Tales from the 3D Road – Filming Wild Horses in the Gobi Desert

By Al Caudullo, 3DGuy Productions

I am jolted awake by the sound of rain hitting the tent. At first I think, wow, it’s my first night in the Gobi desert and a light rain will keep it cool for sleeping. I nestle back down next to my sound-asleep wife, Bee. Then I remember that that our pack is outside and the thought of wet clothes in the morning is not so appealing. I get up and sleepily unzip the tent, to be greeted by a blast of sand in my face. It’s my first sandstorm. Welcome to the Gobi, Al.

The Gobi Desert covers parts of northern and north-western China, and of southern Mongolia.

Quickly recovering from the jolt, I wrestle with the pack and drag it under the flap of the tent. I plop back down inside and think about the recent course of events from a short time ago that brought me around the world on what must be one the most unusual 3D documentaries ever to be produced.

Origins of the project

Just about two months ago I met Dr Siraya Chunekamrai and first heard of the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation. I had been to Chiangmai In Northern Thailand before and seen the cute ponies pulling carts of tourists but had little thought of what had brought them to the land of elephants.

Cross breeding and improper care have drastically reduced their numbers. During the course of treating these horses, Dr Siraya discovered striking similarities in the unique markings and stature between the Thai Ponies and Mongolian wild horses (also referred to as Przewalski’s Horse), the last of the legitimate wild horses that still survive.

Thai Pony DNA

Curiosity arose about the Thai Pony DNA. Dr Siraya and her team started collecting DNA and blood samples to test for 13 important infectious diseases in horses to see if they were present in Thailand, as these were truly ‘native’ ponies. The amazing find was that they showed evidence of being exposed to many deadly diseases such as Japanese encephalitis and West nile virus, but none showed clinical signs, which was remarkable. The Maxwell Gluck Center, University of Kentucky, commented on this, and suggested we find out more about their genetic makeup. The UC Davis analysis that showed them to be a natural breed means that they have evolved naturally to fight hardships of the climate and terrain and resist diseases. Incidentally, this opens the door to more study to find out how such resistance could apply to humans.

Creature comforts in the desert

Morning comes and the sandstorm is long gone. My international 3D crew is rising and we ready the gear for another day of 3D filming. Thanks to my wife, I get to have a fresh cup of Starbucks coffee from the french coffee press and ground coffee that she has brought along and surprised me with. We may not have running water or standing toilets or showers, but we have Starbucks coffee! I may survive this after all.

The calm after the storm.

The 3D kit and crew

Our video gear consists of two Panasonic AG-3DA1 cameras with Convergent Design’s nano3D, recording raw .mxf at 180Mb/s, 10-bit 4:2:2, powered by Anton Bauer Dionic 90 batteries. We have also been using the GoPro Hero 3D system to get some amazing point of view ‘HorseCam’ shots. A one kilowatt generator acts as our recharging station. No frills here.

Besides me and my wife Bee, my crew consists of veteran Thai director and cinematographer, Dorn Ratanathatsanee and an intern from Pace University, Sierra Chandler.

The first stop

The project offered some very unique challenges in trying to shoot an effective 3D documentary in a place filled with sand, with no electricity and only dirt trails that we are making along the way, since the paved roads ended 50km outside the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. Even though it’s a desert, the Gobi is only 4% sand – the rest is an amazingly varied mix of fertile plains and mountains with fields of wildflowers that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Our caravan of adventurers occupies two four-wheel-drive vans loaded with a curious combination of 3D video equipment and scientists. Luckily, our guide, Gans, is a seasoned veteran, working with National Geographic most recently. But he hasn’t encountered the demands of a 3D documentary crew.

Our first stop will be the summer camp of Dr Baatsu. He meets us there, having come from Ulaan Baatar several days earlier. His family consists primarily of nomadic herdsmen and he returns from his duties in the city as often as he can. He seems equally at home on horseback as in a four-wheel-drive truck. His 90-year-old father and mother have joined us at the camp of his brother and his family. His father is still a horse trainer and is strong and alert.

