Category Archives: film

Panasonic GH5 – A wildlife filmmaker’s dream?

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Hello everyone! It’s been a while since I wrote a single word on this blog as these past 6 months have been hectic- editing away for A Lion’s Tale, doing work experience on the One Show, BBC Wildcats, attending Wildscreen – and recently my own film premiere at the Everyman theatre! Now I’m officially a graduate MA Wildlife Filmmaker; time has flown and can’t actually believe the course is over now. I also managed to get some very exciting work at the BBC as a researcher for NHU digital, on Planet Earth II and Oceans digital projects – a dream come true (!) So much can happen in the space of a few weeks, Bristol is such an incredible city full of passionate creatives…

More of that later, but today I’m here to share my experience with the greatly anticipated Panasonic GH5, which has NOW been released today...

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At the beggning of February I got the amazing opportunity to try out the pre production GH5 model, which I was especially excited about. I had been reading different hybrid mirrorless camera specs, including the GH4 and A7S II. But the I came across the GH5; and if I could write a specs list as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker – this camera would tick them all! And whilst there are many of you out there shooting incredible films with FS7’s or RED One’s, this article is targeted towards those with much smaller budgets and the need to travelling light. I principally wanted my choice of camera to provide me with all the features that allow me to have stabilized, sharp images, 4K at 10 bit, variable frame rates to shoot in high speed and capture high quality,blue-chip style footage… and here it was! Not to mention the improved low light performance and compact body…

Here’s the tech specs for you to drool over:

Technical Specifications

  • 20.3MP Digital Live MOS Sensor
  • Venus Engine Image Processor
  • UHD 4K 60p Video with No Crop!
  • Internal 4:2:2 10-Bit 4K Video at 24/30p
  • 4:2:2 10-bit (DCI and UHD up to 30p + HD 60p) Firmware update summer/April
  • 400mbps All-intra (DCI and UHD up to 30p) Firmware update summer/April
  • Variable frame rate (up to 180fps in 1080p HD: )
  • 5-Axis Sensor Stabilization; Dual I.S. 2
  • 0.76x 3.68m-Dot OLED Viewfinder
  • 3.2″ 1.62m-Dot Free-Angle Touchscreen
  • Advanced DFD AF System; 6K & 4K PHOTO
  • ISO 25600 and 12 fps Continuous Shooting
  • Dual UHS-II SD card Slots;
  • Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
  • Improved low light
  • Hybrid Log Gamma (for HDR video)
  • Waveform and Vector monitors (for all you graders out there!)
  • Price:  £1699.00 (body only, UK)

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Sample shots

So enough of me gabbling on; here are some stills I took at Bristol Zoo and around the city, using the 100-400mm f/4-6.3 and  the 15mm Summilux  f1.7  Leica lenses:

duckDucks galore. 1/650 sec, f/6.3 with the 400mm Leica lens. 6K stills mode.

lions_edited_black_bkg4_curve_balanceLions lair. Shot handheld through a fence 1/650 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600 with the 400mm Leica lens. Cloudy/dark conditions so had to increase the ISO as the min aperture was 4.

lion_ss_1400mm Leica lens at 1/400 sec, f/6.3, 1600 ISO, manual

fur_seal400mm Leica lens at 1/320 sec, f/4, 400 ISO, 6K stills mode.

fur_seal_MCU400mm Leica lens at 1/320 sec, f/6.3, 400 ISO, manual

red_panda400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.2, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

red_panda_2400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.0, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

penguin215mm Leica lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual

flamingo2.1400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.2, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

And now for cities!

test415mm Leica lens at 1/1020 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual

tes2sunrisemist15mm Leica lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual

boats_harbourside15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualcranes_bristol

boats_towards_city15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualcathedral CU15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualtower15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual

So here’s my short little summary breakdown of the pros and cons (so far):

Pros

  • Incredible image quality. Both stills and video
  • Sharp 
  • Fast focus, cont focus very good with fast moving subjects (with a whopping 225 autofocus points compared to the GH4 which had just 49 of them!)
  • Dual IS was brilliant; everything was shot handheld!
  • Colours were vivid and realistic
  • Variety of functions and control
  • Viewfinder superb contrast and easy to use in combination with the screen
  • Screen: incredible quality and sensitive to touch screen capabilities
  • Solid feel, nice grip
  • Sound stereo actually good
  • 6K photo function
  • Ability to stabilise on a drone and shoot 4k 60fps
  • Price: Nearly $1500 cheaper than the A7S Ii, you can afford to splash out on a decent lens and not struggle
  • Compact: You get through customs without questions, as a ‘tourist’ and not draw attention with a large FS7 or FS700 without compromising on quality…
  • You can use this on a Movi for additional stabilisation
  • Ability to attach mics – interface with Panasonic’s optional hot-shoe powered DMW-XLR1 microphone adapter (for amazing sounding interviews!)

Cons

  • High speed grain. Quite noisy at 180fps, better at 120 when light conditions were good. An try and avoid using 1080 120 100mbps with a telephoto lens (if you’re using the 15mm 1.7 you’ll be fine as this is a nice wide, fast lens that gives you plenty of light).
  • 100-400mm manual focus not as smooth or intuitive as some of the Canon L glass (but you can get a speedbooster and mount for your Canon lenses)
  • Battery life; constant 4K shooting 3 hours and 15 minutes. Not mega efficient! But can get 2 and lasts longer than A7S.
  • Poorer performance at 3200 in low light, not good in darker conditions with telephoto, but superb with the 15

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What next?

Well, there’s a few things that I personally want to film with this revelatory new piece of camera technology. Exquisitely designed in terms of ergonomics and with the operator in mind – this is certainly one to watch for indie wildlife filmmakers who not only want to shoot stunning stills, but also enter film festivals by shooting short films – all within budget. (Then you’ve got more to cash to splash on going out on location to exciting places!)

More soon with video footage samples in 4K and variable frame rates, as well as a more extensive guide on what each of the features allows you to do – but in the meantime, get down to your local camera store and try it out!

