‘Modern Marvels’ takes on the Panama Canal expansion project

By Jennifer Walden

Have you noticed just how casually people throw around the word “epic” these days? For example, “That burrito I just ate was epic!” Or, “That concert I went to last night was epic.” For the record, those things are not epic. What truly is epic? The new Panama Canal expansion project that has been documented via a Modern Marvels special on the History Channel.

The episode, which premieres on April 11, focuses on a 50-mile-long construction site, populated with thousands of workers and segmented into roughly 150 micro job sites. They even had to build an on-site concrete plant to meet the concrete demand for 10-story high, mile-long lock structures able to withstand a 7.1 earthquake. Forget the burrito, new canal locks that will move super post-Panamax cargo ships from one ocean to another… now that’s epic.

Robertson and Ferehawk

Producers Dylan Robertson and Bill Ferehawk

Capturing the scale of this monumental $5.5 billion expansion project required directors-producers Dylan Robertson and Bill Ferehawk of Radiant Features to take a fresh approach to filmmaking. In order to accurately communicate the scale of the structures, they needed to establish a reference point: people. “If you don’t have a frame of reference in terms of size then you have no bearing,” says Robertson. “One of our fun challenges was how to turn that corner, where you’re sitting right off of someone’s shoulder and then the camera pans over and suddenly you’re 10 stories down.”

The story is ultimately about humans, and the amazing feats they can accomplish. Getting in close to the action was a key element in portraying scale. When deciding how to tell the story from the worker’s perspective, the directors found inspiration in an unlikely source: Vimeo. “The Vimeo-style of shooting what we call ‘artisanal shorts’ about craftspeople or makers… our approach definitely references that style, and we were very conscious about doing that,” says Ferehawk. He and Robertson chose editor Geoffrey Boynton and director of photography Andrew Watson for their Vimeo-like experience. Adds Robertson, “You’re starting to see the Vimeo generation on TV with this project.”

The traditional career path of an editor was to put in time as an assistant editor on a TV show, then finally catch a break to move into the editor’s chair. But Vimeo is changing that. Instead of climbing the ranks of television editing, explains Robertson, editors can hone their skills on serious web documentaries. That’s how they found editor Boynton — they checked out his staff-picked short film on Vimeo. “Geoffrey worked as an assistant on indie doc features, but what really got us excited about him was his own work and seeing his style in it. The same thing with Andrew. They bring that style to the table.”

Radiant_IV location pacific_Panama Canal

More Vimeo inspiration was the use of timelapse cameras. On a project that takes nearly nine years to finish, you’ve got to hurry up the action a bit. Sure the scale is impressive, but to keep the film exciting Robertson and Ferehawk knew it was important to show action. They specifically searched for extreme sports editors to give their “Panama Canal Supersized” episode a look atypical of documentaries. “We both have backgrounds in architecture and know how to cut scale and move around a structure, but there is something really wonderful about sports editing and how they can focus action,” says Robertson. They were impressed with editor Boynton’s wake boarding video on Vimeo. Boynton, who also shot the wake boarding footage, included the nat sound in his edit. “So the [wake boarder] would do a flip and you would hear the splash. He would take a break from wake boarding and hop in a Jacuzzi and suddenly you hear the jets. Right then Bill [Ferehawk] and I knew that this guy knew how to cut audio into the bed,” says Robertson.

The Production
To truly tell the tale of the Panama Canal expansion, the directors knew audio needed to play a significant role, from production through editing. It couldn’t just be an after thought in post. “If we waited until the end to put audio in, then it wasn’t going to get cut in. Audio had to get cut in while we were cutting the picture,” says Robertson. Years before setting out to shoot the Panama Canal expansion, they discussed audio possibilities for the episode with re-recording mixer Quinn Messmer at Picture Head. “A lot of thought was given to how we were going to record natural sound, what mics we were going to use and the library of sounds we wanted to have coming out of this,” explains Ferehawk.

