VariCam back in the fold at BBC’s Natural History Unit

Posted on Jul 30, 2015 by Julian Mitchell

11 years ago the BBC’s massive Planet Earth project was deep into production and was using the 720p Panasonic Varicam as one of their main cameras. Executive Producer Alastair Fothergill told HD Magazine that his promise of delivering 75% of the programme in HD was causing him sleepless nights but having the Varicam for his off-speed shots was vital to its success. (Elephants were only to be filmed at 40fps!).

“There is a camera out there which gives you variable frame which is the Panasonic Varicam that happens to run at 720. To be honest we all know in wildlife film making that slow motion is vital, I don’t just mean more than 60fps, I’m amazed that almost all of the rushes that we’re getting topside back from the field are at variable frames rates. Experienced wildlife cameramen know that at 40fps an elephant looks more beautiful than at 25. The audience won’t know because it doesn’t seem to be slowed down, but it is. So until Sony bring out a variable frame rate camera people will go on using the Panasonic 720.”

— BBC Producer Alastair Fothergill in 2005.

Panasonic then persuaded and in some cases ‘dragged’ the wildlife fraternity in to the tapeless world with their second and very successful incarnation of the Varicam but 4k beckoned and a revolution was needed. The new concept camera was introduced at NAB in 2013, it was modular design, a decoupling of the capture from the recording unit. Now the Panasonic VariCam is once again in use at the BBC Natural History Unit, who have ordered both the 4K and high speed versions of the camera.

The decision was made following a three month test shoot, supported directly by Panasonic and Films@59.

The VariCam has a rich heritage with the Bristol based NHU, with nearly 30 of the second generation HD camcorders used on productions including Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Africa.

Nigel Wilkes, UK Group Manager for Panasonic, said, “This is the moment we have been waiting for and we are very proud to be involved with the next major production being produced by the NHU.

“For many years, VariCam was the defacto standard NHU camcorder, it set the standard that was required to capture the natural world at its best. The new camera includes a new true 4K head recording 120fps, an HD head recording 240fps, the ability to record multiple formats simultaneously (4K/1080/Proxy) and the famous dual ISO at both 800 and 5000.”

The new VariCam has a 35mm 4K unit which is separate to the recording module unit, allowing interchange with Panasonic’s High Speed 2/3” camera module unit. The recorder and camera head can be split apart using an extension cable of up to 20 meters, making the VariCam suitable for use in helicopters, cranes and cars.


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