PRESS: Tales from an Embedded Mutineer
The Channel 4 series Mutiny saw nine men relive the extraordinary voyage of Captain Bligh and his crew after the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. GTC member Dan Etheridge sailed and lived as part of the crew throughout the entire 4,000-mile voyage in the little 23-foot wooden boat, captained by former Special Boat Service officer Ant Middleton. To maintain the reality of the programme, filming had to be as unobtrusive as possible at all times and there was no chance for Dan to review rushes as he went.
Filming on the Bounty’s End for Windfall Films last year turned out to be about as challenging as it can get! The niche I seem to have carved out for myself over the years is characterised by filming in conditions that prove to be testing either operationally for the kit or physically for myself – and often both. The irony is that whenever I’ve found myself in the harshest of filming conditions (a situation that really gets the pulse racing and is the most demanding), it often seems to generate the best footage to work with – that is, assuming you manage to get it all back to the edit in one piece, of course...
Filming this kind of programme is something I had always wanted to do, even before starting my professional career. So, back in 2001, I was really happy to be asked to work on the BBC show Hunting Chris Ryan as a minicam operator/ assistant. The challenge and variety of filming for that series at –40oC in the Siberian tundra, in the dense rainforests of Honduras and in the heat of the beautiful Botswanan bush ignited a passion to do more and more of the same. Luckily, having that show on my CV seemed to give it enough credibility to then push further into that genre of work. Since then I’ve filmed lions attacking wildebeest for National Geographic; been to a shed in the middle of nowhere in Texas to film the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan for Ross Kemp: Extreme Worlds; met the Camorra Mafia in Naples; been third through the door filming with Russian, Polish and Romanian special forces capturing murderers and drug dealers from their beds for Discovery; and been stranded on a desert island for a month for the first series of The Island with Bear Grylls. I’ve also filmed more than 60 other episodes with Bear in the past 10 years, which I have to say has been a total honour, not to mention a great deal of fun!
When I think back and list all these things, I realise just how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to document so much crazy stuff. But exciting as it has all been, I have to say that the most challenging to date has been Channel Four’s Mutiny, which aired in March this year. I’d had a taste of working in an embedded camera situation on the first series of The Island. When I finished on that I never dreamt I’d get another opportunity to do something similar – which at the time felt sad as it was such an incredible way to film something. As an embed, you have complete editorial and creative control over what and how everything is covered. It’s a position you can really make your own and develop, and it’s a very different way of working to normal because you don’t get to sit down in the evening and look back at what you’ve shot; you just have to be confident that what you’re doing is technically fine and the content will be rich enough to tell the story unfolding in front of you. It comes with a lot of responsibility and, personally, I strive to make sure that what I supply is always as objective as I can possibly make it, without being tainted by my own personal opinion or take on the situation.
To me, this is incredibly important in any documentary, but even more so in an embed situation. The edit really does start on the shoot with your decisions around what to film – or not.
A crazy challenge
When I first spoke to Ian Duncan and David Dugan at Windfall Films back in October 2015, I couldn’t believe what they were setting out to achieve. I knew the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty: my dad used to tell me about it as a kid and I loved the Mel Gibson/Anthony Hopkins film. The thought of undertaking this journey really got me excited but, if I’m honest, having had the chat with them, I genuinely didn’t think it would ever come off. I knew how tricky it would be to get permissions, visas, insurances, safety teams, support vessels in place – an endless list of incredibly difficult and involved processes that would add up to this just not being feasible. But to my surprise they pulled it off – nine of us would set sail to attempt to achieve the same remarkable feat that Bligh and his crew of 19 men had pulled off in 1789.
It was absolutely horrendous. Anybody who says it wasn’t is a better man than me! I really, really struggled – mostly internally but also with the brutal conditions and just being wet for such prolonged periods of time (or at other times too hot). All the elements we were exposed to are fine for a day, when you know you’re going to get yourself warm and dry at the end of that day – then you can go again. I’ve been through that many times on other shoots, but this was such a prolonged experience of falling asleep soaking wet, waking up soaking wet, falling asleep boiling hot, waking up boiling hot. There was no respite. It ground you down day by day.
Onboard camera rig and barrel drops
The 23-foot boat was rigged before we set off by microwave link/minicam technician Steve Selfe with four waterproof Sony HD bullet cameras running back to an Odyssey four-channel video recorder, which was kept under the seat in the bow.
