Jonathan Bird's Blue World
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : Jonathan Bird's Blue World
Jonathan Bird's Blue World is an underwater adventure series co-produced by the titular Emmy Award-winning cinematographer and naturalist, and the Oceanic Research Group. The 30-minute episodes cover a variety of subjects in and around the water, including marine research and underwater exploration. Needless to say, it also features stunning underwater imagery.
This truly epic conversation with Jonathan covered his trajectory across over 20 years in the industry, through NLEs (from Avid, Media 100, FCP, and now Premiere), camera formats (Hi-8 to 4K), computing platforms (adding HP workstations to his previously all-Mac shop), and business models -- starting with creating the TV show he'd always wanted to work on.
CREATIVE COW: So how did all this begin?
JONATHAN BIRD: I wanted to create a show like this because I figured I'd never get anybody to hire me to work on one. [Laughs]
Okay, before that. [Laughs]
Jonathan prepares to dive with Bull sharks in a steel mesh shark suit, Mexico. Photo by Christine Bird.
I didn't come into doing television by any normal path. I was into photography in high school, and in college I learned to scuba dive. You might say I was immediately captivated by the underwater world when I learned to dive, and it changed my whole career path. I graduated college with a degree in electrical engineering and a job at Raytheon, but my goal was a professional career in underwater photography.
I started doing underwater photography throughout college and then on into my life after I graduated. I became very passionate about ocean conservation, and was doing a lot of speaking in schools trying to raise awareness of ocean issues. At one point it occurred to me that there's only one of me and it's hard to get to every school in the country, so I decided to start making videos that I hoped would get into the schools.
This was 1990, so I bought myself a little Hi-8 camcorder and taught myself tape-to-tape editing. Of course I had the first miniDV camera that came out a couple years later -- that was a revelation to be able to shoot in a quality that was, not quite Betacam, but at least very affordable and compact for someone who wants to shoot underwater.
What's kind of funny is that the very first film I made got rejected by a bunch of distributors, but I got lots of good feedback about how to fix it -- which I took. I eventually found an educational distributor. Back in the day, films were licensed to schools on VHS tape via catalogs.
Jonathan Bird filming at the NASA (NBL) Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, TX. Photo by Tim Geers.
That distributor was AIMS Media, and they were acquired by Discovery Education maybe eight years ago or so. That first film I made, originally distributed in 1991, is actually still in their catalog.
I don't want to see it. [Laughs]
As much as I'm a still photographer at heart, I love the challenge of storytelling. Still photography is all about nailing the money shot. You go somewhere far away with some image in mind, you're trying to nail this one behavior or this one iconic image that defines a moment. If you get that one shot you want, you have succeeded.
To me, video is much more challenging. I get more pleasure out of the creativity of going to a location, and shooting the whole adventure of what I've experienced to tell a captivating story.
Storytelling is by far the most important part of what I do. To engage a viewer, hold their attention, take them on an adventure and maybe teach them something--this is not about the money shot. It's a whole process that involves many pieces of a puzzle. And the most beautiful cinematography in the world won't save a bad story. This is my favorite part of what we do.
A free-diver gives scale to a Sperm whale off the coast of Dominica, West Indies. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
What kinds of cameras are you working with?
Our cameras are in transition. We just sold our beloved Sony PMW-200s. I think that was the finest camera Sony has ever made. I loved that camera more than any camera I've ever owned, but we needed the money because we are switching to 4K, and we've just bought some Sony FDR-AX1 cameras. I hate the electronic-spin forever focus ring on it, but man what an image from this thing!
We did our first shoot with the 4K camera (in a Gates housing) at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab last week and the images are amazing -- like blow-my-mind sharp. It's incredible what technology has done with images while at the same time allowing prices to come down. I paid less for my 4K camera than I did for my BetaSP or DVCPRO gear, and the picture is vastly superior! Of course, the cost of the camera often pales in comparison to the price of the underwater housing. Those things are expensive!
Wide view of divers working on mock-up of International Space station at NBL, NASA. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
So 4K is a reality for you today?
I was never a believer in 3D, but I really think that 4K has a future. Is it going to be integrated into people's homes immediately? I don't think so. At least for the next few years, 4K is probably just going to be for people that are total home theater aficionados who have to have the latest and greatest.
4K right now is like HD was 10 years ago. In 2004, I did a shark film for National Geographic in SD, and that was the last year that they were interested in talking to anybody about standard definition production -- even though, at the time, HD was not even somewhat widely broadcast yet. That was still a few years down the road. But the networks could see the writing on the wall, so they started acquiring HD long before they needed to broadcast it.
That film that I did in 2004, the rights have returned to me, but it's worthless. It's SD. There's nothing I can do with it. Even on YouTube people complain about SD!
