Visions of art and science
Filming Storm Surfers 3D. Photo: Mark Watson
After showing us toads up close, a cameraman now has his 3D sights set on the final frontier.
IN NOVEMBER, Australian 3D cameraman Richard Kickbush will be rigging up cameras at an altitude of 5000 metres, around the radio telescopes in Chile's Atacama Desert. He's part of the historic crew behind the IMAX documentary Hidden Universe, which will reveal incredible footage from spacecraft and telescopes, offering us an immersive view of the cosmos.
The giant-screen doco is being produced by Melbourne production house December Media, and will use Swinburne University's 12-teraflop supercomputer to process and animate the vision.
A film crew grapples with big seas. Water on 3D cameras is a big problem. Photo: Mike Riley
Kickbush, who grew up in Gove in the Northern Territory's Gulf of Carpentaria, made his foray into 3D film with Cane Toads: The Conquest, which became a cult hit not just for the remarkable vision of the hideous amphibians but the quirky people of Queensland who draw their battle lines against the prolific pest now marching in the millions across the Top End.
''It was a really tough shoot, especially trying to use prototype gear,'' Kickbush says. ''They're dirty, disgusting animals but their big, ugly, textured faces are really great material for 3D.''
Kickbush admits some of the crew on Cane Toads were as bizarre as the subject matter.
Richard Kickbush behind the lens for Canetoads: The Conquest. Photo: Mark Watson
''We travelled around with a cane toad wrangler - this huge Wookiee guy who was about 70, who'd been on the run from the US after he dodged the Vietnam War draft - and he had his own separate van with the cane toad zoo.''
The technical test for 3D equipment is how it performs in extreme weather conditions. ''We'd be in the middle of these dusty tracks in 45 degrees, with two big laptops to record to. It was just a mad shoot,'' Kickbush says.
The pioneering director of photography, who appreciates the ''split brain'' appeal of a job that merges science and art, has earnt a reputation for technical innovation.
For Storm Surfers 3D, which tracked champion surfers Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones as they sought out the best of virgin swell, Kickbush had to design and construct cameras that could cop a dumping.
''We had to build the gear to get the size and waterproofing right, keep the lens dry and splash-free. Getting water on the lens in 2D is not so much a problem, but in 3D you've got this blob there that the eye can't focus on.''
More than 26 cameras were used for the thrill ride at sea, including tiny GoPro cameras mounted on a jet ski in a custom carbon-fibre cockpit.
Kickbush says the challenge for the camera crew was to capture the feats of the surfing daredevils without getting hurt themselves.
''You never know how big some of the waves can be. It's about not getting killed, and not having the equipment break. One trip to Cow Bombie in Western Australia, Tom Carroll got caught by the lip and went over the wave in a jet ski and nearly hit rock. The gear that took months to build was smashed, but Carroll walked away.''
The pinnacle of Kickbush's filmmaking career was working this year with Hollywood director James Cameron on his historic DeepSea Challenge documentary, an 11-kilometre record-breaking descent in a custom submersible to the ocean's deepest point, at the Mariana Trench. What Kickbush recalls of that epic project, the film of which is set to screen in 2014, was the exhilaration and exhaustion of the voyage to the bottom of the earth.
''I worked 30 days straight, 15 to 16-hour days, on DeepSea. [Cameron] pushes crews in terms of time and exhaustion. You can say you worked on a James Cameron production, and yes, it proves your ability, but the Terminator 2 crew produced a T-shirt that said, 'T3 but not with me'." The other test for the DeepSea crew was dealing with Cameron's titanic narcissism.
''He's very switched on. He's got an incredibly technical mind. People used to say if he chews you out, it's doubly hard because he's usually right. He's got a real understanding of technology that a lot of directors and producers never have. But it was all about James.''
While Cameron has the respect of the industry, Kickbush insists it's the technical gear that truly gets the star treatment on 3D films, which the crew realised when they were ousted from their private jet. ''Once all the gear was packed into the Lear jet, there was no room for the crew. All these ugly road cases were strapped into these beautiful leather seats, flying first-class, and we had to fly commercial.''
Kickbush says that with the pace of camera technology's evolution, most professionals choose to rent, rather than buy, equipment.
''People try to own gear less and less. A lot of it becomes redundant pretty quick, and then there are maintenance costs. Once upon a time you'd buy a full film package - maybe spend half a million - but you could rent that kind of package for $20,000 a day.''
Where once you would take the tape out of a camera and hand the master copy to the director, camera operators now manage digital footage. ''Usually we dump it down to a laptop and I work with Macs as much as possible, as most of the editing is Mac-based. A physical tape would have to go under a wheel of a car to get destroyed, whereas a couple of clicks and you could delete your stuff. You just have to plan on your hard drive going down at some point so you have to back up, mirror everything and use off-site storage.''
Kickbush says 35-millimetre film has an archival life of 75 years, but the longevity of new mediums such as CDs and hard drives are still in question. ''When the ink starts breaking down, the CD may no longer be useful, and hard drives need to be spun up every six months. You could have a big motion-picture film that's shot on digital, posted on digital and distributed on digital, but for the archival medium, you still have to go back to film.''
What never changes for cinematographers is the merging of two worlds - creative and technical - and those who can master both are the ones who create the magic. ''A director of photography is always joining the art to the science,'' Kickbush says. ''You try and straddle these two worlds in order to make it all work.
''For me, I have to understand the gear completely, and then it becomes my instrument.''
Hidden Universe is scheduled to screen at IMAX in March-April.