Technology meets wildlife in Arctic Vets. The technology is provided by the amazing and brilliant Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K. As technology improves, so does the ‘up close and personal’ feel of wildlife cinematography. There’s no longer the need to throw on the winter boots, skidoo suit and hire a professional polar bear tracker, just to obtain that once in a lifetime exclusive with the bear – when Blackmagic Design can do it for you… with the help of a professional cinematographer. Together at last, the new series Arctic Vets explores and showcases some of Canada’s best wildlife ; polar bears, arctic foxes, wolves and more with incredibly sharp images, that help to appreciate nature’s wild population at its best. They are elusive and dangerous, cunning and magnificent and sometimes they get injured and need humans to intervene.
The footage is absolutely incredible and the people that capture it are equally incredible for their tenacity, their patience and their skillful talents. One such team working out in the field to bring the amazing images to the comforts of our home, is Scott Wilson and Andre Dupuis of Echo Bay Media. They served as director of photography, camera and sound operator. The CBC original series is produced by Entertainment One (eOne). The footage was shot using the URSA Mini Pro 12K digital film camera in Blackmagic RAW. The series, which was graded with DaVinci Resolve Studio, also relied on Pocket Cinema Camera 4Ks and 6Ks, as well as URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 cameras, to capture the incredible footage.
I had a very unique opportunity to talk to an extremely talented and tenacious Scott Wilson about his experience shooting wildlife in the field for Arctic Vets and how he prefers to capture all that footage. Upon meeting Scott in the interview, he wanted to impress upon me, how grateful he is to be working when many are not, and that he does count his blessings. As a consequence, he’s had a great many covid tests.
HNMAG “How long have you been involved with the series, Arctic Vets?”
SCOTT “The show is brand new and I believe they gave us a call in Aug/Sept. of 2020 when eOne was the driving force/major production company behind it at CBC. They reached out to us, asking if we’d come on board to be the primary crew to shoot it.”
HNMAG “How involved are you in capturing the shots? Are you out in the field or are you calling the shots from your office?”
SCOTT “I’m one of the field team members. My business partner at Echo Bay Media is Andre Dupuis and also the DP (director of photography). I am the second assistant camera operator to him but my primary role is the field audio engineer and aerial/drone camera operator. We have an interesting partnership because we’ve already produced a number of TV shows ourselves and when we get asked by a company, such as eOne – we feel quite well suited for it.
HNMAG “Have you worked with the same team for a number of years?”
SCOTT “Andre and I have been working together for 21 years now and we’ve seen it all. We’ve been on seven continents and 80 plus countries filming together. We’re almost clairvoyant with each other and we can really anticipate a situation; what I need, what he may need. In this situation, it comes in pretty handy when working with wildlife and trying to anticipate that. We’re also quite seasoned in the weather and being out in the cold, which is good.”
HNMAG “Have you been in extreme cold and extreme cold?”
SCOTT “Over the twenty years, we’ve worked in all of it. We’ve been filming in Antarctica, North Korea, The Gobi Desert, the Sahara Desert, we’ve been up against it many times and the gear has to perform as good as we do.”
HNMAG “What would you consider one of your most-scariest encounters/situations?”
SCOTT “One incident that’s high on the list was when I was hosting a travel program, in quite a remote region of Indonesia. One of the pilots took me up in an ultra-light and we crashed into the Pacific Ocean. I had to free myself from the wreckage and swim to the surface, but I’m here today to talk about it. That was certainly one incident that I didn’t tell my wife until I got back home. The pilot survived too. We had flown over a diving Liveaboard (diving boat) shortly before we crashed, so we only had to bob around for about 30-40 minutes before they scooped us up with a Zodiac. We were quite lucky.”
HNMAG “Have you been on an ultralight since then?”
SCOTT “I actually got my pilot’s license a few months later. I was so hell-bent and it’s always been a dream of mine. I’ve always had a fascination with aviation. The crash was the catalyst once I got home, to be the one in control from now on (laughing).”
HNMAG “Is capturing wildlife footage from around the world, the bulk of your work or do you also work with narrative film as well?”
