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Wed 25 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Taking the shaw forward

Talkabout Media Productions and its sister company, talks about the challenges of covering a rickshaw race in India.

Taking the shaw forward
Taking the shaw forward
Jon Moore with the photographer.
Taking the shaw forward
Several different Sony cameras including the EX cams were used for this shoot.
Taking the shaw forward
Sony cams were attached to the rickshaw using suction mounts and magic arms.

Dubai-based Talkabout Media Productions and its sister company, which recently filmed a rickshaw race in India, tells Vijaya Cherian about the challenges of covering the event.

Sixty-one auto-rickshaws and their brave teams lined up at Goa's Colva sea front in September to participate in a two-week, 3,000 km race that would take them all the way to Nepal. Covering the Rickshaw Run for UK-based firm, The League of Adventurists, was Dubai-based production house Talkabout Media Productions (TAM), their Singaporean sister company, The Deck and India's Wildtrack Productions.

The action was captured with the help of the Sony EX1 and EX3 XDCAM cameras and will eventually be made into a 60-minute lifestyle adventure programme that is intended for broadcast on Discovery Travel & Living, AXN, Star TV, Ten Sports and Showtime's bouquet.

Ian Carless, executive producer of TAM says HD was the only format of choice for this shoot as most of their targeted broadcasters used this format for production.

Carless says the team was inspired to produce this programme after watching Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's Long Way Round, Long Way Down and the more recent By Any Means.

"If we could get anywhere near the kind of chemistry that Clarkson, Hammond and May have in their Top Gear specials, we'd be over the moon," Carless says.

The production, although exciting and adventurous, involved a number of challenges. Filming in India and the nature of the race called for some extraordinary measures from the team to ensure a good production.

Jon Moore, producer and director of The Deck explains that the size of the crew was a major hurdle.

"At the best of times, it's hard to mobilise 13 people, three vehicles, equipment and luggage and keep them to a tight schedule. In India, that becomes twice as hard. A false call-time helped us get most people to the crew cars on time every morning, but every day brought a new unexpected delay, whether it was a late breakfast or a broken Visa machine in the hotel. That, in turn, would have a domino effect and lead to further delays throughout the day. We pulled up at our destination after dark almost every day, which not only made shooting difficult but also meant dangers on the road," explains Moore.

Luckily, the weather was a lot better than expected and blue skies greeted the team every day although they came prepared with polarisers for the blue skies and weather covers for the rain.

One of the highlights of the shoot came six days into the event.

The production teams had to change the route at lunchtime one day to avoid a religious procession in a city further along the road to Bhopal. They decided on a country route, which would involve a river crossing.

"When we arrived at the river, the ferry turned out to be just a wooden raft and the road to it was a deeply rutted mud track. We had to off-road both crew cars and the rickshaw through the mud and sand and man-handle them all one-by-one onto the ferry and across the river. It was such an important part of the story, but shooting it was a bigger challenge because the most important thing was to get the vehicle and the crew to safety. Of course, we still needed the shots so kept the cameramen and cameras working at the same time.

"When they finally got all three vehicles to the opposite bank, it was dark, and they were faced with the further threat of bandits in the jungle ahead. I regret that we didn't shoot this scene as there was genuine fear on some of the team's faces, but I think as a director at that point, my crew's safety was my key concern," he adds.

As with most lifestyle adventure programmes, the team went with the flow rather than following a rigid storyboard although a rough 14-day itinerary was planned.

"We'd been quite clear with ourselves that this wasn't going to be a traditional travel programme or a travel guide. It's a very innocent, raw and fresh journey through three people's eyes, as they get to know the country and each other. Their main goal was to get this 150cc rickshaw from Goa to Nepal. Whatever they might stumble upon on the way would provide the colour in between," explains Moore.

With no idea of what to expect, the team  decided to follow a leap-frogging system with the crew cars.

Essentially, this meant that one camera and one car remained behind the rickshaw for safety at all times, while the other raced ahead by a few kilometers to find a vantage point to frame an interesting foreground or look for something exciting to shoot.

"Once the rickshaw came through the frame and the lead car was back in its position at the back, the other car would overtake and move ahead to find another location. We had full radio contact between the three vehicles and for the most part, the system worked well," explains Moore.

These challenges with the environment in which they were working compelled the team to also think carefully about the equipment they employed for this shoot.

There was no doubt that HD would be the format of choice. In addition to this, frame rate was also considered carefully.