Everyone was on-board with recording location sounds, particularly H2 (History Channel) executive producer John Verhoff. “John was glad we wanted to do audio because most shows don’t do it. He really wanted it to be immersive, like you’re really there,” adds Robertson.

Once Robertson and Ferehawk knew what they wanted to capture, their next decision was how to capture it all. They devised a four-part camera plan: a drone equipped with a Sony NEX-7 and Panasonic GH4 cameras to capture the job site’s scale; two Canon EOS C300s with 16mm-35mm and 70mm-200mm lenses as the A-cams; a Canon 5D and 7D for capturing timelapses; and a GoPro camera to put the audience in the action, as if they’re teetering on the wall alongside a worker.

Drone technology has come a long way reports Ferehawk. A drone can fly lower and put the camera closer to a structure than a helicopter, which typically flies too high and therefore makes objects seem far away. “With the drone, you can be panning in the canal about 40-50 feet up along the lock walls, and then fly up over them at about 100 feet,” says Robertson. It gives you a more accurate sense of height, depth and breadth.

Watson worked with the Canon C300, capturing up-close action, like workers using grinders on a wall, and capturing interior spaces, like moving through the culverts. Robertson notes that Watson also tracked shots using a dolly, which is rare for documentaries. “There’s one sequence in the fourth act with 10 or 12 dolly shots back to back to back,” says Robertson. “It was about capturing really intimate action in an artful way and Watson is really good at that.”

Often while shooting in the canal, it would literally feel like nothing was happening on the site reports Robertson. For instance, the cranes on the job don’t often move. “We needed to speed up the built world time. The timelapse really makes the built world come alive,” he says. In addition, timelapses captured the operation of the existing canal locks, which takes roughly 10 minutes. By compressing that time, Robertson and Ferehawk were able to give the audience a quick lesson on how the existing locks work to move a ship, which is slightly different than how the new locks will operate. Instead of swing gates, the new locks will use a system of floating, sliding doors. Ferehawk notes that many of the timelapses were shot using Syrp’s motion control timelapse device called Genie. “The pans you see on the timelapses aren’t done in post. They’re actually captured during production,” says Ferehawk.

Ferehawk recording location audio.

Ferehawk recording location audio.

After shooting B-roll, and setting up the timelapse shots, Ferehawk and Robertson set out everyday of the shoot to record location sounds using a TASCAM DR-680 — a high-res 8-track portable digital recorder — and a collection of mics including an Electro-Voice RE20 capable of capturing the very low-frequency rumbles happening on the site. Being so familiar with the built world, Ferehawk and Robertson like to approach each object and task as if it’s a character. For example, they captured the exact sound of the excavating machine that is the focus of the picture, and when the camera is capturing the lock wall concrete pour, they wanted the audience to have that sonic experience too.

“We go underground into the culverts and you can hear some water drips. Those are the nat water drips,” says Robertson. “Where are you going to find a recording of water drips in a room that is a mile long?” Ferehawk, who was responsible for recording the nat sounds, notes it was a dangerous job at times. “It did require me to get 10 feet away from some very heavy excavators and very large rocks,” he says.

Post Production
Bringing all the materials together for editing, with mixed formats and frame rates, was less challenging than expected for Ferehawk and Robertson. They chose Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC because they could dump footage in natively and mix codecs without having to transcode their media. “When you shoot this volume of footage, having to transcode is a real drag, and having to do the online by going back to the original footage, for a small project like this, is really problematic,” states Robertson. Since “Panama Canal Supersized” is just one episode, not a whole series, Robertson notes they didn’t need a system with heavy infrastructure, just the ability to share media between themselves and two other editors. Premiere was perfectly suited to their project. It gave them the ability to easily build scenes that switched from drone shots to the C300, to JPEG timelapses, to GoPro shots, and back to the timelapses. “We were able to dump that into the sequence and preview it without having to render. That made our decision-making process much faster. Premiere handled all of our mixed formats very well,” says Robertson.

Editing the show at Picture Head.

