HDX900, HDV & Phantom Capture “Blowdown” for Bill Mills

HDX900, HDV & Phantom Capture “Blowdown” for Bill Mills


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Recently, Director/Cinematographer Bill Mills, of Florida Film and Video, was hired by Vancouver’s Parallax Films to act as the Segment Director for an episode of the National Geographic series Blowdown.

To capture the demolition of the MST 40 tower at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, his team utilized more than 20 cameras ranging from Panasonic HDX900s and a Phantom V10 high-speed camera, to several Sony Z1Us, and a dozen prosumer HDV rigs. He talked to us about the unique challenges of this job and how all these cameras performed together. 

What is the concept behind the National Geographic Special, Blowdown, and how did you become involved with the project?

Ian Herring, Executive Producer of Parallax Films in Vancouver, originally hired me in early March. Parallax was involved in producing four one-hour programs on controlled demolition. The first three involved the controlled demolition of a nuclear power plant in the United Kingdom and two hotels in Bal Harbor, Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The fourth was scheduled to be the blowdown of what was, at one time, the world’s largest moving structure, MOBILE SERVICE TOWER 40 (MST 40) at Cape Canaveral.

The task was to fall on the world-renowned team of Mark Loizeaux and the experts at CDI (Controlled Demolition International). Due to military restrictions at the Cape Canaveral AFB, permits to allow a Canadian crew could not be obtained in time to put their usual director and camera team on location.

As primarily a Director of Photography for over 20 years (Nat Geo: Tigers of the Snow; Search for the I-52; Tiger Shark; NOVA: The Mummy Who Would Be King), I had numerous Director/Cameraman credits for a variety of corporate, dramatic and educational shows, but this would be my first opportunity as a Segment Director for a National Geographic International one hour program. 

Were there any particular challenges associated with the project?

In addition to the challenge of working alongside the demolition crew in hazardous conditions and adhering to the strict NASA safety standards, we were limited in the size of our crews. Most of the time, our primary “A” team consisted of a cameraman, AC, production assistant, a CDI coordinator and myself due to security and safety issues.

Our primary cameramen were Carlos Haney, David Brown and Sean Davis. One of the hardest things was keeping my hands off a camera. Early on in the 36-day shoot, I could not resist shooting some of the sequences while Carlos, David or Sean were working in other areas of the location. The structure was over 40 stories tall, and often, we were spread out over the nine working floors that constituted our “set”.

How many cameras were used on the shoot, and how were they selected?

The primary cameras were Panasonic HDX900s. In addition to my package, we had two other rental units. On the actual demolition day, Parallax brought in Steve Romano and a Phantom from Abel Cine Tech. Due to the extreme distance we were required to film the actual demolition from, we utilized Steve’s 150-600 Canon lens. Even with full sun at 9am, Steve had to shoot wide open at T 5.6, since we decided to go for 2000 fps/720p in order to catch the detail of the 700+ shape charges and detonation cord as they exploded the structure. Det cord travels 27,000 feet per second so it was amazing to see the results in such detail.

Parallax also provided several Sony Z1U’s, twelve prosumer HDV cameras for non-operating placement and four wide angle “destructo–sacrificial” cameras for rigging in and around the tower. These were recorded with external decks placed over 500 feet away.

Tell us a bit more about your lens package?

Our primary lenses were my Canon 4.5-57 and 7.5-157mm. The structure required the extreme wide angle for working in some of the tight quarters, particularly the handheld segments, while the long reach of the 157mm gave us a great compressed view of some of the action. In addition, we used my 300mm Canon PL mount lens and Steve Romano’s 150-600 Canon. 

During the demolition, how many of the cameras were running high-speed? What frame rates did you select for each and why?

In some of the previous shows, the high-speed camera was set to record the full blowdown, but, as Mark Loizeaux of CDI pointed out, watching a structure fall at 500 fps is sometimes like watching grass grow. Mark and I discussed what would be really unique and came up with the idea of focusing on the first 12 stories of the building, where 90% of the explosives were located. We would overcrank to 2000 frames per second in order to see the detonation cord burn its way to the over 750 “shape charges” that CDI had placed in the steel I-beams.

After the blowdown, Steve dumped the overcranked footage via HD-SDI to my Panasonic P2 Mobile (AJ-HPM100) viewer. We were able to review the footage immediately and shot a nice sequence with Mark and the CDI crew examining the coordinated explosions in minute detail. Then, the Phantom raw data was downloaded for use in the final production.

The HDX900’s were set to record at 60p in order to allow for post-production manipulation.

Were there any special considerations you had to make working with the Phantom V10 on this location?

The challenges of using the Phantom were primarily availability of power and lens selection. Once we decided to shoot the high-speed sequence at 2000 fps, we had to consider what would be our optimum focal length to accommodate the 2500 ft. safety distance required by NASA.

Originally, Steve and I felt my 300mm Canon T2.8 would be a good choice, but from our position, it seemed just a bit too tight. As the sun rose and we determined we would have enough exposure with full sun at the blast time, we chose the 150-600 in order to loosen up the frame.

Under the extremely hot weather conditions, did you experience any camera problems?

All of the Panasonic cameras and the Phantom worked perfectly. During the preceding 35 days with the 900’s, we had no down time. Even under the hot, humid, and sometimes dirty conditions they performed flawlessly.

Any last thoughts about this project?

Working at Cape Canaveral was a special treat considering its history and tradition. In addition to filming an Atlas V launch, we had the opportunity to spend a day with Dr. Sonny Witt, whose knowledge of the history of Cape Canaveral is second to none.

All of the folks at Cape Canaveral AFB were very generous with their time, and once our mission was clear, we were given excellent access to the locations.

Having grown up watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, it was wonderful seeing where history was made – not to mention that from forty stories high you get an amazing and beautiful perspective on the location.

It was also very exciting to work alongside Mark Loizeaux and his family. His younger daughter Devon acted as the primary liaison and coordinator and was a great asset in making the film.

Florida Film & Video is a full-service film, video and multimedia company managing the production process from script to screen. Since 1984, they have worked with advertising agencies, independent producers, Hollywood studios and corporations throughout the world shooting, producing and directing. In 2007, FFV became the first company in Florida to acquire Panasonic’s AJ-HXP3000 P2 HD camcorder. This rounds out their HD camera lineup, which includes the Panasonic VariCam, AJ-HDX900 and AG-HVX200. To learn more about the company, visit www.FLHD.tv.

Parallax Film Productions Inc. is a Vancouver, BC based company, which has been producing documentaries for the international market since 1997. Parallax specializes in producing prime-time specials and series on science, technology, wildlife and adventure for the Discovery Channel (Canada, US and International), PBS (WNET and WGBH) and National Geographic Television International, to name a few. For more information on the company visit, parallaxfilm.com.

Blowdown will air through the summer and early fall of 2008 on the National Geographic Channel.