Adventure is never far away for Director of Photography Danny Etheridge, who tells us how Canon kit helped him get what he needed during challenging shooting conditions on the Channel 4 survival show Escape.
The shattered remains of a Boeing 727 and a twin engine Cessna lie scattered across the Mexican desert – a fuselage, wings, a jet engine, a tail fin and propellers interrupt the calm of nature. What appears to be the aftermath of a catastrophic plane crash is in fact the setting for Escape, a reality TV series like no other. Five engineers, guided by former special forces operative Ant Middleton, survey the damage. Under the beating sun, in one of the hottest places in the world, they need to use their expertise to build a vehicle to escape to safety.
"It’s like a deluxe version of Scrapheap Challenge, based out in the wilderness," says Danny. "You take qualified mechanical engineers and drop them into a location where you’ve simulated a disaster – it could be a bunch of cars in a landslide, a crashed helicopter or boat – and they’ve got to try and make something out of the wreckage and use it to get back to civilization."
The five-part series was made up of episodes called Desert, Mountains, Jungle, Desert Island and Ice. Each one was shot in a challenging environment that was as unforgiving on the equipment as it was on the show's participants. To handle the tough going, Danny and the team at Maverick TV – the production company behind Escape – added the Canon EOS C300 Mark II and XF205 cameras, as well as the CN-E18-80mm T4.4 L IS KAS S cine servo and CN7x17 KAS S E1/P1 lenses, to their kit list.
"We wanted to use high-end cameras and lenses, but to shoot things that were raw, gritty and in-the-moment," Danny says. "I used the C300 Mark II to capture both general views and special shots, such as when we had the camera mounted to a gimbal on a crane and floated it from above a car to underneath it, revealing somebody welding on the underside of the chassis. I also used it in the evenings, because it’s so good in low light." He paired it with the Canon CN7x17 KAS S E1/P1 lens, swapping to the Canon CN-E18-80mm T4.4 L IS KAS S when shooting shoulder-mounted for long periods. "Canon's CN-E18-80mm T4.4 L IS KAS S cine-servo lens is lightweight and ergonomic, so you can run around with it, but it still has a punchy feel," he says. "It was a big help throughout the shoot because it meant we could continue to use the main camera, but create a more user-friendly ENG-size set-up."
Two XF205 camcorders proved invaluable during the week-long shoots for Escape, says Danny: "They’re small, they’ve got an amazing zoom range on the lens, they are easy to use, they record timecode, and they run at 50 megabits – a high bitrate for their size. That’s obviously the minimum you need for broadcast standard, and you don’t get that in many other home video-sized models." Its infrared capability was also extremely beneficial. "I’ve always got a lot of night scenes, and generally go for infrared. A lot of people don’t like it, but I prefer it because it feels so much more real. If you have big lit scenes at night, you just don’t buy into it."
The XF205 is a very versatile camera… big broadcast shows are being shot entirely on it.
Despite the XF205’s compact size, Danny regularly uses it to shoot high-quality series for Channel 4 and Discovery Channel. "The XF205 is a very versatile camera and there really isn’t too much out there to compete with it," he says. "For a long time it’s been such a mainstay of so many people’s shoots. It’s crazy that big broadcast shows are being shot entirely on such a small camera. Lots of Escape was shot on it and I’ve just done a seven-week shoot in the jungle for Discovery with three XF205s. As long as you look after them, they’re pretty damn tough."
Tough would also be a fair description of the cameraman, for whom survival-based reality television has become something of a speciality. He’s worked with Bear Grylls for over 10 years – "a good friend, an awesome guy" – and notched up numerous stints shooting in hostile conditions. He was embedded as part of the team fighting to survive while filming the first series of The Island with Bear, later taking this a step further for the series Mutiny, during which he spent 40 days at sea as part of a crew recreating the 1789 journey of the captain of HMS Bounty, who was cast adrift in the Pacific after an insurrection.
Three XF205’s were the only kit aboard and, each day, were placed in a barrel and sent down a 200m line to a support boat, where the rushes were saved and batteries changed, before fresh cameras were sent back – “they fit so nicely into small underwater housing, meaning the XF205 was the only option to shoot that show on," says Danny. Despite being on board to film, he and another embedded operator still had to muck in with raising and lowering the sails, tacking and diving – and other chores vital to surviving. While the support boat travelled with them at a distance, when seriously choppy water engulfed their boat, they were very much on their own.
"When huge waves came over, I wasn't so crazy that it was all about the filming – I was worried for my own wellbeing," he says. "Trying to capture the major footage comes a close second to staying alive, so the camera was just rolling the whole time."
Born into a family of directors and editors, Danny was drawn to television from a young age. "I’d watch things like Planet Earth and want to be a cameraman out in the middle of nowhere. I always liked the idea of survival in the wilderness, so I think every decision I’ve made along the way has been based on getting to that place – I always wanted to go down that road."
But after 15 years of hard shoots in testing conditions, he’s looking forward to taking things a little slower. "While you’re doing it, you get caught up and you live this completely separate life," he says. "I’m coming up to 40, and I think it’s probably starting to catch up with me a bit. I’ve got a shoot this year, which is in a sleepy little village in Yorkshire, and I’m really looking forward to it. The world is still a big place, but I feel like I’ve now done most of the extreme things I'm going to do. I feel like I’ve used quite a few of my nine lives."