Thursday, January 19, 2017

Where the Ocean Ends

As with all things in this life both grand and mundane, our adventure has reached it's final chapter. And like any grand adventure, the ending has not failed to deliver. 

Early in the morning about 5 days ago our ship slowly came to a stop for our last CTD station. The morning greeted us with a dense fog casting our blue world into a gray haze. Walking up to the bridge with coffee in hand, I looked out the windows past the bow of the ship. As my eyes focused out through the fog,  I saw the object responsible for rousing me from a short slumber.
There directly in front of us was a wall of ice such as I had never seen. They tell me it is 150 ft tall, though I wouldn't have questioned it no matter the height. We were almost a half a mile away, but I felt as if I could hit it with a stone.

We had reached the Ross Ice Shelf. 
Not actual size
Nothing could have prepared me for the scale of this wall. It's not just the height, however impressive, but the length. Looking out in either direction, the ice stretches to the horizon. This is the end of the line for the great glaciers of Antarctica. As they march from the inner continent, they slowly glide out over the water and eventually calve and crumble into the sea. For all of the massive icebergs we passed, they pale in comparison to this ice shelf. I've been told that the ice covers an area about the size of France. (Thanks Google)

For the next 36 hours we followed the ice shelf ever further southwest. We raced ahead at a respectable speed of 11-12 knots aided by currents eager to join us on our desolate journey. With no more stops for science, we had a new mission: get to McMurdo as quickly as possible. Even though we were not more than a couple hundred miles away with 5 days to go, we would soon be reduced to moving only slightly faster than the glaciers making their way to sea.

Yesterday shortly after breakfast, we received a call from the bridge to alert us that Ross Island just came into view. To be more specific, they could see the top of Mt. Terror.

What a bad ass name.

Mountains have an interesting way of appearing much closer than they actually are. Even after the mountain came into view, it was another 6-7 hours before we finally seemed to be along side it. At over 20 miles away, its snow covered, windswept face gave the appearance of being covered in a wispy cloud flowing over the surface.

As we slowly wrapped around the island, Mt. Erebus crept into view. Mt. Erebus is actually an active volcano standing at 3,794 m, today it had a constant plume of steam escaping into the cold Antarctic air. Despite a scheduled interview, the draw to be on deck was to strong. I spent most of the next 4 hours admiring and photographing everything.

Sometime after dinner, the reason for our fast push south became apparent. It started with some light ice,  nothing out of the ordinary at this point. Soon the ice became thicker and more dense. With the ice, we were greeted with an endless supply of seals and penguins. While the penguins don't seem to appreciate our presence, scurrying away and slipping into the sea, the seals mostly look at us with lazy discontent, at best.

An icebreaker, the Polar Star has traveled from the Arctic to McMurdo to open a channel for our ship and a resupply vessel due shortly after we leave. The channel does not extend all the way out to open ocean, so we will have to find our own way through the ice until we can utilize their efforts. If the weather turns or the channel freezes over, we could find ourselves delayed for days.

Soon the ice proved too thick for our ever slowing pace. We began the long and slow process of ramming the ice, the bow of the ship climbing up onto the slab until the weight of the ship causes the ice below to give way. Advancing until we could go no further, the ship goes into reverse to allow the ice to clear the bow so we can repeat the maneuver. Over and over again.

We no longer travel in a straight line, instead the captain and his crew use their knowledge and experience to follow fracture lines and identify weak points in the ice. I go to bed sometime after 2 am, the ship traveling less than 1 knot an hour. Sleep does not come quickly, the rhythmic roll we experience while at sea has been replaced with an erratic, jarring jolt and the sounds of breaking ice.

When I awake in the morning, the first thing I notice that I am no being tossed around in my bed. When I flipped on the TV and changed the channel to the ship's bow camera, I quickly understand why. We have made it to the channel.

When I thought of a channel, I'd imagined a nice clear open water path carved through the ice. Clearly this is my first time on an icebreaker. The channel IS visible but there is hardly any water to be seen. What lies ahead is a path of broken ice around 6ft deep. As we travel along, the ice quickly reclaims the void left by our ship. Just beyond our stern there is no evidence of our passing.

Going up on to the deck, I saw the first signs of humanity outside of the ship since New Years Eve. On top of the only barren mountains in front of us, I could make out antennas... Then I heard something that has been absent for the last month, the din of a helicopter as it approached and the faint sound of a  military supply jet as it flew off to unknown lands.