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ps: Me playing with a Ronin! And soon Gh5…..

Burning Kenya’s Ivory: A 360 perspective & CITES 2016

Low angle ivory pile

6am. Adrian was still asleep, I was praying that he felt better after his terrible bout of sickness…. to no avail. I felt so bad for him, that he couldn’t share this moment with me as a friend, filmmaker and fellow conservationist. Today was the largest Ivory Burn in history- 105 tonnes of ivory and all of Kenya’s leaders, wildlife activists were ‘joining the herd’ in Nairobi National Park to stand up against the illegal wildlife trade that has caused over thousands of elephant deaths due to the simple sake of man’s greed.

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Heavily guarded ivory, the Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers on patrol. 

However….

Rain…rain…not so beautiful rain! It HEAVED it down, the ground was quickly assimilated into a large soup bowl of red earth. My already worn out boots seemed to cling to the ground like roots. We had to queue outside the National Park gates and collect our press passes, much to my horror mine wasn’t there, but I was reassured when I had my UK Journalism (NUJ) Press Pass and the brilliant Tim Oloo to help us by pass the armed KWS rangers (the novelty of people with AK-47 guns hadn’t worn out..)

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They searched our pockets and bags for any explosives (I certainly didn’t fit the bill), and we were ushered into a packed mini-bus to drive us through the park in safety. Journalists, reporters, filmmakers and conservationists clutched their camera gear and tripods with gusto as we bumped along the muddy path. It felt rather like we were entering Jurassic Park inside one of their vehicles with its dense scattered Acacia bushes and thick highland trees.

We then we piled out of the bus as we arrived at the site we had done before on the 28th, and once again went through security with all our kit. Droplets of rain began falling, just teasing us as we hauled our kit across the already quagmire site.

The press stands were soon filling up and I bagged two spots with my tripod for good measure. Rather than on the journalist podium, I placed it just offside where a direct shot of the flames and president could be had (we’re talking photographic terms here, not actual shooting!) Then it began raining lions and hyenas…and I schlumped my way across to the press tent…which was like a rather nice watering hole– not the like where you could find drinks but the literally the ground meant your calves were submerged. I got the kit to high ground and worked out a plan of action. Wides and close ups on the tripods with the 200-400mm lens, and roving with the 17-200mm kit lens on the shoulder rig. Tim and Will were busy liaising and so all we could do now was wait for instructions and people to arrive. To say I was excited about seeing Leonardo Di Caprio was an understatement…. I wondered if Elton John would be coming too?

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 The rain at the ivory burn event, Nairobi National Park. Press avoiding the rain 8:45am, 30th April, 2016. © Tania Esteban

 

Being among top journalists from around the world made me laugh and smile, I was nothing if not a minute fly in comparison to their expertise… but I felt thrilled to be among them and curious as to what camera equipment they would be using. A lovely guy from the Huffington post asked me about my Richo Theta camera I was using and showed him my model, his was the updated grey version. Everyone wanted to be part of the new trend! Well I only saw two other people with one, so check out my 360 videos for some exclusives!

I thought I’d leave some of the kit back in the little white tent opposite the main presidential one, and follow Will. Again the floor wasn’t any better here. Heels would not be useful for any dignitaries! There I saw Will talking to Charlie-Hamilton James! One of my fave wildlife photographers, I was very excited to introduce myself and ask about his recent trip to film for Disney Nature. He told me he had just come from filming lions in the Mara, and I told him about my own film I was wishing to find in Meru. Then I bumped into Michael Owino, a local Sound Technician who offered to hold an umbrella for me in the rain- thanks Mike! He was such a help, I managed to get a few steady shots of officials as they prepared the ivory and rhino horn for the main event.

SO much was happening at this point (11am), and many journalists were beginning to set up and capture the events. Also bumped into Ian Redmond, Born free ambassador and Ape Alliance chairman who actually put me in contact with Will about the film, I owe pretty much the entire trip to him- thank you! He was busy filming for the BBC’s new exciting series (more revealed soon!) and I happily agreed to shoot an interview with him for it. So whilst milling around in the mud inside the tent, we shot outside when the weather cleared up. Ian was piece perfect and hit the key points, balancing the emotional and logical science on the issue.

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Ian Redmond at the Ivory Burn talking to Ian Douglas-Hamilton. ©Tania Esteban

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After that I went celebrity spotting! Was quite fun and I did see Kristine Davis who is an ambassador for the Sheldrick Trust (Sex and the City!), the modern lion man himself Kevin Richardson, and I met legendary wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott! Was such an honour to meet him towards the end. Also another of my conservation heroes Iain Douglas-Hamilton! I shook his had with enthusiasm before I realised they were covered in mud…I apologised profusely but hopefully he didn’t seem to mind, I doubt that a bit of mud will perturb this great man, father of one of my heroines Saba Douglas.. what I wouldn’t give to roam around Samburu bear foot and searching for elephants.

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Actress: Sex and the City star Kristin Davis, who is a patron of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
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Kevin Richardson, the  modern Lion Man himself at the burn.

Anywho! I also filmed the legendary Dr Richard Leaky as he walked among the crowd and then approached the main ivory pile. Then it was time to film the events going on inside the tent. I bumped into my new friend Michael as he was setting up his C300 onto the stage. There were dancers and performers as well as upcoming rising eco warrior, actor and musician Luca Berrardi, aged 12 he has accomplished many great things in Kenya, raising awareness about the plight of their wildlife. Check out his twitter profile.

Then after a few more roaming shots I decided to head out and capture the president when he came out to the podium outside. Journalists were clearly thinking a similar strategy…and we all crammed together in mud like penguins looking lost. The ivory gleaned in the afternoon sun, wet from the mornings downpour. Thank goodness I had placed the tripod earlier! Long lens on one camera, the other with the zoom…we were ready for the president and the lighting of the ivory. In the tent the words ‘Worth more alive” echoed in our ears, its staggering to think of the mindless bloodshed because of mans greed. Virginia herself quoted that ivory carvings represent”little symbols of death.” Charlie Hamilton-James and Jonathan Scott also lined up alongside us to capture that perfect shot of the president lighting the ivory pile- the symbol of Kenya’s strength and determination to eliminate the horrific trade as well as all others (including lion body part trade).

