Of the many ways to get a show made, collaborating with a large engineering firm is not high on the list. Yet that’s just what documentary shop Radiant Features did to produce “Panama Canal Supersized,” a challenging shoot under harsh conditions that resulted in a breakthrough program for A+E Networks’ History.
The docu project began when MWH Global — the multinational construction firm hired to expand and add locks to the Panama Canal so it can accommodate new, giant cargo ships — decided to record the mammoth $5.5 billion project.
Enter veteran news and sports producer Phil Alongi, who connected MWH with Radiant, a production studio founded in 2008 by documakers Dylan Robertson (above, right) and Bill Ferehawk that has supplied content to Discovery, PBS, History and other networks.
“It was a pretty cool phone call,” says Robertson. “It was like someone saying, ‘We’re building the Pyramids. Do you guys want to film it?’ ”
But Radiant wanted to go beyond MWH’s industrial film project. It knew a well produced documentary about a world-changing infrastructure project would appeal to audiences beyond engineers. “We thought it could be a really big program,” Ferehawk says, “so we contacted networks. The one that made the most sense was History’s longstanding ‘Modern Marvels’ series.”
The next step: Persuading MWH to go public with its internal program. “They were excited, but a little nervous,” Robertson recalls. “The first question they asked was, ‘Who has control?’ We said, ‘We do. That’s the difference between a corporate film and a TV show.’ ”
Ferehawk says the company was OK with that. “They understood that editorial control was a key component of getting distribution.”
Also key: Making an exciting film. “History wanted something faster-paced than a PBS show,” Robertson says. The project’s budget — just over $500,000 — is probably the highest ever for a “Modern Marvels” episode.
Then came the hard part. The two-week shoot began in the Canal Zone in April 2014, after local coordinating producers Gabriela Mejia, Ricardo Barria and Gia Marie Amella completed scouting.
Once production began, the local producers coordinated and translated for the shoot. Radiant brought along d.p. Andrew Watson (above, center), but all other crew was local.
The filmmakers focused on the construction’s most dramatic moments, using time-lapse photography to add kinetic energy, and multiple drone shots to capture unique points of view. “We wanted to bring construction to life and show things being built right in front of your eyes,” Ferehawk says.
It was hot, dusty and windy. Watson used the Canon C300 camera, described as “a real workhorse in punishing conditions.” Lighter Sony and Panasonic cameras flew with the drones. Audio was handled by capturing natural sound on-site — machines, ships, ambient tones — and to create a library for the ultimate audio design and mix.
Film post took place at Picture Head; editing on Adobe Premiere in Radiant’s West Hollywood office. “We cut it like a sports event to heighten the action,” Ferehawk says. “It has triple the amount of edits of a normal doc. We wanted to push it and play to a broad audience.”
The hourlong program debuted on History on April 11.
“There’s interest in doing a second hour,” Robertson says. “There’s lots of construction left.”