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The technical feats of going Titanic to topside

Almost 20 years after scientist Dr. Robert Ballard first set eyes on the wreck of the RMS Titanic, a million dollar expedition was set into motion to have him revisit his greatest underwater discovery. A copro between National Geographic Channel, filmmaker Peter Schnall (ep of Partisan Pictures), and Ballard (Partisan/Blackstrap/Odyssey Pictures), the expedition produced several educational shorts, a week's worth of live shows for museums and a special that was shot, edited and sent via
August 1, 2004

Almost 20 years after scientist Dr. Robert Ballard first set eyes on the wreck of the RMS Titanic, a million dollar expedition was set into motion to have him revisit his greatest underwater discovery. A copro between National Geographic Channel, filmmaker Peter Schnall (EP of Partisan Pictures), and Ballard (Partisan/Blackstrap/Odyssey Pictures), the expedition produced several educational shorts, a week’s worth of live shows for museums and a special that was shot, edited and sent via satellite from the topside ship to ngc studios in Washington, D.C. for live broadcast. It also generated material for a one-hour doc about the 20-year history between Ballard and the ship, that is set to air in December.

Tuesday, May 25th: I stake claim to the 400-square-foot biological analysis lab aboard the Ronald H. Brown, which holds two avids, a production desk and the master control station/satellite feeds station/live switcher. The most daunting task of the day is running Cat5 cables from the imaging van [where Bob Ballard and the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots work, and where the initial video signal comes up from the ocean floor] through three labs and a hallway – approximately 150 feet. The cables must be strung up to the ceiling, patched into the monitors, and run out to the eds satellite van located two decks up on the bow – another 125 feet. Thank God for plastic tie wraps.

I will have six potential video signals to chose from: two underwater HD images from the ROVs Hercules and Argus, and four live cameras – one on the aft deck, two in the control van and one in the main science lab.

Wednesday, May 26th: Our last day in port. The contract for broadcast on National Geographic Channel International must still be finalized, there are new PR events to schedule, and a local news crew visits by surprise. Luckily, we’ll have 12 hours per day of phone and internet access thanks to the EDS satellite technology.

At 3 p.m., another truckload of production equipment arrives.

Friday, May 28th to Saturday, May 29th: Transit to the Titanic wreck site. We film scenes for Acts 1 and 2; I log the video as it comes in, Jeffrey Seymann and Tom Donahue cut scenes. We are shooting and editing in real time, and I worry about what will happen once we arrive on site and the video we need to digest increases exponentially. We plan to produce, cut and feed four complete acts to NGC in Washington, D.C. with the last act produced live.

Showtime (June 7th at 9 p.m.) is just eight days away. While digitizing, one avid ceases to read the audio sync rate and the whole system crashes. We name the avids Fickle and Fierce.

Sunday, May 30th: By 8:30 a.m., destination Titanic is met. By noon, Hercules and Argus are making the four-hour, 12,500 foot descent to Titanic and newly shot tapes flood into the production studio. At 4:30 p.m., Hercules sees bottom. Squeezed into the control van are host Jay Schadler, director/cameraman Peter Schnall, producer/sound engineer Tracey Barry, Jerry Risius on the second of the two Sony DSR 570 cameras, and our AP, Glenn Reimer, to document Bob’s return to Titanic. In the ‘production suite’, Jeffrey, Tom and I hunker down for a night of logging and digitizing.

At midnight, Bob rediscovers the Titanic. Shots of the bow and the promenade deck fill the two 60-inch plasma screens in Bob’s control van and tape begins to pour into our suite. At 1 a.m. Tom is on the phone with tech support – Fickle is living up to its name.

Monday, May 31st: Bad weather cuts short the underwater action, but provides a welcome respite for the production crew. We are down to one avid, as Fickle’s problems appear incurable.

Tuesday, June 1st: As the ROVs make their second descent, Peter tells NGC we’ll need editing help. Producers, editors and assistants are called into ngc’s Washington office. They’ll cut Acts 2 and 3, we’ll edit Acts 1 and 4.

Just as the ROVs complete an exploration of the officer’s quarters on the bow, the tether connecting the two vehicles – and conducting imagery to the ship – snaps. We are in for a full day of ROV repair.

Thursday, June 3rd: The ROVs are outfitted with a new and improved tether. Once the vehicles are down, Bob gets the longest underwater run of the expedition and we get footage for Act 3. Glenn makes a time code log of all of the imagery; Tracey takes over Act 3. We’ve formed an assembly line and I’m the conduit to the satellite and ngc’s satellite feed room. Day and night are no longer distinguishable. Jeffrey is editing standing, because sitting has become too painful.

Friday, June 4th: The world awakens to our expedition with Good Morning America and it does not relent for me, Bob and NatGeo’s PR guru Ellen Stanley until ABC’s World News Tonight and 20/20. Meanwhile, we need Act 4 shot, written and edited by end of day tomorrow so ngc can final post the show and move its operations to Fox Digital in L.A., where the live portion of the broadcast (Act 5) will be coordinated.

Bob makes it to the Titanic’s debris field, an area filled with the twisted remains of brass fittings and unbroken white teacups still stenciled with ‘White Star Line’ in bold red. But, there are no images of highly personal effects, which are key to Act 4.

Saturday, June 5th: Bob is jubilant. He has found a section of the debris field that has probably never been seen – a graveyard of boots and shoes that serve as markers of the many men, women and children who perished.

The team is on fire, cutting Act 4, responding to notes from ngc and filming elements needed to bridge moments in Act 3. I feed the satellite machine the live dailies we’ve produced for the Immersion Project – a network of museums, educational institutions and after school programs.

Sunday, June 6th: The aft deck and imaging van are lit for Act 5, which Peter tells me NGC has upped to include 10 live minutes. We spend the day blocking out the act. In the first dry run, a seagull dive bombs Jay and lies bloody and immobile in the shot. (Apparently, the bright lights both attract and disorient birds.) Worse still, our run through times out at 12 minutes, but feels frenetic. We’re trying to cover too much ground. Nerves frayed, we call it a night.

Monday, June 7th: We awake to find Hercules on the deck, its tether in pieces. If Herc isn’t in the water by 9 p.m., there’ll be no live shots from the Titanic wreck.

After conferring with NGC, Peter scraps the outdoor open of Act 5, affecting a slew of technical changes. At 5:30 p.m. Bob announces he’s ready to send Hercules down. At 9 p.m.,

Return to Titanic is about to air and Team Titanic is at its stations. At exactly 9:08, Hercules reaches the wreck site. Bob must now move it to its opening shot on the bow. At 9:40, five minutes to live, there are no words to describe the tension. I hear the commercial break cue out of Act 4. Two minutes to Act 5, Hercules is gently maneuvered into position on the bow.

The images are breathtaking.

‘And we’re live in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5….’

Two days after the broadcast, during our 72-hour transit back to the east coast, we learn that Return to Titanic garnered the highest ratings ever in the history of the National Geographic Channel. The news brings a moment of elation and excitement to the entire crew and a brief distraction from the 20-foot waves that are pounding the ship. Next time, let’s try Live From a nice tropical island.

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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