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Jonathan Scott at the Burn site, ready to take photos of the president. ©Tania Esteban

The president made his way along the muddy path and took questions from the press, I filmed away in awe of what I was witnessing. Kenyatta then lit the ivory and to our disappointment there wasn’t much of an all-explosive-light-up of the pile; a rather puffed out cough of smoke. But soon enough the smoke billowed and the flames grew

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Surrounded by the world’s media and press, all eyes on the president. ©Tania Esteban

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Billowing smoke as the president looks on and the world’s media. ©Tania Esteban

 

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President Kenyatta taking questions at the ivory burn. ©Tania Esteban

The flames were flickering up towards the heavens as the light fell, and a silence fell upon all of those witnessing this momentous spectacle. 105 tonnes of ivory, 6000 elephants…generations of elephants wiped out because of the simple sake of mans greed. I often reflect upon humanity, and my own existence as a human because of the terrible atrocities many people commit. The smell was overwhelming, a mixture of kerosene but more prevalent still the smell of death…burning carcasses and bone of once living creatures. The sound of the cracking of the ivory was equally powerful, and the burning hiss that resonated across the field. And then the carnage….

We all literally legged it as soon as the tape was removed to get the first shots of the flames up close an personal, the solemn meaning of the event was temporarily forgotten. But first there was a ditch to cross…

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Not pleased with the ditch to cross…its deeper than it looks!
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A solemn moment…Very privileged to have been given access to film but equally overwhelmed by the numbers of elephants slaughtered.

Once over the rangers patrolled the ivory like rottweilers with rifles, their heavy boots sinking into the ground, and posing for eager photographers. You could really feel the heat coming from the 11 stacks, the smell billowing away into the inky darkness

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I continued to film and photograph away, staring in awe at my surroundings. A drone engine suddenly pierced the air and we looked up to see an Inspire capturing a unique view of the burn, something we all would want to shoot! Check out the video by Barny Trevelyan-Johnson.

Here’s me in a 360 video filming at the front where the piles are burning, don’t forget to pan around!

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Filming at the ivory burn was a privilege, I was happy to be there to document this as a my first proper shoot, but I felt truly overwhelmed by what I had seen…
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10 tonnes each; up in flames….On the tusks are individual identification names, with information regarding the origin, weight, elephant sex, age and herd.
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The haze moving in, the smell was very powerful.

After capturing further shots I was the introduced to another one of my heroes, Jonathan having seen him photograph all day, and Ian Hamilton. What a privilege. Also saw the fabulous News anchor/presenter for NTV Wild, Smiriti Vidyarthi there interviewing Patrick Omondi and the KWS officials.

And so dear readers, the emotional rollercoaster of a day came to an end, and Will, Ian, Tim and myself readied ourselves to leave the sight…one last GoPro video….

But before you go, remember that THIS September  over 180 countries will convene in Johannesburg at the CITES meeting to decide the fate of lions and elephants– to upscale the protection afforded for lions and ban the illegal wildlife trade in ivory. Hong Kong’s chief executive C.Y Leung recently stated that they would attempt to phase out all trade in of ivory. Others are yet to act. In fact Zimbabwe and Namibia are planning to ask CITES to approve new legal sales of ivory – a dreadful idea.

SO..

Keep the FIRE BURNING…share on Social media, tweet, Facebook, Pininterest, about how YOU CARE about the fate of not only elephants, but ALL wildlife. In the next 30 years they could be gone forever. The greatest threat however is habitat destruction and this is something I will be addressing in the next few blog post. In the meantime, have a look at this clip by Wild Aid at the end of this article and start talking to your world leaders and politicians to act!

Also some of my ivory burn footage can be seen here in a preview of A lion’s Tale! See what you think (at 1:43 min in):

 

 

Day 2: Born Free office Nairobi & Will Travers

Today we filmed another 3 interviews with the fantastic Born Free Kenya staff for the 30 minute version which I’ll be cutting for them. It was fascinating to see behind the scenes of one of the busiest wildlife charity offices in Africa…and yet the scene inside would suggest otherwise.

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Bliss in the office compared to the hectic streets of Nairobi!

We were pretty overwhelmed from yesterday- I went to bed that night with scenes of ivory towers and AK-47 assault rifles swimming towards me in slow-motion. The smell of death was also pretty horrific; over 6000 elephants were killed for their ivory, and each pile of ivory equated to 100 tonnes.

Low angle ivory pile
10 tonnes of ivory per stack, representing the death of countless numbers of elephants.

So today we interviewed Tim Oloo, the country manager of the Born Free Foundation. He’s been working with them for over 2 years now, having previously worked for KWS as a senior scientist (5 years) and Serena lodges. His undergrad involved extensive research on Rhino’s in India, which he spoke about fondly. He clearly has hope for the future of Kenya’s wildlife and is supporting the efforts of both KWS and BF. We decided a nice set up outside would reflect his love of the outdoors and also avoid the troublesome tungsten lights inside. However the streets of Nairobi weren’t helping- what a noisy city!

Nevertheless, we pressed on, asking some passerby’s to be a little quiet for the interview, and we began. I sat as close to the lens as possible in order to achieve a nice eye line. The prime lens as a second camera was lovely…100mm will never let you down, beautiful bouquet. The wide shot was equally pleasing!

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Timothy Oloo of the Born Free Foundation

Next up was Phoebe, our logistical angel and office manager. She has been the point of contact in Kenya in term of getting hold of Victor, booking the hotels, sorting out the whereabouts of our stay and getting around in the Born Free Landrovers. We then filmed around the beautiful grounds of the BF office, with hundreds of butterflies frolicking, cavorting and mating in a an aerial orgy- spring had certainly sprung here. In this sense there is no spring as Nairobi is remarkably close to the equator. managed to film a butterfly mating in mid air- truly magical!

