• Natural History Feature Film with Varicam35

Natural History Feature Film with Varicam35

Working on various documentary and natural history projects Dick Harrewijn has become an experienced cameraman. Choosing the right camera for this work can be difficult he tells us; “Extreme weather conditions, long hours, taking them on boats and 4x4’s, long hikes or taking them up in trees does not do good to many of these cameras. Non of the cameras i’ve worked with proved to be suitable for everything and there is no such thing as the ultimate camera (yet?), but since I’ve met the Varicam family I think we’re getting close”. With this article he explains about his work with the Panasonic Varicam for his latest project; a natural history film for cinema shot over two years in the Netherlands.

Can you tell me a little bit about your line of work?

Over the past few years I’ve worked on many different projects ranging from corporate projects to documentaries, but biggest challenges in the last five years have been the two natural history feature films for cinema I’ve worked on. Currently I’m working on a third where we use the Varicam 35 as our main work horse.

Until a few years ago no-one had ever made a true feature film about Dutch nature for cinema. About 5 years ago producer EMS Films made a brave choice to start a feature film about a relative new nature reserve called the Oostvaardersplassen. I was lucky to be part of the project as one of the cameramen and when the film turned out to be a huge success in the Netherlands all eyes were opened for the Dutch wildlife and nature. About 800.000 people went to see The New Wilderness in cinemas and with a population of only 17 million this is a huge number. So plans to make more films were soon made and in the following years I’ve been working as a wildlife cameraman on many different natural history projects both for tv and cinema.

How did you choose the Varicam as your preferred camera?

For every film project choosing the right camera can be difficult, but specifically for national history projects the choice can be hard. We’ve worked with many different cameras from small dslrs and even go-pro to Arri, Sony and Reds. Working in the field means challenging conditions for these cameras, especially as some cameras seem to be made more to work in studio or on drama set environments. Every project has his own technical demands and different challenges to the equipment. Can you tell us more about the project you’re currently working on?

About two years ago I got a call from director Luc Enting about a new project he was about to start and he offered to take me along in this adventure. Again a production for cinema within the borders of the Netherlands, but this time a different director, different producer, different wildlife, everything was new for me. The film will be about one of the biggest natural areas in the Netherlands; the Veluwe. Main characters of the film are the big and elusive red deer and wild boar, the clever fox and the very intelligent ravens.

The director has filmed in the area The Veluwe for many years and doing so he has grown to be one of the main wildlife cameraman/filmmakers in the Netherlands. In the field he likes to work with a small team and so the main camerawork is done only by the two of us. The rest of the team consists of a duo of timelapse specialists, a drone operator and a handful of other specialists and assistants. For me this was a new approach to a big project like this, but every project is different and it seems that after filming for 1,5 years now this proved to be a very good decision.

DOP Dick Harrewijn with Varicam35. Photo by Jeffrey van Houten. 

Photo by Jeffrey van Houten.

Can you explain us more about why you choose the Varicam35?

One of the main questions when starting a new project; which camera system? These days there are so many different digital cameras and every one of them has its own qualities. The first question that came up was ‘do we need 4K’? Most of the newer digital cameras are able to film in UHD, but not all are able to shoot 4k in higher framerates. The producer soon made the decision he would deliver the film in 2K and so the need for 4K was not a necessity, but quick tests proved the higher resolution did give in some situations a feeling of a more detailed images, even when rendered to 2K for delivery. So if possible we preferred to go for 4K/UHD.

For wildlife films slowmotion has proved to be essential. Especially considering one of the main characters is a fast flying bird, the raven. So the ability to film in higher frame rates was also one of the main elements to select a camera.

Something I’ve really missed on previous projects has been the use of internal ND filters. For example working with Reds in the field often forced us to use glass ND’s. This takes time, more weight to carry and especially when working with macro lenses the ND’s can be difficult handle between you and your subject.

So our preferred list of features was getting quite long. Main priorities were UHD/4K, s35 sensor, high frame rates, internal NDs and build quality that suits our working environments. But overal even more important, the image that comes from the camera. How does it handle highlights? How does it render colors? How does it perform in lowlight situations? etc. Soon our minds we’re set on only two cameras that we thought to support our needs, the Varicam35 and the Arri Amira. At that time the VaricamLT had not been announced even. Extensive testing proved us that both the Varicam and Arri are able to give us outstanding images, brilliant in how both the cameras render the highlights in skies and landscapes for example, but in the testshots we’ve made in the wild we definitely liked the colors of the Varicam over the Amira. Nothing that can’t be changed in grading though, but the closer the image we record comes to what we like, the better of course.

