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Solar Warrior
Squish Role

GREENPEACE: Filming Under Pressure

by David Fox

Pressure groups need publicity. On television that means pictures, which is why Greenpeace has been filming for as long as it's been campaigning, starting with its first anti-nuclear testing protest in the US in 1970.

Like any long running programme, there is a constant need for new ways of getting footage, because "campaigning requires repeating the same message over and over," says Mim Lowe, news producer, Greenpeace International.

"The kind of video which we do is in less than controlled conditions and, due to circumstances beyond our control, production isn't always 100% successful," says Lowe. Difficult situations its camera crews have faced range from being chased by the military to having Mediterranean drift-net fishermen throw knives at them. A lot of the reports at sea include the added risk of underwater filming, although that can be rewarding too. While showing the effects of drift netting, which kills dolphins, sharks and whales, the team found two trapped whales, which they cut free, although only one survived.

Some underwater work is around very radioactive sites, and here "it is very difficult to find a professional who will do it at Greenpeace rates," especially where radioactive waste is leaking out around them. However, she believes it is worth taking the risk, as footage shot on the French and English coasts, showing waste being pumped out undersea, helped get new restrictions on dumping radioactive waste introduced. It had previously won international restrictions on dumping toxic waste at sea (such as barrels of chlorine) through filmed evidence.

One of its most successful video campaigns was against the dumping of the BP Brent Spar oil platform at sea. However, Lowe admits they got one fact wrong (which she says doesn't invalidate the whole campaign), which resulted in many news organisations becoming more wary of taking its campaigning at face value. "Although it affected our credibility with the media, that has not been too damaging, especially as the media is usually suspicious of Greenpeace anyway," she adds.

Her maxim is: "if you are offering them good pictures then they'll take them," but it is difficult getting news editors interested in the campaigns. This is why "we don't ask them to take our packages and use them the way they are. We just hope they will use the images as part of a report." Those broadcasters without the funding to send their own cameras to the arctic, for example, are happiest to use the pictures, "but even so, they will still exercise editorial judgment."

Greenpeace has had to be inventive in getting footage from restricted or difficult areas. For example, to illustrate a story on radioactivity in the air (which meant that dead pigeons in north west England had to be dumped as low level radioactive waste), it had to use kites with tiny cameras on board to sample the fumes from chimney stacks.

However, it is often as tricky getting the footage back as it is organising the protests that will be filmed. When India was doing its nuclear tests in 1998, Greenpeace had to smuggle in a balloon bearing an anti-nuclear message, which they sent over the site and recorded the events with a DV camcorder. The difficulty was finding a post-production facility in India which would and could take the tape format and retransmit it. Indeed, it was lucky that it took a week getting the balloon out of Indian customs, as it took three days of unsuccessful faxing and phoning from Amsterdam to find a facility to take the resulting tape.

This is one of the reasons it is reliant on camera crews who are prepared to do more than take pictures, as they might also have to become couriers, hire helicopters or buy tape (which can be very difficult in places like Ecuador). Lowe, as producer, does what she can, but she is rarely on the spot as most of her time is spent persuading broadcasters to take the results.

Although DV "means anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a cameraman," she says Greenpeace only uses the format occasionally, mainly in "action situations", as "to keep our costs down we own a little bit of equipment and most of that is Betacam."

Greenpeace generally puts together very loose packages, so that news journalists can easily select the segments they want to use in their own reports, as most broadcasters are unhappy to directly transmit footage they feel could be labelled as propaganda.

However, many clips, such as the "skinny bear" clip shot in Alaska in 1998 to show the environmental effects of oil company exploration have been seen around the world. A demonstration, Lowe says, of how the right video image can become a powerful weapon in gathering publicity for the environment.

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Solar Warrior

Because Greenpeace does so much of its filming in remote locations, it has created a suitably environmentally-friendly, and low-cost, kit called The Solar Warrior. This enables a trekker with solar panels and a camera to transmit pictures back via the Internet. Although Lowe admits the quality is not yet good enough for broadcast use, she believes it eventually will be. In the meantime, it is the beginning of a drive to do a lot more Internet broadcasting, which she hopes will also encourage interactivity with members of the public.

