stopping time with
50 EOS-1D X DSLRs
© Daniel Rihs/Pixsil
Tight budgets mean Matrix-style montages for public-broadcast documentaries are rarely done. But somehow the team at DokLab did it – and they tell CPN writer Mark Alexander how they used 50 EOS-1D X DSLRs to pull it off...
There is a childish glee that overtakes us all when we set eyes on a new piece of kit. As pristine packaging carelessly falls to the floor and a spotless lens or gleaming camera body emerges, our anticipation gives way to unreserved delight. It is a wonderfully gratifying – and unashamedly geeky – moment...
If unconditional joy is the consequence of opening one new box, imagine what Dodo Hunziker and Pierre Reischer went through as they unwrapped 50 EOS-1D X DSLRs and 50 EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lenses ahead of what would turn out to be a momentous day’s filming.
“We approached Canon to see if 50 cameras and lenses were available to do this shoot,” explains cameraman Reischer, who didn’t specify which DSLR he required when he first enquired. It was lucky they made the request when they did, as usually Canon does not have this number of bodies and lenses available. But in this case, there were a few days of opportunity for the shoot, before Canon's preparations began for the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. “It was like ‘wow’. This is the top model. We were going to shoot with 50 of them - it was just crazy,” Reischer recalls. The enormity of the task, and the challenge of getting to know Canon's flagship DSLR intimately, was dawning...
New sport, new ideas...
The idea of shooting with 50 cameras was hatched by the pair as they looked for ways of concluding a 30-minute Swiss TV show about extreme sports for public broadcaster SRF. The duo, who collaborate under the banner of Swiss production company DokLab, wanted the extravagant shot to be the climax to an episode on the new sport of bungee surfing, where surfers are catapulted up a river at an incredible speed of 30mph using the elastic power of a bungee rope.
Having already proved that the technique could work in a studio environment with a martial arts expert, the filming took place in the Swiss capital of Bern on the Aare river. It was the first day of summer and the idea was to use a bank of cameras to take a series of images at progressively different angles to create a slow-motion effect that would sweep around the subject. It is a mesmerising technique that was first seen in the Matrix movies starring, among others, Keanu Reeves. “The client didn’t want regular-looking TV,” says Hunziker, who edited the film. “They wanted us to try new things and create cool shots. That was our brief; to deliver a documentary that didn’t look like normal TV. It’s not a completely new shot - it has been done several times in different films - but for this type of production, I don’t think anybody has done it before.”
And certainly not with EOS-1D Xs and EF24-70mm lenses. For cameraman Reischer, it was a case of jumping in at the deep end. “I hadn’t even held an EOS-1D X before, never mind used it as a stills or video camera,” he admits. “I had been using the EOS 5D Mark III and before that the 5D Mark II, so I knew the Canon system and I had no problems with the menu functions, which was great. As a camera, the [EOS] 1D X is fantastic because you have a full-frame sensor and the handling of a stills camera. It’s a great piece of kit.”
While the EOS-1D X impressed, unboxing 50 of them was a serious undertaking with each needing to be unwrapped, paired with a lens and then mounted on a rig for the shoot. “We went to Canon in a mini bus to pick up the cameras and then went to a warehouse to unpack them. It took six of us more than a morning to do it. It just didn’t stop. They were spreading out over the floor. It was pretty amazing to see all these super-great cameras,” says Hunziker. “It took more time than you would think.”
Setting up and configuring
The cameras also had to be configured with the same settings to ensure the eventual shot would be cohesive and believable. The objective was to freeze the action; so each EOS-1D X and 24-70mm lens paring were set at 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 800. Reischer says: “We set-up one camera and used a CF card to copy and paste the profile and chosen custom settings to the rest of the cameras, so they were all the same. That was important.”
Shooting in RAW gave the team the best possible resolution from the 18.1 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. They also opted for a neutral colour profile and set the colour balance to daylight. Less obvious options, such as cancelling the sleep mode, also had to be considered and, more importantly, standardised.
But as Hunziker explains, making the cameras set-up identical was just the tip of the technological iceberg. “A technician made a control unit from scratch,” he explains. “He drew a board, welded it and programmed it so we could hook up all the cameras with remote controls and have only one button to trigger all the cameras. Ensuring all of them went off at the same time was the critical part.”
This technical wizardry resulted in Reischer holding a single release cable and pressing one button to prompt 50 shutters to clatter into action. Hunziker continues: “To do that, the cables from the controller to the cameras had to be the same length to ensure the signal would take the same time to reach each camera. We really wanted to make sure the cameras exposed exactly at the same time.”
If that wasn’t difficult enough, during the limited testing before the shoot, the team encountered another problem. “We wanted to pick the best point in time, so we wanted to take a number of frames on each take. But when we were testing the equipment, we realised that not all of the cameras were taking the same amount of pictures. That was important for the numbering, otherwise how would we find the matching pictures in post-production? In the end, we found that if we limited the burst to seven images then every camera would take seven pictures. Unfortunately, we had no time to run this through to post-production because the resources on this kind of shoot are very limited.”
Action from your armchair
In fact, most of the material costs for the 'Bullet Time' shots were covered through sponsorship and the generosity of suppliers and retailers. Despite the setbacks, struggles and financial juggling, the shot worked creating a unique view of a sport that only a few people have witnessed. Indeed, because the cameras were mounted on a rig that was swung out over the fast-flowing river, the cameras were able to take an intimate set of images that transforms the viewer from a mere bystander into an active participant hitching a virtual ride with the upstream surfer. For a public-broadcast documentary, it was enthralling viewing.
As effective as the shots were, the dedicated documentary filmmaker Hunziker believes they are merely the icing on a very rich and edifying cake. “They are fantastic shots, but an awful lot of effort goes into making them and if I am trying to tell the story, that’s not the most important thing - the story is more important,” he says. “If you have ten seconds of really cool shots at the end, it raises the value of the whole thing, of course it does, but for the story, it is not necessary.”
No-one could agree more with Hunziker than his film editor who took two weeks to process the bullet-time footage into the ten second clip that rounds off the show. In anyone’s book that is excessive, but entirely necessary.
For despite the video giving the viewer a remarkable sense of hovvering next to the surfer as he flips and turns on the river, achieving this effect not only required incredible vision and a bank of high-end DSLRs, but also involved many hours of work in post-production correcting timing issues touched upon during testing but never properly resolved.
In the end, the effort was worth it with the client’s response to the “special shots” saying it all. “They were amazed,” says Hunziker. “Even the technical crew who were checking the masters sent us emails about the shots. The reaction was very good. It was a cool thing to do.”
DokLab is a TV production company based in Bern, Switzerland. Devoted to non-fiction films, productions range from documentaries and educational films to cutting-edge interactive film content. The company is headed up by Dodo Hunziker who has produced and edited films since 1996. He is joined by a host of creative talent including cameraman Pierre Reischer who is responsible for a catalogue of intimate and thought-provoking films.