Mark Smith, DP O7 Films - February 2008

The Search for Earhart

   Smith Portrait   

Peabody Award-winning Director of Photography Mark Smith traveled with the 70th Anniversary Amelia Earhart Expedition to the remote South Pacific island of Nikumaroro the summer of 2007, armed with Panasonic AG-HVX200 P2 HD camcorders and Imagine Products' HD Log™ Macintosh video logging software to document the group's archeological research.

The 14-member team traveled under the aegis of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), an organization that contends that famed aviator Amelia Earhart landed and ultimately died on Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, in the South Pacific. This small, deserted Pacific island, halfway between New Guinea and Hawaii, is also known for its oppressive equatorial heat and humidity, razor-sharp corral, dense foliage, treacherous landing conditions and relentless lack of drinkable water. Abandoned remains of Nikumaroro Village, a castaway campsite, and various elements from an 800-foot freight shipwreck evidence the difficulties of accessing and sustaining life on the uninhabited island.

American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight in 1937. Earhart was the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, which she was awarded as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Intense public fascination with her life, career and disappearance continues to this day.

Choosing P2

TIGHAR recruited Smith to shoot the 16-day archeological exploration of the island seeking clues to Earhart's presence there. "Because of the limited space aboard ship, on this particular trip I was the production team, camera, sound, and director, with a little jungle cutting thrown in on the side," the DP said. "The HVX200 was an excellent fit for this production. Since I would be working single-handedly much of the time, choosing a camera that gave the best image quality in a small, easily transportable package was of prime importance."

Smith had traveled to Nikumaroro with TIGHAR in 2001 on a similar research trip. "I made that trip with a BetaCam, two DV cameras, a very large box of videotape, a myriad support gear and an assistant," the DP recounted.

“Hauling around all that equipment in tropical heat that often exceeds 110°F was no picnic. Luckily, the shifts in camera technology over the last six years greatly facilitated this trip, as my equipment package was dramatically smaller and lighter.”

"Shooting exclusively on tape during the earlier trip (2001), we'd encountered some problems with condensation causing tape transports to shut down until the moisture cleared out, even after we took extra precautions to prevent this condition from happening," Smith said. "I wasn't sure how a P2 camera was going to react in essentially the same conditions.”

Smith's 2007 equipment package comprised the two P2 HD cameras (the second HVX200 as back-up), an AJ-PCS060G P2 Store, a Macintosh PowerBook loaded with HD Log, three hard drives for storage, two wireless microphones, and grip/lighting package for outdoor use.


Shooting on Niku

The DP evocatively described his typical workday on Nikumaroro. "Each day at 7 a.m., a skiff (small boat) moved the first work crew about a mile down the island to a landing channel blasted in the reef nearly 50 years ago, where we climbed out into thigh-deep water and waded ashore with our gear," Smith said. "At low tide we got out on to a wet reef which was notoriously slick and slippery."

"From there, we would either trek about a kilometer down the beach to one of the sites being searched in the old colonial village, or hike through the jungle to the lagoon shore where we stored another skiff used to travel three miles down island to the Seven Site, the castaways campsite that TIGHAR began excavating in 2001," Smith said. "There we faced another wade ashore Shooting on Niku carrying our gear through deep water and lagoon muck.”

"Even though I'm an experienced hand working with P2 media in the field and managing workflow for post purposes, I had some concerns as I was going to be out over the horizon in terms of resources," he added. "Whatever I took had to work without trouble because once the boat was en route to Nikumaroro, there was no turning back, no skiff rides to the imaginary floating rental house on the other side of the island."

   Smith on the island   

The Island Workflow

Smith shot on 16GB P2 cards, off-loaded to the P2 Store as needed, and backed up everything after each day of shooting. Using HD Log's P2 Offloading feature was "a blessing to be able to make 3 backup copies at once" of all the raw files from the P2 Store. Smith’s choice of format was 720 30pN, which he considered the best quality/drive space/ shooting time trade off.

"I off-loaded all footage from each day to one 750GB hard drive as MXF files, and to a second 750GB drive as QuickTime movies exported from Imagine Products' HD Log Gold,” Smith said. "The MXF files would be my copy for future editorial purposes, and the QuickTimes were made so TIGHAR staff would have access to all footage simply by connecting the drive to a computer—one of the huge advantages of file-based acquisition."

"The HVX200 and P2 cards worked flawlessly for 16 days straight without issues, which certainly erased any worries I'd had regarding the durability and stability of the camera and the P2 workflow," he continued.

Post Production

Smith said plans are in place to edit the piece on Final Cut Pro 6, using the QuickTime files created, annotated and cataloged with HD Log. Back home, Smith also archives his P2 footage using HD Log in conjunction with Quantum’s SDLT 600A Super DLT tape drive. The drive is specifically enhanced for professional video and features a tape based file system, network attached GigE connection and MXF "aware" file handling. With HD Log, P2 Volumes (a card's contents) may be viewed, metadata tags edited, and directly uploaded or retrieved from the Quantum drive as needed. "I'm happy we used HD Log to log virtually all our stuff as the (multi-file) search function has a real payback!" said Smith.

Questions Answered

Ultimately, the 70th Anniversary Earhart Expedition cleared and examined more area than ever before and collected unprecedented amounts of data and imagery. Research and analysis now underway may provide the answers to such questions as: "Do personal effects recovered reveal the identity of the castaway whose bones were found in 1940?" and "Did aircraft parts found in the island's abandoned village come from Earhart's Lockheed Electra?" TIGHAR is currently soliciting funding to underwrite the completion of a documentary about solving the mystery of Earhart's disappearance. For more information about the 70th Anniversary Expedition, visit Smith's website and TIGHARs web site.

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