"We were shooting in one of the world's most colourful countries so we wanted to capture this at the very best quality and HD was the best," says TAM's Carless. In the meantime, although 25p seems the natural choice for a programme with such a large travel element, the team also realised that much of the footage they were shooting would be fast moving, action footage.

"I've never been completely confident shooting 25p at the best of times and really didn't know if it would hold up to this. After long consideration though, we decided to go the progressive route, but decided to be disciplined with our camera moves and tracking shots. From what I've seen of the rushes so far, I think we made the right choice," explains Moore.The team relied on two main cameras - the Sony EX1 and the Sony EX3. They also used a Sony HVR-V1 3-chip HDV tape camera, which was more versatile for shooting from the car. The Sony SR11 and the Sony C100E were used as on-board cameras. They were attached to the rickshaw in various positions using suction mounts and magic arms.

"We invested in the EX models eighteen months ago, and use them for a large number of our productions. They're small, lightweight, yet still retains much of the functionality of a bigger camera. Also, the picture quality is exceptional. I'm convinced the EX is the best pound for pound, value for money camera out there," says Moore.

Carless seconds that.

"The EX offers tremendous versatility. Often, we use the EX in conjunction with 35mm adaptors such as the Letus and P+S Technik but on this trip, we opted not to as most of the shooting was hand held. In addition, we'd planned on shooting a number of time lapses which, of course, is easy to do with the EX," says Carless.

In the meantime, shooting in the streets of India also brought other challenges.

For instance, crowds gathering at every shoot was a problem. It was also equally difficult to secure permission to film in major cities.

For both these reasons, the crew needed to be more mobile and less noticeable.

"A pair of HDW-F900s would have been nice, but simply wouldn't have allowed us to shoot in many of the locations we found ourselves. The great thing about the EXs is that they can actually be stripped down. By the time you've removed the matte box and the camera mic, they actually look like little more than an old Hi-8 tourist camera, which meant that getting permission to shoot in certain places was a lot easier. We really couldn't have made the same film with bigger cameras," explains Moore.

Both the EX cameras were fitted with Chrosziel matte boxes for the times they needed to graduate or polarise a shot.

Besides this, MiniPlus lights from LitePanels helped move the production forward.

"At around $1000, these things aren't cheap, but I was stunned by how versatile they could be. They're dimmable, you can put them anywhere and they gave us great quality light for our simple setups. They worked amazingly well," explains Moore.

The on-board cameras were chosen purely because of ease of use, he adds.

"We were on a very tight schedule, which didn't allow us to continually stop, rig, check and download footage from the on-board cameras. We had a Magic Arm and Fat Gecko suction mount, which allowed easy rigging on any part of the rickshaw. And the fish eye lenses allowed a great reverse POV shot of the rickshaw driver and passengers. Plus they record up to eight hours at HD quality. In addition, the presenters could easily operate them when they were on the road as they are all familiar with the concept of a handycam," explains Moore.

Another challenge was managing a tapeless workflow for a 14-day shoot. This was done by carefully planning the shots and structure for the shoot rather than capturing hours and hours of footage.

"Despite that, we were capturing three to four hours of footage a day," admits Moore.

At the end of each day, the footage was transferred to two 1TB Firewire drives using one of three Mac Book Pros each installed with Final Cut Pro and Sony's XDCAM Clip Browser.

Here again, the challenge was dealing with the power cuts in India. Moore has resolved to carry at least one UPS unit on every future production.

"We resorted to hiring a generator a couple of nights simply to get the batteries charged. We were using them faster than India's national power grid could charge them," explains Moore.

At the time of press, post production had only just begun.

 "We're editing in FCP and normally, we'd put aside eight to ten weeks for a project like this. However, because the whole thing was shot in sequence and all the days were self-contained, we think that this can be cut down considerably. An example is the narrative. We shot interviews with the hosts at the end of every day and we're hoping that these will serve as the voiceover to tell the whole story. This will cut down considerably on time-consuming processes such as script-writing and laying down guide voice over," explains Moore.

The team also adds that they are aiming for a cinematic feel.

"We'd like to be able to screen the film at festivals so will be examining what's required for that. However, we do not want to lose the raw energy that we all remember feeling on the road. The 25p frame-rate, the setup shots and a tasteful grade will contribute to the filmic look. But we're not going to worry about things like continuity or covering jump cuts if it means compromising the story," adds Moore.

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