Shooting with the carbon fiber Carbon XL 7 jib crane with 3D cameras in the London Natural History Museum


Galapagos 3D with David Attenborough filmed on location in the Galapagos islands

Galapagos 3D with David Attenborough filmed on location in the Galapagos islands

By Robert Hollingworth, DP

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Over the summer of 2013, I headed up the Second Unit on a new natural history film presented by one of the world’s greatest naturalists, David Attenborough. Our aim was to bring the Natural History Museum in London to life, in 3D.

The finished program, “David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive” premiered on January 1, 2014 on Sky1 TV in England. An advanced “Black Tie Premier” was held at the museum and attended by selected guests, including The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The next showing is scheduled on Sunday, February 16 at 8:30am on Sky TV.

3D is generally a slow way of filming, using more light and heavier grip than 2D. So, it was decided in this film, to shoot the Second Unit sequences on stills cameras. They are smaller, lighter, and can have exposure times of seconds meaning lighting levels could be greatly reduced.

One of my favourite sequences was in the dinosaur gallery at the Natural History Museum; I had to shoot the whole gallery in close up and wide, capturing exhibits such as Stegosaurus, baryonyx, velociraptors, and T. Rex. Lighting the whole gallery poses many challenges – it’s big and while I needed to light the space for night, I also needed to highlight each exhibit and create a slightly menacing feel.

Hollingworth at Science Museum 3

We setup the Carbon XL crane with two Nikon 800 cameras on a Genus Hurricane 3D rig, with 28mm lenses (although I sometimes went to 21mm or 35mm lenses depending on the subject). The crane was built to just shy of it’s full length. The tight working space meant having a flexible crane that could be easily moved around was key. The crane carried a timelapse hot head capable of repeatable pan / tilt moves, and the rise / fall of the crane was also under motor control. I therefore, had the ability to do controlled 3 axis moves anywhere in the museum.

The camera, hot head and crane are all controlled by a motion control system that I’ve developed with the support and collaboration of Brian Burling (who established eMotimo). The hot head and other motion systems I’ve developed myself. I’ve been working in 3D docs now for a few years, and there wasn’t a head on the market that could provide motion controlled camera moves in realtime and timelapse (other than the likes of Mark Roberts systems which are in a different price bracket). So, over the years, I’ve designed, developed and iterated a head and dolly of my own.

Hollingworth at Science Museum

When I was looking at getting a Carbon XL crane, I was certain it needed to cope with the 3D rig, and motion systems that I was already working on, and also be light weight and flexible. I work a lot in remote areas and I hate being constrained by technology, instead I like to help me.

In the museum I aimed for exposures of around 2 seconds, with 3 second intervals on the cameras. This meant I was able to light large spaces with lower light levels, using LEDs, Dedos and small HMIs. The resulting shots don’t look timelapse – they all look like live action moves and so cut seamlessly with the main unit photography, and the Carbon XL means that the shots all have high production value.

The Second Unit, was smaller in size, used less light and shot on stills cameras, but we could physically get the 3D rig into spaces at an affordable cost that live action 3D couldn’t achieve, and all with the production value that motion control that 20′ cranes give you.

Hollingworth at Science Museum 4

I loved working on Natural History Museum Alive; it’s very rare you get the opportunity to light such an magnificent building, and to spend so long doing it. In total I had about 5 weeks over the summer of 2013 to being the exhibits to life. Working nights (7pm to 7am), we had the museum to ourselves. The spooky corridors normally alive with the busy footsteps of the public, fell silent and the long, still, shadows of the priceless skeletons of the natural world filled the space. To be in that space alone at night, is a true privilege.

Our next challenge is the remote jungles of Borneo. We are off for a month to film a new natural history documentary, again in 3D. I am hoping to use the Carbon XL for many of the remote locations to get sweeping camera moves into the shots. One location is a waterfall several hours from the nearest track. All the equipment will have to be carried in through the jungle, and assembled by the waterfall. My hope is that with the Hurricane 3D rig, with dual Red Epics we can capture some stunning moves over the waterfall from the end of the Carbon XL.

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