Nature Tech

It began in a pub in 1878, when Eadweard Muybridge decided to settle a score about whether or not a horse is airborne when it gallops. By placing numerous large glass-plate cameras in a line along the edge of a track, the horse triggering the shutters as it passed, Muybridge was able to prove through the first-ever motion picture that a horse is, in fact, airborne when it gallops.

Director/DP Greg Wilson and 1st AC Edward Richardson line up a shot on the Phantom Flex with a 600mm lens.

National Geographic set out to prove a similar theory this year. Using the most sophisticated motion-picture technology available today, just as Muybridge used what was available to him in his day, Gregory Wilson, a N.Y.C.-based cinematographer and photographer who shoots music videos, commercials, documentaries and short films and is an expert in the digital high-speed world, was asked by National Geographic to direct and photograph an experimental shoot with cheetahs.

The project involved tracking alongside a sprinting cheetah at speeds topping 60 mph. The Geographic wanted to film it with a high-resolution, high-speed camera at 1500 fps, capturing high-res still photographs of the same framing as the slow-motion footage, and to light the entire set in a field in Loveland, Ohio.

HDVideoPro discusses the challenges and rewards involved in this first-of-its-kind shoot with Wilson, as he and his team break down barriers and cross new thresholds.

Gaffer Mike Gerzevitz watches playback with the cheetah handlers.

HDVideoPro: There must have been significant challenges apparent early on, as this was a never-before-done shoot.

Gregory Wilson: This was the most expensive shoot in National Geographic‘s history, and to make sure we came back with the goods, we knew we’d have to create a bulletproof plan. One of the biggest challenges was finding the right dolly system that could meet the speed requirements of keeping up with the cheetahs. It varies, but the fast cats can get up to over 60 mph in as little as two seconds and in a distance of 40 feet. That’s some serious acceleration.

Because we had to carry both the Phantom Flex high-speed camera and three Canon EOS-1D X DSLRs, we were pulling a significant amount of weight, so the motors on the dolly needed to be quite powerful and the track had to be absolutely made to perfection. At the speeds we wanted to go, any bumps or inconsistencies would have created far too much vibration and camera shake, and using a big stabilizing head would weigh it down too much and limit our acceleration. Doggicam Systems, Inc., a specialized camera movement company based in Los Angeles, came up with a motor and track combination that would exceed our speed requirements. Their Super Slide with beefed-up motors ended up being the ticket.