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The man who shaped how a billion viewers saw the Chile mine rescue

The media platform at the San Jose mine gives an indication of why the Chilean government wanted to restrict media access to the mine and produce TV footage itself.

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images/Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Reinaldo Sepulveda never appeared on camera during the 24 hours of live television as the Chilean mine rescue unfolded. But it was his handiwork, directing a team of eight cameras and 55 technicians, photographers and producers, that brought every moment to a world enthralled.

And it paid off. An estimated billion viewers tuned in for the broadcast of the tense and emotional rescue, a spectacle with all the close-up reactions, slick camera work and emotional strength of a Mark Burnett production.

"I'm proud of this," he said in an interview.

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Chile has gone to great lengths to use its rescue success as a marketing tool to cast its country as one with wealth, compassion and technical skill. Having the government provide the successful rescue images was a central part of that branding exercise. It was also risky, given the possibility that something could have gone seriously wrong as the cameras rolled.

Mr. Sepulveda, the Chilean presidential media director, was involved with the mine crisis from its first moments. He was with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera when he was brought word of the disaster.

In subsequent weeks, he travelled to the mine site many times, and soon began planning how to capture images of a rescue that had attracted an increasing amount of both national and international attention.

As the number of cameras at the San Jose mine swelled, it became obvious that allowing individual access to media organizations would be impossible. So the government - including the President, who has substantial media experience as former owner of TV channel Chilevision - decided to produce the event itself, and provide access to the world.

Mr. Sepulveda, who had covered Olympics and World Cup tournaments in his three decades as a television producer and director, began sketching out where to situate cameras and how to transmit the images from the isolated mine site in the Atacama Desert.

"I had the privileged position to put the cameras where I wanted," he said.

Three days before the rescue, they began to set up. The crew numbered only slightly less than the 80 typically used to cover a major soccer match.

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One of the major decisions involved whether to carry the coverage live.

"There were many discussions with respect to this having live images," Mr. Sepulveda said. "But if it was recorded, or if we had used a delay, people could think that the images were being manipulated."

They decided to send out every single moment.

"You need to remember that all the family, who were hundreds of people, were watching our transmissions of their family," he said. "So if I put on one and not another, that mother, that grandmother could think something had happened to them. So the decision of the President was to do it live."

Some reports have suggested the President banned transmission of images showing miners in poor condition, but Mr. Sepulveda denied that was true.

"We were prepared in case something went wrong," he said. "We would have transmitted what would have gone wrong as genuinely as possible."

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That, of course, did not happen, during a rescue effort that has been broadly described as "flawless" - not to mention a heart-grabbing, heart-stopping broadcast that may be the television event of the year.

But Mr. Sepulveda denied any attempt to play to emotions through the high production value of his work, which included live underground images of the capsule arriving and being loaded with miners, gripping tight shots of a device measuring its progress to surface, long, lingering images of waiting wives, their faces an intense study in anxiety and hope, and the final joyful reunion of couples long separated.

"Our objective was to make a sober transmission, calm, not manipulated. Everything that was seen is exactly what happened," Mr. Sepulveda said.

"If I had been carried away by this, I could have done many things," he said. "I could have done slow motions and I could have mixed images. It was the decision of the President to transmit exactly what was being seen."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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