TANZANIA, EAST AFRICA – FEBRUARY 2009: Angie Everhart, the world’s most famous red-headed supermodel and actress, recently ascended Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world’s most famous freestanding mountain and poster child for the global epidemic of glacial retreat. Such an event did not go undocumented. In fact, HDNet financed the trip that took Everhart, her siblings, a handful of special guests, and a skeleton film crew up from the 100-degree heat of Tanzania to the below-zero summit in only seven days and will air the show on HDNet on February 24, 2009 at 10:00pm. With a sensible “less is more” approach to outfitting the crew, executive producer, director, and writer Brian Cavallaro paired a single Panasonic VariCam with two Sennheiser ew 112P G2 wireless body packs and receivers. Despite a number of unforeseen challenges, the wireless microphones delivered compelling and reliable audio of the ascent.
The climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro is not technical, in the sense that no ropes, crampons, etc. are needed. Nevertheless, it is extremely physically demanding. There is very little oxygen at its 20,000-foot peak, which is well above the altitude at which high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edemas can occur. Indeed, the Tanzanian government reports that on average, ten foreigners and twice as many porters die on its slope every year. The ancient volcanic crater at the top has been described as the closest experience to being on the moon available within our earthly bounds.
HDNet’s budget for such an adventure is modest, and the cost of flying people to Tanzania, hiring porters, and provisioning everyone, is significant. Add to that the $100 per day fee to be inside the park, and the motivation to keep the crew to a minimum was obvious. Everhart’s brother and sister joined the climb, and experts, including a local ecologist, also joined her at different periods. To accompany him on the technical side, Cavallaro hired only two crew members: a camera operator, who would also handle sound, and a coordinating producer to handle travel and climbing arrangements. None of them, Cavallaro included, had climbed a mountain before.
“I was lucky enough to have a bona fide sound person, Bryce Dion, in the States who set me up with an ‘idiot-proof’ and ‘element-proof’ sound system,” said Cavallaro. “We had a Panasonic VariCam with two Sennheiser ew 112P G2 receivers strapped to it. The ME 2 lavalier mics and body-packs stayed with Angie and whoever she was interacting with at the moment.” Of course, RF congestion would be no problem on Mt. Kilimanjaro, but harsh physical conditions would really test the wireless systems.
Everything went as well as could be expected until the fourth day, when the camera operator began to show the unmistakable signs of altitude sickness. He had to descend that morning; to push on would risk death. That reduced the already barely-adequate three-person crew to a mere two! As the only person left on the mountain who could operate the camera and ensure the wireless mics were functioning, Cavallaro took over, while still maintaining his already demanding role as director – all the while climbing a mountain that deters from its peak most people who attempt it, even with no other roles to fill!
“At that point it became absolutely essential that everything function properly,” said Cavallaro with dramatic understatement. “To be sure, things were not ideal. The intense wind was what it was; you hear that on mic. But if we were to somehow overcome the laws of physics and get rid of the intense wind noise, we would lose a critical element of what it was to climb Kilimanjaro!” Toward the top, the extreme cold tore through batteries, and Cavallaro was glad that the Sennheiser units took common, inexpensive AAs that were easily accessible without a screwdriver.
Of all the people on the climb, Cavallaro reported that Everhart faired the best. “She did great. You can’t really predict how your body will react to those conditions. Our producer helper was quite dizzy at the top. The whole thing wears on you mentally – the temperature change, the low oxygen, and the danger of it. On top of all that, we were filming the whole way up. We climbed eight hours a day and made it to the summit in seven days. That’s how long it typically takes people who aren’t filming!”
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