Podcast | CAPTURING THE DEEP OCEAN with Ed McNichol of Ocean Exploration Trust

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Considering that our oceans cover more than 70 percent of our planet’s surface and contain more than 97 percent of the Earth’s water, it’s surprising to realize that only about 5 percent of the world’s seafloor has been mapped in detail, leaving approximately 65 percent of the Earth (excluding dry land) unexplored. With so much of our planet yet to discover, governments, organizations, and private funding are furthering mankind’s ventures into sea, helping us to unravel the mysteries of the deep.

Yet, there is a high degree of difficulty and cost in exploring undersea. Vessels are one of the most critical elements in any ocean-going venture, carrying food, water, fuel, and the equipment necessary to the crew’s survival while on mission. These vessels must also house specialized tools and technologies that allow scientists and researchers to explore underwater environments, including cutting-edge computers and navigational and communications systems. For video production staffs responsible for capturing potentially once-in-a-lifetime discoveries in these extreme environments, their equipment must be rugged, dependable, and of superior quality in order to provide quality image streaming to shoreside teams and online viewers.

On today’s MarketScale Science podcast, we got to sit down and chat with Ed McNichol, Video Operation Manager on contract for Ocean Exploration Trust. OET was founded in 2008 to engage in pure ocean exploration, seeking out new discoveries in the fields of geology, biology, maritime history, archaeology, and chemistry. With all scientific research conducted at the highest international academic standards, OET pushes the boundaries of ocean engineering, technology, education, and communications, sharing their expeditions with explorers around the world via live telepresence.

“The most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen at the bottom of the ocean is what we’re just about to see next. It’s just such a mystery. And whatever’s just outside the reach of our lights, no matter how tired I am at sea, that’s what keeps me energized and engaged, because it’s such an unknown. So, I can’t fall back and say there’s any one particular thing I’ve seen that stands out because it’s all such a magical, mysterious area of our planet,” McNichol said.

As OET’s contracted Video Operations Manager, Ed shoulders a lot of responsibility. He must ensure that each expedition is optimally captured and recorded on film. While new technology such as satellite equipped vessels have made a great impact on ocean video exploration, evolving technologies and companies like Cinedeck’s are helping to refine and optimize undersea video production.

Whether it’s an undersea production, like OET’s, a live performance or a studio multi-cam, Cinedeck has the tools and workflows that help content creators create truly efficient workflows they can trust.

Take a closer look at some the features that Ed discusses in this podcast:

Transcript

Daniel Litwin: 0:12-1:04

This is the Sciences Podcast, your B2B Show for the best thought leadership in the industry bringing you information, education, and inspiration only on MarketScale. Hello everyone. I’m your host Daniel Litwin, the Voice of B2B, and welcome to another episode of the podcast. Today I’d like to introduce our guest Ed McNichol. He is the Video Operations Manager on contract for the Ocean Exploration Trust. And Ed is coming on to chat with us about video production in extreme environments and the tech needed to make that happen as well as what market trends are. Are there more videos being produced that are needing of this kind technology and how might a basic terrestrial video operation benefit from the expertise of the oceanographic community? Ed, great to have you on the podcast. How are you doing today?

Ed McNichol: 1:04-1:06

Doing great, Daniel. Thanks for having me here.

Daniel Litwin: 1:06-1:59

You know, I’m not going to lie when I read up on your bio and I saw what we’re going to be talking about today, I just couldn’t help but re-watch some of my favorite episodes of Planet Earth, Planet Earth 2, just to sort of prep myself and just seeing the evolution from the first nature documentary is even, you know, just 10 years ago to seeing what cameras can capture now in the air, underwater, on land is just blowing my mind and it’s exciting that we’re going to get to dig in to the technical aspects of how this video production is even possible when you start to get into deep trenches, when you start to get into volcanic activity, when you start to get into extreme heat, it’s all very, very interesting. I got to ask you before we jump in. Is there a favorite episode of yours from Planet Earth or Blue Planet, any of those nature documentaries?

Ed McNichol 1:59-2:16

Well, that’s a really great question and we do get asked that a lot. I have to cheat a little bit and go with my stock answer which is the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen at the bottom of the ocean is what we’re just about to see next.

Daniel Litwin: 2:16-2:17

Oh!

Ed McNichol 2:17-2:41

It’s just such a mystery and whatever is just outside, the reach of our lights no matter how tired I am at sea, that’s what keeps energized and engaged because it’s such an unknown. So I can’t fall back and say there’s anyone particular thing. I’ve seen that stands out because it’s all set to magical… such a magical, mysterious area of our planet.

