How The Explorers Network Tackles High-Res Mobile Production on Land, Sea and Air

Olivier Chiabodo is a French doctor turned television presenter on a far-reaching yet specific mission: to diagnose, maintain and potentially heal the contours and biodiversity of the planet as one would a human patient. The director of The Explorers Network, an independently financed documentary production project, he and a 25-person team have spent the past several years traveling the globe to archive its rich diversity in 4K.

"This whole project is about giving the planet a check-up by taking a good look at its archeology, ethnology, biodiverse natural worlds and, of course, the cultural diversity of its human inhabitants," he says. "The earth has the same composition as the human body—70 percent water and 30 percent solid—so to me, it is a very logical and necessary part of our own survival to be able to figure out how to take care of it just as we do our own bodies."

To get the clearest picture of our planet's health, Chiabodo and his team shoot from all directions: via helicopter, on land and under water. Their first expedition followed the original ocean course of explorer-filmmaker Jacques Cousteau in French Polynesia. The team then traded the South Pacific's tropical waters for the ice-logged upper Arctic for two months, relying on aerial views when travel by boat or other vehicles was impossible. Next month, the project will head to Africa for two months and, in early 2016, go to India for five more.

© Ben Thouard :

Olivier Chiabodo on location in the Arctic (photo by Ben Thouard)

"People in France refer to our work as a modern Cousteau odyssey, but we have since gone beyond his explorations," says Chiabodo. "What we've shot so far is also very much about the team—our stories and our interactions with the people and places we visit." The team includes a helicopter pilot, underwater cameramen, and various production crew. Their first trip together has been the longest so far. "We took 12 months to shoot in French Polynesia, and we assembled our entire workflow, including the helicopter and helipad, on one big tanker," he says. "At the moment we are editing all that footage down to 12 hours of film." 

Where and in what form the result will be seen will likely include both serial television and cinematic distribution. Thanks to backing from independent investors, the Explorers Network can focus instead on financing its travels and assembling the best production tools available that allow archiving in 4K/UHD and HD for multiple outlets. Their mandate, says Chiabodo, is to use top-of-the-line gear to translate what they find into "a tangible and intangible inventory of heritage … the very essence of dreams, adventure and emotion." In other words, stirring visual storytelling that captures hearts as well as minds, regardless of screen size. 


A rare up-close look at an Arctic narwhal.

Chiabodo and his crew naturally migrated early toward 4K and began shooting with the first release of Sony's F55 three years ago. "Not a lot of people were working in 4K back then, save for those shooting with Red," he says. "Broadcasters certainly weren't thinking about it too seriously. "But we made a decision that we want this archive to be viable not just for the short term but for the next 10 years, and 4K was the only answer." 

The team soon added Sony's (AXS-R5) raw recorder to their setup. "It is really heavy, but it is much better for our longer expeditions and for cinematic display." Fit with Angenieux's top-of-the line cinema zoom lenses — chosen, despite their weight, says Chiabodo, for their exceptional glass and zoom length — the team's F55s can capture animals up close at high frame rates or sweeping vistas from the gimbal of the helicopter. "We wanted to put some good light on the camera and, being from France, we naturally think Angenieux is the best there is," he adds. 

The only aerial kit they found able to carry the heavy kit load was the ShotOver K1 6-Axis Gyro Gimbal from Filmofis Aerials. "We've really put this thing to the test, especially on our recent trip to the Arctic," he says. "We had a lot of bad and extremely cold weather during our arctic expedition, but the K1 was very stable. With our 1000mm zoom lens, we could be fairly high and still get amazing shots of polar bears, thanks to the very high-quality system we've put together." For underwater shoots, the cameras suit up in Gates F55 waterproof housing.

Underwater in Polynesia

An underwater shoot in progess during the French Polynesian expedition.

Chiabodo estimates that close to 1 TB of raw data per hour is acquired during production. "Every day, our two data managers back up the media to our LaCie 48TB drives with eight disks," he says, referring to LaCie's 8big Rack. "That drive is very powerful and stable. We looked at a number of others and found that the LaCie drives really are the best currently out there on the market." With the exception of a quick teaser assembled from the dailies during production that gets posted to The Explorers Network's Facebook page or website, footage is edited in Adobe Premiere Pro in San Francisco, where The Explorers Network has an office, or their headquarters in Paris. "We tried to work with Avid but up until very recently," says Chiabodo, "t was too complicated to work with 4K and it was just easier for us to move to Premiere [so that] we can see the 4K files instantly."

© Ben Thouard :

A data manager checks the RAW F55 footage as it is backed up on 48 TB LaCie drives during the Arctic expedition.

Three years ago, adds Chiabodo, it took three hours to upload 1 TB of footage from the F55. "Now, it takes 30 minutes. Technology continues to get better and better, and now we can capture more in much less time. It's a great motivator to keep us forging ahead!"