May 1, 2002

Monster's Ball: Pursuing the Pursuers

I love working with myth, magic and the unknown. Since the 1960s, we’ve all seen tabloid programs about the unknown, but I wanted to try something different. On the strength of the 1999 broadcast of Sasquatch Odyssey: The Hunt for Bigfoot on TLC, we successfully pitched a two-hour, six-segment limited series about obsessed individuals who pursue monsters and creatures, real or imagined, around the world. Monster Hunters was essentially the equivalent of shooting half a season of a regular travel/adventure documentary series, with rigorous travel to Puerto Rico, England, New Jersey, Tasmania, Canada and Australia. By the time we were done, we’d explored caves, stumbled through snake- and leech-infested forests at night, incorporated underwater photography and run at full tilt through swamps and fields to create dramatic, flying images on Pogocam.

Shooting in 16mm film was immediately ruled out, given the lengthy “real-time” segments we’d be capturing of people on an actual “monster hunt”—their conversations, forays up wrong trails, analyses of footprints, etc. I decided on Sony Digital-Betacam 16X9 widescreen format, which would lend a high-quality, cinematic feel to the shows and provide great framing for side-by-side interviews. We also decided to bring along a high-end DV-CAM—the Sony 500-DSR, which shoots in true widescreen mode, is fairly light and actually cuts in well as a “B-Cam” with Digi-Beta. In addition, we used 16mm Bolex, Mini-DV and Digital 8mm Nightvision for creating specific effects during the hunt for monsters. We captured the so-called “monster eye-witness footage” on a nightmarish potpourri of old, funky formats: PAL and NTSC VHS-C, and full-sized VHS-ELP tapes.

No two monster hunters are alike, and we had to develop our shooting style to fit their strategies. Yowie (Aussie Bigfoot) and Jersey Devil (NJ winged-demon) hunters go on dark journeys, looking for strange mythical creatures at night using video cameras and nightvision equipment. Cadborosauras (sea-serpent), UK Phantom Big Cats (pumas and panthers), and Chupacabras (blood-sucking alien vampires) hunters research and track, using surveillance and eye-witness accounts to piece together the mystery. Tasmanian Tiger hunters track the animal on foot, through the bush, on strenuous daytime mountain treks.

When you’re shooting real people who believe in fantasy creatures, you have to film them just as you would any other hunters—in real time. Shooting at night, however, meant setting up and lighting shots for the Digital Betacam, which was not my preference. The lower-light capability of the DV-Cam meant we could shoot real events in real time and provide a great look around dusk and twilight. After that, the nightvision Digital 8mm added to the mystery of the hunt and provided POV footage of the hunters, who were, in fact, using similar nightvision cameras. On the Yowie episode, for example, giant infrared beams projecting 800 feet into the bush were used to light up entire stretches of forest. Although we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces, the nightvision cameras and infrared beam technology let us see what the hunters were seeing through their night-scopes and cameras.

On the Jersey Devil episode, we used 16mm Bolex and 35mm infrared still photography film (a Leica R4 with motordrive) to create eerie, other-wordly shots of our Jersey Devil Hunters. We transferred the 35mm still film to CD at 2mb hi-res, then onto a non-linear system, where we treated the images, transferred them back to CD, then dropped them into the final on-line directly. The grainy, shaky, odd-shutter effect of the 16mm Bolex 500 ASA footage added another weird, spooky look to the hunt for this demon.

To create a “sea-serpent” POV of our Cadborosauras Hunter being watched from the sea, we used a Mini-DV camera in an underwater housing. It’s a great, inexpensive way to achieve a high-end underwater look. For the final on-line edit, these images were heavily processed and colorized in a DaVinci color-correction suite. We didn’t have a budget to fly a Steadicam operator around the world on this program, so we packed along an inexpensive alternative—the Pogocam, which is essentially a T-bar with weights. We used both the Digital Betacam and lighter DV-Cam on this system to re-create a flying Jersey Devil POV; a low, slinking Tasmanian Tiger gliding through the bush; and a Phantom Big Cat running through fields and leaping over fallen logs.

Were I not a big fan of the high-end, high-production value documentaries of Errol Morris and Mark Lewis, I might have taken the easy road on these shows. Given the long hikes through tough terrain, low-light situations and spontaneous conversation from our subjects, it may have been simpler to shoot Monster Hunters on two Mini-DV handicams. Digital Betacam provided us with a great, saturated Super-16mm look. I’m convinced that the great look and high-end photography provided by Canadian Glenn Taylor, Australian Piet DeVries, ACS, and American Paul Van Haute will make viewers sit up and take notice. When presenting Monsters to the world, you don’t want anything to get between you and the mystery of the unknown.

 

Peter von Puttkamer and partner Sheera von Puttkamer have been creating documentaries for 20 years and have won more than 60 international awards.

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