Written by David Lewis on Oct 26, 2009. Posted in Interviews

Filming on location with BBC Science

Chris Tangey, from Alice Springs Film and Television, talks to The Location Guide about filming on location with BBC Science in the very centre of Australia's outback for How the Earth Made Us, a major new series on how geology has shaped human history and civilisation.

As with most jobs, for How the Earth Made Us we not only set up the locations and negotiated permissions but followed the production process right through providing logistical support and field producing or "fixing".

As we also produce our own television productions, we have a natural empathy with crews who need to get their job done in such a beautiful but remote desert region. On this job we had to advise on all sorts of things beforehand from where to locate Aboriginal grinding stones and petroglyphs, to desert pavement and longitudinal sand-dune locations. We conducted a recce with Director Nigel Walk a couple of weeks prior so he could then go off to shoot in the South Pacific and return for our set up.

We had been trying for some weeks to get permission to shoot in a microlight aircraft around Uluru (Ayer's Rock) but knew it would be difficult. While most places in Central Australia are free and easy with permissions, this National Park has a reputation for being obstructive, officious and even deceptive when dealing with camera crews.

They have refused many requests before, including permission for a Royal Ballet photoshoot and recently even the BBC Natural History Unit, a long-term supporter of the Park, were told they weren't welcome. They even tried to tell us that they controlled the airspace up to 3km above the Park, but a quick call to Australia's aviation regulator soon proved they had been telling "porkies". We could have pressed on but the client needed to lock down a location for a piece to camera from a special cineflex HD mount.

We used a jetranger helicopter sourced from Alice Springs for the mount. The mount itself we brought over from Auckland in New Zealand, with its Operator, as the Sydney unit was out on another job.

We quickly found a replacement location for Uluru that would tell the same story of the Earth's geological processes. The nearby Mount Connor (350km Southwest of Alice Springs) is a spectacular 3km long mesa located on a private cattle station and it was here we would do the presenter's piece to camera.

It was not going to be possible to transport all the crew in the helicopter so we supplied a crew vehicle and an equipment vehicle with an enclosed trailer. We also organised a fuel drop off so the helicopter could circuit all three remote locations required and return to the base in Alice. Our solar powered remote unit allowed the camera and our supplied comms batteries to be rotated on charge in the middle of nowhere. Being able to operate anywhere was a big part of our client's operational requirements.

Overnight, everyone and everything, including helicopter and pilot, were accommodated at a nearby roadhouse, which scared the hell out of a few desert campers!

Getting the Presenter to the right spot on the edge of Mount Connor for the early morning shot involved us first working with the Director using tools like google earth to find the precise point for that time of day at that time of year.

It was great to see all our planning pay off as the sun lit the exact position we required. When so much money is at stake, including a million dollar camera system flown in from 5000km away for just one day, nobody needs mistakes.

Of course we also talked with the pilot about local conditions including the time that thermal updrafts started to affect the edge of the mesa, and did a dummy run the night before to find a safe place to land on top. As there is a surprising amount of vegetation we needed to make a solid estimate of the time it would take to walk from the landing point to the position and also organise a person to help walk the equipment and water bottles over with the Presenter.

Big budget productions are always nice to work on, but we are also very aware that nobody can afford things to fall over. This is why meticulous planning and sometimes months of preparation is required to pull them off.

How the Earth Made Us is due to be aired next year.

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