A school of Scalloped Hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
Production in 4K is future-proofing your films if 4K broadcasting does take off. But even if it never does, there's another benefit. I shoot natural history for the most part: land animals and sharks and whales, and all their behaviors--things that are somewhat in demand for the stock footage market, and a little bit harder to come by than things like clouds and restaurant scenes.
And so if I'm going to be acquiring stock footage while we're shooting the show, I might as well be acquiring it in the best possible format to future-proof the stock footage as well.
One of the other things is that I've always been a huge believer in high frame rates. I know I'm in the minority on this. I mean, I totally understand and appreciate the juddery look of 24p for the suspension of reality if you're making a drama and you don't want it to look like a an '80s soap opera. You want it to look like a shot-on-film feature. I am completely down with the whole big sensor, shallow depth of field, low frame rate look.
But for nature, I just think that things look better at high frame rates, when it looks like you're looking through a window to the world. That's much more realistic with high frame rates.
Lemon sharks, Bahamas. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
I fell in love with 60p. When we were shooting our last season at the show, we did a lot of the acquisition in 60p. We bought some 60p AVC cameras so we could do some of that. I just love the look of 60p, and 60p at 4K is insanely awesome looking. It's amazing.
The nice thing about 60p is, not only does it look incredible, you can down convert it to 1080/60i and broadcast it right now, and it looks really great. But 60p as a common denominator format is phenomenal. You can convert it cleanly to 24p, 60i, and 30p -- basically any frame rate that's within those multiples. So from 4K all the way down to standard def, starting with 4K/60p, you've basically got every base covered, and that's key to stock footage. That makes it essentially a "common denominator" format.
I didn't even mention the benefits for 4K post-production. Starting with a 4K master for going out to HD, man, the stuff you can do!
Jonathan Bird filming at the NASA (NBL) Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, TX. Photo by Tim Geers.
Let's say you pulled a doofus move and you shot a horizon crooked. It happens. You set up your tripod, you look at the bubble level, you're in a rush (the dive boat is leaving! Hurry!) You bang out a beautiful shot of a sunrise, and then when you get back in the edit suite, you say, "Oh, man. The horizon's a little bit crooked." Then of course, the minute you notice it, it drives you freaking crazy forever.
Well, with HD, yeah you could straighten it, but if you crop in on the image to straighten it, you lose enough resolution that the picture looks soft. With 4K, you crop in, you straighten the horizon, and when you're down converting to HD anyway, nobody can ever tell you did that.
Another thing is motion removal. We shoot handheld a lot because we're on boats, and the tripod actually makes things worse. You stand on the boat and you try to be the human shock absorber. You sort of let your legs move with the boat, and hold your body and the camera as still as possible. But, there's only so much you can do, short of putting a gyro on the camera.
Those are coming out now, and we're thinking about getting one, but if you're shooting in 4K, you can just take all that shake out in post. Going out to HD, nobody can even tell you've done it.
So yeah, I love 4K!
A tiny Pygmy Seahorse, only about the size of a fingernail, Indonesia. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
EDITING, AVID, MEDIA 100, FCP, PREMIERE, HP
What are you using for editing?
My first encounter with non-linear editing was on an Avid that I rented in the early 1990s. Then in '97 I bought a Media 100. I took out a big loan because it was 25 grand, and it lasted me mostly through my standard definition days. I switched to Final Cut in 2004, because my Media 100 was so long in the tooth, and because Final Cut finally got to the point where it wasn't a total piece of junk. The early versions were really buggy, and they crashed. I said, "Oh the world will never be editing without dedicated hardware cards in the machine to speed it up."
Of course I was wrong very quickly. We'd been editing with Final Cut 7 up until a few months ago, when we switched to Premiere Pro on an HP Z820.
The thing is, I love the Final Cut 7 interface. I'm used to it, it's comfortable, but, as you know, Final Cut 7 is extremely dated, and can't handle a lot of the newer formats. Some won't play at all without transcoding. There's precious little provision for 4K workflows.
A Manta Ray approaches the cleaning station, Yap, Micronesia. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
I played with Final Cut X and I liked some of its features, I didn't like its user interface, I didn't like the iMovie look of it -- but the biggest problem with Final Cut X for us was that at the time we were considering making the switch, we still had to deliver Jonathan Bird's Blue World on tape. It had to be delivered on HDCam with embedded closed captioning and the whole nine yards.
Apple in their infinite wisdom had declared the tape was dead, so FCPX doesn't support any frame-accurate assemble-editing to tape. So you couldn't make a conforming broadcast master that PBS would pass. On that basis alone, that ruled out switching to Final Cut X.
So we started thinking, "Alright, what's our next NLE going to be?" We looked at the new Avid. We installed the demo version and the first thing it did was crash! I didn't even want to try Premiere because the last time I used Premiere -- which was quite a while back -- it was a real clunker! It had a reputation with editors as being not up to the level of a professional NLE. But we had heard that CS6 was better.
