The 1999 Eco-Challenge in Patagonia, Argentina, has been dubbed the ‘HDcam Challenge,’ as it represents the first large-scale deployment of HDcam equipment in a rugged, remote location. At the SONY sponsored event, at least twenty HDcams were used over two weeks by the 19 crews that covered the 12-day race (Dec. 1-12). Explains Discovery executive producer Angus Yates, of the set-up: ‘Rather than sending cameras out for repair, we had technicians on standby, and five extra cameras in reserve. We had our own technical people plus several engineers which sony provided for on-the-ground tech support.’
Despite shooting through a raging snowstorm, gale force winds, rainfall and other environmental extremes, there was a conspicuous dearth of technical crises during the week-long event. ‘It was amazing how well all of the equipment performed despite the weather and environmental extremes,’ explained Yates. ‘We prepared and probably over-compensated for a wide range of contingencies. We also had several extra cameras for backup, enabling us to rotate cameras periodically. As soon as a camera required attention it went on the bench and was immediately replaced by another. What was amazing was how seldom that happened.
‘The most serious damage occurred when a viewfinder was sheared off by the chopper. Otherwise, the cameras kept on working despite enduring several hard knocks. Overall, the HDcams performed every bit as well as the toughest digi-beta or betaSP cameras. In retrospect, we may have over-prepared for crises.’
Besides fielding 19 HD camera crews, Discovery equipped many field producers with consumer-grade pro-DV format camcorders. One, the TRV-9 mini-DV camcorder, was selected partly due to its ability to utilize infra-red radiation, providing race coverage at night. They also used SONY’s pint-sized, progressive-scan DV camcorder, the PD100A, for shooting POVs and behind-the-scenes footage. According to Yates, even these relatively inexpensive cameras held up.
The HDW250, a portable HDCam VTR, also fared well. Explained Gary Chiles, field producer for Wescam, the Ontario, Canada-based company that provided camera stabilization equipment aboard helicopters and boats: ‘With the DXC H10 camera mounted on our [camera] ball and the portable [HDcam] VTR inside the chopper, we could shoot continuously without having to land in order to change tapes, as would have been the case with an HDcam mounted on the ball. Landing every hour or two could have been a major hassle, especially in the mountains. We now know that we can shoot HD all day – or at least as long as our fuel lasts.’
Besides shooting footage for a four-hour special on the Eco-Challenge to be broadcast in March 2000, an additional 14+ hours of Discovery programming will be generated from the more than 500 hours of footage (HD and DV) shot in Patagonia. This includes special reports for Discovery News and for Discovery Latin America and Canada, plus segments, programs and specials for Discovery’s Health, Science, Travel and other channels.
In addition to those projects, daily video news releases were produced in English and in Spanish, blending down-converted HDcam footage with DV and DVCam footage, all of which was dubbed to digital betacam. The editing was done on sony’s ES-7 linear/non-linear edit stations and was edited by a team of Discovery editors. The VNRS were up-linked daily to Miami and sent around the globe via a satellite truck owned and operated by ARTEAR, Argentina’s biggest commercial network. Equally impressive was the fact that race participants got to view an edited highlight tape (in HD) at a closing ceremony in the Patagonian wilderness.
Remarkably, Yates and Discovery undertook the HD challenge during the cablecaster’s final year as the primary broadcaster. Yates wants to make sure the lessons learned this year will not be lost. ‘Our success in Patagonia should pave the way for much more HD production at Discovery in the future – leading up to a full time HD service. We’re also planning a new Eco-Challenge-style event of our own, hopefully for next year. We invented this endurance race and want to continue with it. It embodies our motto: discover your world. However, we have several hundred hours of hd tape to look through and edit before we get down to serious planning.’