Tales from the 3D Road: The Mongolian Eagle Festival

By Al Caudullo, 3DGuy Productions

Above the stark, almost lunar Mongolian landscape, an eagle circled and pivoted in an equally empty but piercingly blue sky. The ease with which the great bird manoeuvred and traversed the heavens contrasted with the rugged trail we had to follow in order to arrive at Mongolia’s annual Eagle Festival.

Participants in the Mongolian Eagle Festival.

Flying into Ulaanbaatar , Mongolia’s capital, one of the first things you notice is how vast and overwhelming the Mongolian landscape is. It is easy to get lost here. Highways cover only a small portion of the country. And the road to the great Eagle Festival winds between enormous steppes and towering mountains. The Eagle Festival takes place amidst these barren heights.

And that is the easy route – the one my colleagues had taken earlier, after flying for three hours westward to their jumping off point. My route to the festival was more complicated. Coming from the capital later, I travelled for four hours by ageing turboprop to Khovd and then transferred to a beaten-up jeep for an eight-hour trip across some of the sparsest roads and trails imaginable.

The kit

My colleagues had brought in much of our film and editing gear earlier, including two Panasonic AG-3DA1 cameras with matching Convergent Design NanoFlash 3D external recording units. The filming kit also contained a Redrock microMattebox, ND filters, a VariZoom VZPFI hand controller, and an assortment of SDHC, CF cards and six 1TB 2.5- inch hard drives to capture as much as possible. To keep us powered up and shooting, we used Panasonic batteries and Anton Bauer Dionic 90 batteries.

Shooting with the Panasonic AG-3DA1.

We also carried in two laptops, one with Grass Valley EDIUS 3D beta version software. It may have been risky to take a beta version into field conditions like this, but what better way to test it than in a real-world application. EDIUS performed beyond expectations. It was installed on a Toshiba Qosmio i7 laptop, running at 3GHz CPU, 8GB DDR3 RAM, with a lightning-fast NVIDIA GTX 560M graphics card with 1.5GB DDR5 RAM.

Before I and my filmmakers had flown into the festival, our advance team carried in the heavy gear, which included a portable generator, gasoline, sleeping bags, and other cold weather items. The advance team consisted of Ganz, our guide, and Bimba, our driver. Their cross-country road trip from Ulaanbaatar lasted a week.

The festival

The hardship and trouble in getting there was well worth it. The festival is spectacular. The birds’ owners enter in ranks, mounted on horses. Decked out in full traditional regalia, the men themselves resemble the eagles. Thick, burly fur coats and leather boots cover most of them. All wear hard leather gloves to protect themselves from their eagles’ steel-like talons. And more than a few sport red furred hats that resemble the crest of some great flying predator.

Man, horse and eagle.

The culmination of the festival, however, rises to even greater heights. Perched high on the mountains’ rocky crags, the eagles sit waiting. Far in the depths below, across an utterly empty valley floor, devoid of everything but rocks, moves a slight figure. A man on a horse. It is the owner of one of the birds.

As the owner calls out and his eagle recognizes him, the massive bird takes flight. He soars against an azure sky, a wide expanse of heaven that contains not a single cloud. Only the form of the eagle can be seen. Climbing, circling, diving and turning until it streaks down and alights on its owner’s outstretched arm.

The eagle about to alight on its owner's arm.

Man, horse, and eagle – the combination produces a lethal hunting team. The festival celebrates this millennia-old tradition of nomadic culture in Mongolia. The mountains and enormous valley floors present a stage for this exhibit that retains the authenticity of the experience as generation upon generation of Mongol must have experienced it.

At the end of the day, I noticed something else across the valley floor. Walking towards it, I realised it was a two-humped Bactrian camel. Around the ungainly beast stood a young Mongol family: a man, his wife, and two small children. In his fur hat and layered purple coat, the husband’s outfit almost sparkled in the setting sun. But even he was overshadowed by the camel, which was bedecked in a multi-coloured blanket, saddle, and bridle.

A young woman sitting astride a Bactrian camel.

Getting up closer now, I was able to see the young wife sitting astride the camel. As the animal rose off its knees, she extended her arm. Simultaneously, one of her children grabbed hold and was hoisted aboard the camel’s back.

Such a dramatic act. But she achieved it with the grace and fluidity of a practiced routine. And then it occurred to me. All this magnificence. All this gala celebration. For generations it had been a practiced routine. A matter of survival. Nomadic families on camel and horseback, moving across harsh valleys, undulating steppe, and twisting rivers. Men tethered to their hunting eagles. This was the secret life behind the spectacle I had just witnessed.

Behind the scenes

During our on-site production, we stretched EDIUS’ capabilities to the limit and beyond. It never failed us. We used it in multiple environments, in everything from rugged Mongolian gers to dung-roofed housing. Our immediate concern was to be able to download volumes of 3D footage not only from our cameras and recorders but to be able to check our dailies. This was to make sure our framing and 3D were within spec and keeping within the storyline. Our intern from Mahidol University International College, Parnop ‘Tommy’ Siripornpak, had as his task that of data wrangler. His job was to download footage and use EDIUS 3D to create project files and sequences.

Tommy downloading footage to EDIUS.

EDIUS was a marvel to work with, easily creating stereo pairs and stereo adjusting using only the Toshiba laptop and a 24-inch LG Cinema 3D monitor. It was a hit with our hosts and the eagle trainers who flocked around the screen in 3D glasses and adapted to watching 3D as naturally as they would call to their eagles. One of the young eagle hunters took a special liking to the Spatial View 3DeeSlide attached to my iPhone, which makes the iPhone autostereoscopic. He made a habit of taking it around to his friends and showing off 3D footage from 3DeeCentral. 3D was a big hit. And it just goes to show how easy and fun it is to use this medium to build new audiences.

The Spatial View 3DeeSlide for glasses-free 3D viewing on an iPhone of content from 3DeeCentral.com.

Other team members included Dorn Ratanathatsanee and Sompao ‘Bee’ Caudullo. Being a small documentary film team, each member of the team was able to switch jobs and work on every facet of the production, including production stills and behind-the-scene camera work.

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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