The summer camp of Dr Baatsu.

Hospitality

During our ceremonial greeting inside the Ger – a felt-lined tent, Dr Baatsu is the first to introduce me to the ritual of the snuff bottle. He reaches into his Mongolian boot and retrieves an ornate pouch containing his most important family heirloom. There is a very exact procedure for receiving the bottle in your right hand and, if you have one, exchange your family snuff bottle with his. You then open the bottle, using the spoon built into the cap, take out some snuff, take a pinch and sample the aroma. This is all handed down from generation to generation as part of the proud history of these people.

Of course this comes after the offering of mare’s milk, a sour-tasting naturally-fermented yogurt brew that is the national drink of Mongolia. There are many offerings presented to visitors. For example, there is a curd, made from the mare’s milk along with thick cookies and some hard candies. But there are no words I can think of to adequately describe mare’s milk. It is unlike anything that I have ever tasted. The Mongolians even make a Mongolian version of vodka from it.

Filming

In the days that follow, we get some amazing 3D footage, all while travelling by both camel, horseback and motor van. Meanwhile, Dr Siraya collects her samples from the Mongolian horses. After days of travelling, our final stop brings us to the Khutsai National Park. This is home to the Przewalski’s Horse, and we hope to shoot the first ever 3D footage of this breed brought back from near extinction.

Dr Siraya collects a sample from a Mongolian horse.

Gans consults with the biologists at the research station and together they go over the maps and chart the sightings of the herds. Almost an hour later, we succeed in spotting the first herd: a group of one stallion and five mares. The late afternoon sun is setting and the herds have come down from their mountain grazing, but our light is fading quickly.

Horses spook easily and these ancient cousins are no exception. They are truly wild and cannot be domesticated. One wrong sudden move will see them galloping away. Luck and patience prevail, and Bee and I creep slowly ever closer to get within 15 feet of them. Occasionally a head will pop up in curiosity, but they stay in place. Dorn and Sierra don’t manage to get as close, but still get great shots.

Reviewing the dailies

Ecstatic, we head back to our Ger Camp to watch footage on our LG 24″ Cinema 3D monitor connected to the AJA Hi-5 3D HDSDI to HDMI converter. This passive system is lightweight and well-built for our rugged shoot conditions. With our Polaroid 3D glasses, we have been able to review dailies with no problems.

We set up a Toshiba Qosmio i7 laptop with Grass Valley EDIUS 3D beta editing software installed. One of the great features with EDIUS 3D is the ability to output to an external monitor without the need for a special graphics card. This enables us to create 3D stereo pairs and view our dallies in 3D efficiently with relative ease and a minimum of equipment. In addition it gives us the opportunity to do rough edits in the field, making our job easier when we return to the studio.

The AJA Hi-5 3D HDSDI to HDMI converter.

Next morning the shoot yields equally stunning results and we are treated to a foal frolicking with his mother and a herd of around 12 horses. There is hope in these shots – hope for a future where this unique breed of ancient horse will see its numbers increase.

Mission accomplished

Our mission is complete. We head out, and a few hours later arrive in Ulaan Baatar to the relief of warm showers and soft beds. At our crew dinner that night we toast our success with, appropriately, Chinggis Khan Vodka. Our equipment and crew have proven themselves, and our hard work has been rewarded with four hard drives full of great 3D footage!

Al Caudullo is Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, 3D Evangelist, Producer, 3D Stereographer and Editor for 3DGuy Productions. Al has won the Association of Virtual Worlds award for 3D Excellence, and has used his thirty plus years of video production experience as a foundation for stereoscopic image capture. As principal of 3DGuy Productions, Al served as 3D Stereographer and 3D Editor many on projects including film, TV and corporate production. Clients include Panasonic, Hitachi, Imagimax Studios, 3DeeCentral, Polaroid, Spatial View, Toyota and many others.

www.3DGuy.tv

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