Through all of this, the science teams were hard at work packing up all of their invaluable samples and stowing all of the equipment carried aboard to run their tests. Greta and I were also scrambling to capture a few remaining interviews and to document the madness. We  all found time to go out on deck bask in the indescribable beauty of this frozen land. Everyone had a camera in hand, I would always make sure I had at least two.

Somehow with all of this commotion, I never even felt the ship stop. It wasn't until people came down to the lab to tell us we had arrived that I even noticed. It was after dinner, maybe 7:30 pm or so. 

We had crossed the endless sea of ice and made it to the southern most place on earth a ship can go. We have seen mountains, volcanoes and ice shelves that only a handful of lucky people will ever have the chance to see. I have done my best to capture this beauty, but I must offer an apology because their is no way to ever do any of this justice. How do you capture the scale and beauty of this place? We can shoot with higher resolutions and more megapixels, but no lens can replace the visceral experience of being here. 

I am writing this at nearly 4am from the Ice Tower with a 360 degree unobstructed view of Antarctica in a frozen sea with mountains stretching out for hundreds of miles. It almost feels like going to sleep would be such a waste of my remaining precious time down here. We will spend all of today on the ship, this will be my last day of shooting video. When we get to land tomorrow, I will bring one still camera. Other than that the day will be for me. With only one day to spend on land after a month of trying to capture it all, I am going to let myself be present in the moment to really cherish this special privilege I have been granted.

Don't worry friends, I will make sure to tell you all about it.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Aloft at Sea

Hello fair readers, I am back for an update in a new time zone. An interesting thing happens while traveling around the Antarctic circle, in this case following a course due west (and a little bit south). We are clicking off time zones every couple of days, traveling at a comfortable pace of about 10 knots. Just this very morning we set our clocks back an hour and an email from the captain alerted us that come 0200 (2am) tonight (ok, really tomorrow morning…) we will yet again be jumping back another hour. At some point in the next week, we will hit the International Date Line and just like that, we will lose a day!
Time travel aside, let’s get down to brass tax. The last few days have been pretty low key punctuated by moments of incredible scenery paired with a ton of production work. As per usual, we have our stations where we deploy the CTD and a float, or are on a recovery mission to pluck a float out of the water.
As we approach these stations I am always keeping a very keen eye on the weather. I don’t concern myself much with the temperature (uh, cold?), my primary focus is on the winds and what is coming out of the sky.
“Why is that so important, Ted?”
Oh you really know the questions to ask! The short answer? Drones.

Or perhaps you prefer the term, “UAS”? Either way getting up in the air and capturing the magnificent scenery we encounter is always on my mind. I spent countless hours filling out paperwork, studying to pass the FAA part 107 UAS certification test and emailing back and forth with the good people working with the US Antarctic Program to be allowed to fly a UAS off of the ship. Not flying is not an option.

So every day the first thing I check is the wind. Down here, there is always wind and usually it is blowing pretty hard. Most days the wind is 20-30 knots before factoring in the speed of the ship. For me to fly, I need a day where the wind is below 10-12 knots. Add to that, there can’t be water of any kind falling from the sky and I need a high cloud ceiling (no fog).
But sometimes even in the open ocean, the wind falls off and the clouds lift just enough. On those occasions, I take to the sky.
Here is the windspeed I like to see!
“So what’s it like flying down there?”
Flying in the Southern Ocean has its pros and cons. Having done extensive research long before stepping foot on the Palmer, I was mostly aware of the pitfalls.
For starters, weather can change quickly and unpredictably. Over a short period of time the winds can pick up or foul weather can roll in. I experienced this just yesterday. We were on station about to deploy our 10th float and the wind was staying around 9 knots. As I went up to the bridge to talk with the Captain about flying, the snow began to fall and out in the distance there was a storm front moving towards us. While the snow was light, it wasn’t worth the chance of an electrical failure should it find its way into the UAS. Add in the unpredictability of what was coming towards us and I decided to err on the side of caution and cancel the flight.

From my research I have also learned that GPS signals can be unreliable and down here. DJI explicitly states in their user manual that their aircrafts are not rated for polar regions. Fortunately, this has yet to be a problem. There has only been one flight so far that registered a lost GPS signal and that was only for about 5 seconds. (Most flights are in range of 8-20 satellites) I have trained to fly the drone without the aid of GPS, but losing a signal mid-flight can feel like a mini crisis if one is not prepared.

