Animal planet

Making a wildlife documentary entails a lot of patience and sacrifice, and seldom makes a filmmaker rich. Dubai-based documentary-maker and CEO of VFX Productions, Yusuf Thakur, has taken up this challenge and he is currently filming wildlife in the UAE for a new documentary series. In an exclusive interview with Digital Studio, Thakur shares the secret of how he is using a JVC HDV camera to shoot local wildlife.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  January 1, 2006

I|~|thabig.jpg|~|Yusuf Thakur on various shoots with the JVC GY-HD 100 for his new documentary series. |~|Wildlife documentary-makers seldom pick the Middle East to film animals. For one, very little is known of wildlife in the desert and secondly, it has generated relatively little interest compared to other parts of the world. Dubai-based documentary-maker, Yusuf Thakur, is an exception. His first serious attempt at making a wildlife documentary was on one of the islands of Bahrain in 1995. The programme won him several international awards and it was shown on the National Geographic Channel. Since then, Thakur has made several more documentaries. This time, he is making a series of documentaries on the wildlife in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and he’s using the new JVC HDV camcorder. “This series will cover the wildlife in the desert, the Wadis and the mountains, the coastal regions, as well as the sea,” says Thakur, who also heads VFX Productions, a Dubai-based production house. The most exciting aspect of this series is that it is being shot on High Definition (HD). For this purpose, Thakur purchased two JVC GY-HD100 cameras from JVC’s local distributor, Oasis Enterprises. “HD is the future and I nearly bought a Panasonic Varicam because I found it to be the best in the market. Unfortunately, the lenses were also very expensive and the entire package was coming up to US $109,000,” says Thakur. “It was difficult for me to justify such a purchase especially since the technology we buy today often becomes outdated in a year’s time. Formats are changing so rapidly today and each vendor seems to be creating his own standard. It would have been difficult for me to justify buying this package, especially the long lenses, which would be useful only for wildlife documentary work. Secondly, the format itself is so new that there are many issues that still need to be resolved. As such, I preferred to buy a package that would allow me to upgrade in the future, if there was a need,” he adds. At $6800, Thakur believes that the GY-HD100 is a steal. For one, it has helped him take the first step towards migrating to HD. Secondly, he claims the quality of the image is as close to film as video can possibly be. “The JVC in terms of structure is very close to the Varicam in that the image quality approximates to film. It’s 720P, the closest you can get to film. I cannot say the same for Sony because it is very television like. We all struggle when we are not shooting film to make it look as close as possible to film because that’s the ideal that all filmmakers aspire to. Also, it has the same colour matrix as the Varicam and you can achieve any look you want give or take 20%. If you don’t have a lot of money, this is a fantastic buy,” he says. ||**||II|~||~||~|Also, the 1/3-inch 3-CCD GY-HD100 has HDV and DV in & out, and comes with a detachable 1/3-inch bayonet mount 16x Fujinon lens. “This is the only camera in this range that allows you to mount broadcast lenses on it and this makes it truly appealing to any cameraman. Other competing brands in this range do not have this flexibility,” says the documentary-maker. For a wildlife documentary-maker, Thakur has learnt that such flexibility is even more appealing as it opens up the potential to mount telephoto lenses on the camera. But there was one big hitch — money. A cameraman who has paid under $6500 for a camera cannot think of mounting Canon or Fujinon lenses on it. “Canon lenses are so exorbitant that their cost is in excess of $70,000. A production company such as mine can’t afford to buy something like that and only use it for wildlife shooting. It is simply not commercially viable,” explains Thakur. The solution, according to Thakur, was to adapt SLR lenses to the JVC. “I spoke to a lens specialist called Zoerk in Germany. Zoerk only makes special lenses for broadcasting and he’s been doing this for the last 10 years,” explains Thakur. “He can adapt any photographic lenses for you because conceptually, any photographic lenses are 35 mm lenses. And if can give you a 35 mm picture, it can give you HD quality. The optics are already built in. This is nothing new. People have been doing it for years. People with 16 mm film cameras often use modified SLR lenses because they cannot afford broadcast lenses. All you need is a person like Zoerk who understands the technology and puts it together,” he adds. Zoerk got back to Thakur in a couple of days with his findings. According to him, the only lenses that