Premiere allowed them to add color adjustment layers that wouldn’t permanently alter the footage. Also, they could make color adjustments without having to render every time, and they could turn on and off the adjustment layers as needed. In terms of viewing all the different types of footage together, Ferehawk says, “that helped us immensely. It gave us some kind of color look that let us go, ‘okay we like that shot.’”

The biggest challenge in working with Premiere was finding the right partner to bring their Premiere project to for final post. They found there was a lot of bias against using Premiere in the TV industry, as if it’s a system only acceptable for small projects (although David Fincher’s Gone Girl should be proving them wrong). That’s where Picture Head comes in. Re-recording mixer Messmer introduced the project to Picture Head’s Jake Torum and Pete Jackson. “They were really excited to use this project as a way to get up to speed on a Premiere workflow,” says Ferehawk. “They liked the content of the project, they liked the workflow and what they could do with it.” Picture Head installed a Premiere Pro CC system that mirrored the one at Radiant Features. The directors and their editors moved their servers to Picture Head for two weeks, the time it took to do the color and final audio.

Robertson admits they didn’t have a clear plan in terms of color, but under the creative guidance of Picture Head senior colorist Santiago Padilla, using FilmLight’s BaseLight, they discovered that warm looks flattened the space on screen and cool looks brought out the image depth. “He really opened our eyes to a new way of thinking. Now we could use color to shape your eye,” says Robertson. Padilla’s coloring techniques made wide shots seem bigger, and more impressive. It also brought out the details in ‘dusty’ shots, reclaiming distant objects that were originally lost in the haze. “When he hit this shot with blue, you could see the Bridge of the Americas,” says Robertson.

They also used color to push emotion. For example, on the reveal of the hulking post-Panamax cargo ship, “We colored it rusty, so it’s not this gleaming new ship like you would expect,” says Robertson. “We wanted this sort of death-star feeling on that scene.” Robertson and Ferehawk gave Padilla the freedom to be creative with color, not worrying about clipped whites or crushed blacks. The color was all about mood. “We wanted to see everything but we weren’t nuts about protecting every last little pixel. For example, in the culverts, the camera stops to look at the guy’s face in the interview, we pushed that way down. It was a dark scene, but not even close to where we pushed it. That’s what makes it scary, but in a fun way. ”

Sound editing happened in conjunction with the picture edit, sometimes happening before the picture, says Ferehawk. “We talked about what sound we wanted before picture, what sound we would have as a counterpoint to the image. They really went hand-in-hand.” That includes music, too. During picture editing, Extreme Music tracks were cut in. Often the music cues they chose started with a drone or an effect. Elements in the music played well against the picture, for example, Robertson notes, “There is a cue in the old canal that has a lot of drones and horns in it that mirrors what we heard.” And because they worked with audio and music from the beginning, there were no issues with trying to wedge sound into a track with wall-to-wall dialogue. “Another benefit, frequency-wise, was the music we pulled left sonic space for the dialogue and effects,” says Robertson. “The music was dramatic and tense, but it worked well with the voices and effects.”

Building on the OMF from editorial, re-recording mixer Messmer added custom sound design for the animated sections. Ferehawk makes particular note of the sound design in the underwater animation sequences. “Those were beautifully done,” he says. “They are really immersive.”

As for the natural sounds placed during picture editing, the majority of those are in the final track. “In most instances, you’re hearing the actual sound of the machine because it has such a specific sound,” says Robertson. “There was never a question about what something really sounded like. Once you have the true sound, you can embellish it.” Messmer lightly augmented the nat sounds with library effects, such as adding leather glove creaks to enhance a tire sound. In the mix, those little sound details help pull the audience in. For example, when a huge crane drops a massive pile of steel, says Robertson, “there is a little ‘ka-tweak’ sound. It’s not the big noises, but the little noises that really stand out. The small, high frequency details are important because they bring the viewer closer to the action.”noises, but the little noises that really stand out. The small, high-frequency details are important because they bring the viewer closer to the action.”

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