Pro Tip: Learn to fly in ATTI mode (for DJI drones) The lack of GPS hold takes a lot of practice, but if you fly, there will come a time that you lose GPS mid-flight and you will need to know how to respond.

Another major concern is proper calibration of the IMU and the compass. Before my first flight, I went out on the helideck to run a calibration. Due to the nature of being on a large metal ship with any number of radios, radar and large metal containers, I could not get the compass to get a clean calibration. Without a properly calibrated compass the drone will not be able to properly orient itself and the use of GPS could be disastrous. After moving around the ship and trying to calibrate at a number of locations, I was finally able to get a proper calibration on the top deck, just behind the bridge. Launching from the helideck still proved problematic though, as the magnetic interference caused the UAS to behave in an unpredictable fashion until I was about 20ft. above the ship.

The IMU is a separate story. Before my third flight, the UAS gave me a dreaded “calibrate IMU” and obstacle avoidance sensors. I say dreaded because generally you need a flat, level surface to calibrate the IMU… not easy to come by on a rocking ship. This also meant that I had to download DJI software that was about 100 Mb. Easy? Not so much. The internet out here is slow and there are about 40 people trying to use it. Luckily one of the system admins, Scott was able to get it to trickle download at a whopping speed of about 2 kb per second. 14 hours later and I was in business! As luck would have it, re-calibration was a success and I was up and flying the next day.
Flying a drone, or eating ice cream? - Pablo Cohn

Pro Tip: Going on a trip with your UAS? Make sure you have all support software downloaded and installed before you leave(and update your firmware). Nothing worse than a drone that can’t fly.

So all of my major concerns have turned out to be not so bad. What has actually been the biggest bane to flying down here is birds! I have met a seagull or 2 in my day that did not like having a drone around. I always found that quickly climbing made for an easy get away. Well, the birds down here are a bit more agile than your standard seagull and their temperament is as icy cold as the sea. When one takes an interest, they will chase you down and provide an unwelcome escort back to the ship (assuming they don't take you out of the sky first).

Pro tip: If your ticking off some birds, bring the UAS back and land. Unless they are nesting, they will usually fly away and you can be back up in the air shortly.
Bird Attack! - Pablo Cohn

With all of these things to think about, the reality is that flying down here has been amazing… so far (trying not to jinx myself) All my flying is over water and once you get over the anxiety of your UAS taking a drink, it is actually a fairly easy place to fly. There is virtually nothing out here to hit. Even when we got in close to a massive iceberg, it is no different than flying near a building. Sure, after 20 minutes you can’t feel your fingers, but a few minutes back in the bridge and your good to go again. Even the batteries are performing great down here.

Pro tip: Leave your batteries indoors or keep them insulated and close to your body when flying in cold weather. Remember, a cold battery can fail. Most of DJI’s drones will let you know if the battery is too cold to fly. If that happens, try letting the props spin up without taking off, as the battery is consumed it generates heat and should warm up fairly quickly.

The footage I am getting is really looking good. As ever, I re-watch every clip with a critical eye and take a lot of notes. My biggest advice would be to take some time and consider what type of shots you want to get before taking to the air. Each location and situation down here has been different and only after reviewing footage did I realize some missed opportunities. That probably should have been a pro tip.
The Palmer, 1/11/17 @ 12:15am
If King Neptune should be so gracious, I will be granted more opportunities to fly over the next 10 days. I can’t wait to get back and start to share some of these wonderful sights with all of you.

Until next time,

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Life in the land of eternal light, now with Video!

Life on a boat in the Southern Ocean is quite an experience. After the first few days of maintaining a fairly normal schedule the work begins. I should clarify, I have been running around shooting everything since I got on my first plane back in NJ. The super busy important work begins for the science teams on the boat, and I just run around a bit more trying not to miss anything important. Everyone always has work to do, but I’m looking for the good stuff... people in labs doing experiments, deploying equipment into the ocean, penguins… you get the idea.  

I want action! And most of the time, that action happens while we are stopped at stations. A station is a waypoint, (a pre-determined GPS coordinate) where (on this ship at least) measurements and measuring devices are deployed. The thing with stations is that they happen when the Ship gets there. Did I want to go to sleep last night? Sure, but the station started around 1 am and we didn’t finish until after 4 am. So you sleep when your work is done. It doesn’t truly matter when there’s 24 hours of light, “night” is just the time you used to go to bed. I try to align my sleep so I can still hit 2 of the 3 hot meals served per day.