SCOTT “We’ve never delved much into the scripted world… with that being said, there’s always been an element of wildlife. Over the 20 years, most of our work has been travel programming primarily, so there is a narrative to it but that documentary narrative isn’t necessarily pre-scripted in marriage. They’re itineraries and plans in place but many times with travel and with wildlife, the script goes out the window pretty quickly and you have to roll with what you’re given.”
HNMAG “What size of a team would you bring with you when capturing wildlife footage?”
SCOTT “For this particular show (Arctic Vets) there were 2 units, with one staying primarily in Winnipeg, at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. It was a team of 4 or 5 that were capturing what the veterinarians were doing on sight and how they care for the animals at the zoo. There was our team of 5, that were up in Churchill for a few weeks at a time, rotating through the autumn months of 2020. We’d keep going back as the seasons would take hold and change… from late summer to winter. We primarily focused on the polar bear migration as they came back up the coast line looking for the sea ice again.”
HNMAG “Have you been up to Churchill before getting involved with Arctic Vets?”
SCOTT “No, it was quite a nice perk to this particular production – it was actually on my bucket list of places I wanted to see. When we were presented with the opportunity to shoot this program, part of the deciding factor in accepting the job was being able to spend time in a remote place like Churchill, along with the amazing scenery and wildlife that go along with it. On a side note, as a company that’s been so focused on international travel for the past 20 years, strangely enough – Covid gave us the gift/opportunity to focus more domestically… to see places in our own backyard and the beauty that’s here. It was nice to be able to refocus on Canada.”
While the team usually kept their distance from the wildlife, sometimes the veterinarians’ missions brought them up close and personal. In one such instance, a polar bear had to be transported to a location near the Nunavut border in northern Canada to be released into the wild. Wilson used a Pocket Cinema Camera 6K mounted on a gimbal for quick, close up shots while the polar bear was moved by a helicopter.
HNMAG “Given the polar bear population in Churchill, I’ve heard of bear patrols that come out at night to keep them out of town. Did you ever get used to that?”
SCOTT “You get used to it quite quickly – we were filming a lot with conservation officers that were responsible for much of that up there. We’ve had many meetings with them about what they do. Sometimes at night, you’ll hear the cracker shells go off. If you have to go out at night, they tell you to be with somebody – which can seem a bit far fetched, that a polar bear could be hiding around a corner… but the truth is, during the polar bear migration, it’s very much a reality. It sets in pretty quickly after you wake up, pull back your curtains to find footprints outside your hotel window, which does happen. We also talked to some locals who have had plenty of run ins with polar bears, so you realize it’s not just far-fetched stories to increase tourism – it’s a real thing.”
HNMAG “If you had the choice, would you rather film people or wildlife?”
SCOTT “The experiences we’ve had over the years filming wildlife, are moments I’ll never forget; whether that’s filming gorillas in Rwanda or the sub-Saharan Africa for safari with big animals… they all have a special place in my heart, but I’m a storyteller at heart. I really do enjoy dealing with people, talking to them, learning from them and having those stories. If I was forced to spend the rest of my career filming wildlife or people – I’d still choose people.”
HNMAG “When you are away from home for long durations at a time, what would be some of the comforts from home that you might miss the most?”
SCOTT “Having family and kids at home is definitely harder than it was 5 years ago. It’s not always easy to balance the career that I’ve built for myself with the realities of life and being a parent. Being away from your family can be tough, but outside of that – I really relish the change, especially over the last year. That could mean extreme conditions, different languages, different cultures, different food… it’s what we thrive on and why we got into this in the first place. I always know I’ll come home, so it never seems too far away, especially in such a technological world.”
HNMAG “What would be some of the more difficult shots to plan and do you also shoot underwater?”
