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Shooting HD in the New England Aquarium

The New England Aquarium shoots HD footage with Fujinon lens-equipped Panasonic Varicam HD camera By John Virata

City aquariums offer a soothing respite from city life, and are welcome attractions, especially for residents of large cities. No longer are these facilities just aquariums full of fish and other sea life, aquariums are environments for learning about such issues as conservation and pollution, and are often the first places that people see fish and animals from the world's oceans. People enjoy going to aquariums, as they are interesting places to visit, and they are fun places to bring children to. And new exhibits keep them coming back over and over again.

To help augment the exhibits that aquariums feature, and to further animal research, aquariums have increasingly turned to digital video cameras to help further the study of animals. The New England Aquarium is such a facility that began using miniDV cameras in the 1990's with underwater housings. Today, the aquarium has gone a step further with the use of a Panasonic Varicam HD camera in its aquariums for underwater filming. To get a sense of what may be happening in aquariums around the world, DMN senior editor John Virata spoke with Greg Herzog, senior production coordinator at the New England Aquarium.

DMN: What camera are you using to capture footage at the aquarium and why?
Greg Herzog: Using the Panasonic Varicam with the Amphibico HD underwater housing and Fujinon HD lens. This combination gives us a package for high quality image acquisition of natural history material across the world, both topside and underwater. This material is high enough quality for large-screen digital projection in our IMAX theater.

DMN:  Why did you choose that housing?
GH:We chose the AmphibicoProfessional HD housing due to our previous positive experience with Amphibico, the relative simplicity of setup, the quality of images, and reliability of the housing.
DMN: What lens systems do you have for the varying conditions?
GH: Currently the only lens we own is the Fujinon 13x4.5 zoom. Even though we only own this one lens, we've still got a good range since its a zoom, and also since it has a 2x extender. We can always rent a longer lens if necessary, but the wideness of our lens is great for natural history, particularly underwater.
DMN: How do you approach underwater videography?
GH:The Conservation Department at the New England Aquarium has a wide range of conservation projects across the world, and consequently unique access to footage of animals and ecosystems. We try to bring the camera to these areas to bring back not only stunning images but conservation messages as well. We use the material we shoot in exhibitry at the aquarium, external documentaries, and its also for sale as a library of HD natural history stock footage.
DMN:  Does shooting in the HD format give you better quality underwater imagery than shooting with a high end DV camera?
GH:Infinitely better. Dave Allen, our online colorist, has said that everything he does in color correction works much better in HD due to the richer color information stored in the HD format. This is critical for underwater work in particular because underwater images frequently require color correction to look their best. Plus, shooting in HD allows us to project digital images 30 feet across in our IMAX theater.
DMN:  How about editing. Can you give us an idea of your editing system and the editing workflow you employ at the aquarium?
GH: We purchased a Final Cut Pro system with the AJA Kona HD card, AJA IO, Apple Xserve RAID (2TB), and a dual 2GHz G5. We online and color correct shows in uncompressed 10-bit 720p 59.94 captured through HD-SDI on the Kona board. We're still working out an offline and logging workflow-- in the past, we've cut in DV format, Betacam on an offline Avid, etc. We're now looking at using the native DVCPRO HD format for offline and logging.
DMN:  What is your shooting schedule like? Do you shoot when the aquarium introduces a new exhibit?
GH: Sometimes shoots correspond to exhibits, sometimes they are prompted by a local event (stranding, sea turtle release, etc.), and sometimes we have unique opportunities to get the camera to a particular location to capture unique material. 
DMN: Have you been stung by a jellyfish while shooting? 
GH: Hehe... no, I haven't, but I'm sure Greg Stone, the VP of our department and longtime cameraman, has. I did get the chance to swim with humpback whales and film them in HD recently.
DMN:  How is the final edited project presented to the visiting public?
GH:The most exciting way of presenting our projects and conservation messages is through the HD shorts we've been producing for the IMAX theater at the New England Aquarium. These are 90 second HD short films that screen before every IMAX movie we show, so that a visitor seeing either a Hollywood movie like "The Matrix" or an ocean film like "Into the Deep" will both learn something about conservation and about the projects being carried out by the Aquarium's Conservation and Research staff around the world.  
In addition, the Conservation Department at the New England Aquarium produces a series of conservation films under the "World of Water" label. (See Their objective is to convey to large audiences the threats to ocean animals and ecosystems and the conservation-based solutions. These short, engaging films on important aquatic issues are distributed around the world to institutions like the New England Aquarium and are now used by nearly 400 aquariums, zoos and museums worldwide, with an audience of approximately 15 million people. Since 1996 we've produced about 8 of these films. Up until now they've been produced in standard definition but going forward we hope to produce them in HD.
Also, we've started to incorporate HD video into Aquarium exhibits as we pioneer new traveling exhibits and renovate our existing permanent galleries. Lastly, we also are in the process of gathering and cataloging HD natural history material into a searchable stock footage sales library. Proceeds from the sale of footage will go back into our conservation and film activities.

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John Virata is senior editor of Digital Media Online. You can email him at
Related Keywords:Fujinon lens equipped Panasonic Varicam HD camera, New England Aquarium, Fujinon, Amphibico


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