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The Nairobi Born Free Office
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Got to love a slider shot…
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Filming rain #DoesntGetMoreExcitingThanThis

We then headed into town for some lunch, Pizza for Adrian and a salad for me! I must say its quite weird to be stared at so much, but then again there aren’t that many visitors that are white to this area so I guess we must appear to stick out like warthogs in Wyoming. It then started to heave it down, so we retreated to to the office and filmed some slow motion droplets. I think Will is finding my obsession with the technique quite humorous. Got some nice slider shots of 3 life-like model statues too…roaaarrring success….

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First shot of lions- right here in Nairobi!

Then off to our lovely hotel (House of Waine), where we decided we had to find a sound proof place to interview Will…we struggled enormously… the rain was making such a racket on the ground but we had to do it today as tomorrow is the Ivory Burn! No time! SO we were helped by the lovely staff to find a quieter room upstairs. It was still rather tricky though I must say….however in such circumstances you have to make best use of what is available. We even had thunder…However Will was a master at answering all the questions, he truly is a professional and made our job a LOT easier. Huge thanks to the helpful staff at the Hotel!

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After that we joined him for dinner in the lovely restaurant. If coffee is your thing, then make sure you get it in Kenya- such a delicious earth blend. No idea what I ate, some sort of tomato/potato bake which was rather delectable. Over dinner we chatted away and listened to Will’s fascinating encounters with people at the plentiful occasions where he attends major events/meetings/conferences around the world. What a life he has had!  After that we headed to bed, but then DISASTER….

Adrian lost his potatoes…

 

LITERALLY..he was THROWING UP everywhere bless him! And worse…despite my best attempt to give him immodium and electrolytes, he just wouldn’t hold anything in. We reckon it was the pizza. I was feeling comparatively fine, but terrified at the prospect of taking him to hospital. His condition improved after getting rid of whatever his body was rejecting, but he was very weak…I don’t think he will be able to come to the burn like this, there is no way he can hold a camera feeling this ill..

I’ll have to go to the IVORY BURN ALONE tomorrow..

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With the shot lists, batteries charged and storyboards in mind, wish me luck!

 

 

Natural wonder: Sir David Attenborough

Happy Birthday Sir David Attenborough! As I am sure we all know, last week marked this great mans’s 90th; a person who has more than anyone changed our relationship with the natural world, enthusing countless generations to appreciate the variety of life on our planet. His dedication, passion, relentless enthusiasm has undoubtedly inspired more people in our world to care and want to make a difference. I certainly am on this pathway because of him as well as other incredible individuals (including my mum!).

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SO what makes him our natural treasure?

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1# His enthusiasm

From collecting fossils as a child in Leicester, to loving creatures big and small, ugly and beautiful, his appreciation for all animals is why we love him so. He even says he is no animal lover, much to the bewilderment of many. However he is the ultimate curious intellect and shares a fascination for all of nature, and not the gushy anthropomorphic rantings of a bunny hugger…

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2# His knowledge

Not only has he racked up 32 honorary degrees from Universities across the country (more than anyone else), but having studied natural sciences at Cambridge then Anthropology later…his knowledge of all living creatures and the biological, chemical, physical process that govern them is second to none. Go on, ask him a question!

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3# THAT voice.

His dulcet, hushed tones, as well as powerful vocals mix into just about the most recognizable natural history narration voice of all time. David = Nature God. His warmth and clarity both hooks and fascinated you. I think I’ve spent most of my waking life listening to his voice either through the television or radio podcasts. I’m even starting a petition for a David Attenborough Tom Tom guide…

“..And here, we have the Lyre bird…”

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4# Humble by nature

Despite his numerous awards, degrees, honours..he still remains a humble and grateful being…he loves economy class and never forgets to greet or thank you…

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5# He’s been there for you: in B&W, Colour, HD, 4K, 3D and 360 baby

He is the only person to have produced television in B&W, Colour, HD, 4K, 3D and more recently with his VR dinosaur 360 video clip. He’s so with it  even us youngsters have to keep up with him. I reckon a holographic projection David will be available soon…

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6# Impact

Sir David Attenborough joined the BBC as a trainee in 1952, and his early career included the highly different television debate programme, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? But his audaciaous and determined nature meant that he wanted to show audiences new ways of making films and a life outside the television studio. The result was the hit series ‘Zoo Quest,‘ which combined live studio presentation with footage shot on location for the first time. He made us CARE about the natural world through education and entertainment. 

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7# He’s SO quotable

A master of verbal carpentry, his written scripts result in some memorable quotes, here are my personal faves;

“A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity.”

“Our planet may be home to 30 million different kinds of animals and plants. Each individual locked in its own life-long fight for survival.”

GO on, give us another…

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8# His wicked sense of humour

We’re no stranger to his witty, whimsical and wicked sense of humour. He’s been asked onto several major chat shows more than twice and his gentleman like attire and charm  is irresistible. Even Cameroon Diaz can’t get enough of our David! More recently during an interview on BBC Radio One, Sir David was asked to narrate the video for Adele’s new song. He even gave it the trademark Attenborough voice-over.

“Like all pop stars, she needs to hunt to survive,” he begins. “The lesser spotted Adele is about to be everywhere again.”

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9# He’s travelled more than anyone in history

Since his television career back in the 1950’s he started travelling around the world, and is now the most travelled person in the HISTORY of mankind...that’s some impressive migrating. It seems his life has been perfectly timed where he saw the world in its former pristine self… And so he’s not only just seen more wildlife, people and places than anyone else but also witness the greatest amount of change than anybody who has ever lived.

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10# He’s simply the best #WishYouWereMyGrandad

All that said, we simply love him because he is our natural treasure and we all want him to be our grandad…he started the beginning of natural history filmmaking, and still is an amazing filmmaker and producer in his own right…love you Dave’s XOXOX

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Here I write about my own encounter with the lesser spotted David, over 2 years ago…..

