The Ghan is a first for Australian television – a “slow TV” three-parter that puts the viewer in the passenger seat to enjoy a journey through the middle of our continent. It’s not as simple as mounting a camera to the front of the train and slapping a soundtrack on the thing 54 hours later, though, as the brains trust behind the groundbreaking series reveal.
First stop: an iconic Australian journey
Writer/producer Dan Whelan explains: “‘Slow TV’ is a new genre of television that has been making noise in Europe – in particular, Scandinavia –and we were really excited to work with SBS to create Australia’s first program in this unusual space. The Ghan was always a natural front-runner. It’s an iconic journey, and traverses the diverse landscape of Australia, revealing the vast country and its myriad colours along the 2997 kilometres of track.
“We set out to achieve three things: first, the feeling of being immersed on the journey; second, to shoot the landscape from the train in a way that would work to blend with text and pictures on screen; and finally, to keep the journey exciting and make the train a character in the documentary.”
Planning takes aaaaages
“I undertook a recce with the DOP, Toby Ralph, as we had to assess all the potential camera positions and the pitfalls associated with them,” says director Adam Kay. “Once we had our ideal scenario, we had to get our camera plan approved by Great Southern Rail, who look after the carriages and staff, and Pacific National, who look after the locomotives and the drivers.”
Whelan adds: “I needed to undertake extensive research about the stories that unfolded along the route, as that was a big editorial note from the broadcaster. It had been raining for weeks, so the desert was alive with flowers and I’ll never forget watching the sun set on Lake Eyre as we hurtled by. All up, I ended up going on The Ghan four times – three for research and once for the shoot.”
Filming on a train is difficult
“Early on in the recce, we realised the main challenge would be to counterbalance the huge vibrations the train encountered as it travelled at high speeds along the track,” Kay reveals. “Coupled with the vibration issue was a big logistical problem. We had to devise a system that allowed us to have cameras recording for a large period of time as our access to them was restricted, day and night, whilst the train was moving.”
Whelan notes: “The Ghan is the world’s longest passenger train – the train we were on was almost a kilometre in length. So, if we needed to shoot anything at the end of the train, we had to carry the equipment nearly a kilometre through winding, rocking carriages that had an electronic door that sometimes slammed shut on us! It was a challenge moving around, and making sure all the cameras were powered and had enough memory space to record the media.”
And so is putting it all together
Kay explains: “What we ended up with was a hybrid of camera and sound systems housed all over the train – from the dining cart to the power cart, from the windows of passengers’ berths to the driver’s cabin, and from exterior positions to the very front of the locomotive. No stone was left unturned as we adopted a moving fixed rig system. All up, we filmed in over 20 different positions, making sure all options offered long immersive shots.”
“We would start around 12 cameras rolling in the morning, then cut in the evening on each of the three days,” reveals Whelan. “Our camera assistant would then ingest and back up gigabytes upon gigabytes of data. Once back in Sydney, we began the challenge of editing the footage and integrating the all-important editorial graphics. We had hundreds of hours of vision that we had to cut down to three hours for the main TV documentary. So we produced a secondary, 17-hour version of the program to complement the three-hour documentary.”
You can experience the 3-hour journey of The Ghan streaming now at SBS On Demand: