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From New York to the South Pole: producing TEDxScottBase

From New York to the South Pole: producing TEDxScottBase

When experts and celebrities gather for the first ever Antarctic TEDx event hosted by a government research station in January, they will be relying on the technical acumen of pretty much one man.

Isaac Spedding is absolutely the right person for the job. Currently employed at Ara Institute of Canterbury’s New Zealand Broadcasting School (NZBS), Spedding’s passion for broadcasting, and talent for troubleshooting, has taken him from the fashion runways of the world to the secret technical corners of 1 Times Square, New York, and now to South Pole.

Spedding will film TEDxScottBase on Sunday 15th January 2017 in Antarctica, which will then be presented and webcast in the NZBS studios to a global audience on 22st January. TEDxScottBase will be one of a number of events to mark the start of the 60th anniversary of Scott Base, New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica since 1957.

The bare essentials

Scott Base, New Zealand's only Antarctic research station, presents unique challenges for filming. The biggest of these is technical kit. The venue, the Hillary Field Centre, has virtually no AV equipment – in a place where bare essentials are transported in and out, an early suggestion of hanging a sheet as a projector screen was only half made in jest.

So, a cargo allowance of around 1100 pounds, makes for very careful packing.

Luckily, Spedding is nothing if not resourceful. “The whole show design has gone through seven revisions… a lot of planning has gone into getting to where we are now, which is a completely 3D pre-visualisation of the room and a trial run of all the equipment.

“We started designing the show with the traditional technology, so a big mixer, lights, cameras and a projector with a screen, as you would see anywhere else. Then because of logistics we have been forced to be very creative, so we’re taking 36 fluorescent lighting tubes and we’re going to remove all their tubes and put our ones in. For a day in the Tent Erection room they’re going to have beautiful colour correction fluro tubes specifically to light the show. That’s the lightest way I could figure out to light the scene with full colour rendering. It’s nerdy, but for under $500 we change the look, and it’s that little bit better.”

The benefits of nerdy

Largely self-taught, Spedding spent a year “nerding out” in the studios of the NZBS practising editing and animation skills through the Digital Video Post Production programme. Even before that, he recognised the importance of developing solid technical skills and making connections in the industry.

“I started a company when I was 16 with the help of my parents. I went halfsies on a camera with them and I started shooting documentaries and doing editing for some producers in Wellington. I really loved that kind of thing and I just networked very hard for about four or five years and worked with the Defence Force and Redbull and I went to Berlin and did a documentary about Lord of the Rings fans.

Working on Planet of the Apes behind the scenes, Spedding met an American team who invited him to work in the US in New York as a producer. That was a big jump, he says.

Early webcasting

“Web casting was quite new… in the first few weeks I worked for MTV, the Food Network for Thanksgiving, the Times Squares New Year’s eve Ball Drop, Facebook, Nike, Tumblr, pretty much anyone!

“We were just thrown into it. We were building our own platform, building our own hardware, making computers. I ended up in charge of venues. We had 12 cameras all around the country that we could control remotely from the studio in New York so I was responsible for those, like the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, a very popular event centre, and we had these futuristic robot cameras that you could control with a joystick back at home. It was my responsibility to go in there and fix them. So I had key card access to 1 Times Square and 4 Times Square so I could go up to the roof of Times Square and the only other people allowed up there were the roof layers!”

In the States he produced live webcasts on equipment hired by his employer Livestream at short notice – he would read 100-plus page manuals on the plane and then train the rest of the team to use the equipment when he arrived.

“The production life is like being a celebrity without all the attention, so it’s kind of great. You get the travel, you get the experiences, you get to hang out at the parties.” The fashion world was all that and more: “It’s everything that you expect: long hours, big parties, high stress. Funny stories. It’s great and you work with Italians and people from everywhere.”

Staying grounded

Despite the jetset lifestyle, he had no trouble staying grounded (“you don’t get caught up, especially if you’re from New Zealand”) and found ways to de-stress. Skiing and late night skateboarding missions around Central Park helped, but eventually the gloss wore off.

“You spend so much time working in very high end commercial world that you kind of achieve all of those goals quite quickly and now I am a lot more socially conscious.

“At the start you want all the bells and whistles. You want to work for these brands because they’re cool. You go and do that stuff because it is worth a lot of money, and you want to meet these people because they are the top of the field in fashion or something. But once you’ve done that you start thinking about what is more important and needs more attention or what is actually doing good rather than not.”

Which brings us back to TEDxScottBase, where climate change is foremost in scientists’ minds.

Changing attitudes towards climate change

“I think now more than ever it is so important to have events such as these and to try to make people aware of the climate of the world. I mean I am one of those people that I used to think pretty much by the end of my life the earth will be in decline and that’s just how it will be, but I have changed my attitude and I am actively keen on trying to save the planet.”

That leads Spedding off into his current areas of research: CO2 cameras (building affordable CO2 cameras that enable people to see emissions), quantum physics (in relation to climate change), lifelong learning (why are more people not researching this stuff?) and founder of Tesla, Elon Musk (the only person Spedding hasn’t met that he really wants to. “The way that he thinks and the technology that he uses are really, really important. I’d love to be a part of that in some way”).

TEDx: TEDx events are independently organised around the globe, and represent a diversity of views on a variety of issues. TEDxScottBase will be unique amongst the TEDx canon - a national celebration, held on international soil, with collaborators from around the world. It aims to bring the very best ‘ideas worth spreading’ not only to the Antarctic, but to the world.

Antarctica New Zealand: Is the government agency charged with carrying out New Zealand’s activities in Antarctica supporting world leading science and environmental protection. The agency ensures that Antarctica’s environment continues to be protected, that scientists are supported to find the answers to complex scientific questions, and that science outcomes are communicated back to policy makers and the public. Demystifying science through strong outreach and education is an essential part of Antarctica New Zealand’s mandate.


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