Tequila sunrise is the name that WE have given to the very first 3D GoPro beamsplitter rig. All future versions will be named after cocktails as well. :)

In fact we sat around and decided to retroactively name WildEarth’s very first 3D rig (the one used at Djuma in 2010 and 2011) the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. A cocktail supposedly invented by the fictional character Zaphod Beeblebrox from Douglas Adams’ series The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster was said to be “the alcoholic equivalent of a mugging – expensive and bad for the head” and states that the effect of one “is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”. This in many ways describes the incredibly difficult process that we went through to build this first beamsplitter.

Tequila Sunrise is light years ahead of the Gargle Blaster though. Designed using CAD (Computer Aided Design) and ‘grown’ in nylon using a 3D printer, this incredibly small and tough armature in an enclosure holds two GoPro Hero2s, with their new lenses installed, and a 50/50 mirror as well as all the new circuitry to control and power the cameras. The result is the world’s smallest and lightest High Definition beamsplitter that allows us to focus and converge on a meerkat 150mm in front of the camera and get a perfect undistorted head and shoulders shot, but still be able to fuse the background in 3D.

But thats not where it stops. WE also felt that it was crucial that we filmed this 3D meerkat diary series from a meerkat’s point-of-view (POV) so that the viewers felt like they were one of the meerkats. That meant shooting the entire film from just 50mm above the ground! To make this even more challenging we wanted to broadcast LIVE (in 2D only, mind you) onto the Internet the whole time that the crew are out with the meerkats, which is going to be from dawn to dusk every day for 3 months.

Now you just can’t ask Rob, Garth and Paul (the camera team) to crawl around on the floor for hours at a time shooting from a meerkat’s POV. So WE devised what we call the broomstick rig. Basically we bought a second hand bush whacker (also known as a weed trimmer) removed the engine and the blades, added in a pool net pole and attached Tequila Sunrise to the end. This means that the camera operator can stand up and walk normally while the cameras are just above the ground. Add in a high definition field monitor and a whole bunch of new circuitry hacked into the Hero2s and the camera part is done.

Next was audio … again WE had a very ambitious agenda. For the 3D meerkat diary series we wanted uncompromising stereo audio that would again make the viewer feel like they were inches from the meerkats and living as one of the gang. This called for a super high quality set of matched X/Y microphones positioned just above the ground so that if you wear headphones you get proper surround sound that allows you to discern the direction from which noises are coming. But we also wanted the camera operator to be able to chat to our LIVE Internet audience and help them identify individual meerkats and explain what is going on. This LIVE narration is, as so many of you know, crucial to the experience and really helps improve the ‘connection’ between the audience all over the world and the animals. So the camera operator wears a headset with a microphone and he can push a button to talk. All this sound is mixed and recorded and sent out to the LIVE audience.

The LIVE video is encoded right on the broomstick, which is connected to the Internet via a wifi network that WE are installing across the whole territory of the Gosa meerkat gang (about three square kilometres). This means that the very highest quality video and audio is sent directly from the broomstick to our video ingest servers in Europe and from their to our distribution networks around the world.

This has been by far the most ambitious project that WildEarth has ever undertaken and we are super proud of what has been designed and built so far. There is a great deal of work left ahead of us, but the team of engineers, designers, suppliers, consultants and crew that WE have assembled are absolute professionals and WE are confident that we are on track to deliver the most immersive meerkat experience in history.

Written by Graham Wallington