Shooting in a Wind Tunnel for National Geographic

Shooting in a Wind Tunnel for National Geographic Production is often filled with adventure. I’ve shot from helicopters, caves, underwater, and ice chambers. I’ve hunted sharks, explored communist training camps in Russia, and soared through the Alaska Range.

But even after 22 years in the business, there are still plenty of firsts.

Shooting in a wind tunnel was one of them.

So when London-based Darlow Smithson Productions first called us for this National Geographic Channel show, I didn’t know what to expect. A wind tunnel? I visualized high winds – you know, like the ones those crazy meteorologists battle doing on-camera stand-ups in hurricanes.

Turns out it’s actually much more subtle than that. And a lot cooler.

The episode was for a series called Can it Be Built? This segment was about an odd-looking circular skyscraper in Abu Dhabi. We explored how they tested the impact of the winds with a scale model of the building in a wind tunnel.

The wind tunnel itself is a giant U-shaped hallway with a huge fan at one end. Engineers can scale the wind speed up or down with this fan. The model of the building and the city goes on a circular turntable on the other end of this tunnel. Then they blow very controlled streams of smoke across the object being tested, and see how the smoke curves around the buildings.

Our challenge was to light the model city in such a way that you could clearly see the smoke cruise around the curves of the building. We lit our main building with very focused warm light, but back-lit the smoke with an HMI, creating a nice cool blue wash. Then we hid mini Lite Panels behind the other buildings of the scale model city. We controlled all of our lights carefully to allow the background to go mostly black. This caused the smoke to pop quite nicely.

We placed the camera on our EZ Jib, and floated it over, around, and between the buildings. This brought the scale model to life, and really allowed us to demonstrate the effects of the wind (shown as smoke) on the building. We also did a very cool sweeping move between the engineers controlling and testing the wind, and the effects of what they were testing.

The program aired in the United States earlier this month on National Geographic Television.


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--- Written by Tom Miller. Copyright 2010, Big Pictures Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved This Article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Big Pictures News