The Arri Amira had a few advantages over the Varicam35 such as the ability to shoot more than 100fps and the easy and fast way the camera can switch to these higher framerates. Something the Varicam needs a frustrating restart for and we still hope this might change with future firmware upgrades. But when we tested the lowlight capabilities of both cameras our choice was made very soon. With the dual native iso the Varicam brings the ability to shoot in iso5000 without any concessions. For us this was the game changer. More on this further down in this article.

An extra feature of the camera I’m very impressed with is the codec it uses to record internally. Over the years we as filmmakers have been shouting for less compression and higher data rates. But now we’re shooting 4K and especially when shooting higher frame rates the amount of terabytes rise like madness. And for a project like this one, with only two cameras in the field, we’ve been shooting over 100 terabyte so far. And we’re basically only 2/3 of the way. And this is not just 100 terabyte to store and work with, this means double backups, shuttle disks for transport, etc. So the need for a good high quality codec has been a very important issue for us, but the Varicam really suits our needs in this. We’ve done various tests before we started this project, wondering if we might needed the raw codecs other cameras would give us. But when we tested the Varicam’s AVCIntra codecs in a grading suite even our colorist was surprised!

How did you choose which lenses you we’re going to use on this film?

As the Varicam35 only comes with a PL mount our lens choices were limited to PL mount lenses. The Veluwe boosts incredible landscapes and so we started our search with the wide angles. At that time there was not much choice in lightweight wide angle PL mount lenses and so both sets contain a Duclos 11-16mm wide angle zoom and a Canon 17-120mm cinezoom. But as most of our subjects are elusive animals. Especially the deer and wild boar, but also the fox and ravens are basically very shy to humans and cameras, so the use of long tele lenses is inevitable for us. Our eyes soon fell on the new Canon 50-1000 cinezoom, but as budgets in the Netherlands are nothing compared to some of the countries around us this wasn’t a serious option for both camera sets. Also the weight of the complete set with the Canon 50-1000 makes the camera quite immobile without assistants. So for the second cameraset we eventually managed to have a photo lens, the new Sigma 150-600 sports, converted to PL mount and cine style iris by Etkon in the Netherlands. After testing the Sigma seemed to hold up very well compared to the Canon 50-1000 and so with this lens we were able to have a more budget friendly and light weight telelens for the second cameraset.

The Panasonic GH4 as a B-Cam

The Varicam35 also proved to be a great choice on many levels. But the story of the film screamed for movement in the shots and the weight of the camera limited the use of many techniques to deliver this movement. But then we discovered the Panasonic GH4 as a b-cam and eventually this really worked for us. We use the GH4 on sliders, on jibs, gimbals and cable cam setup, etc. We even build a motion triggered camera trap using the GH4. But the best of all is that we regularly use the GH4 as a second camera with an ‘all containing wide shot’ when filming in a hide. It just sits there on a little tripod with a wide angle lens when we operate the Varicam35 ourselves with a long lens. The GH4 makes sure the editor always has a wide shot to go back to. To match the quality and look of the Varicam we use the v-log setting in the GH4 and use an external recorder to record a 10bit stream coming from the hdmi output. I can’t wait to try out the announced Panasonic GH5 where we could loose the external recorder as it is said to record internal 10bit. But for that I have to wait some time I think.

"Macro image with camera settings on the monitor in the studio." Photo by Dick Harrewijn.

Dick Harrewijn using the Varicam 35 for timelapse of the sunset. Photo by Dick Harrewijn.

Why was the dual native iso 800/5000 so important for you?

When shooting wildlife we just about always struggle with the availability of light. We often use slow tele lenses and high frame rates and both of these just about always at the moments the available light is limited. So the native sensitivity of the iso5000 option brings more freedom for us as wildlife filmmakers. Especially for this film, where most of our characters like the red deer and wild boar only come out in dusk or dawn. I regularly find myself shooting with my long tele lenses, meaning filming at F8 or F11, sometimes even half an hour before sunrise or after sunset. Something that with other cameras wouldn’t have been possible.