Daniel Litwin: 2:41-3:31

Well, and when you think about the fact that only five percent of the world seafloor has even been mapped in detail, you really start to get a feel for, you know, ocean exploration and ocean videography has only scratched the surface. Like you said, what we’re going to discover tomorrow is probably more exciting than what we’re looking at today. So, there’s a platter of opportunity there and a lot of that has to do with how the technology continues to evolve. So, let’s just jump right in and talk a bit about the tech needed for these underwater explorations and video productions. I think first we need to get a little bit of context for the history. How have you seen over the last 10 years, let’s say, technology evolved to allow whole video production teams to really capture life under the water?

Ed McNichol 3:31-4:42

Yeah. That’s a great question. So just for big picture, the Ocean Exploration Trust conducts pure ocean exploration in parts of the world, oceans that nobody’s ever seen before. So, using our exploration vessel Nautilus, we travel around the world and go and look at the bottom of the ocean and characterize the geology and the biology that’s found down there. And the Trust uses remotely operated vehicles, these are tethered to the vessel and they drop down and ROVs nowadays typically can go to about 6,000 meters of depth, about four and a half miles down and operate. Once you get past about 1,000 meters, there is no measurable daylight in the ocean whatsoever. It is a black, dark void. So, we have to bring all of our electricity, our manipulators, our lights, our cameras, et cetera. And when we operate at that depth, there is about 10,000 pounds of pressure per square inch on every exposed surface.

Daniel Litwin: 4:42-4:42

Which is pretty brutal.

Ed McNichol 4:42-5:31

And the ambient temperature in the world’s oceans, if you get deep enough no matter where you go, Tahiti, Hawaii, the North Pole, you name it, the temperature of the water is two degrees Celsius, almost always. You get to 6,000 meters, that’s the temperature. So, it’s a really challenging environment and where technology has really changed over the last 10 years is obviously in camera technology and image quality, but the real change really is in telecommunications. With satellite dishes now that are able to work on a vessel which is an amazing feat in and of itself, we’re able to send back multiple streams of high-definition video in pristine quality so that we can have shore side colleagues directing operations at sea.

Daniel Litwin: 5:31-5:33

Wow! Interesting!

Ed McNichol 5:33-6:28

And that’s really big for our clients because we may go out to see for a month. And in that month, for one day, we’re going to be looking at a potential shipwreck. We can’t bring 30 naval architects and naval historians and maritime historians along with us for that entire month just to participate for a day. So using that vessel, the ROVs, and the satellite technology, we combine all of them into a use of technology that we call telepresence. So it lets these remote parties participate in our work as if they were onboard and then there’s a huge education and outreach component of the Ocean Exploration Trust mission that we accomplish with the satellite as well because we provide these streams live in real time to a global audience online.

Daniel Litwin 6:28-7:44

Which is pretty incredible that you can bring in all those people to provide insight while you’re capturing the footage that way you’re not wasting valuable production shoot days. I mean, anyone that is in any part of the film industry knows that nothing cripples a movie or a production more than lack of time and lack of money. So if you ran out of valuable shooting days, you can’t just extend the shooting period and that just grows exponentially when you bring in the fact that you’re trying to capture potentially very natural flow of nature. I mean trying to get a hold of animals that only show up in this area for a day or two, right? You don’t have the resources to shoot, go back, double check with any other experts about, “Oh, you should try and get this because this is important. You go back out, you film again.” You just don’t have that luxury. So it’s interesting that this technology is allowing for a smoother production process. What are some of the tangible benefits that you have seen from projects of having those experts, having those historians be able to watch and help direct the production process? And give ma few examples if you could.

Ed McNichol 7:44-9:30

Well, there’s unlimited number of examples. I’ll give you just a few. So if there was an occasion working in I think it was the Gulf of Mexico where we came across a sea star that was unknown to us and possibly a new species, but we didn’t know if this was a common thing, should we collect this sample, et cetera. And so through the use of telepresence, we’re able to ring up one of the world’s renowned sea star experts, Dr. Christopher Mah, at the Smithsonian and consult with him. He can turn on his computer and he can look at exactly what we’re looking at and say, “Oh, that’s common. I have a sample here in my office,” or he can say, “I want that,” and end up collecting the first known example of a new species. I’ve been working on projects where we are placing an instrument on the seafloor to collect data and we’ve had a scientist in Germany directing our activity. That’s really the bread and butter of what we do is we find something and we engage one of the experts in the world to help determine what they need to better understand what it is we’re seeing. And as you said, there’s no reshoots. I don’t care what unlimited resources you may or may not have, what we see maybe the one and only time humans have ever seen that species. And so what my team does on the vessel is critical. That’s got to be in focus. It has to be recorded. And it needs to be transmitted out to these experts. And so we have 48 people on the vessel and they are all there to go out to see and capture those images and make these discoveries. And there’s no going back and doing it again.