So, we looked at CS6 and thought, "Wow this is pretty good." I have a few minor quibbles but for the most part I was pretty impressed. They've emulated a lot of Final Cut 7, it's got an amazing playback engine, and it handles all the formats we need, no problem.
Coral Reef, Indonesia. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
Then we started looking at our 2010-era Mac and its eight cores and going, "Hmm, that thing's kinda old" -- and then realizing that, years later, Apple didn't have anything much faster. They'd gone up to a 12-core of the same basic architecture, but none of our bench tests showed it to be significantly faster. Certainly not worth us dropping five grand on a newer one.
Then it was like, "Well, wait a minute. If we're going to use Premiere, we're not locked into the Mac anymore."
Now you have got to understand, I'm a Mac guy going way, way back. The last time I used a PC was in high school in the 80s, with DOS. I had never used Windows at all. I didn't even know how to turn a Windows machine off. Never used Windows, ever.
The idea that I was considering a Windows machine was kind of freaky to me, but, my Dad is a serious computer nerd and mostly runs Windows, and he said to me, "Oh, you should look at these HP workstations, they're super-fast. They've got lot of processors and Windows is not so bad if you don't get Windows 8… blah blah blah."
We started looking at the HP Z workstations and said, "Well, you know, here's a machine that is just massively more powerful that any Mac that money can buy." Whether you like Windows or not -- and I still don't by the way -- once you get into After Effects or Premiere, it's not that big of a deal. The user interface is the same as the Mac. So, we went to the HP and it's been amazing. The thing just flies.
Jonathan filming a Humpback whale, Silver Banks, Dominican Republic. Photo by Amanda Bryan.
We have an editor here, Tim Howe, he's a brilliant young kid that came to us as an intern. I call him a kid, he's like 27, but he can do anything in After Effects you can imagine. We've had him do anything from just fixing footage, to all kinds of crazy weird special effects, and little cartoon graphics -- but the biggest thing he does in After Effects is make beautiful maps that we use in our show.
I used to do it with really cheesy flat graphics, and I'd pan and scan around them. They got the job done, but he came in and he creates globes and the world with clouds and zooms in from space. He creates these things that look like they came out of a Hollywood movie.
We had one particular shot that he did in After Effects that we rendered it on our Mac Pro and it took about 12 hours to render. It had to render all night. That's fine, except that when you realize that you made a little mistake in the movement of one of the layers, and you want to fix it, you're stuck waiting until you can render all night again.
A Sand Tiger shark off the coast of North Carolina. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
We used that project to test the HP Z820. We took the project right off the Mac and over to the HP, and it opened just fine. That it was effortless was actually an eye opener for us, but the exact same project rendered on the Z820 in two hours. Six times faster than our Mac.
HP Z820 Workstation
For all the other things we do, too, that thing's crazy. We are currently shooting a film with the RED Dragon, and we are playing back Red RAW 6K files -- debayering and doing color correction on the fly. Playing 4K XAVC-S files out of the Sony is a piece of cake too. You hit the spacebar, and it plays. That's what you want.
If you had told me that I'd be playing 6K without a dedicated graphics card just to handle it, I would've laughed at you. It's just amazing how fast computers are getting. Tim and I took a look at the new Mac Pro and said, "Yeah, we're going to buy the HP." Tests with the new Macs also tell us that HP was the right call.
Potato Cod (a kind of grouper), Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
I meant to ask this earlier: how is the show funded? It's one thing to say that you started the show that nobody would hire you to do, but how?
We did the Blue World pilot and shopped it around. We didn't get any bites. Discovery Channel said it was "beautifully produced but too educational."
When I got that film project funded by Nat Geo in 2004, I stopped shopping the pilot and spent almost 2 years making an epic pelagic sharks film for them. While I was traveling around the world making that documentary, I was shooting Blue World segments along the way, in the event that the show ever got off the ground.
In 2007, I had enough segments that I decided to start putting them on the web just to see them go somewhere. But in 2007, the web was not considered the road to going anywhere. Nobody was making money on web video. YouTube had a 10 minute limit, and the quality of the video was atrocious. So we put our stuff on our own site with nice quality QuickTime.
One lucky thing happened. During the Hollywood writer's strike that year, we were listed in an article at PCmag.com as one of the top ten shows to watch on the web during the writer's strike. The phone rang. It was NETA, one of the three syndicators of content to public television. They asked if we could have a season available for public TV.
Jonathan Bird filming a Lemon shark in the northern Bahamas. Photo by Mark Tarczynski.
So, we did the first season totally speculatively. No outside money.
The way public television works is you find the funding for your show independently, put that sponsor's name on your show ("Brought to you by…"), and then give the show away for free to the stations. Even this is no way a guarantee that your show will be aired. Every public TV station has its own program director and that program director decides what aires on their affiliate and what doesn't.
