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Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: January 12th, 2011 09:49 AM CDT

High-speed Imaging in Harrowing Environments

TV show pushes limits of high-speed camera technology to capture images of ‘unseen world’
Figure 1: This grease fire, imaged with the Fastcam SA1, is a simulation of putting a frozen turkey into a deep fat fryer. We’re seeing a glass pot filled with hot oil when a half-cup of cold water is dropped into the oil, creating a violent grease fire explosion.
Discovery Channel
Figure 1: This grease fire, imaged with the Fastcam SA1, is a simulation of putting a frozen turkey into a deep fat fryer. We’re seeing a glass pot filled with hot oil when a half-cup of cold water is dropped into the oil, creating a violent grease fire explosion.
Figure 2: Spectacular high-speed footage of a fireworks sequence captured at 20,000 frames per second from 12 feet away by Photron’s Fastcam SA1.
Figure 2: Spectacular high-speed footage of a fireworks sequence captured at 20,000 frames per second from 12 feet away by Photron’s Fastcam SA1.
Figure 3: Fastcam SA1 and Fastcam SA2 selected to “star” in Discovery Channel’s Time Warp TV series.
Figure 3: Fastcam SA1 and Fastcam SA2 selected to “star” in Discovery Channel’s Time Warp TV series.
Figure 4: Fastcam MH4 from Photron features up to 4 tiny camera heads that can be strategically placed inside an automobile during crash testing.
Figure 4: Fastcam MH4 from Photron features up to 4 tiny camera heads that can be strategically placed inside an automobile during crash testing.
Figure 5: The side view of the car crash sequence with Rusty Height, Time Warp’s human crash test dummy (top). Photron’s MH4 camera is positioned on top of Rusty’s car roof to capture this slow-motion sequence (middle). The sequence in the bottom photo shows Rusty inside the vehicle as his automobile “t-bones” the other car.
Figure 5: The side view of the car crash sequence with Rusty Height, Time Warp’s human crash test dummy (top). Photron’s MH4 camera is positioned on top of Rusty’s car roof to capture this slow-motion sequence (middle). The sequence in the bottom photo shows Rusty inside the vehicle as his automobile “t-bones” the other car.
Figure 6: The Time Warp film crew readies the camera inside the ruggedized, black rectangular blast box.
Figure 6: The Time Warp film crew readies the camera inside the ruggedized, black rectangular blast box.
Figure 7: Time Warp’s Director of Photography, Wes Skiles is shown here holding the shoulder-mount modified Fastcam SA2.
Figure 7: Time Warp’s Director of Photography, Wes Skiles is shown here holding the shoulder-mount modified Fastcam SA2.
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When Creative Differences, the production company responsible for Discovery Channel’s hit show Time Warp, first approached me with the concept of a television show that would “reveal an unseen world using high-speed camera technology,” I was both thrilled and apprehensive. I was thrilled with the opportunity to share this wonderful technology with the viewing public, but worried that we would fall victim to the same pitfalls that had plagued other shows using high-speed cameras.

At Tech Imaging, we have been providing high-speed cameras for TV shows for several years but in a very limited capacity—usually a locked-off, specialty shot, sprinkled in amongst gorgeous “real-time” HD footage. For Time Warp to succeed, a total paradigm shift was required. The high-speed shots were no longer an add-on or a specialty enhancement, but rather, they were now the show. To ensure that we delivered a high-speed show with exquisitely unique footage, our production team developed the following “golden rules.”

CHOOSE THE RIGHT TOOLS

The success or failure of Time Warp rested almost entirely on the quality of the high-speed imagery, making our choice of cameras the most critical decision we would make. We knew that only the highest quality, highest speed images ever seen on TV would enable this show to succeed. Reviewing the proposed segments for the show, there were shots that I knew would require a huge range of frame rates. We realized no one camera would be able to handle all of Time Warp’s requirements. We would need a combination of cameras, each with unique strengths to capture these stunning events. The goal was to image events from various angles and at various speeds, at the highest possible resolutions. Knowing these cameras would end up in some harrowing environments, a ruggedized camera also was paramount.

After an exhaustive search, we ended up casting two cameras developed by Photron (San Diego, Calif.) as the “stars” of the show; the SA2 and the SA1. Photron’s SA2 gave us the ability to film up to 2,000 frames per second (fps) in 1080P HD resolution (1920 x 1080) and 4,000 fps at 720P HD resolution (1280 x 720). The SA2 created gorgeous color images with very little noise, but at frame rates above 4,000 fps, the resolutions drop off. That is why the SA1 became critical. The SA1 maintains very near HD resolutions up to as high as 10,000 frames per second; when the need for speed really arose, we were able to crank the SA1 up to 325,000 frames per second and still have enough resolution to put amazing footage on the TV screen. Additionally, the incredible light sensitivity of the SA1 (our testing revealed an ISO rating of more than 1,600 for the SA1 color camera) was a lifesaver in the light-starved world of high-speed imaging.

The combination of these two cameras allowed us to film the same events from two completely different views and, more important, on two completely different time scales. For example, we could watch a 25-foot explosion envelop the entire set using a wide shot from the SA2 at 2,000 fps, while focusing the SA1 on the critical 10-inch field (where the explosion initiates) at more than 20,000 fps (see Figure 1: grease fire photo sequence).

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