Daniel Litwin 9:30-10:09

I mean that’s pretty incredible. I can only imagine having a job with that much stress, but at the same time that much reward for the kind of work you do. I mean, I can only imagine it sounds amazing and it really gets me thinking too you said that there’s been a lot of changes in the technology specifically the telecommunications. Is there a lot of training that then has to go back into getting your staff prepped for these operations? I mean, I know the answer is obviously yes, there is a lot of training that goes into it. But in the day to day as the technology changes and advances, are there a lot of new obstacles that they then have to prep themselves for and train for so that they’re ready for the field?

Ed McNichol 10:09-11:18

Well, the real key when you’re dealing with such critical deliverables as our video operations team is to create the structure and the processes to make sure that you get it right every single time. And so to do that, I’ve created naming schemas and procedural checklist that we go through all the time. I’ve been in video production for more than 35 years now. I’ve been on more than 40 international expeditions. I still use those checklists every single time I get ready for an ROV dive. And that’s how we make sure we do it right. The Ocean Exploration Trust as part of their core mission is to train the next the generation of technicians and scientists and researchers. And so I will as part of my team bring out a number of interns every year who may have shot some videos with a DSLR and now they’re controlling millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and they are completely responsible in the same fashion I am. And so we have a great training program and not only do we train people to do this and do it right but we also engage and mentor them to get their career started.

Daniel Litwin 11:18-11:41

So let’s dig in to the market itself for this extreme condition video production technology. Walk me through, I guess, just over the last few years. We’ll keep it pretty recent. Have you see an uptick in video productions that require this kind of technology and why do you think that might be?

Ed McNichol 11:41-14:07

Yeah. There has been a lot more work happening in the deep sea. You know, 10, 20 years ago, a scientist or a researcher would have to spend about a year building up the funds to be able to afford to go out to the sea for about two weeks. And during that time, they would collect single point in time measurements and then have to spend the rest of that year working with that data and getting enough funding to go and do it again. But now interestingly enough and I can’t tell you why this is, but I can tell you it exist. The deep sea has become very engaging to people with great resources such as Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who recently passed. He has engaged a lot of resources in finding things especially maritime heritage things at the bottom of the ocean. His research vessel Petrel has just made another discovery yesterday. Jeff Bezos from Amazon has engaged in the deep recovering some of the original Apollo engines from the bottom of the sea. There’s no shortage of this. Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has established the Schmidt Ocean Institute and they also conduct ocean exploration and research from their vessel the Falkor. So yeah, there’s more and more happening. However, one of the challenges we face is that in these extreme environments you can’t just take an off-the-shelf camera and put in a dome and send it to the bottom of the ocean. If you’re lucky you’ll recovery a couple little tiny fragments at the end of the day. So because of that, we generally lag three to ten years behind the market as far as our imaging technology goes. Now there are starting to become 4K imagers out there and there’s a lot to happen in that arena, that’s probably where the biggest change will happen in the next five years. But it’s becoming a more crowded arena and that’s a great thing having more people out there doing more work just contributes to the body of knowledge about the world’s oceans.

Daniel Litwin 14:07-14:23

You’re filming so much content. It must honestly be kind of a nightmare to sift through it all and be like, “What do we actually turn into something people are going to want to see or what is actually useful here when you’re digging through petabytes like you said for a whole season?” That can be pretty daunting.

Ed McNichol 14:23-17:19

Absolutely. So in our previous model, the vessel would record using enterprise level video recorders like you would find in a television station or a broadcast facility anywhere. And those were recording in a lower bit rate MPEG-2 file format and that was the one and only format that was recorded. And at the end of the day, we took that content and we copied it on to a couple LTO tapes just following best practices for digital asset protection. And those would go back to our shore facility in Rhode Island, at the University of Rhode Island. And they would be ingested into a large array there and we would have a staff that would go through those and not only catalog and select things to put use in other content, but they would create proxies for those, they would transcode those in a CPU intensive process into a much more pliable, smaller file format that we would deliver to some of the scientists who had been onboard for that mission. What that meant was people would come out to see and work with us in six or nine months later get the footage that we had captured the previous week with them and that was one of the things we set out to solve. I also, with my background, really wanted to get us on to a professional robust codec that have longevity, that meant this content could be repurpose, reuse, resold in two, three, five, ten years and get away from that MPEG-2 format. And in looking around, we looked at a lot of people. It came down to the fact that these are critical once in a lifetime opportunities that we’re capturing. And some of the unique challenges we have working at sea are that we can’t get resupplied. You can’t send us a part, you can’t ship us anything, we can’t ship you anything, and it has to work. So you know, that’s a pretty high bar. I can’t have something that might fail or might not fail or you have to carry 12 spares to make it work. And so what Cinedeck delivered to us was an upgrade to the Apple ProRes Codec which has worked out wonderfully for us. In addition, Cinedeck has the absolutely unique capability of recording in real time in three different codecs for each video signal that you’re recording. So we record in two proxy formats and our scientists now when we come back in the port they leave the vessel with the files of everything we recorded for the last month and the they have it with them as they walk down the gangway and that’s been a wonderful change and our clients and end users and partners have really been impacted by that change.

