Tall Tales from Tall Sails

Tall Ship Stats
January 1, 2002

Tall Ship Stats

16 x 1-hour

Produced by: Topsail Entertainment, Halifax

Distributor: Dex Distribution, Halifax

Broadcaster: Life Network, Canada

Funders: Canadian Television Fund License Fee Program, Roger’s Cable Network Fund, Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation

Shooting: November 2000 to June 2002

Delivery: January 2002/January 2003

Budget: US$120,000 per hour

Rotating Production Crew: one director (who spends four months aboard), and one DOP (who spends seven or eight months aboard)

The crew of the Picton Castle didn’t know they were going to be part of a television show when they paid US$35,000 to sail around the world for 18 months. This sets Tall Ship Chronicles apart from other ‘reality’ series – a moniker its broadcaster, Life Network, refuses to apply to the show. There are no games. There is no prize money.

The concept is simple: a 180-foot traditional square-rigger is sailing around the world, stopping at some of the most remote islands on Earth. There are 45 people in a confined space and when they do a 28-day passage, there is no getting off. It is a compressed experience in an intense environment. The characters are disposed to constant evolution. Many are still developing into adults. In this setting, uncomfortable issues are often unavoidable. There have been romances and there have been conflicts – enough to extend the series from 13 to 16 hour-long episodes.

Filling the role

Life Network gives the go-ahead for Tall Ship Chronicles less than a month before the ship is due to set sail, putting the series in a tight spot for a narrator (who, as part of the crew, has to give up life on land for 18 months). The producers quickly find a host in Andrew Younghusband, who previously worked on the CBC’s Undercurrents and Life Network’s Food Essence.

Younghusband initially expects ‘a unified front from the crew against the TV show, which would shut it down.’ While it isn’t as bad as that, many of those on board are unhappy with the intrusion. Younghusband is seen as an actor and an outsider, which is evident in the series’ first episode. The crew is uncomfortable with the camera and avoids it, limiting the stories that can be told.

After viewing a rough cut of the first episode, however, the crew sees that they aren’t made to look stupid and radically change their accessibility. People offer to be filmed, and consider the program a way to record the voyage for both themselves and their families.

Captain Dan Moreland is in favor of documenting a way of life that few people know about. This is his second time around the world on the Picton Castle. He doesn’t think the show detracts from the voyage, and says, ‘The show doesn’t actually affect us until someone comes aboard who has seen it. Otherwise it’s just a guy we know with a camera hanging around us.’ It wasn’t always so easy. About eight months in, the captain nearly threw the film crew off for disrupting the equilibrium of the ship. Life at sea is challenging enough, he argued, without someone focusing on problems to ‘enhance the script’.

Moreland feels the voyage is a learning experience for the film crew as well. There was little time for preparation before they left, so initially, there is a lack of focus. Moreland works with the directors to develop a set of ground rules they all agree on. He says, ‘There is enough interesting subject matter without having to manipulate it.’

Hillary Drummond, 18, is completing the entire voyage. Reflecting on the series, she says, ‘It’s not a documentary, it’s a movie. There is no way to accurately represent the relationships onboard. It’s basically the director’s interpretation.’ This may be the case for someone who has lived through it and knows the difference, but for the viewers at home, it is a chance to look into a life few have the opportunity to experience.

Building stories… on time

Kelly McClughan directs nine of the 16 episodes. She took a leave of absence from Canadian pubcaster CBC, where she has worked for 17 years doing long-form documentary work for the National Magazine, Marketplace and the broadcaster’s cable affiliate CBC Newsworld. Her goal is to capture people as they really are, recording them as their journey unfolds. It isn’t easy. The directors have to work around the schedule of the ship. While at sea, the crew rotates on three different watches, which means they sleep at odd hours or are unavailable because they are on galley duty. Tracking people down is even more difficult in port, because they have no obligation to make themselves available. Some members of the crew refuse to be filmed at all.

‘Every time we go to port, the crew gets feedback from their friends and family about the show,’ says McClughan. ‘Or, they go to the chatroom on the website and see that they are being talked about. It affects them that suddenly people are judging them based on the show. It changes the way they talk in front of the camera. So when we go to port, we take four steps backwards. The level of comfort they finally achieve at sea is forgotten.’

The directors also discover that delivery deadlines are particularly vicious for trying to develop storylines. With only nine days to write each episode, they find themselves editing two or three while shooting a new one, which makes it difficult to focus on any one episode. The lack of time to reflect on what has been shot jeopardizes the creative process. It is an ongoing struggle to structure material and link stories. Subplots take time to create – time the film crew lacks – so the directors are forced to develop storylines based on film already shot, instead of on preconceived notions of what the story should be.

Time constraints also dictate that the directors be extremely organized, to keep each episode and each scene distinct from the next. Additionally, time limits the editor’s ability to look at all the tapes, with the shot-to-usage ratio averaging around 50 minutes taped for one minute of show time. McClughan observes, ‘It is more of a director’s piece than an editor’s piece.’

