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Strange Days On Planet Earth Shot With Panasonic Cameras

Wins prestigious Best Series Award at Wildscreen 2004 Film Festival (December 24, 2004)

Around the globe, scientists are racing to solve a series of mysteries. Crumbling houses in New Orleans are linked to voracious creatures from southern China. Vanishing forests in Yellowstone are linked to the disappearance of wolves. An asthma epidemic in the Caribbean is linked to dust storms in Africa. Scientists suspect we have entered a time of global change swifter than any human being has ever witnessed.

National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth, premiering Wednesdays, April 20 and 27, 2005 from 9 to 11pm on PBS (check local listings), explores these questions. Award-winning actor, writer, director and environmental activist Edward Norton hosts the series, which was shot internationally with Panasonic VariCam HD Cinema cameras.

National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth was recently honored by the Wildscreen 2004 film festival, winning a Panda Award for Best Series. Wildscreen, which takes place in Bristol, UK, every other year, is one of the worlds most prestigious events for wildlife and environmental filmmakers, and the Panda Awards are the wildlife and environmental equivalent of the OSCARS. No Americans had previously won the Best Series accolade, nor had an environmental series been so honored. In addition, the second hour of the series, The One Degree Factor, has won the Natural History Museum One Planet Award for its look at global warming.

Panasonics AJ-HDC27 VariCam replicates many of the key features of film-based image acquisition, including 24-frame progressive scan images, time lapse recording, and a wide range of variable frame rates (4-fps to 60-fps in single-frame increments) for ?overcranked and ?undercranked off-speed in-camera effects. The AJ-HDC27 VariCam also features CineGamma software that permits it to more closely match the latitude of film stocks.

Production for each of the four one-hour episodes of National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth took place on land and underwater, in locations including Nigeria, Alaska, St. Thomas, Trinidad, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Venezuela, and Yellowstone. Five VariCam cameras worked simultaneously: one camera for each of four episodes shot, one for sequences with scientists featured in the series, and a separate natural history unit photographed animals and plants. An underwater unit shot both scientists and natural history in the Caribbean, Australia, and on Californias Pacific Coast. The series encompassed all types of natural history production with a variety of lenses, including macro photography and microscopy.

Throughout the seven-month production, camera packages were rented from Abel Cine Tech (New York, NY), the prominent film, HD and digital camera equipment supplier.

National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth is a Sea Studios Foundation Production for Vulcan Productions, Inc. and National Geographic Television & Film; WGBH Boston presents the series on PBS.

According to Executive Producer (and underwater cinematographer) Mark Shelley, Sea Studios Foundation, ?Sea Studios has been producing in HD for some time. It represents future-proofing for us?with an HD master, we own material that well be able to sell for years to come. For National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth we wanted to shoot in HD (vs. shooting in 16mm and mastering to HD), as we were shooting globally, and didnt want to be burdened by a multitude of cans of film in remote locations. Having shot our previous series, The Shape of Life, with Panasonic progressive cameras, we had an established relationship with the company, and knew that the VariCam was capable of the look we wanted for the series.

He continued, ?Functionally, you can really dial in a variety of custom looks with the VariCam. What we went for was maximum flexibility in the color correction step. We felt confident working backward from color correction, because we knew we would see the quality in the images. VariCam really pushes color in unconventional ways--the underwater video looks better than 16mm and we got extremely beautiful imagery on land. We did a fair amount of off-speed and time-lapse shooting and now, with experience, Id use those capabilities even more. With natural history, it can be important to slow things down just a little, and with the VariCam, I can just dial in the frame rate I want.

Highlights of Director of Photography Erich Rolands 25-year career shooting documentaries include the 1989 Academy Award winner, The Johnstown Flood, and 2004 Emmy winner, The Forgetting. He noted, ?Director Ron Bowmans segment of ?Strange Days, which took my crew and me to Venezuela, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Yellowstone, was a perfect fit for what I look for in project: an exotic location, a commitment to the highest quality production values, and fascinating, important, subject matter.

Venezuela posed the greatest challenge of our shoots?and was the most remote location Ive ever been to. It took us a day and a half of flight to arrive at our point of departure. We then climbed into a car and rode for several hours only to reach the shore where we boarded speedboats. Two hours later we finally disembarked on a small island to film a new ecosystem in the making. Traveling with us to this remote location without electricity, food source, or communication was some of the most sophisticated state-of-the art equipment: a thirty-foot Jimmy Jib to create compelling, powerful, sweeping images and Panasonics VariCam to capture the expanse, beauty, and intimacy of an island that a man-made dam had created.

The DP added, ?High Definition raises the bar for the DP -- everything gets ?big so you have to be careful to attend to every aspect of composition and lighting within the frame. Until now, video has been a fairly unforgiving format make a mistake and you can easily get a bad image on the screen. These prohibitions have been even more pronounced in HD, where bad lighting or a poorly composed image is magnified on the screen. But finally with the VariCam, I am afforded so many of the latitudes that I used to have with 16mm and 35mm film cameras and now they are coupled with the ease-of-use of video. Therefore, I can take more visual risks that will create better images without the constraints posed by most other video formats and cameras.

?The dynamic range of the VariCam behaves much more like film than any video camera I have used in either HD or standard def. I dont need to light scenes nearly as much with the VariCam as I would with other HD cameras or video formats. Therefore, I can use natural lighting far more often and am given a much larger creative palette from which to work. On the Bowman project in particular -- as a remote documentary shoot the VariCam allowed me to capture more natural environments and gave me the latitude to take more creative risks in the field with the full confidence that the images would end up being quite beautiful on the screen.