(Pro Tip: Breakfast is usually the same most days, lunch and dinner have the most variety. Whatever you do, don't miss lunch on Taco Tuesday. It's sort of a big deal.)

So back to the stations. The primary thing we do is collect water samples with the CTD, generally followed by deploying a float.

Once the CTD gets back on board, whoa boy this place becomes flurry of people scurrying around with lots of bottles to rinse and fill, samples to be analyzed measurements to be made and a float to be carefully lowered into the freezing ocean. Let’s call this the filmmakers jackpot.

Just like any good film set, the saying “hurry up and wait” rings true. Now that we are back out in open ocean with lonely icebergs floating by, the urgency to be on the deck capturing the natural beauty has subsided. No longer are we picking our way through pack ice or weaving through mountainous islands. We are in a string of long traverses between stations, upwards of 30 hours (roughly 300 Nautical Miles). There is long stretches of time to fill punctuated with intense action.

So we focus on the people, the science and the story. We are using our time to prep for and shoot interviews and b-roll. We have shot a few “Shum Show’s” and Greta is working on putting those together. I am constantly organizing, renaming and tinkering with footage.

(Pro Tip: Have a strategy in place before you go on location for data management. You may have to amend your strategy once you start production, but managing terabytes of data without a plan will ensure you lose your mind come edit time. Also, back up your data!)

I have finally been able to play around with some of the 360 footage that I have shot, and that means some clips for all of you! I will do a separate post about the nuances of working with 360 footage but for now I will keep things on the lighter side and just give you some eye candy. Since getting footage off this boat has been like trying to break out prison, I had to keep clips short with a fairly low bit rate, but they are 4k! Huzzah!

What's it like to leave port in a ship? Well it's slow. Luckily for all of you, the magic of time lapse can magically compress 20 minutes to a mere minute. Can you spot the SOCCOM logo? Act quick, you've got the first 9 seconds to find it. 

While a launch without rain would have been preferred, our rugged little 360 camera was up to the challenge. Don't worry, no cameras were injured during the making of this clip.

One last piece for your enjoyment, I threw together a 1 minute video of a handful of shots in chronological order to take you through to about 5 days ago. Hopefully this will give you a taste of what is an extensive library of footage we are accruing.

The winds have kept the drone grounded for much of the trip, but I am hoping for some ideal conditions to get the bird back up in the air. The view is stunning.

Till next time friends, keep warm and stay out of the water!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Ships, Photos, Video and the curse of the Telephoto

Photo by Greta Shum
Welcome to my first post of the new year! Life on the boat is never dull, but after a couple of days being spoiled with incredible wildlife and scenery, we are back out to sea and everything is flat and blue again. It’s ironic that just 3-4 days ago the sea was so fascinating and yet now, it seems a bit mundane. (I am sure I would be singing a different tune if we had a big sea state)
So I would like to take this time to talk about something that is not readily obvious until you try to make a movie on a boat. That of coarse is the dreaded “Curse of the Telephoto” (Cue lightning flash, thunder crackling and some ominous organ music)
“What is the curse of the telephoto, Ted?” Wow, that’s crazy you just asked that, because I was just about to explain it.
When traveling at sea, there can be all sorts of things we want to take pictures of. It may be clouds, waves, wild life, friends and family or even beautiful mountainous islands in the distance.
Yes? Yes.
Well to photograph these things, one must have their trusty camera and some sort of lens. If you are like every single person on this ship, that means you have a DSLR and you my friend have got some options.
The most common type of lens I see down here is a zoom lens. In fact, I am traveling with a couple myself. Why? Because when space is limited and weight is an issue, a couple of lenses (Lensi?) that can cover a broad spectrum from wide angle to telephoto just makes sense. Would a handful of primes be great to have? Heck yea! Unfortunately it just isn’t practical for every situation. Beside, having to constantly switch out lenses while on deck poses multiple issues from getting water or grit on your sensor and glass to accidentally dropping a lens or camera because, well, it is a bit of a challenge doing these things on a rocking vessel.  

Pro Tip #1: Bring a lens cleaning kit. I picked up a Zeiss kit from B&H for around $5 and use it to clean my glass every few days. It is a spray with a lens cloth. It is great for fingerprints and sea spray alike. Also bring a number of clean lens clothes with you. A clean lens makes a happy photographer.