One small Pelican case containing the Odyssey and another housing four V-lock batteries to run the system had to be changed twice a day by barrel drop from the main vessel. We also had two microphones built into the sides of the boat, the feeds from which were transmitted along with a video feed to the support vessel by microwave video link, meaning the production team could watch and log what was happing in real time, whilst staying between one to three nautical miles away so that we really would maintain the feeling of isolation, which was essential for the integrity of the show.
Captain Ant continually drilled it into us that there wasn’t a support boat at all – and during the storms they wouldn’t have been able to get close anyway. The barrel drop was an integral part of the production process. Each of us on the Bounty’s End had a role to play whenever we changed over the batteries and cards for the cameras. Freddy would hook the line attached to the barrels, Ant would drag the barrels into the boat by hand, Luke and Sam would receive all the new equipment, Conrad would helm, Rish would gather the loose rope and I would take the lids off and replace all the new equipment with the old so that what we’d shot could be dragged back and downloaded on the support vessel. It took us about four days to fully master this routine in order to execute it safely and quickly. Crucially, Ant organised us in military fashion to carry it off successfully. In the photo of us below, we’re not dragging in a huge fish but the barrels containing all the equipment.
Along with the Odyssey system, in the drop we would swap out the ever-recording Zaxcom microphone recorder kits, three Canon XF205s, which came with two cards and two spare batteries, four GoPro Sessions with mounts and 32GB cards, and a lens cleaning kit. One of the three Canon 205s came in an EWA marine underwater housing, which John Livesey, the very skilled DoP and drone pilot aboard the support vessel, would purge with nitrogen to stop the dreaded fogging when the rains came – which they did for days on end, something I could never really have prepared myself for.
Swapping all this equipment out, as well as filming with it in huge swells up to 9 metres high in the dark and torrential rain, all happened within the first 48 hours of our being onboard the boat and I really couldn’t see how we were going to be able to sustain this for the duration. However, it’s a great trait of being human that we can adjust to pretty much any circumstance once we’re over the initial hump. There are people in the world who live in horrific conditions for large parts of their lives – so, staying mindful that something like this is, in relative terms, absolutely doable, if a little testing at times, does tend to help. That said, I think if you’d put a warm bed and cold beer in front of me, I would have broken and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of those creature comforts from time to time.
One of the hardest technical challenges was the heat. There was a little thermometer below deck and one day it showed 62oC. It was hot enough to drive us all a bit crazy and rendered even our tough cameras totally unusable. We had to wait until night or the next day for the cameras to cool down. I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen before. For the main actuality we chose the XF205s because of their size, the fact you get broadcast-safe 50MB/s and timecode in and out, all in a very compact camera, plus they fit into the EWA marine bag, which in turn fitted into the barrels. If the weather permitted, I’d request a Sony FS5 with 35mm Zeiss macro prime and Canon 24–70mm f2.8 for detail shots, GVs and slow-mo up to 200fps (any more and the noise would compromise the quality) aboard the boat.
Ropes dangling, sails filling with wind, using the sextant etc. – you can really see when footage from this camera is used, it’s so sharp and punchy with 10-bit colour and 14 stops of dynamic range. It also sat really well with the Panasonic GH4 footage from the drone John used. On land, I had a Sony PMW-F500. For image quality this wouldn’t be my first choice as it suffers from only having 11 stops latitude, but I really needed the range of the Canon HJ21x7.5 to be sure of never missing any action that was happening too far away from me to be able to get to it quickly. It also meant I could observe the guys from a distance without being too ‘in their faces’ and capture much more natural sequences. Plus, as long as you’re always wide open and use the macro as much as possible, you can get the camera to perform pretty well. Also, very importantly (touch wood!), I’ve never had one go down on me yet.
Out of contact
Probably the toughest thing of the whole experience was being away from my family. I have two kids and a partner at home, and I’m used to being away from them for long periods of time. I generally spend about seven months of the year abroad on jobs, but I see them every day when I’m home. However, usually when I’m away it’s easy to keep in contact via satellite phone and Skype or WhatsApp. But on Mutiny? No chance. All they had was the ability to search for the support boat’s GPS!
My time on the Bounty’s End was characterised by being wild, exciting and beautiful in the extreme – while also frustrating and dangerous. I’m not sure I would do it again – but on the other hand I wouldn’t swap having done it for anything! I just hope we did the whole crazy, impossibly ambitious experiment justice. If not, it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying.