Making of Whales of the Mediterranean Sea

The Making of "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea" - Part 1 It has been an amazing journey documenting some of the exciting research and tireless conservation work that goes on in the region, an area of the world not known for its cetacean populations. From May - August 2007, we filmed a number of scientists studying cetaceans in Spain, Italy, Greece and the UK for our series Whale Trackers - uncovering the science of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

When we returned to Melbourne in early September, we spent hours reviewing tapes, writing scripts and editing footage. As we finish each documentary short,we post it online with education materials for students and teachers. We have posted two videos so far and will be producing another three episodes over the next 6 weeks. After that, I will be reviewing all of the edits once again to produce an hour-long documentary film. I thought I would write about the entire editing process and go behind the scenes, discussing how we actually made these documentaries.

We aim to make a freely accessible environmental channel featuring the science and conservation efforts of people around the world. Pre-production Making this series of films was a case of traveling by any means necessary to the right locations during various field projects. It took months of emails and phone calls to co-ordinate meeting people and filming in one single trip. Somehow things worked out where we traveled for three months thousands of kilometers by planes, trains, boats, and automobiles. First, I have to thank many people who let us film their research, and spend time with us sharing their science and their stories.

Chris Johnson filming sperm whales underwater     Chris Johnson filming sperm whales underwater

Many people were part of making these films, without the efforts and patience, none of this would have come together. I would like to personally thank Xavier Pastor, Marta Madina, JJ Candan, the crew of the Oceana Ranger and staff of the Oceana European office in Madrid; Alexandros Frantzis, Voula Alexiadou of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, and the entire crew of the RV Nereis; Giovanni Bearzi, Simone Panigada, Joan Gonzalvo, Silvia Bonizzoni of the Tethys Research Institute; Tanya Peterson and Wendy Elliot of WWF, Barbara Mussi and the staff of Delphis MDC; Ricardo Sagaminda, Ana Canadas of Anitak and the crew of the Toftevaag, and especially Erich Hoyt of WDCS.

The aim of traveling through the Mediterranean to document so many research programs was to paint a picture of conservation topics that affect cetaceans local and the efforts to protect them on a regional level. After spending three months in the Mediterranan in 2007, and on previous research programs in 2004, I am convinced the lack of public awareness is a major hurdle in the effort to help protect and conserve cetaceans in this region. Although the films are produced in English, over the coming months, we will be translating the online versions into Spanish, Italian, Greek, French and Arabic with the intent of getting them distributed to schools in local communities.


To document the stories, I shot everything in HD (High Definition) and edited in HD. On previous projects, I have filmed in HD, downcoverting the signal to DV to press onto DVD or export for web use. About 7 months ago, I purchased a new MacBook Pro with 2 gigs of RAM, so this project, I was going to do all of the editing in HD. It was a similar kit used in filming the documentary - Southern Right Whales of Argentina, but I changed the workflow to edit the project. Also we added a few tools to help in the process. What did cameras I use?

I brought two HDV cameras with me. One was for shooting interviews and 'topside' footage from boats; the other was primarily used for underwater. I had this camera set up all of the time for opportunities that arose to film cetaceans underwater very quickly.

  • Canon XL H1 - Format, 25p (progressive) HDV Sony Z1 - Format 50i (interlaced) HDV Filming with various research groups, we offered to give some of our footage for press and education purposes. By shooting 25p, that can be easily used in Europe where PAL (50i) is the television format. But, part of the reason I shot in the 25p format was to experiment. I have always shot interlaced in the past, and finished in an interlaced format. I own a Canon XL H1 and feel comfortable shooting with it on larger boats and on small zodiacs, where there can be a potential for disaster. Also, the built in image stabilizer helps smooth out the image on a rolling sea. When it is calm enough, it is possible to zoom in to get close up images of cetaceans too. Focusing subjects with the viewfinder is my main criticism of the camera, so I turned on the 'peaking' feature to run all of the time.
  • For underwater, I used a Sony HDV z1 with an Amphibico Phemon housing and wide angle optic. I used an amphibico LCD screen which proved absolutely invaluable. All of this footage was shot 50i (interlaced). Why 25fps not 24? Well, this was a decision that I struggled with (and struggle with now on most projects). We were sourcing additional footage from researchers who shot primarily PAL DV. Oceana Europe is the only group we worked with that were shooting 50i HDV on a Sony Z1. They were incredibly generous in letting us use a number of underwater sequences in the first episode and imagery of the illegal drifitnet fisheries shot in HDV, that will feature in the next episode.
  • Additional Equipment -
    • 1 x Litepanel Mini LED camera light
    • 1 x Lowel Caselite (works using 110v and 220v power!)
    • 2 x Sennheiser K6 microphones (ME66), boom pole, windscreens.
    • 1 x Wireless Mics (Azden)
    • 1 x Manfrotto tripod (with a 501 Video head)

Writing -

Originally Gen wrote a rough outline of story ideas, and themes we wanted to document in the Mediterranean. This helped while we were filming, but the final scripts were written when we returned to Melbourne after looking at all of the interviews and footage shot. In the end, I shot 45 hours of footage, with an additional 20 tapes from Oceana, Tethys, and Alnitak. After each script was finalized (and we are still working on the last two scripts right now!) we recorded voice-overs. I did the voice-over in first episode, and will most likely do the voice over for the last piece. I filmed Gen talking to camera on various boats and locations, so she was the obvious choice to do the voice-overs for the films that involved documenting more of the experience in the field.