In early 1997, it "started with an integrated suit, which had flexible amorphous silicon panels sewn into it," says Karl Mallon, who works on energy solutions for Greenpeace. That used a Handycam, but they found it cumbersome, especially as they were not using it to record and it turned itself off after five minutes on standby. It wasn't very robust and wobbled too much for mounting on a helmet or the suit. Now they use a "lipstick" mini-cam, usually mounted on a lightweight microphone headset (which is "very light and unobtrusive"), and have integrated a high-performance solar panel into a backpack, which contains the batteries and electronics, instead of using sewn in panels.

The cameras, audio and transmission equipment use less power than a 20 or 30 watt solar panel which fits on the backpack. To cope with cloudy conditions, and the users' movements out of direct sunlight, the battery buffer allows about seven hours storage. It is fully charged initially, and the electronics take their power from the solar panel whenever possible. As users are rarely online for more than an hour at a time, the battery power is more than enough, especially as the solar panel can recharge it in one hour in optimal conditions or three hours on an overcast day.

The system is connected to the Internet via a high bandwidth connection to a receiver within 5 km, which is hardwired into a phone line. It was tested initially by doing three hour-long transmissions a day, in bad weather, from the Glastonbury music festival. "The backpack system proved to be quite successful. It's easy to recharge and quite robust," says Mallon. The headcam also worked well. However, they now use a less directional microphone. They system saw its first real action last October [1999], from a mountain on the Austrian/Swiss border showing how a glacier was shrinking due to climate change (to help influence an international conference at the time). It transmitted three times a day for six days, with 2,000 people a day visiting the web site.

However, he says the Internet is not ideal for video communications and, although they can stream at 15 frames per second using Real Player, viewers can't receive at that speed because of Web congestion.

"We've got a proven system and what we want to do now is look at how to integrate it into the work of Greenpeace," he says. It will help to show national supporters what the organisation is doing worldwide, and also "give us a way to avoid having to go through the keyhole of the media." Because it can send back real-time images from even the remotest areas via satellite, its allows PC users "to bear witness" to what is happening and then take part in cyber activity such as emailling the CEO of the oil or other company involved.

The system can be used for broadcast material, as they do a DV copy of the output, and could also do a Beta copy, at the base station. "We haven't used that, mainly because we are seeing this as a separate system," he says, as Greenpeace specifically wants to target Internet users to retain control of the message.

However, its next move [was intended to be ] equipping a campaigner in Papua New Guinea with a solar system to supply broadcastable DV quality material, although the images will have to be digitised off-line on a laptop then ftp'd to Amsterdam or London. This will save money, although campaigners will have to be trained to use it, compared to sending a professional cameraman into a remote area and shipping tapes around the world. "A complete solar warrior system should cost under $5,000 to use mobile phones. It is only when you add microwave systems that costs rise. Besides, we can't afford to lose microwave equipment, and we often get into trouble where we have things confiscated from us," adds Mallon.

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Squish Role

Greenpeace was an early user of compressed transmission, when sending footage back from Rainbow Warrior of French nuclear testing in the south Pacific in 1992. The pictures were sent back by the ship's radio operator via a satellite phone and using a "Squisher" created by Simon Baker, systems engineer, GAS Electronic Systems - Greenpeace's TV systems advisors. The quality wasn't very good, but it was usable, and today, Lowe says it is very hard to spot compressed images.

"The Squisher was a response to problems with getting transmissions from remote locations, some of which are on a boat in the middle of nowhere, back to base," says Baker.

The only global coverage is through Inmarsat - originally Inmarsat-A, but then the Inmarsat-B digital service, which is cheaper. It is also a lot less expensive than Ku band satellite coverage, which is limited mainly to land mass areas and requires the sort of accurate pointing not possible on a boat - an even greater problem for C-band transmissions. Inmarsat space also doesn't need to be booked in advance and transmissions can be done using small, low power equipment.

He originally used CLI codecs at 1.1 MB per second, designed for video conferencing, but now the Squisher uses MPEG-1 compression as "we've yet to find anything else to do the job," he says. It runs at between 1.1 and 1.5 MBps, but as they are transmitting at 64 kilobits per second, it takes about 20 minutes of real time for each minute of material. As MPEG-1 throws away every second field its quality is only good enough for news material, and Greenpeace only uses it when other systems are not available and the pictures are time critical.

But even with the possibility of satellite uplinks, it prefers, where possible, to use an ISDN-based service rather than using a conventional satellite video link, as it means it can deliver the signal direct to its offices without anyone else seeing them first.

© 2000 - 2010

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