Remote Control of Shooting,

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2006-01-14 Email Print this article Print

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson needed to view what seven film crews were shooting. His solution: push the envelope on videoconferencing technology.

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Darkness and changeable weather could play havoc with this seemingly simple task. Nimmo recalls another early morning in Tongariro National Park when he spent two frustrating hours trying to get the dish to link up with the satellite. Finally, as dawn approached and clouds cleared, he realized the dish was pointing right at the side of a mountain.

At the filming site, the satellite hookup was plugged into a Cisco router, to create a mobile computer network. A Polycom ViewStation videoconferencing unit was connected to the router and the ViewStation, in turn, was plugged into a video tap on the cameras being used to film the scene. In many cases, Nimmo also had to truck or trek in power units to run the operation.

At the height of filming, Nimmo had seven such crews deployed in the field, transmitting the action back to Jackson at his main studio in Warkworth where he could watch scenes as they were being filmed; if Jackson were at a remote location, the feed would go to a mobile command center.

It was a costly endeavor. At the time, each ViewStation unit cost about $20,000, and the monthly outlay for the satellite linkup was $50,000 in New Zealand dollars, or about $36,000 U.S. Total costs for the units and satellite link came to about $700,000.

Late in the project, Nimmo began experimenting with wireless modems, primarily the Edimax 7207 APG Wireless Access Point from Taiwan-based Edimax Technology, to transmit data from the ViewStation units and computers at the filming location to the satellite dishes. This would save him from running the heavy fiber-optic cable up and down mountainsides and over riverbeds. It proved to be an ideal solution—one he has carried over to his current film projects. The modems provided solid connections up to about two miles, depending on the terrain.

"We learned a lot from that experience," adds Asnet's Stewart. "Back then, wireless modems were still pretty new, but now we use [wireless] at a lot of events."

Nimmo and his crew would remain on site for the day, ensuring that Jackson could see exactly what was being filmed at each location. At the end of the day, they would pack up the equipment and get some sleep before heading off to the next location.

"We were always terrified we were going to smash the videoconferencing units because of the conditions we were working under," Nimmo says. "We were in extreme heat, freezing cold, bouncing over gravel roads, trekking them up mountains … but they held up remarkably well."

And Jackson put the units to good use. When filming Faramir's climactic suicidal charge on Osgilliath, Jackson noticed that the Rangers, the Hobbit's protectors, were wearing the wrong costumes and pointed out the error before filming began. Normally film is shot one day, processed overnight and viewed by the director the following day. Such an error would have meant a costly reshoot. Jackson also frequently used the conferencing units to act out the way he wanted characters to behave, like the sniveling Gollum.

"I could make changes in lighting and camera angles in real time, which not only saved us time and money, it allowed us to make an overall better film trilogy," Jackson said of the technology in a behind-the-scenes documentary.

For his part, Nimmo is now looking into other ways the Internet and computer technology can change the way movie studios do business. He's working with a Los Angeles startup called DAX (for Digital Asset Xchange) Solutions, which created a system called the DAX Production Workflow Accelerator that allows studios to upload large digital media files, like soundtracks or scenes from a movie in production, to a central data warehouse. Using the Internet, various teams and departments such as post-production, distribution and marketing can then collaborate on the content.

"This industry has been slow at adopting technology," Nimmo says. "I think that's because technology hasn't delivered the same quality [as traditional film techniques]. But now that the studios are seeing this technology is becoming robust and reliable, there's a gamut of things that can take place."

Story Guide:
Time Warner: All-Seeing Eye

  • Video Keeps Lord of Rings On Track
  • Remote Control of Shooting, By Satellite
  • Time Warner Base Case

    Next page: Time Warner Base Case

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    Contributing Editor
    Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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