Robin Bicknell, who directs episodes 11, 12, and 16 of Tall Ship Chronicles, has directed docs for Toronto’s Associated Producers for the past eight years. She feels that the age group of the ship’s crew (between 18 to 30) is a difficult one to penetrate, because they are reticent and attitudinal. She thinks the ship’s social structure is like high school, with one big clique. It takes time for the crew to accept and trust a director and when a new one comes on-board, they have to establish trust all over again.

Another difficulty emerges when new people join the ship who have seen the show. Some have joined because of the show and come aboard recognizing people as characters from TV. This adds unease to what the crew is already feeling about the show. To avoid this, new people who join the ship are advised not to discuss the series.

With a crew of 45, it is difficult to know who to follow, and which characters to emphasize. Says Bicknell, ‘The most I’ve had to deal with is six people, and that felt like a lot. Even then, you only scratch the surface. This is a series, so there is more time, but I feel like each episode should stand on its own.’ She continues, ‘I’ve never cut anything in less than seven weeks. Here I have four weeks, which means I have to have a very clear plan before the filming begins. The shaping takes place in the edit suite, so there is less time to work creatively.’

The Tech Angle

Space and a rigorous sea environment mean equipment must be limited, a fact that sometimes works in the producer’s favor. Cameraman Mark Hammond says: ‘Using simple equipment means the show retains a candid quality. A more expensive camera, a sound man, and extra lighting would produce a higher resolution, but it would be more invasive. It would be more difficult to catch spontaneous moments and create an atmosphere where people forget the camera is there. It is a matter of trying to retain the reality aspect of the show.’

The main camera is a Sony DV, DRS-PD 150, with an extra on-board as back up. The producers want a consumer model small enough to carry while climbing aloft. A Sony Mini DV, the DCR-TVR 20, are also used, along with an Amphibico Underwater Housing for use in rough weather, which comes in handy during a gale in the South Pacific (when the action overshadows the poor quality of the footage). The directors find they are limited creatively by their choice because they can’t pull focus or achieve a number of other shots with these cameras.

In order to get as many different angles as possible from the limited space on-board, Hammond often takes the camera several stories above deck, bracing himself against the rigging. Everything is greased in the rigging, making it dirty and hard to get a grip on anything while holding the camera. Occasionally, he wears a safety harness, but finds it restricts his movements.

Lenses are also a concern. In such a closed environment it is necessary to use a wide-angle lens, which enhances dust and dirt in the air. Whenever the sails are adjusted, tiny fibers from the ropes become airborne and lens cleaner is constantly needed to remove spots.

With the extreme humidity and salt in the air, regular maintenance is required to keep the equipment clean. To combat corrosion, all of the camera gear is kept in pelican cases when not in use. But, only so much can be done – a keyboard on one of the computers is the first victim.

Audio Technical rf transmitters and receivers with kat 66 microphones give the camera people mobility, but audio still presents the biggest technical hurdle, because the microphones are susceptible to hits that cause the transmitter to break up. Adding mayhem to misery, scenes that start out with only one person spontaneously involve others, changing the set-up for audio.

One of the directors, Nadine Pequenza, admits her task is challenging. ‘This is the hardest actuality shoot I’ve ever done,’ she says. ‘It’s the first I’ve ever done without a soundman.’ Pequenza and the other directors begin to adapt shots to background noise and learn soft-spoken characters are best heard on the bow where it is quieter. Still, the microphones pick up everything – the ocean, the engine and the generator – drowning out voices. Tapes have to be taken to a sound studio to get rid of excess noise. Frustrated, cameraman Wade Cornell, says, ‘Audio is dictating how and when you shoot.’

Tall Ship Chronicles is shot entirely on digital video, digitally transferred for editing, and delivered for broadcast on digital beta. The show never leaves the digital realm, allowing no loss of picture or audio quality during editing and mastering. An Apple G4 with Final Cut Pro is employed for offline editing, while the Quantel Edit Box is used for online editing.

Land Woes

Getting information to the producers at Topsail Entertainment in Halifax, Canada is difficult and expensive. Communication is limited to email delivered by satellite, but it can’t support attachments and costs $0.05 a character. This means once a director is finished a segment and is back home putting the show together, host and writer Younghusband is inaccessible. Scriptwriting and voice-over sessions are scheduled for when the ship is in a port, and the production team must adapt to changes in the ship’s itinerary. When docked in Tahiti the film crew runs out of time on the mainland and is forced to soundproof a hotel on one of the smaller islands by placing mattresses over the windows. ‘It all hinges around those port dates,’ says producer Edward Peill. ‘It has to happen in that period or it backs up the whole system and you can’t deliver. So far, it has always worked out, but there’s variables that on other shows, you don’t even think about.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.