It was 6am, Spanish time. And yes, it was the summer, BUT Sir David Attenborough tickets were on sale for his lecture on Alfred Russell Wallace in Cardiff New Theatre! I was poised with my mouse cursor ready to buy a ticket after refreshing the page… then to utter dismay all the tickets had sold out after 2 minutes of pending. I was overwrought. It happened by coincidence that I had a week long field trip to Dale Fort, in Pembrokeshire on the 18th September, and the very same day that David was giving his lecture, and so I had to book a ticket! So I put my self on wait list and hoped for the best. After a week, forgetting that I had even applied, I received an email saying I had 2 places to book tickets-result! Booked them instantly….then I thought about actually getting there.

 

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So bunked off the uni bus journey to go and see my hero- and the reason why all zoologists study their degree… so a pretty good excuse! It took 7 hours in total to get to Cardiff Central, with various stop-offs. Wasn’t cheap getting there but I had worked as a student ambassador to get the money. Went with a friend, and we went for a coffee opposite the theatre at 6pm to await the arrival of the greatest wildlife broadcaster to have ever lived…That hot chocolate tasted so good! I was positively jubilant! I could not contain my excitement as soon as I had received the lecture brochure and meticulously read through the talk. Then we walked out of the coffee shop, and at the same time a dark Mercedes tinted windowed car pulled up alongside the entrance, where he stepped out…I almost fainted on the spot then and there… He had entered the building!
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When we got our seats, which were at the very back, (so we could go out and catch the train we had booked to go to Milford Haven, then to our field trip location) and then as Sir David entered there was a sudden gasp from the audience, followed by a rapturous applause! It was a fascinating lecture all about the great Alfred Wallace, and his humble beginnings and shear enthusiasm for adventure really. Some really hilarious clips and gestures by David, absolutely brilliant, wish all lectures were like this! Before I knew it, it was question time, I was the first to put up my hand, but sadly, at the back I wasn’t noticed until the end when they ran out of question time. They even handed me a microphone, at which point my legs had turned to jelly. After that, we had to rush out to get our bags and then run for the train, only just made it! Onwards to Dale Fort for our own adventures (and a lot of hard stats and collecting data from the field!). However, I did send him a long letter including the question I so wanted to ask, which was,
“Out of Darwin, Gregor Mendel and Wallace, who do you believe has contributed the most to society.”
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He answered back too! His letter takes pride of place on my windowsill, (next to my fossil Archaeopteryx). I think its wonderful that a man who is so busy would even take up his time to read his fans letter, he truly is a remarkable, special man, and I am honoured to have seen him at his lecture and be alive during his lifetime- Thank you David- and may you long keep making Natural History programmes!

A Lion’s Tale

As many of you know, I have been off filming in Kenya as part of my final Master’s film for the UWE Bristol-BBC course. Here is a little more background to the story before I start blogging the exciting events that happened during the trip!

Please check out more about the FILM here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-lion-s-tale/x/11469504#/

 

Synopsis

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2016 is The Year of the Lion that will honour the 50th anniversary of the film Born Free. A story of true determination, passion, love and drama – it is one of the most successful conservation stories ever told all. This film will be presented by Virginia McKenna, the actress turned wildlife activist as she tells us about her journey to protect the lions of East Africa and introduces us to the team of rangers currently working in Elsa’s heartland, Meru National Park. Led by Virginia’s son, Will Travers and the charismatic Victor Mutumah (Game warden of the Kenya Wildlife Service), we see first-hand how the threat to lions has never been so pressing.

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Wildlife activist Virginia McKenna; actress turn conservationist
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Meet Victor Mutumah: chef extraordinaire and wildlife conservationist or Born Free.
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OBE Will Travers: son of Virginia and Wildlife activist, president of the Born Free Foundation. Shown here at the major Ivory Burn event we attended.

Why now?

Their numbers have declined by 90% since the making of the film, and the recent lion census has revealed that in Meru poisoning, snaring and hunting is threatening the last remaining populations of the original lions raised by George Adamson. As the team search for answers across the dramatic landscape, it ultimately leads them to the local Borana people whose livelihoods are equally at risk from these majestic predators.

Without urgent action, lions could become extinct into the wild within our life time- as currently there are less lions than rhino in the wild

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Can the team help convince the new generation of children of the value of lion? Will they change from hunters to conservationists? Will Virginia’s lion legacy be felt in the true heartland where it matters most?

Where?

Our documentary will take place in the heartland of the Born Free story, in the little visited and utterly unspoilt Meru National Park where the Adamson’s released Elsa the lioness into the wild. Steeped in history, few places are comparable to the remote and rugged atmosphere found here with a vast range of habitats, criss-crossed with 13 natural rivers. From the majestic lion and the minute naked mole rat – it truly is a landscape of contrasts.

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Virginia McKenna

Despite being at the peak of her career, the film and all it still stands for changed her life…It’s powerful message stayed with her after the film and so she gave up Hollywood and began a lifetime of campaigning across the world to save animals from commercial exploitation, imprisonment, cruelty and the loss of their natural habitat-focusing relentlessly on her personal mission with the Born Free Foundation.

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The Story

In the beginning we meet Virginia McKenna, actress turn conservationist as she introduces us to the Born Free film she was involved with, and shares the impact it had on her. Through a series of interviews and cut aways to archive of the Born Free Film, we gain an insight into why lions are important to her, her relationship with them and what the Foundation is doing as part of their campaign to halter their startling decline….

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We then journey to the homeland of Elsa the lioness and the heartland of Joy Adamson- Meru National Park. Virginia’s voice guides us though a remarkable raw landscape in the foothills of Mt Kenya with its herds of zebra and elephants, home to the descendants of the original lions from the film. Here we meet Victor Mutumah of the Born Free Foundation and the rangers who fight tirelessly against poachers and bandits.