Pro Tip #2: Every lens needs a UV filter. Why? To protect that precious front glass element on your lens. Your lens has special coatings that can be easily damaged, even from just routine cleanings. Think of a UV as the sacrificial lamb of the lens world. It can be damaged so your lens remains safe. One caveat, don’t skimp on this. You may have just spent hundreds to thousands of dollars on your lens, so treat it to a proper, high quality UV filter. The $20 filter will protect your lens, but it may also be affecting your IQ (image quality)
Back on track. Now we have our lens and our camera, so now we can shoot pictures! Yay! Shooting photos on a Ship is just like shooting photos on land. Set your ISO, aperture and shutter speed and start shooting away. There are a few pointers to remember. First, to avoid motion blur, your shutter speed should equal or be faster than the MM setting of your lens with a minimum of 1/60th of a second. That means your long 1000mm birding lens needs at least an exposure time of 1/1000th of a second. Go below that, and your images will most likely look blurry. Consider a polarizing filter. This will help cut down on unwanted light reflections from either the sky or the sea from polluting your image. A circular polarizer is handy as you can rotate the filter to get the desired effect you are looking for.
Now that we have covered shooting photos at sea, it’s time to discuss shooting video. Many of the photography technique discussed apply to video, with some important differences.
Many video cameras have the ability to adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed. BUT, it should be noted that we don’t have quite the same flexibility as with photography.
Let’s look at ISO. It is important to know what your camera’s native ISO is. This is the ISO that produces the best picture with low noise. When you go above the native ISO, you will start to introduce unwanted noise to your image, often most visible in the dark portions of your image. A quick search online should help you find the native ISO for your camera.
Random Sunset, because why not?
Next, we can use the aperture and shutter speed to further control our exposure. Here is where some interesting limitations start to occur. Sometimes in video we want to get a shallow depth of field. You know the look, our subject has razor sharp focus while the background falls away to silky smooth goodness. To do this we need to “open our lens up” and choose the widest aperture setting our lens offers.
The aperture range is generally listed on the lens. “Wide open” is the smaller number.
With a wide aperture, our image may be a bit overexposed, so we can try to lower our ISO or change our shutter speed. Here’s the catch though. To best simulate the film look, the desired shutter speed is usually half the length of your frame rate. Shooting 30fps? The standard shutter speed should be 1/60th of a second. You can deviate from this, but it will affect how your image looks. When you can’t change your shutter speed, how can you keep your image properly exposed?

Use neutral density filters! These can either be individual filters or a circular variable ND. I usually go for the variable ND as it can be dialed in for different lighting conditions. An ND filter is like sunglasses for your lens. They cut down the amount of light that can enter the camera. So you can set your lens to wide open and still shoot in full sunlight! Boom!
Holy sidetracked… Back to the curse!
Shooting on this ship documenting everything that is going on, I am usually using a lens between 18-50mm. I can do this on a tripod or handheld with good results. The problem begins when I want to get close to the action and I need to break out the 70-200mm telephoto lens. The most obvious problem is the rocking of the ship. Trying to shoot wildlife or even the coast from a rocking ship is virtually impossible with a telephoto lens. The movement is noticeable on a wide angle lens, but it is overly exaggerated with a telephoto. Trying to get close up video of the seals and penguins that are camped out 50-100 yards away from the boat just doesn’t look good handheld or on a tripod. Tracking with the rocking of the boat is just really hard to do with smooth results.
The next big issue is present even if the ship isn’t rocking, and that is vibration. No matter where you are on the ship, there is always vibration from the engine. I feel it right now as I write this. The vibration is subtle but present. With a wider lens, the vibration doesn’t really show up in the image. But again with the telephoto, the vibration is magnified and present in all of your footage. This is more pronounced with shots from a tripod, but it is rare that I shoot handheld with a 200mm+ lens on the camera.
The best fix I have found so far only works in certain situations. While shooting, try to weigh down your tripod. I do this with my hands placed around the base of the tripod head. This actually helps a lot. Once in the edit, playing around with your software’s stabilization effects can work wonders. In Adobe Premiere, Warp Stabilizer can work wonders with vibrations and small movement. Keep in mind, if there is very strong vibration, it may cause some motion blur in your footage. Even stabilized, you will see the motion blur coming off of the objects that have been stabilized. It is a peculiar look and will be familiar to anyone who was had to stabilize shaky footage. If you know this will be an issue, try shooting your footage with a faster shutter speed. This can eliminate the motion blur from your stabilized footage.

Wow. This post got out of hand quickly. If you made it this far, I hope you got something out of it. Stay tuned for more updates from the Southern Ocean, I’ll be back soon!