Daniel Litwin 17:19-17:30

Yeah. Well, I mean just the speed of the delivery. That one small change must revolutionize just how you get that content out and how you can begin to sift through it.

Ed McNichol 17:30-19:29

Yeah. And I can’t emphasize enough that being out at sea, being a thousand miles from the nearest piece of land and it being a week to get back to port, it has to work. And I have to build workflow that anticipates and accommodates a failure of any piece of gear. So when we design our systems, we try and eliminate any single point of failure. If it has to exist for whatever reason, then we make sure have a spare of that device. So we sail with two Cinedeck recorders and we run each one at 50 percent of capacity. We can use, using each recorder can record two signals in three codecs at once so we can do an entire mission on just one of those. In addition to knowing that myself, all of our video engineers who come onboard are equipped with an operator’s handbook much like you would find a pilot’s operating handbook in the cockpit of an aircraft that when they have a problem, they can open up to, you know, that page and there are the five steps you have to do to recover from that failure. Most failures, if we have any at all, in the middle of operations will affect our operation for a maybe one to two minutes. Now it helps that obviously we always have lead engineer, typically myself onboard, and I’m never more than 40 seconds away, but really I’ve been very happy with what we’ve been able to do. With the previous recording system, the Trust before I became engaged with them had times where they had content that was not record and I’m happy to say for the entire 2018 field season we loss no content at all using Cinedecks.

Daniel Litwin 19:29-20:52

So I mean in this industry, you really don’t have room for mistakes and you don’t want to count on anything working for you. You just have to ensure it with every step of the process. It’s very much a proactive industry because the content that you’re getting there is no way you can be reactive. It’s all very much, you know, or if you are reactive, you have seconds to be reactive and you don’t have time to really plan out so you have to do everything proactively and I think that makes for probably better content especially when you have those people on your side through the telecommunications aspect of this extreme environment video production giving you your insight, helping you through the process and letting you know, “Yes, please divert your camera over in that direction and capture that sea star because we’ve never seen it before.” It’s a really incredible thing. And to wrap things up, I guess I just wanted to ask you, where do you see the market going in the future? Do you see consumer needs and wants for this kind of video footage to increase and continue to push things forward? Do you think there’s going to be a more federal push for this kind of exploration like from a gubernatorial level? Or do you think that it’s mostly going to be funded by private dollars, like you said a lot of big name people who just have a personal passion for exploring the seas?

Ed McNichol 20:52-22:34

Yeah. There’s definitely been technologies that have been developed for the deep sea that are now available more at a commercial level. So somebody who owns a fishing vessel or a fleet now that operates inland waters they use that to bring salvage divers out to conduct hole inspections, et cetera, and now you can get little tiny remotely operated vehicles with cameras that you can go and do this work without having to do that. So there is like NASA was investing technology like Velcro that then found its way into the consumer market. Things from the deep sea are finding their way. And there are a lot of government efforts in this regard. The United States government has an entire vessel, the Okeanos Explorer operated by NOAA that is devoted to ocean exploration. And so people are realizing that we know very little about what makes up the majority of this planet. And as a professor I worked with once stated, “The Ocean is the life support system of Planet Earth.” And so I think it behooves us if we want to continue to live on this planet to know what’s down there and that’s part of why I enjoyed doing this. You know, started in 1982 and to be this deep into my career and have something that’s different every day and it’s really challenging and it’s really engaging and it gives me an opportunity to give back and I love working with technology of course as well. So that’s where this just seems like a perfect fit for me at this point in my career and getting these great tools like this.

Daniel Litwin 22:34-23:00

Well, Ed, I really want to thank you for joining us on the podcast and giving us your insight on this topic. It was honestly a real treat to get to learn more about video production in extreme environments what the market is looking like and really what makes you and your team passionate about delivering on some really stressful but rewarding content day in and day out. So Ed, thanks again for coming on the podcast. Looking forward to bringing you back on. Your niche expertise are definitely going to be come in handy.