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The reality of what’s causing the lions decline is revealed in the field as the rangers track down snares and traps.However the main cause is shown as human populations encroach further into lion territory this often leads to human-wildlife conflicts and a fragile relationship between lions and locals. Is conservation on the agenda amongst the local people? An interview with a local farmer from the Meru tribe gives us an insight into where this stems from, and what is really thought about conservation.

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What does Born Free and the KWS need to do to change their views in on one of the last strongholds of lions in Kenya before its too late?

Born Free and the KWS attempt resolve this conflict by reaching out towards the community and giving them the tools to become conservationists. With the Global friend’s programme, they educate the next generation of lion guardians about the value of lions to their culture and livelihoods. By focusing on environmental education and benefits to human communities; Global Friends encourages communities to find their own solutions to human-wildlife conflict… As well as this, de-snaring operations and research are helping to reduce conflict and enable a better understanding of the last remaining individuals in the park. However the threats are very real to the rangers, who need to protect themselves as well as the lions they so dearly care about.

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On the final leg of the journey, we meet Virginia’s son, Will Travers as he journeys to the Ivory Burn in Nairobi National Park; the largest in history, and a symbol of hope to tackle the ever increasing rise in the illegal ivory trade and of all of Kenya’s species.

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But will this be enough to change people’s relationship between lions to a positive one? Is there hope for the future of Kenya’s lions?

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The Impact

On completion of this film, it will be screened at the BBC Natural History Unit this September 2016, a day of great celebration for everyone involved in the project and YOU at home for making it a reality. Then it’s off to the Film Festivals around the world! Virginia’s Lions could have an impact on raising awareness about the plight of lions and encourage protection from commercial trade at the 17th COP convening with CITES in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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The Born Free Foundation since its creation in 1984 originally with Zoo Check, it has raised over millions and grown into a global force for protecting and rescuing wildlife. It is working harder than ever with local communities to give them right conservation tool, with its personal passion for wild animals and desire for positive change remaining at the heart of the foundation.

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Resolution?

Virginia’s message of hope is an inspiration to us all, and something which all humans share. I hope to raise awareness about the plight of lions through my film, but also celebrate the story of Virginia McKenna and the Born Free Film which changed her life. This story is unique in that Virginia is not a scientist, nor a local Kenyan…but someone who has a deep passion and connection to the place and the wildlife around her. We will ultimately decide the fate of lions, and so let us chose hope and rally with Born Free to ensure the next generations will see this remarkable iconic species in the wild for themselves.

Photo credit: The amazingly talented Robyn Gianni took these photographs and is allow me to use them for the film! Check out her incredible work here:

 

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/163647394

 

Virginia McKenna: Meeting my heroine

I was 10 years old when I stood up in front my my somewhat small class of 8 students in Southern Spain to talk about my heroine and great inspiration in life…Virginia McKenna. Having seen the Born Free film, and found out about the astounding efforts of the actress turn conservationist I felt compelled to learn more about this beautiful, spirited and passionate individual. 11 years later, little did I know that I would be producing a film about the plight of lions and my heroine for the Born Free Foundation! It truly is a dream come true and I am incredibly excited to share this with you all. I am certain you’ve all loved watching the Born Free, a story of true determination, passion, love and drama –  and one of the most successful conservation stories ever told all. Lion’s need our help more than ever, and this is why I want to share this story now

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After several trips to the car with various tripods, c-mounts, pro mic kits, radio mics, cameras, lenses, lights, gaffa tape, XLR cables, mixer… we set off! Virginia lives in a most beautiful part of the country, Surrey. The skies were clear and a deep azure, you could even see the reminiscent red silhouettes of the Red Kites as they soared with the thermals over the A4. Trails of happy holiday goers could also be seen with white airplane clouds trailing behind. I was reading over my questions with great excitement, I could not believe I was about to meet my childhood heroine.. she had been part of my early life through television, books and of course podcasts and audio books where her powerful words would inspire me to write, and read poetry about wildlife.

We were let into one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen by her incredibly passionate son Will Travers (president of the Born Free Foundation). He looked remarkably like her, with those dazzling blue eyes and handsome face. Down the bluebell woods which were dappled with a soft spring light, under the trees that whispered in the wind…and into Will’s gorgeous home to set up the kit. Gosh has he travelled. Adorned with relics from every country, the place had such a welcoming and warm feeling. The garden was such a retreat, with its quiet still and calmness– the birds and bees clearly sought refuge in this little piece of Surrey serenity.

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After discussing plans with Will about the trip itself and the interview, we met Virginia who had come up from her house.. I must say my heart was pounding! She was even more beautiful in real life and her voice so welcoming. We sat down and began the interview after setting the sound and framing with the cameras. From descriptions of the intense pulse of Africa, her Born Free role, her brilliant husband… to the future of Africa’s lions…to me there is something more remarkable than this woman’s countless number of achievements over the past 50 years. More than her bravery in changing her entire career path onto one of conservation, more than establishing one of the most successful animal charities in the world, more than helping thousands of individual animals and people through her hard work and determination.. it is her sense of hope and light that emanates from her. You not only see it but feel every word she says with such verve and passion that it truly resonates with you. I’ve conduced many interviews before but never felt so moved and inspired afterwards- her ability to listen is something that I believe has allowed her to help change the lives of so many.

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After the interview we chatted more about her love for Meru National Park, and I mentioned that I would be thrilled if I saw a naked mole rat (don’t ask me why but its something about their incredible evolutionary strategy which rather excites me..!), and she jumped in delight for my love of them, she was also a lover of all creatures small and mighty. We filmed a few cut aways of her in her garden and sauntered through to her stunning section of the house. Through the pathway an amazing view caught us by surprise, “That’s where Christian the lion use to stay when we helped keep him for Ace and John..” I had to restrain myself from squealing with excitement- CHRISTIAN THE LION! The famous lion from the YouTube video where he remembered his old owners in a fond and loving embrace. And then further down the garden was the most resplendent carving of a lion you’ve ever seen! By a very talented welsh chainsaw artist…the eyes were soft in contrast to the sharp, crisp details of his lustrous mane. Along his back perched a small butterfly; what could be more iconic as a sign of hope…Virginia’s very own butterfly lion although I am told he is called the Lion Guardian.

