During my time working for the likes of BBC Sport and Liverpool FC I’ve been fortunate to work on a lot of live football matches.
These are enormous feats of logistics and organisation – miles of cabling, 20-plus cameras, a host of lights, microphones, uplinks, downlinks and satellite trucks. An operation easily involving more than 70 people.
As soon as the fixtures are announced, and then moved for TV purposes, production co-ordinators, match directors, engineers and programme editors spring into action to make plans.
Camera positions are decided, with the beauty being that we all know where the action takes place. The players will be followed from the tunnel onto the pitch and back again over a two-hour period.
The area which the cameras are focussed on is around 0.7 of a hectare. But more on that figure later.
Earlier this month, I was part of the Laduma team who spent a week in South Africa filming everything from wild game on safari to the top of Table Mountain, and the beautiful Durban beachfront. All of it captured in true 3D virtual reality.
The first part of our trip was at the Nambiti Plains Private Game Lodge in KwaZulu Natal, a five-star eco resort set in a huge private reserve.
The key to filming great VR is the proximity of the camera to the subject. Anything beyond 20 feet (6m) away and the viewer loses some of the intimacy and feeling of immersion.
Take into account that the Lodge normally operates a policy of not getting within 50 metres of the animals and we had a real challenge on our hands.
Remember that bit about the cameras used during live football matches covering around 0.7 hectares of space?
The Nambiti Plains Private Game Reserve covers 10,000 hectares.
So that was the challenge. Forget rigging Old Trafford or Anfield. We had a space over 14,000 times bigger than a football pitch to find a host of beautiful wild animals. Ten lions spread over 10,000 hectares. Only one cheetah in the same space.
And there we were, with our three bespoke VR rigs, one attached to the tracker’s seat at the front of our Toyota Land Cruiser. No zoom lens, and no guarantees of where any animal would be at any one time.
But we did have one ace up our sleeve – our ranger guide Axel Primmer (named after the Guns N’ Roses frontman).
Not only is Axel a brilliant safari guide (he stared down a huge male rhino called Mike and made him back away), but he’s also an excellent photographer.
When shooting VR we are always thinking in circles for our shots, rather than flat 2D. Thankfully Axel was a fast learner and soon had a great understanding of the sort of footage that Lead Producer Skyler Baird wanted to capture.
We had to be immersed with some very dangerous wildlife and game – lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos, hippos, zebras, giraffes and that elusive cheetah.
For three days we got up at 4.30am and spent four to five hours tracking down these animals.
Then it was back to the Lodge to download and back-up footage, charge batteries and give the cameras a bit of TLC.
We would then film from 3.30pm to 7.30pm as night fell, as well as setting up cameras for some amazing sunrise and sun sets shots.
This trip taught us a lot about our rig. It had never filmed in the African sun before in large, bright, wide-open spaces. Adjustments were made, lessons learnt, and hours of wonderful content captured.
For three days Axel, with help from the Lodge manager Brent, went above and beyond in helping us capture these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat (as some of the stills here hopefully illustrate).
For those curious, only the rhinos are tagged. “Otherwise this would just be a zoo,” said Axel. And there are plenty of armed guards, both on motorbikes and on foot, to try and deter the poaching of rhino, and other animals.
So what does this content look like in VR? When the Nambiti Plains app is ready we’ll post a link.
Terabytes of our content are currently being stored, evaluated, stitched, edited and graded, while our development team concentrate on building the bespoke app.
But one thing is for sure. Covering the big game in Africa in VR is a damn sight harder, and far more rewarding, than any football match I’ve ever worked on.