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Off Road - Filming Top Gear

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Extreme Facilities lived up to its name when the crew left the comfort of their studio and embarked on a mission to film an episode of the BBC’s motoring show in Africa...
Top Gear is probably one of the best known current TV series in the UK; its crew carrying the responsibility of capturing everything for UK viewers and those in over 200 territories worldwide. Capturing footage during extended periods in extreme conditions is an exciting challenge, as the presenters get up to all manner of antics in many cool, weird, and sometimes seriously duff vehicles.
The Africa Special was one such occasion. Presenters and crew threw themselves into the task with great energy, making some great Top Gear moments. The whole team shot so many good sequences; far too much to waste on the cutting room floor. The solution was to cancel the planned 75 minute Africa Special and double it making two, one hour episodes.
The team included Nigel Simkiss, the Director well known for his ‘North Pole’ Top Gear Special, accompanied by Andy Wilman the Exec Producer behind Top Gear. The team are all very close and have many years of Top Gear and car commercials experience behind them, so when it comes to making cars look good, fast or insanely out of control, the guys really know all the angles, while the sound team knows the best ways to capture the dialogue and sound effects.
The responsibility for the team from Extreme Facilities was to capture pictures and sound of everything that happened inside the cars and every image outside that the main crew could not. Onboard we record three main HD Minicams. Sound is interior of presenter and exterior with duplexes of the radio mics.
In each of the three cars, the camera positions were the standard PTC from across the dashboard with lighting to subtly fill shadows caused by the harsh African sun. Balancing the exposure is tricky, but we have this down to a fine art to achieve correct exposure of the presenter and exterior of the car simultaneously. As the ambient light level drops, exposure control is carefully achieved by progressively reducing the output of the internal ARRi Locaster light and opening the iris - always predicting ahead of time what the exposure will be between now and the next opportunity to adjust the cameras. Colour balance of the interior light and camera are also gradually changed into the evening to handle any warm roadside lights and the cars’ own lighting. We have tried physical auto iris with inconsistent results and are now about to release a remote iris system with a 1km radio range.
When off-road, we cannot rely on suction mounts, so the PTC mount is drilled and bolted to the ‘A’ pillar. The over-shoulder shot is a standard shot and a forward view camera over the bonnet completed the three camera rig regularly used. All the cameras record into our compact recording system and the presenters can roll to record themselves. Minicam operators receive tally lights to confirm recording. The system has a remotely controlled silent cooling system to cool three modified nanoflash recorders. We use two Sound Devices 302 mixers per car for good sound coverage and transmit each presenter car to the tracking vehicles via a quad splitter and COFDM transmitter. Each of the cars has a dedicated minicam specialist who makes absolutely sure all footage and sound is good and everything is working perfectly. A huge portion of the presenters’ contribution is only recorded on the in-car systems, so these are a key element which must work flawlessly.
The transmitter is an essential part, enabling constant monitoring for quality control of all cameras and sound. The systems have been carefully developed over many trials; in all extreme conditions the choice of very low power consumption cameras and recorders in particular means we can run the whole system on a set of IDX batteries for over 16 hours.
The new Extreme Camera Drone enables camera crews to drive and film for thousands of miles while ‘apparently’ having a very expensive chopper with them at all times. We have developed a fast 2 minute deployment system. Our Multirotor aircraft caries a Lumix GH3 camera shooting 50P/60P and achieves shots impossible or unsafe with a full size helicopter. Stable high shots are captured with this gyrostabilised camera with no need for post stabilisation. The presenters adopted the Extreme Drone and used it as the Aerial Reconnaissance Unit (ARU) and used it as a tool on camera to survey the source of the Nile.
Extreme’s robust and reliable in-car systems and team have shot many series, including all of Top Gear’s weekly shows and specials, such as the Middle East and India, ‘One Car Too Far’, ‘World’s Toughest Trucker’ and ‘Driven to Extremes’, which was probably one of our most ‘extreme’ environment projects and involved driving cars at temperatures of +55ºc, and -54ºC, and the highest places in the world you could possibly get a car to, which will be transmitted on Discovery shortly. With the capability of our electronics and precision engineering team, along with our faciities in London, we are able to produce solutions to combat severe conditions reliably. We have a number of new systems for released to enable light weight aerial, vehicle and body-mounted shooting with Gyrostabilisation. Extreme Facilities Ltd is CAA approved and supply crew with the BNUC-S flying qualification and insurance.
Read the article in the online edition of Regional Film & Video here.
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