Animations -

After the voice-overs were done, I pulled together some shots in short sequences to do short rough edits. Some things we could not film and had to produce a number of animations and maps. In explaining some scientific concepts, animations are key in communicating with the viewer. I wanted to experiment with a more 3D look for the Mediterranean. I was originally going to use Google Maps, but I do not like the 3D look of them. I do used Google Maps embedded in our webpage, and they are fantastic for this application. I did some research into NASA World Wind, and found these were the maps that I wanted to use. They were based on NASA satellite imagery and are free to use. The only problem was the MAC version is very limited, and I needed a PC. Luckily, I own an intel based MacBook Pro, so I backed up my hard drive, re-formatted it, installed Apple's BootCamp, created a 20 gig partition, installed Windows XP, and now I have a system that can run both Mac and PC programs! Although I have to re-boot between operating systems, I can easily transfer my PC files when running in Mac OS X. NASA World Wind is absolute amazing. There are a number of free plugins and datasets that are available to use. When you zoom into some areas the detail is not quite as good as Google Maps, but I love it. Google Maps is much easier to use to create a video sequence, and I would recommend this for scientists who need maps for presentations. To animate maps with Worldwind, you have to do it one frame at a time, and then import these frames into a motion graphics programs to build a video. Because I was producing a number of animations in this manner, using World Wind was perfect for me.

Final Cut Pro Screenshot

The Editing Workflow -

Putting it all together The prime delivery platform is for the web, and progressive HD downloads on iTunes, which are coming soon - currently we are posting SD iTunes download, and later for DVD distribution. I will produce a 30-minute film to be shown at the IUCN World Congress 2008 in Barcelona and 60 minute version of the program for broadcast. These will be edited early in the new year from the 5 short programs.

  • Software - Final Cut Pro Studio 2 (Note- I use ALL of the programs in the suite, Final Cut Pro for editing, Soundtrack for audio editing and enhancing, Motion for motion graphics, Compressor for encoding, Color for color-correction, LiveType for titles and DVD Studio pro for DVD output.)
  • Hardware - Macbook Pro 2.33 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 gig RAM, 160gig HD and a 1tb Lacie Extreme Disk. Because I am traveling a lot, I like using notebook computers to do my editing, because I can take work with me wherever I go. I upgraded my Final Cut Pro studio in July for the purpose of doing some tests in the field, while filming. There were a few main features I wanted to test. The ability to use mixed formats in one timeline - interlaced and progressive, as well as NTSC and PAL formats. Using the new “Smoothcam” feature to tweak some shaky imagery shot underwater or shot on small zodiacs Finish in Apple's new ProRes format (4:2:2).

Final Cut Pro - Media Manager

Workflow -

Log and Capture all of the clips I wanted to use (Captured 25p/ 50i / DV PAL). Because I shot everything on tape (and hope this is one the LAST projects that I do this), it took weeks. I was hoping to do this as I was traveling, but did not have time to do so in the field./nMake a rough HDV timeline of cuts (no dissolves or text). Any animation sequences I would put blank placeholders in the timeline./nUsing the Media Manager tool, convert the entire timeline and media in it to ProRes HQ format./nOutput all of the animations produced in Motion, to ProRes HQ Quicktime files/nColor correct the final timeline in ProRes, add dissolves, animation exported from Motion as ProRes Quicktime files, add titles from LiveType, 'Smoothcam' selected shots. For color-correction, I tweaked various shots in FCP timeline with the 3-wheel color tool. In the future, I will bring this timeline into Color, and re-correct it. I wanted to experiment with this, but have to wait until I produce the long documentary versions. /nExport the finished timeline to a single ProRes HQ QuickTime file/nBring this file into Compressor to output to various formats for the web and DVD. Note, to make the FLASH videos that are distributed using the Brightcove Player, I use the On2 Flix Pro encoder. It outputs amazing FLASH video. Phew! So how did it work? Well, I did not want to edit in the HDV format. I am using an Intel MacBook Pro to do all of the editing. I was hoping to purchase an Aja IO HD to do the project. However, because it was delayed, I had to use this minimal setup.

Problems -

ProRes HQ - This is a new format and I am sure that Apple will be working out some of the bugs soon. I sometimes had some problems with it on my MacBook Pro especially with smooth playback. More RAM would help this. Granted it is a format that should be used with faster processors on a desktop computer, sometimes my final rendered timeline would provide some interesting moments. Sometimes the audio files that Apple provided (most notably the stock music in 5.1 surround sound format) would increase in volume when I rendered the final ProRes file. This would stump me for hours and provided some frustrating afternoons. The best part of the editing process - Smoothcam! It is amazing! Because I make documentaries about cetaceans and marine issues, I do a lot of filming on boats. This can cause a viewer to be seasick depending on the environment I am filming! Depending on the shot, smoothcam really changed the final output of some of my shots. I used it on some underwater footage and various topside shots. I left some shake on various shots in the edit. I am currently awaiting a new high resolution 4K, Red camera and cannot wait to use this camera on a boat, with smoothcam filter.