could be mounted on the JVC HDV camera were Nikon lenses. “I was in luck because I had Nikon lenses,” says Thakur. “Zoerk said the solution was to mount Nikon SLR lenses on the GY-HD100 with the help of a simple mechanical adaptor that would increase the distance of the fall of the picture onto the CCD. No change was made to the optics or the glass. I have shot with this and done proper resolution tests. It works perfectly.” A look at the footage shot on some of the islands in the UAE with the HDV camera and the adapted lenses shows stunning images of the wildlife there. “These are, of course, protected areas not open to the public. We need special permission to visit these islands, but they are inhabited by some beautiful species and we wanted to show it to the world. This equipment has helped me do that.” For a man who lived in the heart of Mumbai, a typical urban environment devoid of much vegetation and animals, Thakur knows a great deal about different species of animals. His interest and research began in Bahrain with the filming of the Sooty falcon, a bird that flies all the way from Africa to an island in Bahrain to breed. Strangely, Sooty falcons have the same mates for life and yet, they only come together during the mating season. The documentary picked up five awards at international film festivals. ||**||III|~||~||~|“The Sooty falcon’s tale is riveting. Incidentally, it is the only endemic species, which breeds in this part of the world. I wanted to tell their story,” says Thakur, who graduated from the famed Pune Film Institute in India and believes firmly in the power of storytelling. “When an opportunity presented itself in Bahrain, I took it and decided to cover a pair of Sooty falcons during one of their breeding seasons.” Since then, Thakur has done several documentaries including one on the Kingfisher, and another, on the mangroves in the UAE. The last two, shot in SD, will be included in the UAE series that is being shot now. “I did these documentaries purely for personal interest but then it sold and funnily enough, they also pay. The rewards are not immediate. The sacrifices are huge, the patience is killing, but the rewards come in increments over several years through sale and resale. It’s not a route to get rich. It’s a hard life. That’s why it’s not very appealing to most filmmakers,” he says. But Thakur admits that he could not have pursued documentary making if he didn’t have a commercially-viable setup. “For four years, I gave up documentaries and spent time putting VFX together and the efforts have paid off. Today, we have a large team of people and all of the equipment necessary to undertake complete production and post production projects. We have six cameras including HD, two edit suites, 100KW of lighting, five dual Xeons, a 20-CPU based render farm and other equipment. We are also constantly upgrading our equipment to keep up with this market’s demands. We don’t have to step out to get any of our work done including CG. We can do an entire turnkey job here. And if we don’t have the solution, we will find it, acquire it, learn it and do it,” he says. ||**||IV|~||~||~|This is exactly what the team did when they bought the JVC HD camera. As with all new technology, early buyers of cameras find themselves facing several challenges with regards to post production. VFX found that Final Cut Pro 4.5 wouldn’t capture native HDV from the JVC camera, although it worked with the Sony HDV. Of course, Canopus was an option but for a budget user, it was an expensive choice. “At NAB, Apple showed that FCP 4.5 could capture footage, but that was through a plug-in called Lumiere, which was still in beta. This was meant for Macintosh users. One of my friends, a die-hard Mac user struggled because the Lumiere plug-in was just not available then. It has recently become available,” says Thakur. VFX, however, was lucky. The production house works with both PCs and Macs. For PC users, a software solution from Cineform called Aspect HD was available. “I have tried and tested this plug-in. Aspect HD works. It previews in HD. We have got five layers of real time HDV on a dual Xeon with this and loading takes about two minutes. You can capture in it and edit footage. For us, this plug-in has made life really easy,” says the filmmaker, who has also recently acquired the new Avid Liquid 7, which has been certified as compatible with the JVC HDV-1 systems. VFX has thought out its purchase well. People may well complain that HDV is not the same as HD but as Thakur points out, when DV was introduced 10 years ago, it was not considered a format for professionals. “But today, 90% of documentary work is done on the DV. HDV will most probably step into the role that DV played,” says Thakur. “This camera has made HD more affordable and in that sense, made itself more accessible to budget users. I find this a cost effective package and I am certain that I’d be able to recover its cost very easily.” ||**||

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