The Wonder Stuff

bloomfeatureOur old friend Philip Bloom is back with us this issue to reveal how he got on during filming for the second series of CNN’s The Wonder List, which was an assignment that took him to all points of the compass

One of the best things about making shows for broadcast TV is seeing your work go out live. It gives you a buzz knowing that thousands, if not millions of people are watching it at the same time. This is still very much the case today, despite TV viewing habits having changed a fair bit in recent years. A lot of people, myself included, watch TV via time shifting. Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that you’re recording a show to watch later. This coupled with on-demand viewing means a lot less people watch the same show at the same time than they used to. There are also a lot less ‘watercooler’ discussions these days, apart from when a major event show like Game Of Thrones goes out.

After working full-time in broadcast TV for 17 years I quit back in 2006 to go freelance, mostly shifting my focus away from broadcast TV to try different genres. I was tempted back into making a TV series back in June of 2014 when I was approached to DP the CNN Original Series The Wonder List for them. It was too good an opportunity to turn down. I quite fancied the idea of doing another TV series as I hadn’t done one for 6 years and they offered me a free hand to create the look for the show. In the back of my mind I was also thinking that it would be nice to experience that feeling again of making a show that would be seen by many people at the same time.

I wrote a couple of in-depth articles for Digital FilmMaker magazine last year, in issues 24 and 26, about the filming of the first season, but to sum it up I set myself the challenge to make the show’s visuals as cinematic as possible despite the relatively small budget and very small crew.

Original ideas
Cinematic is a funny old word. I get asked all the time “what is the most cinematic camera for £500?” or “what is the most cinematic lens under £50?” Cinematic, for the most part, is really about just you; your composition, your lighting, your sequences, the movement or lack of it. It’s so hard to define simply. I would say progressive shooting is a must, either 24p for the US or 25p for just about everywhere else. Cinematic, in this instance, meant utilising high-end production tools for the show that you would not normally use in situations or shows like this; such as a high end ‘A’ camera (my Sony F55), which is capable of 4K and high frame rate filming, a 3 axis gimbal stabiliser (Freefly’s MOVI M5) for some beautiful cinematic movement, a motorised slider for timelapses and, of course, wonderful drones, which are simply the most exciting camera development in years.

Now that is a lot of gear and a huge amount for effectively just one person to manage whilst travelling all over the world to 5 continents. It amounted to between 7 and 8 very large checked cases and two large carry-on bags. It was a crazy thing to do and, in the times when I found it overwhelming, I did regret this decision but the end results were worth the effort and together we created a really beautiful looking show that I was proud of.

Starting out
Season 2 was commissioned after the first season had aired and did not start filming until late July, so there was a lot of time to reflect on what worked and what did not work in the first 8 episodes, both in the shooting and the finished product. In the shooting aspect of the show I had to take a look at what gear I was using, whether any changes were needed in the cameras we were using, could I look at new techniques, did any of the toys get in the way of the actual filming? If so, how could these be addressed. If I had just gone ahead with shooting the new series without looking at how to improve things, it would have been a missed opportunity. I am always looking at ways to improve everything I film. After all, I am never happy with the end results, which comes from being a perfectionist. This is not a bad thing – always wanting to do better is a great way of constantly improving and also evolving as a filmmaker, just as long as you don’t beat yourself up about things!

One of the biggest issues I had initially was simply being able to manage so much gear on my own. The other guys on the team could help me lug stuff around, but the gear needed to be cleaned each day, batteries charged, media offloaded and, of course, there was the setup and switching between equipment during the day. It was a relentless task and one that completely wore me down to the point I was getting maybe 3 hours of sleep a night on the shoots. This clearly was not good. I was always hoping to get a camera assistant for season one but it took until the fifth episode to get one for various reasons. Things immediately improved and those last three episodes of the season feature some of my best work on the show in my opinion. Some of the improvements that were needed were, of course, out of my hands. I wasn’t involved in the editing of the show so my involvement began before we started filming and more or less ended with the wrap of each episode.

Quality results
Watching the shows, what stood out for me the most in things that needed improving was that we didn’t let the show breathe enough, we needed more natural sound and also be bold enough to hold back in the edits and use these. Although we didn’t have a sound recordist on the show, audio was recorded in camera with wireless mics and shotguns on the cameras themselves. The amount of thought put into capturing sound needed to be improved. The biggest issue by far visually was the grading of the show. When I made my concept edit before the shooting and then test edits after the first two episodes I had created a filmic-looking grade. As a DP you are ideally involved in that part of post. Sadly, due to the limited budget, we were not able to get a DaVinci Resolve colourist, so the editors did what they could with limited tools within the Avid suite. With such diverse cameras being used from the F55 and FS7 all the way to GoPros, some shooting a very flat log and others not, the show was crying out for a proper colourist.

When I was asked to shoot Season 2 I had two strong stipulations. I would need to have an assistant from London travel with me to help with all the bags and know the gear back to front to take the load off of me during shooting. Also there would have to be a DaVinci Resolve colourist. The latter they had already put into their post-production contract with Broadway Video in New York. I cannot tell you how happy this made me!

