When Urban Brew Studios secured the global television rights to the world’s toughest endurance race, the 2011/12 Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race to the South Pole, CEO Danie Ferreira opted for Sony cameras from Jasco Broadcast Solutions. The experience was mind blowing – so was the performance of the Sony PMW-EX3 XDCAM EX cameras.
Seventeen extreme endurance athletes from six countries, were flown to the start, 704km from the South Pole, from where they raced to the finish unsupported, on foot and with cross country skis, hauling gear and provisions. Says Ferreira: “The Urban Brew team had a dual focus – to document the entire event, complete with daily updates, and to capture the experience of the South African competitors. With a small team of four and three Sony PMW-EX3 XDCAM EX camera kits we spent 6 weeks on the ice – often at temperatures of -40°C, in katabatic (downward moving) winds of up to 80mph, in a landscape of white on glaring white.”
Where most TV series end, this race starts
Two Urban Brew crew members covered the leading competitors while the other two captured the dramas unfolding at the back of the pack. While exhilarating, the cold and pace of work were fatiguing. Says Ferreira: “In summer the sun never sets at these latitudes, it just moves around your head. We found ourselves working two or three days at a stretch to capture the action before taking a break. This made the performance of the cameras and related equipment a vital part of our success. The challenges we prepared for were not the challenges we faced, however.”
Ferreira, a self-confessed Antarctic junkie who had visited the area four times, knows the environment well. “The Antarctic is the coldest, highest, driest desert on the planet,” says Ferreira. “Where most TV series end, this race starts. There is amazing coastal and marine life but the minute you move onto the plateau you are 3000 meters above the sea and must battle low levels of oxygen. And there is no landscape definition, no mountains or other features – it’s like a white sea of ice. At -30°C to -40°C, its 60° colder than what we are used to in South Africa. We were unsure how the equipment would function in this environment.
Performance batteries, tripods, cameras
“We thought the Sony BP-U60 batteries would be our greatest challenge, as their staying power in cold environments is typically low. To ensure we had sufficient battery power, we had ported inverters. To our surprise and delight, instead of lasting only a couple of hours each, they lasted 15-20 hours each. The tripods, which we had not given much thought to, seized at -40°C, which meant we could not use the pan and tilt functionality. We had to resort to shooting off the ice surface. As any colour darker than white melts the ice, and we didn’t want the cameras getting wet, we worked fast.”
The camera’s themselves gave not a single problem. “The cameras started every time and functioned fully to performance spec without trouble, which is almost unprecedented in my experience. I did impose some very strict rules on how and where they were used and stored, however. As our most important tools, we were careful to keep them in the dry cold of the external environment, never bringing them into the moist heat of the tents.”
Other challenges were keeping frost bite at bay and dealing with glare. “To work the camera we had to take off our heavy outer gloves which left fingers vulnerable. We also had to shoot with a wide aperture to overcome the challenges of ice build-up on the lens. With 24 hours of daylight and a white on white on white environment with no landscape definition, we needed a lot of neutral density filters to bring light levels down.”
The event was won by the Norwegian team in a record breaking 15 days. The Welsh team followed, making it to the finish in 22 days. The South African team of Braam Malherbe and Peter van Kets came in third at 24 days, having assisted Team British Green to carry the load of an injured team mate. It was quite a feat for the two who had never used skis before this event but who had, respectively, ran the Great Wall of China and rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Braam and Peter are truly remarkable athletes,” says Ferreira. “To have achieved what they did is outstanding. Brave Hearts, the 90-minute feature which captures Team SA’s journey, tells the story well – the psychological and physical challenges.”
Cold Sweat is currently being screened locally on SABC 3, a three-part feature covering the whole event. Both the documentary feature and the documentary series will flight internationally in the coming months.
Concludes Ferreira: “For me this has been a dream come true – I love the Antarctic and I love to work with a camera – I got to do both with great equipment and an event that few will ever personally witness.”
Says Rupert Dalton, Sales Executive at Jasco Broadcast Solutions: “We were pleased to have been able to advise on the purchase of the Sony PMW-EX3 cameras used for this event. It’s an awesome achievement by some pretty amazing South Africans – the Urban Brew team and the athletes. These documentaries are a showcase for South Africa’s talent and much as the capabilities of Sony’s cameras.”