Anyone looking at the photographs of a crab-louse recently captured by Mona Lisa Production is paralyzed by two conflicting thoughts: how beautiful the images are and how hideous a louse is. Despite one’s initial revulsion to the physical details of these creepy creatures – every intimate wrinkle, hair and joint of the louse is magnified using an environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) – the first thought eventually dominates. The stunning images reveal the minutiae of a world in which man had previously only scratched the surface.
The desire to film new environments or witness unself-conscious behavior originates with a filmmaker, but the ability to do so often depends on whether the requisite technology is available. As a result, doc-makers continue to push proven technologies, such as the ESEM, to perform new tricks. Meanwhile, advances in medical discovery are stretching the scope of what can be captured on film, and cameras continue to shrink and improve, giving filmmakers greater versatility in the field.
Capturing what you didn’t know was there
Lice aren’t the first miniature monsters to find themselves under the ESEM. Since 1997, Mona Lisa’s Thierry Berrod and Quincy Russel have filmed mites, mosquitoes, termites and flies for the series Squatters – Wildlife on Man (See RealScreen, April 2000). Lice are, however, the first creatures they have captured in a continuous 360-degree shot – a feat achieved by having the platform of the ESEM chamber rotate synchronously with the microscope’s electron waves. Says Pierre-Francois Gaudry, a producer with the Lyon, France-based prodco, ‘The platform has to rotate a fraction of a degree per second if the ESEM is to capture each stage of the rotation. If the platform is rotating too quickly, you’ll have breaks in the movement, as if you saw one image and then a fraction of a second later, a new image.’
Mona Lisa has partnered with Philips Electronic Optics to develop ESEM photography. Gaudry estimates it took about one year for the idea of shooting 360-degree photos to become a reality. ‘This is real research and development work for them,’ he explains. ‘People using electron microscopes are looking for more means of visualization.’ Mona Lisa paid for a portion of the development costs, which Gaudry estimates cost the prodco about US$30,000.
In addition to Squatters, the technology will be used for two of Mona Lisa’s upcoming projects: 360°: At the Heart of the Invisible, a short format series comprised of two-minute vignettes of over 100 insects, each starting with a once-around shot; and a 52-minute special, now in development, that will journey between the world people experience (through the five senses) and the everyday, undetected activity of life. The latter has prompted interest from pubcaster France 2 and National Geographic.
The prodco is also trying to find a way to let specimens swim inside the ESEM. ‘We want to be able to visualize microscopic creatures in liquid,’ says Gaudry. ‘This is difficult, because you have to have the liquid in something. To allow the ESEM to visualize the creature, the electrons have to go through the walls of the liquid and the chamber without distorting the picture.’ Gaudry says the Philips team is developing what he describes as ‘very thin membranes that make a microscopic sandwich with the liquid.’ If the product tests well, Berrod and Russel plan to explore bacteria in the Squatters series.
Bolstered by their success with the ESEM, the French filmmakers are beginning to investigate other technologies that could open up fresh approaches to familiar subjects. For Animan, a six-part series developed with France 2, Mona Lisa plans to use Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology to get inside the mind of nature’s six most intelligent animals – the pig, ape, wolf, dolphin, rat and dog. Says Gaudry, ‘We are looking to develop technology that could locate various areas of the animals’ brains to explain their intelligence and behavioral traits.’ Although the prodco is still consulting with a number of experts about the technical aspects of the project, it plans to deliver the first 52-minute episode in 2006, completing one episode per year thereafter. The program has an estimated budget of US$370,000.
What you can’t see can film you
While Mona Lisa Production is refining specialized cameras to film all things small, London-based engineer/journalist Allan Harraden continues to specialize in finding clever ways to hide small cameras. Thinking of going undercover to capture never-before-seen footage? Harraden has outfit T-shirts, mobile phones, even a pair of shoes with the latest mini DV cams. ‘Any article of clothing is possible,’ says Harraden. ‘People come to us with a description of what they’re doing and where they’re going, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re not discovered.’
How Harraden hides the cameras is a trade secret he promises will stay within the walls of his company, Oztex. He is also reluctant to reveal the various places cameras can be hidden, but his reasons for being tight-lipped go beyond maintaining a competitive advantage. ‘We take on some very dangerous situations,’ explains Harraden. ‘If people find out what we’re wearing or how we’re doing it, it compromises the people who are working undercover.’
Harraden estimates the equipment averages between £2,000 (US$3,000) and £3,000 ($4,500) to purchase, but Oztex usually rents what they need, albeit from manufacturers not immediately accessible to just any producer walking in off the street. ‘Every six months a new camera comes out that’s smaller and slightly better quality,’ he notes. ‘It’s still not at broadcast standard, but it’s getting closer, which enables you to use it in different ways.’
So far, the U.K.’s ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have signed up for Harraden’s services. Alex Holmes, creative director of documentaries at the BBC, is also a long time collaborator. ‘I’ve seen amazing footage shot in the Second World War of the Nazi occupation of Greece that was shot out of the bottom of a biscuit tin. Secret cameras aren’t anything new,’ says Holmes. What is new, he continues, is that secret cameras are now sophisticated enough to be used as the main production tool. ‘Instead of just using them as ways of garnering evidence and then presenting that evidence in the context of a more traditional current affairs documentary approach, we use the material to film observationally, but covertly. We then put that on the screen in a way that you weren’t previously able to do if you were conducting a covert investigation. That is the big transition – making the story of the investigation the story of the documentary.’
Additionally, producers are starting to discover that the technology can be used in a variety of contexts. BBC2′s What Not to Wear features two fashion experts analyzing a person’s wardrobe and recommending how to make it more stylish. To understand the person’s lifestyle and to capture them in their former unfashionable state (and to get a few laughs), the subject is secretly filmed.
Holmes points out that the BBC imposes strict guidelines that limit how hidden cameras can be used. ‘You have to be exposing criminal or seriously antisocial behavior in order to justify their use,’ he explains. Less serious fare, such as What Not to Wear, is allowed because it’s considered entertainment, not journalism, and requires the consent of the person filmed before it can air. ‘Although’, he adds, ‘some of the things people wear are pretty antisocial.’