?Further, the variable speed function on the VariCam was a perfect match for this shoot. We did some stunning time-lapse photography and created some highly stylized portrait photography with 4 fps swirling backgrounds. Other cameras dont even offer a variable speed function, but it is a tool that I employ a lot. From a technical perspective, the VariCam is a relatively small and lightweight camera in comparison to the (Sony) CineAlta. The dynamic range is fantastic and the variable frame rate and shutter angles are great tools.

He added, ?But technical issues things aside, the main thing about the VariCam is that it renders a stunning image; its more film-like and much less like hard-edged video -- the colors are less garish, the blacks are deeper, and the highlights are far more pleasing.

DP Mark Knobil, whose varied career includes extensive documentary production as well as commercial and feature material, worked on Jonathan Halperins episode in Australia, Montana, and Canada. He commented, ?The vision of the producers was that this show should look rich and cinematic--like a movie, not a PBS documentary. One thing about the VariCam that helped support this vision was the viewfinder, which is sharp and richly photographic. You can evaluate the character and feel of the shot better when the image isnt flickering and buzzing with a video edge.

Knobil continued, ?Moving to the VariCam from my Aaton XTR (which is outfitted with an ENG style Canon 5.2 to 57mm wide zoom) felt natural--except I didnt have to sweat bullets as the film rushed through the mag! The signal processing in this camera is very pleasing: I have often said that film sits in the can just wanting to look good, while tape sits in its cassette daring you to make it look good. I have to take it all back--the VariCam just wants to look good.

?I really like the flexibility of selecting (VariCams) Film Rec vs. Video Rec--Film Rec for when you have control over the post chain, and Video Rec for when the image needs to look good right out of the box. I have used the VariCam on several major productions now, and feel very comfortable with the whole package?its made me forget my frustration with all the cables, weight, jittery viewfinder, high power consumption, and noise of the Cine Alta.

DP John Chater, whose distinguished career encompasses 17 years shooting feature documentaries for Horizon and NOVA for the BBC, as well several National Geographic specials shot since his move to the U.S. in the early 1990s, owns his own VariCam. He shot the second hour of the series, the award-winning The One Degree Factor, in locations ranging from the Alaskan Yukon to Trinidad and the U.S. Virgin Islands?and the acquisition included his shooting out of small planes.

He said, ?Id done some smaller projects with the VariCam previously, but this represents the first time Ive really gotten to know the camera. Indeed, I did the pre-production camera tests with Mark Shelley and Series Producer David Elisco, who were looking for a unified, but bold, look for the series. The mandate was to work backwards from the color correct. We determined it was best to shoot in 'Video Rec' mode due to the diverse lighting conditions we would be shooting in. For continuity we used presets and didnt white balance unless absolutely necessary. We decided to use a 4300k filter setting for daylight shooting. In color correction tests we found this gave us more flexibilty to create a wider and bolder palette of color looks for the series than if we had used the normal 6300k setting.

Chater added, ?The VariCam delivers the best look of any video camera Ive worked with. The skin tones are more natural than Ive seen with video, and the color space is really natural looking. To provide the widest dynamic latitude under harsh lighting conditions we set the camera up to shoot 'flat' and were confident in the amount of richness we could add in post. Its also smaller, quieter and requires less power than its competition. It was very comfortable to shoot with in the most remote circumstances?and provided 100% reliability.

Executive Producer Shelley said that Sea Studios Foundation (of which he is a founder) has also bought its own VariCam, which he is currently using to shoot an HD-deliverable, 60-minute Nature special on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA.

?We edited National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth off-line on Avids, and did the on-line effect and final color correction in a DaVinci 2K machine at Encore (Los Angeles, CA), he explained. ?However, with the Nature special, well have access to the desktop HD editing capabilities made possible by Panasonics new AJ-HD1200A DVCPRO HD VTR, with which we can transfer 24fps progressive scan material shot on the VariCam via the VTRs IEEE 1394 interface directly into Apples Final Cut Pro HD without generation loss. That will allow us to do our own on-line master, which well then take out for fixes and color correction at a facility such as Encore.

Shelley said, ?Were all very excited about how National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth looks, and elated by the Wildscreen honors. With the VariCam, Im confident that well like the way we can make the images look under any circumstances.

Additional information about National Geographics Strange Days on Planet Earth is available at

For more information on Panasonics complete HD Cinema product lineup, visit

About Panasonic Broadcast
Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. is a leading supplier of broadcast, professional video and presentation products and systems. Panasonic Broadcast is a unit company of Matsushita Electric Corporation of America, the principal North America subsidiary of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (NYSE: MC), one of the world's leading producers of electronic and electric products for consumer, business and industrial use.

For more information on Panasonic Broadcast products, access the companys web site at


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Related Keywords:Strange Days On Planet Earth, Panasonic, Cameras, Wildscreen 2004, National Geographic, Edward Norton, VariCam, VariCam HD Cinema, AJ-HDC27, photography, Abel Cine Tech, Sea Studios Foundation Production, Vulcan Productions, WGBH, Mark Shelley, color correction, Erich Roland, Ron Bowman, Mark Knobil, John Chater, David Elisco, video camera, DaVinci 2K, Encore, Avid, AJ-HD1200A DVCPRO HD VTR, Final Cut Pro HD, Matsushita,


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