Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Team Pinzones IMAX 3D

If you are going to have your research filmed, you might as well go the whole hog: high definition 3D shown in an IMAX theater with Sir David Attenborough narrating. In theory, that is what will happen with Team Pinzones, our hard working and long suffering research team studying the evolution of Darwin’s finches (pinzones). This week I was back in Galapagos with team member Jaime Chaves to recreate our fascinating and exciting procedure for the cameras: setting nets, catching birds, putting on bands, measuring wings, measuring legs, measuring  beaks, measuring heads, photographing, weighing, and releasing (no blood samples this time). It was quite an adventure.

Team Pinzones goes before the (3D) camera. (Photo by Aspen Hendry.)

First, the permits weren’t approved until the very last minute – after the last minute actually. Not only did the film crew (Colossus Productions filming for BBC) need permits to film our work but we also needed permits to speak to them about our work. That achieved the day after we arrived, filming was set to occur in a few days. The next problem, however, was that the filming equipment was delayed – 5 tons of it! Customs in Guayaquil had taken every single part of the equipment and removed it from the packaging and photographed it. This delayed things for a few days but then the equipment was finally shipped – except the batteries, which were deemed hazardous cargo. This battery delay pushed us past the official filming date, and so we had to change our flights by two more days. Having done so, the batteries arrived the next day but one piece was still missing – the base for the crane. Yes, the crane. They needed a crane to film our work. So it came down to one final day for filming before we really needed to leave Galapagos. Would the crane base come in time?
It's not your mother's camera. (Photo by Jaime Chaves.)

Indeed it did, just in time for filming on that last day.  The next worry – for us at least – was that the 3D camera, the crane, and all the other equipment would be so heavy and cumbersome and finnicky that the whole procedure would be very slow. It takes a long time to move the stuff around and they wanted to film several locations along the El Garrapatero beach – itself a decent walk from the parking lot. The equipment was all ferried down the day before and then we all arrived at first light on the filming day. But would there be enough time to film all the bird sequences before it got too hot for the birds – normally about 10 am? The answer normally would be an emphatic no because it generally gets really sunny and baking around that time. But fortune smiled upon us beyond all expectation and it was cloudy and windy all day. The next concern was whether we could catch enough birds at the right times? Sometimes at El Garrapatero, we can go a long time without catching birds and that might be a problem since we didn’t want to hold any individual bird for too long. We started with one net and, within half an hour, we had a male and female fuliginosa (small ground finch), a male and female fortis (medium ground finch), and a female scandens (cactus finch) – each of the species we might reasonably expect to catch here. Let’s start filming.
Getting a finch ready for its close-up. (Photo by Jaime Chaves.)

First we did the close-ups with the huge camera nestled right up next to our hands (I had to bend my neck around the camera to see what I was measuring). At the end of this close-up period, we suggested it would be good to film the large and small beaked morphs of the fortis – the phenomenon we study at this site – but we didn’t have a small morph bird already captured. So we started filming a medium bird alongside a very large one but, as I was holding the birds for the camera, Jaime ran off to see if he could set the net again and catch a smaller bird. Five minutes later he was back with the perfect bird. After that minor miracle the crew needed wider angle shots of the same thing but most of the birds had been held in their bags for an hour already and they should be set free. So we went back to the net, set it again, and had 5 birds of all three species in half an hour. It was almost like we could just “dial a finch” and place our order, having it delivered at a pace that would shame pizza delivery.
Even the banding equipment gets a close-up.
Then it was time for even wider shots – and now the crane would be called into action. We were to walk from the net with birds in their bags to our banding station and the 3D camera would swoop around us presumably giving everyone vertigo in the theater. So we did this a few times for practice and then did the actual sequence. As we sat down on this first take and started to process the birds, we noticed that there were 4 or 5 finches hopping around not 2 meters from where we were processing. “Hey you guys should film those birds,” we said. Yeah right. What are the chances that they could set this complicated camera up on a huge crane, have some birds hop down at random at just the perfect distance, swoop the camera on the crane 180 degrees, and have it plop down in front of the finches without them leaving. Well, not only did that happen but as soon as the camera came near to the birds a bunch more arrived until nine of them were all hopping around right in front of the camera. They filmed this for a minute and then swooped around to show us processing finches right beside the free-flying finches in one continuous sequence. Dial a finch indeed.
Moments before the finches arrived.
Next it was time to film us taking a bird from the net. As we did this, the entire crane was moved about 40 meters to a rock promontory between two patches of sandy beach and reconstituted on a wooden platform that had been constructed just that day as the other filming was going on. This platform was quite substantial because it also had a rail on it so that the entire crane could be rolled along smoothly as it swooped around a cactus and could then be pulled back to show us walking across the beach and then the lava toward our net. We got to watch them practice their crane moves with one "grip" holding the counterweight at one end and swooping it around and the other grip rolling the entire apparatus along the rail. Then we had to go off and perform our walk for the real filming. After that, with the light just petering out, it was time for an interview at yet another location – sitting on some (reasonably comfortable) lava beside the beach. Then 5 tons had to be carried back up to the parking lot. It was a good thing 24 people were involved.

The camera on the crane on the rails on the platform.

This experience taught me several things. First, 3D is much much much more complicated than 2D – the camera is huge and needs to be calibrated before every shot. Second, those shots you see in BBC videos require an immense amount of work – and now I know what a “grip” really does, although I forgot to ask what made one of the grips the “best boy grip” that you often see acknowledged in film credits. Third, film makers may often be unlucky with the elements or animals – as you so often see in the behind-the-scenes stuff for BBC videos – but the opposite can also be true. The weather we had was perfect – beyond perfect. It was literally the best possible weather for working with birds ALL DAY LONG. And the birds were incredibly accommodating. With a single net we could catch exactly what we wanted within 15 minutes at any time of the day, which is definitely not typical. And then a whole gaggle of finches shows up right in the perfect place for the camera already on a crane. I am pretty sure the film makers don’t realize how incredibly lucky we all were. And maybe those extra birds we captured and measured will be the ones that make all our statistical tests significant.

Now we just have to wait a year  or so to see how it looks in IMAX 3D with narration by you know who (of course, our stuff will be only a tiny fraction of the entire movie). In the meantime, we need to interest someone in Team Stickleback IMAX 3D and Team Guppy IMAX 3D.
Note: Special thanks to key recent Team Pinzones members Jeff Podos, Luis Fernando De Leon, and Joost Raeymaekers.

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