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After visiting her beautiful home, we thanked each other after an embrace and wished each other the best of luck on each of our journeys. This was the most incredible day of my life! There is always that fear at the back f your mind that one of your heroes, should you be so fortunate as to meet them, might not like you, think you’re somewhat annoying or downright  boring…but Virginia’s warmth and compassion came through and I felt so welcomed by both her and Will. I now see that this is their haven to retreat to after all the suffering they see with the animals they fight so hard to save. They are different to any other charity I’ve seen. They truly believe in what they do and care about every individual, and I feel greatly honoured to be starting my journey with them next week as I travel to Kenya, Meru National park- the original heartland of where George and Joy Adamson released Elsa the Lioness into the wild. It’s remarkable to think that now in 2016, the Year of the Lion and the 50th Anniversary of the Film, that the Foundation they set up is still going strong and making such a difference- keep up the hard work! And last week Virginia was awarded the Inspiring Lives Award in San Francisco- she couldn’t be more deserving.

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By Born Free Foundation. Virginia and her son Will by Elsa’s grave, Meru National Park.

Please help support their work, and also please check out my IndieGoGo site for A Lion’s Tale (https://igg.me/at/alionstale/x/11469504) for more details, and I’m giving $1000 to Born Free if we can reach our target; thank you! More to come soon about the story and film I’m making for my MA Wildlife Filmmaking course (Bristol BBC NHU) as I travel with my camera assistant Adrian to Nairobi, but for now, asante sana and Hakuna matata!

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Photography by the incredible Robyn Gianni, check out her work and where you can get her prints! http://www.robyngianni.org/

 

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The Hunt: With Alastair Fothergill and Huw Cordey

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A tiger sauntering through the long, tall Vetiver grass, an African leopard quietly padding down a gully, a spider delicately reeling out and laying a deadly silken trail….

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Their story begins with the fight to live another day in their unforgiving habitats – these ultimate “villains” of the natural world are given a second chance by Silverback Company Director Alastair Fothergill, Series producer Huw Cordey and their team in an epic visual feast- The Hunt.” Packed with stunning visuals of the like you’ve literally never seen before, dramatic story telling through cutting-edge editing, colours to pop your retinal cones and sound to resonate with your wild animal instincts…The Hunt truly marks the new age for incredibly high-end drama and storytelling.

We (wildlife filmmaking students), were treated to one of the first talks about this remarkable new series….

In the heart of the Chemistry building in Bristol University, barely a student made a shuffle to reveal their presence in the dark. Their only light source permeated from a screen which displayed the never-before seen markings of a new landmark series. Then enters Alastair and Huw- the ultimate documentary predators of our time, a most formidable duo set to storm the wildlife film industry market with a flurry of experience and talented flair… we didn’t stand a chance- we were preparing ourselves to be amazed….

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Alastair Fothergill
Huw Cordey on location in Kenya

They both spoke with such eager passion and confidence about their remarkable 6X60 blue-chip landmark series, which explores the dynamic relationships between predators and prey, each based in a particular habitat, with its own unique challenges. One thing in common that unites these animals is their struggle to survive and fail as predators-something that Alastair really wanted to capture,

“We wanted to put our audiences in the footsteps of a Cheetah. The previous shows have always depicted predators as ‘red tooth and claw, and so this is one of the most exciting relationship to film. We decided to base the animals in different habitats where each of the different ecosystems create these different challenges. Be it the open ocean– a big blue desert with ephemeral and notoriously difficult to find species, or the vast plains of the savannah where there’s nowhere to hide- where competition (interspecific- between different species) between other predators is rife.”

Although he admits that they were going to film the “BBC blue chip” animals (ie: Charismatic species), but also the more unusual such as the ancestral Telophores and Portia Sider.

It took 3-5 years to make, and I’m guessing at least £3 million per episode to make… But when your throwing in all the possible latest kit (Cineflex or ‘Eleflex’ as its known in Episode 2, jibs, cranes, Sony F55’s, helicopters, editing suites, sound crew, SF, musical composers, flights, travel…ect), you can’t expect to get incredible visuals if you cut corners. The remarkable almost mystical image of the polar bear that talented cameraman Jamie McPhearson captured was made possible with the use of the £300,000 cinflex camera and boat crew- and a total of 14 people and 8 weeks to capture that sequence! The co-proability of this series will, I’m certain, make a lot of it back so that we can enjoy even more exciting series to come (such as BBC 1’s One Planet, 2017!)

Alastair mentions he often think about what the next series will be, for example after Frozen planet they decided to look at habitats. But rather than just to look at the polar regions and tropical jungles for a sense of place, they also they turned to a new areas of natural history- animal behaviour…The most exciting dynamic behaviour is arguably between predators and prey. They haven’t forgot about the prey- despite not appearing as the “sexiest” of animals. One such species shown is the snow goose- where it will form large flocks to protect themselves from predators and use instinctive ‘next nearest behaviour’ movements to coordinate the huge triangular flock formations we associate them with.

Off to the Polar Regions in the first episode.  If you live in the poles you have to be adaptable. After frozen planet he was worried there would be no new stories to tell about its iconic wildlife. But again they managed to give us a literal brain freeze with the superlative polar bear sequence filmed by talented cameraman Jamie McPherson– it was absolutely stunning! Hats off to the remarkable colour grading by Adam Inglis, and editing by Andy Netley too. At some point I felt as if I was transported into Narnia with its gorgeous cool colour pallet. These animals are unique in that they change their hunting tactics serval times during the stalk.

“We didn’t manage to capture how this incredible behaviour stats in Frozen Planet, and so we wanted to film it this time.”