It's totally different from network TV where every affiliate will show "Desperate Housewives" on the same night at the same time. If a program manager in Minnesota doesn't like Sesame Street, for example, they don't have to air it. So breaking into the public TV market, even giving your work away free, is very hard. You have to actually market your show to the stations, one at a time, and convince them it is worth their limited air time.
A West Indian Manatee in Three Sisters spring, Crystal River, Florida. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
Our first season (released in 2008) ended up in 35% of the USA, which was astonishing for a new show with only 5 half hour episodes. It was self-funded, self-produced and given away for free. We hoped that it would attract enough attention that we would find a sponsor for Season 2.
We made the second season (only 7 episodes) with a minor sponsor--a kids health food company. We lost money, but were hopeful that we would get more funding in the next season. We also switched to HD in Season 2. It was released in 2009 and we hit over 40% of the USA.
We had much better sponsorship in Season 3, with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation as our major sponsor. It was 9 episodes, released in 2011 -- and almost broke even but not quite.
Our market saturation went over 50% in Season 3, which meant we were no longer eligible to enter the regional Emmy awards. We had won a total of 8 New England Emmy awards for the show by then.
Front row, left to right: Christine Bird: Executive Producer, Field Producer; Jonathan Bird: Host, Producer, Cinematographer. Back row, left to right: Julia Cichowski: Production Manager; Art Cohen: Writer, Narrator; Tim Geers: Cinematographer, Field Producer; Kerry Hurd: Editor, Cinematographer, Writer; Linda Hurd: Field Producer, Cinematographer (and not shown, Pierre Séguin: Cinematographer, Field Producer)
We also got a National Science Foundation grant to develop a bunch of the on-line educational tools for teachers that we had been developing and posting on our website at no charge. I was really proud of this, because it proved that we have the science credibility to attract NSF funding -- very hard to get -- and the filmmaking and storytelling skills to garner television awards. A rare combination.
With the release of Season 4 (11 episodes) in 2013, once again with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation as our major sponsor, we finally broke even, but no profit yet. So you might say that this is a labor of love. Everyone is a volunteer or is only paid a very small amount of what they ought to be. We put all the money we have into making a great show.
With the release of Season 4, our market saturation has now exceeded 80% of the USA and we have been nominated for 2 National Daytime Emmy Awards. Next month we'll find out if we win. We are also up for an award for cinematography. That would be so cool to win.
Right now we are looking for a sponsor for Season 5 to do it right and have the funding we need. So if you know anyone that wants to sponsor an Emmy Award-winning educational science adventure program, have them call me!
Caribbean Reef shark, Bahamas. Photo by Jonathan Bird.
I see that you've made a bunch of transitions. You've changed camera formats, editing systems, computing platform, and you've had a lot of things going on as you've built your business. How far down the road are you thinking about right now?
Just keeping up with everything current is kind of crazy. I just plunked down $15,000 for a housing for this new little Sony 4K camera that only cost five grand. Every time you make an investment in a new underwater camera, the camera is the least of it. I just hope that I can get enough years out of a camera system to not have to replace it anytime soon.
It's like, "Please technology, stop marching so damn quickly, 'cause it's really annoying." I know it's cool to have the latest and greatest Android phone or whatever come out every year and you get the new one, but when it comes to cameras, you don't really want that. At what point do you say, "Look, there's more pixels than the lens can actually resolve. Can we knock it off with the pixel wars and just not have to buy a new camera every year?"
But I think this 4K thing is for real. There are a lot of new 4K cameras coming out, and I know that by this time next year, there will be better cameras than the one I bought.
Jonathan filming on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo by Julia Cichowski.
Looking back, what have you learned about this business?
We've definitely taken the hard path on just about this whole thing. If I were going to do it all over again, I would find myself a mentor. Someone that would take me under their wing and teach me the ropes, hopefully save myself some time on the learning curve.
When I was young and idealistic I expected that that by working hard and producing good work, I would be recognized for my dedication and talent. I would rise to the top by being good at what I do. Well, it's sad to say, and maybe a bit pessimistic, but I don't think the world works like that. I saw other people in my field ascend more quickly by going to the right events and schmoozing the right people. People often will not recognize you just for your talent or your creativity or your tenaciousness. They notice people that go out of their way to get to know them. Who you know seems to be more important than what you know. That was a hard lesson learned that I would pass on to somebody. Still I'm proud to be where I am totally on my own merits.
I finally achieved my success by sheer diligence, and eventually, it all started to come together -- but it took a long, long time.
I get emails from people asking for career advice on becoming an underwater cinematographer and the only thing I can think to tell them is "Go to business school!" [Laughs]
Visit Jonathan Bird's Blue World YouTube channel
Jonathan Bird's Blue World Trailer
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