But not only with the use of long lenses and faster frame rates does the extra sensitivity comes like a blessing. Some of our scenes in this film have to be filmed in controlled environment in the studio. For example for some of the scenes with insects we need the option to control the light and the setting more than we could do in the field. For this the extra sensitivity means we have the option to use considerably less lights (and so less heat) or with macro lenses we can shoot higher apertures giving us a more flexible choice in depth of field.

Another example is the scene we’ve where common toads are leaving the forest and migrate to the local lake to find other toads to mate with. This all happens at night and on a previous project filming this included bringing several HMI lights and a generator. With the Varicam35 at iso5000 I was able to shoot a complete scene with only two 1x1 light panels making it a lot easier to follow the toads on their journey.

Has the 14+ stops dynamic range been of use to you?

I love filming with backlight and the dynamic range of modern cameras like the Varicam35 brings a lot more options to do so. Also as a one man band there are many moments where time sometimes forces me to work quickly and I might find myself in a situation where I need to film the sunrises or sunsets without gradient filters at close hand. No problem. The dynamic range of the Varicam’s sensor allows so much more than we could do before. With older cameras we would not have been able to film the dark grey colored wild boars backlit in a forest without them turning into complete silhouettes or film a black raven in bright sunlight and still see that their feathers boost a far more complex pattern of colors than just black.

What do you think about the build quality and design of the camera?

To me the Varicam35 seems to be build like a tank. We did have a little problem with tiny dust particles getting behind the protection glass of the sensor, but this has been acknowledged by Panasonic as a production error in the first batch of cameras they produced and so this was quickly modified by Panasonic immediately after we discovered the problem. Although I do think the design could use some improvements the camera never let us down. We’ve been working with these two cameras just about 5-6 days a week for almost two years continually and to be honest we haven’t really been nice to the cameras. We’ve been driving rough terrain with the camera bouncing in the back of the 4x4. We’ve filmed in some very cold temperatures and snowstorm in winter, this summer we’ve spend days in hides with temperatures raising to 45 degrees inside the hide and we’ve filmed in pouring rains in autumn. Both the cameras have been working like a charm and never gave any problems.

I mentioned the design could use some improvement, most of my desires have been answered with the introduction of the VaricamLT. But something I’ve never liked is the design of the handgrip. Although the design does allow to mount a complete arsenal of accessories to the handgrip, the thick metal handgrip gets awfully cold in winter and even with normal temperatures holding the camera in hand for longer periods is not a pleasure. Although there are some third party solutions with custom handgrips like the one from Vocas I solved the problem by wrapping the handgrip with some cloth tape.

I also very much hope Panasonic will be able to change the fact you need a frustrating restart when you change frame rates or recording codec. Hopefully this might change with future firmware upgrades?

Director of the film, Luc Enting, shooting with the Canon CN20x50. Photo by Jeffrey van Houten.

The weight of the Varicam35 might be a challenge for a wildlife filmmaker, but Dick Harrewijn says he’s got used to carrying the weight after 1,5 years in the field. Photo by Jeffrey van Houten.

The Varicam35 is a relatively heavy camera. For us as wildlife filmmakers this means you are less mobile and this might be a reason to choose a different camera. Only this film is one of those wildlife films where most of the film is made by filming from hides. With most of our hides we can get quite close with the car so the extra weight the Varicam brings isn’t a big problem. On the contrary even as with the use of long lenses the weight of this camera even brings more stability. So for us on this film the weight was more like a positive feature rather than a negative. And for the moments I do have to carry the whole set across the moor I can only say that after 1,5 years I got quite used to the weight. So basically it saves me the costs of a gym?

After filming with the Varicam for such an extended period of time I’ve become really accustomed to the camera and especially its images. Its natural colors, its brilliant roll of in the highlight and its outstanding resolution in 4K make this camera come close to the ultimate camera for my line of work. I think maybe the weight could be a problem for some of my future projects, but having the option to choose for the Varicam LT solves a lot of these worries. I love this camera and hopefully with this article I might have given some more insight why I do so.

Dick Harrewijn
Documentary and wildlife in film and photography
www.dickharrewijn.com | ik@dickharrewijn.com | +31 6 1818 2655 | 
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