Top tip time
One bit of advice I can offer at this point is that when using multiple cameras, even of the same model, is I recommend using an Xrite Colour Checker Video Passport. This is a simple fold-out colour chart, which fits in your pocket. Try and shoot this for a couple of seconds on each camera. I also felt we needed more time to shoot each episode. The amount of shooting days varied wildly on the first season. Most episodes were about 5 to 6 days, although the episode in the French Alps was barely 3 and a half days. The final episode in the Everglades was 10, which was wonderful. A real chance to craft something beautiful.

They agreed. Whilst the number of episodes for Season 2 dropped by two to only 6 shows, the amount of shooting time in my contract was the same. Although by the end of the season though this had been exceeded massively. Instead of the 42 shoot days in my contract I had accumulated 66 during the filming of the 6 episodes and this was not including the many travel days. I do believe this made a massive difference to the look and feel of the show though. It is rare to have this long for an hour long documentary, in fact it is a luxury really, but one that really had a real positive impact.

I could write a novel about the shooting of this season with all the stories and situations we found ourselves in. In fact, we came close to a grizzly death in one episode, which was pretty scary both at the time and looking back at it! We were lucky!

Amazing locations
We travelled to some amazing places; starting in Iceland then onto Bolivia and Peru, followed by a trip down the Colorado River and then we hopped over to Cuba. After that it was a long trip to Bhutan culminating in the stunning wilderness of Namibia and Botswana. My favourite place was probably Iceland. It is quite stunning and utterly unique. The landscape varies so much from black beaches to epic glaciers over volcanos (where they filmed part of the movie Interstellar) to stunning waterfall after stunning waterfall.

It was in Iceland where I filmed what I think is one of the best shots of my career. It is a drone shot using the DJI Inspire 1, flying high over the glacier pointing straight down. Over 70 seconds I descended and tilted the camera up as I followed the host of the show Bill Weir as he walked along it. Initially, it looked like he was climbing a mounting but as the shot evolves it reveals he is walking and at the end is level with him with mountains in the distance. It is a long shot and one I hoped they used… and they did! It actually opens the seconds series and they used 47 seconds of it just coming into it a little lower than I started. It is a terrific way to open the first episode as it sets an epic and majestic tone that continues throughout each episode. Most of these shots are not planned, they just happen, much like most of the shots I do on the ground. That is one of the things I love about documentary filming, the spontaneity. A similar thing happened in Vanuatu back in November 2014, also using the Inspire 1, and that too ranks as one of my favourite shots of my career!

Clever stuff
It is one of those things you wouldn’t know about until you saw it in the air. The shot in Iceland was simply a case of me being up there and shouting to Bill to keep walking and my plan was to smoothly and slowly try and reveal him. It was just one take as we were very limited on time as we had a helicopter waiting for us to take us off the glacier. Luckily it worked beautifully. A big help in all of this was Bill, who often wears strong coloured coats to make him stand out, either blue or red. If he had worn black then the shot wouldn’t have had the power it had as you would not have spotted him until it was too late.

The only really bum note of the whole season was when I was returning back from the Colorado episode to go home for a couple of weeks before Cuba. I was flying home on my own for the only time in the whole season. I had 9 checked bags and my two carry-ons. I was putting the bags on the check in scales and I felt my back twinge. By the time I got through security I was hobbling badly and, upon arrival in Heathrow, I had to be taken off the plane in a wheelchair! This was scary as the last time I had a bad back injury was 13 years ago when I was 31 and working for Sky News. I was off work for 4 months recovering. That was bad, but at least I was a staff employee back then so I was covered. Not anymore. I am a freelance and I had two weeks to recover enough to shoot the last 3 episodes. I just about managed to shoot Cuba, although I was in severe pain most of the time. My assistant Holly Cochrane and the rest of the team did all the lifting for me. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do but I had to do it. I just needed to be really careful. By the time we filmed in Africa, two months after my injury, I was fit enough to carry my bags and camera. I simply couldn’t imagine quitting halfway through, it would have been terrible. This is the problem with being freelance, as there is always the danger of injury or illness stopping you working, it is a constant worry. Since then I have been working to build up better strength in my core to reduce the chance of this happening again.

A very big deal
Making the show is a huge effort and one that takes a huge amount from you physically and mentally, but then when I had finished the last episode there was a huge void in my life and I really missed it! Hopefully the third season will come along and I will shoot that one too. I guess it depends on how well received this season is!

I am really proud of this second season though and I think it improves on the first season in every way. It is exciting to know that people will be watching it at the same time when it is broadcast throughout March and April. I just wish I was able to see it go out each week and get that buzz I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Sadly, unless I fly to the US, I won’t be a be able to as the show will initially be broadcast in the US only. Fingers crossed that the series will be picked up in the UK so I can watch it with my friends and family and chastise them if they start using their phones or go for a cup of tea just before a magic shot comes on! Until that happens I will just sit on social media at 2am every Sunday night as each episode goes out, answering questions about the show and hoping that people have loved what we have made.