Running the Sahara

Going the Distance with High-Speed Editing.

Running a marathon – 26.2 miles of foot-pounding, heart-pumping perseverance – is a grueling test of determination whether you’re a weekend warrior or a world-class athlete. Now imagine running an average of two marathons a day, for 111 consecutive days, in extreme temperatures ranging from a blistering 140° F to below freezing.

This was the arduous challenge taken on by three ultra-endurance athletes who set out to become the first modern runners to cross the Sahara, the world’s largest desert. Averaging only four hours of sleep per night, these runners fought through painful injuries, political obstacles, extreme exhaustion, and blinding sandstorms. Their journey, which began in November of 2006, took them through six countries: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Egypt. Four months later, they completed their 4,600-mile trek after running across the entire continent of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Each step of the way, the journey proved to be a life-altering experience as they witnessed the harsh conditions and daily challenges associated with living in one of the most extreme environments on earth.

A small film crew followed the runners in four-wheel drive vehicles to capture their entire journey for a feature-length documentary titled Running the Sahara, produced by LivePlanet Productions, Independent Producers Alliance, and Allentown Productions. Directed by Academy Award winner James Moll (Inheritance, The Last Days) and narrated by Matt Damon, Running the Sahara will be available on DVD starting in March 2009.

The runners – Charlie Engle of the U.S., Ray Zahab of Canada, and Kevin Lin of Taiwan – also decided to parlay their epic challenge into raising awareness for the H2O Africa Foundation. A non-profit organization founded by Damon, H2O Africa is dedicated to solving the clean water crisis in Africa.

 Not many projects of this scope have such a small editorial team working on them. With more than 500 hours of footage, we had a big mountain to climb.
- Ricky Kreitman, Editor, Running the Sahara

Miles and Miles of Media

Filmed mostly on location in Africa, Running the Sahara was shot on Sony HDW-F900R digital camcorders in HDCAM 24p format to ensure a high-quality, cinematic film look and allow for an easy transfer to film as required. During the course of the four-month expedition, the camera crew recorded more than 500 hours of footage – all of which needed to be reviewed, logged, and assembled into a 90-minute film. With only one editor, an assistant editor, and three loggers assigned to the job, cutting the documentary was its own marathon.

“Not many projects of this scope have such a small editorial team working on them,” explains editor Ricky Kreitman (Survivor, The Apprentice, Price for Peace). “With more than 500 hours of footage, we had a big mountain to climb. For the past few years, I have been mainly editing reality TV, where we typically have 18 editors and six or eight assistant editors handling this amount of footage.”

To offline this enormous amount of footage, the small editing crew relied on two Media Composer systems, one for Kreitman and one for assistant editor Rachel Cushing. The Media Composer system’s creative toolset and hardware horsepower provided high-throughput workstations to accelerate the offline process. Meanwhile an Avid Unity system provided a shared-storage solution for both Avid editing suites – further streamlining the editing process by enabling the editing team to share its 2.5 terabytes of media and work simultaneously to achieve the greatest time efficiencies.

As the runners progressed across Africa, the master tapes were periodically hand-carried by someone on the production team back to Lightning Media, a California dub house, where they were downconverted from HDCAM to DVCAM. Then the DVCAM tapes were sent to the post-production offices in Universal Studios, Calif., for logging using a Macintosh-based Avid MediaLog station. For each shot logged, Avid MediaLog automatically saved the start and end timecodes, duration, tracks selected, tape name, and relevant clip information.

Cushing digitized and imported the logged DVCAM tapes directly into her Media Composer system. Using the system’s extensive media management capabilities, she then organized all the footage into electronic bins by day and subject matter, making it easy to find a specific shot during post production. “An Avid [system] is designed for large projects like this,” says Cushing. “With all of its built-in shortcuts, it’s fast and lets us work quickly. It’s indispensable when you’re dealing with this much media.”

Synchronizing picture and sound was another part of Cushing’s job. To ensure the highest quality audio, Cantar recording devices were used on location to supplement the sound-recording capability of the Sony HDW-F900Rs. Cushing was able to import these Cantar files from a small FireWire drive directly into the Media Composer system. Then she synced the audio and video files, laying in each Cantar file under its respective clip as a separate audio track. This made it easy for Kreitman to compare the camera-generated audio with the Cantar audio during the offline process. When the camera-generated audio was unusable, Cushing relied on the Autosync feature of the Media Composer system to marry the video clip directly to the Cantar file. “In just two clicks of the mouse, I could create a brand new clip that linked and synchronized the Cantar file with the video,” she explains.

 An Avid [system] is designed for large projects like this. With all of its built-in shortcuts, it’s fast and lets us work quickly.
- Rachel Cushing, Assistant Editor, Running the Sahara

Picking up the Pace

Running the Sahara was offlined in standard definition at 14:1 in 23.97 mode. Because at times the film crew used up to three cameras running simultaneously to shoot the footage, the Media Composer system’s Multicam capability was used to full advantage on the project.

“Multicam is always a great time-saver,” says Kreitman. “It let us combine all the different camera angles into a single multicam clip and play them back in real time. As a result, I could screen all of our footage more efficiently, quickly select the shots that worked best, and speed up the editing process.”

Kreitman also credits the Media Composer system with helping him to achieve the director’s creative vision for the documentary. For example, he was able to create dramatic time-lapse sequences using the system’s AniMatte feature to cut out part of one image and layer it over another.

“In one sequence involving the runners, I used AniMatte to cut out the sky and create a time-lapse of the clouds,” he says. “So as the runners are running at their normal pace, the clouds are flying by. It’s a powerful effect that reinforces the remarkable endurance and perseverance of these athletes during their 111-day journey.”

With most of the documentary’s footage originating from hand-held or truck-mounted cameras, Kreitman often had to deal with shaky video clips. Here, too, the Media Composer system provided a quick and easy solution. In a single, one-step process, the system’s image stabilization feature enabled Kreitman to take the bounce out of the unsteady shots by automatically compensating for all unwanted horizontal and vertical camera movement.

Thanks to the interoperability of Avid editing systems, Kreitman could also edit the documentary at home using his personal Avid system. “If I wanted to work on a scene over the weekend, I would transfer the media directly from the Media Composer system to a pocket-size FireWire drive, then simply plug that drive into my Avid Xpress Pro. The process was totally seamless,” he says.

This interoperability also played a key role when Running the Sahara entered the online stage. The documentary was finished on an Avid DS system in HD at 1:1 resolution by The Film Foundry, a post-production house based in Charlotte, North Carolina. With the unified Avid editing environment and seamless conform between Avid editing and finishing systems, the online editors were able to work directly from the locked offline cut.

While this was an ambitious project, the editing team – like the runners – succeeded in meeting their objective. “We’re relieved that our 97-minute edit actually seems to capture the essence of what started as 500 hours of footage, for a feat that lasted 111 days,” Kreitman says. “The speed, stability, and media capabilities of our Avid editing suites made it possible. I’ve been an Avid editor for more than 12 years now, and I couldn’t imagine working any other way. Avid sets the standard.”

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*CREDIT: Courtesy of Live Planet. Photos: Geoffrey Clifford and Don Holtz.