian forces attempted to invade Finland on the eve of World War II.

Bowie’s company, FivePointSix Studios, San Antonio, shoots lots of historical documentaries. Emmy Award-winning producer Ben Strout of production company MastersWorkMedia, Indianapolis, asked FivePointSix to shoot interviews of both Finnish and Russian survivors of the Winter War’s long-forgotten battles. The company was also asked to shoot several re-enactments of those battles at the frozen locations where they took place. According to Bowie, early in the project’s life, it became obvious to producers that HD would be the only financially viable way to shoot on their budget and timeline, and in such distant locations in the dead of winter.

“We made three separate trips to Finland and Russia and we probably could have shot film for some of it, but overall, for budgetary purposes, this project really only made sense in HD,” Bowie explains. “Since we were shooting interviews with these elderly survivors, it really helped to let the tape just roll and roll. And for the re-enactments, we shot two cameras, with lots of effects, big explosions, lots of stuntmen, and so forth. We had to shoot lots of tape of all that in tough conditions.”

Bowie adds that the same bitter cold that helped slow the advance of four Russian army divisions to a crawl in 1939 had very little effect upon the Sony HDW-F900 CineAlta HD cameras and Fujinon HA13x4.5 super wide-angle and HA16x7.8 telephoto lenses he brought to the job. In fact, Bowie says a 14in. Sony BVM-D14H54 HD monitor, Textronic HD scope, a generator, and the other equipment inside a video village organized by digital imaging technician Gary Groth operated, for the most part, without a hitch.

“The electronics worked fine in that environment, and we were well equipped,” Bowie says. “Only the pan-and-tilt controls on a Jimmy Jib that we rented gave us any problem, and we just used a little hair dryer to keep them warm. Other than that, it was just little things, like video cables that are normally flexible and limp becoming stiff like coat hangers. But none of that interfered with production.”

Part of the reason for that, Bowie suggests, were the simple precautions taken in the extreme environment. “At night when we wrapped, we put the camera into big Ziploc bags. That way, condensation formed on the outside of the bag—keeping moisture away from the electronics. Then, we took the camera out each morning and let it acclimate for a while before we began shooting.”

Batteries proved to be a bigger problem, however. “Typical battery units simply lose efficiency the longer they are exposed to the cold,” Bowie says. “There was no perfect solution to that. We brought an insulated foam chest, kept a hand warmer in there, and put our batteries in there until we needed them. We carried about eight batteries per camera, and changed them out about every 15 minutes or so. And Gary (Groth) also took to lining his parka with a couple of extra batteries to keep them warm until we needed them. You just have to be sure to keep a couple of batteries cooking at all times.”

Bowie admits that, a few years ago, the production would have had to shoot film, but says he’s glad that is no longer the case.

“(If we shot film), it would have been an enormous budget, given the amount of tape that we shot,” he says. “All those interviews alone would have made it prohibitively expensive. The people we interviewed were elderly, and many had been waiting their entire lives to tell their stories. I also believe that film can get brittle and difficult to deal with in extremely cold weather.”

—Michael Goldman

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