SCOTT “Yes we do, but on this particular program we didn’t have any underwater shots to plan for. Andre and myself are both commercial divers and we both have our DCBC card. We do a lot of underwater filming and did a program a number of years ago for a Cousteau family, as well as a dive/travel series of our own, called Descending. I’d have to say that shooting underwater is the most challenging, when you’re dealing with wildlife and underwater; you have a life sustaining apparatus on your back with a limited amount of time, you’re worrying about the wildlife and you still have to operate the camera and get the shot. It’s probably the most complex and at times, the most frustrating. You can plan and plan and plan… and then the weather shifts or any piece of gear fails underwater – the dives over and you miss that opportunity. The underwater is the hardest to plan and the hardest to execute and in relation to Arctic Vets and large wild animals… it’s their unpredictability. The locals will always tell you that they’re always here, at this time and surely enough, they won’t show up that day. You can also find yourself going on a shoot but wanting to be quick, mobile and agile on our feet and we’re going to strike a few pieces of gear in order to make us lighter on our feet. We’ll end up leaving a piece or lens because we didn’t think we’d get close to the animal – then sure enough, we’ll end up with an incredible, life-changing and up-close encounter with the animal… and we only have long focal length lenses; how are we going to capture it? (laughing)”
HNMAG “What has been your favourite animal to shoot in the wild?”
SCOTT “Being a diver, I love being underwater and capturing the underwater creatures – sharks are always a thrill… but I do always enjoy the chance to film with primates. As a people person, to see how inquisitive and intelligent primates can be, whether they’re chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas – it’s jaw dropping to be in their presence, to see how human they are and to see how close we are to them as well.”
HNMAG “There’s a few shows out there that delve into the paranormal. Have you ever considered pointing your cameras toward something more cryptid?”
SCOTT “We were actually asked to film a program in the summer of 2010 in the US called, Into the Unknown. It was looking at all these American legends and stories, such as Bigfoot, the Sandman in the desert, the Rougarou and the New Jersey Devil and other things. It wasn’t something we’d considered before, but it was an opportunity for us to try something new. We needed to be agile as we’re running through the bush, while still putting that cinematography element into it. It was an interesting challenge and fun to dabble into that a little bit.”
HNMAG “If you had a project to capture footage on anything of your choice, what would it be?”
SCOTT “I think, anything that gets me far away from home. Although I love my home and am a Canadian through and through… every time I leave my country, I have a better appreciation for it. I love getting out and exploring parts of the world that I have no preconceived notion of. When it comes to Mongolia, Madagascar or Mali – I have no idea of what it’s like, what goes on there, the history or what makes people tick… that’s what really drives me and excites me. I also love it for the natural history side of it. Antarctica absolutely blew my mind, so any opportunity to get back there; I’d do it in a heartbeat, especially if it got me underwater. It’s the far reaches of the planet that I enjoy. We’re in such a connected age, where nothing seems sacred anymore and where you can look up a Youtube video on every square inch of the planet. To be able to go somewhere that feels completely off the grid is increasingly harder to do, which continues to drive me toward passion projects.”
HNMAG “Do you mind if we switch gears a little and ask a couple fun questions? What’s the most extreme sport you’ve tried?”
SCOTT “This is going back a couple of years with our series, Departures. We believe that we actually created a new sport of our own while in the Sahara in Libya. We’ve seen sandboarding before but we decided to incorporate a rope and attach it to the back of a Toyota Landcruiser, then wakeboard through the sand dunes. I think that’s the craziest one for me and I believe we invented it (laughing).”
HNMAG “Considering you shoot in RAW format, that must require a large hard drive?”
SCOTT “We travel with a powerful laptop and we’ve created a massive USB HUB that can transfer data quite fast into a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) which will operate fast and have a lot of storage. The nice thing that Blackmagic Design did in their RAW (BRAW) format, is to develop the science behind it. You can shoot in RAW without having to have gross amounts of data and you can pick the ratio that it compresses to as you’re shooting. If you’re in a position where you don’t have the ability to dump the footage for several days because you’re isolated in the bush and can’t do it, you can make the adjustment in the camera instantly – to a more conservative 8:1 ratio without having to sacrifice much out of it. In the end, once it goes to the editing or colouring suite, they’re still able to pull the best images out of our footage.”
Arctic Vets was shot in Blackmagic RAW, which allowed eOne to retain high image quality at lower bitrates with reduced cost for storage and less time for data transfer.
Scott was a fun guest that lives to travel and shoot. His contribution to our entertainment is well appreciated and savoured for the brilliant imagery and story that his camera is telling. Thank you Scott and Andre.