This is usually when the ice breaks up and they are no longer hunting seals on the ice. The weather however made it very difficult for the team to make it through one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the very beginning of summer when there’s meltwater, the skidoos can be used to get through this vast terrain. Polar bears weren’t at all bothered by their presence, if anything they could pose more of a threat to the crew and so they took “polar bear” security very seriously. At the end of summer, the ice breaks into a mosaic of ethereal blue-coloured ice pancakes, which forces the bear to change its behaviour accordingly. The ‘Aquatic stalk’ is where the bear pursues the ringed seals within the water, which is no problem for it is supremely adapted to swim with its webbed feet and high body fat ratio to prevent it from dying of hypothermia. The metal boat allowed the crew to move in the ice and move with the bear, use the parallax of the moving ice in a beautiful way, which led to creating this incredible sequence.

Another polar tale was filmed at Elsmere Island, most northerly Canadian islands. It is the nearest land to North Pole, 8 degrees north, and a total population of UK and Scotland (150 people), most of which are Inuit. This lack of people that makes it perfect for Arctic wolves, they are completely fearless of people. The challenge here for the team was keeping up with these finely tuned long-distance runners which can reach speeds of up to 40mph. So a larger crew was needed on the ice… 2 cameramen, 1 wolf scientist, 1 producer and 1 helicopter pilot. Then it was Arctic hare characters that leaped into the story with the wolves, leading to a rather entertaining sequence!

In this weeks episode we take a look at one of my favorite animals of all time- the Cheetah. This evolutionary powerhouse can run at 56mph at its top speed for 10 seconds, and has to get within 50m of its prey before the lactic acid burns into its fast twitch muscles and need to slow down to recover. The stalk is a very important part of the sequence, and the amazingly talented high-speed specialist camerawoman Sophie Darlington and the team tried to emulate this hugely important behaviour and put the audience in the footsteps of the cheetah… where every detail and sinew of the hunt can be analysed. They filmed it at a level of detail never seen before, capturing a very intimate and tense moment…at which most cheetahs will fails at this point to successfully make a kill.

This sequence was made possible with the use of the Cineflex- slowing the image by 40 times at 1000fps. This ‘black ball’ is home to a very powerful lens, with gyroscopic stabilizers which could make Taylor Swift’s Shake it off look like a graceful ballet. Mounted onto a make shift arm on the safari vehicle…it makes for the most remarkable follow up shots as the animal glides through the savannah grasslands. They were able to track the cheetah alongside it as it stalked without disturbing it from 100m away, preventing any interference. Alastair tells us rather counterintuitively that one of the skills about filming cheetahs is…

“Don’t follow the cheetah… Predict and follow WHERE the prey will go, and then go beyond it to try and capture the “down the barrel shot.”

Talented camerawoman Sophie Darlington

The Massia field guide, Sammy Munene, had the superb ability to get the team in the right place at the right time to capture one of the highlights of the series.

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“The last and most crucial thing is to choose the RIGHT Cheetah.” They spent much time deciding who would be their hero…and it was to be Malaika, BBC’s Big cat diaries star, with four 8 month old cubs. Such a remarkable feat for a feline, as 50-70% of cubs die at within their first 3 months. She was under pressure to kill every day for her young and growing family- and so the action heated up…2 cameras on the vehicle, 2 aerials and 6 weeks later led to the team capturing one of the most detailed and incredible hunting sequences of all time. Make sure you tune in this Sunday (TODAY) 9pm BBC One to see it!

But it’s not just all about mammals- the army ant sequence filmed by the brilliant Jonnie Hughes was a feast for the entomological eye and bliss for keen sound recording artist. Just enough of the tittle-tattle sound of the tiny footsteps of one of the smallest and yet deadliest of predators in the rainforest, which demolished everything in its wake.

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Equally the Darwin’s bark spider featured in episode 2 certainly proved that what it lacks for in size it makes up for in awe and charisma (YES I used an anthropomorphic word!) This spider was only described by science in 2009, and perhaps the reason it has never been filmed before. But nevertheless the teams found that the spiders were quite easy to find, and yet was still challenging in that they required just the right amount of wind and light to film. Huw tells us rather unwittingly that the number of camera kit cases required on such a shoot is inversely proportionate to the size of the animal- and with over 40 cases weighing over 40 tonnes… you can see why!

To really tell the story about the spider, a similar camera set up to the other sequences was required to get the shots they were after with all the dramatic elements and action. This quirky arachnid sprays out a stream of silk for over 20m, with which we are informed by the voice of natural history, Sir David Attenborough, that such material is stronger than steel. This sequences took 5 weeks (almost as long as the Wild dog and cheetah sequences) and so was no mean feat of technical skill and patience… even the smallest of creatures require the same level of detail to pull off a good story.

Of course our beloved hero Sir David Attenborough narrated The Hunt, with such verve and passion that it simply wouldn’t be the same without him!

The sound effects of the silk being expelled sounds rather like a spring coil being trailed along the floor, and is rather entertaining I must say! Anyone hear the sucker squelching sound of the crocodile’s nictitating membrane of its eye opening and closing? Or the mission impossible zipping effects of the Portia spider? The last squeaking breaths of the mantis? Hats off to the foley effects artist for being so brave! The music throughout the series has been quite sublime, the perky little notes with our smaller insect protagonists and action bass heavy chase sequences creates so much depth and engages the audience further. Clearly Alastair and Huw were proud of their music assembly and so they should be. Attenborough’s performance as a narrator and storyteller as always is faultless…a true master of hitting every single syllable and verb with incredible passion and verve- what a true legend!

The shear amount of dedication that went into making this series is truly astounding – and a HUGE inspiration to us up-coming wildlife filmmakers. Now that we’ve learned about how the whole team coordinates and how the industry works, we can really appreciate the hours, blood, sweat, tears, talent and of course money that goes into blue-chip productions like this. But if you have the right team, you end up with a remarkable piece of natural history that will inspire others to want to protect these fascinating species, with their array of intriguing animal behaviours.

Can’t wait to see what’s next for the team! (**Hint hint.. Keep watching out on BBC 1 and Netfilx!**) Tune into BBC One tonight 9pm to see the Cheetah hunt!

 

[All images above were taken by BBC staff and I do not take any credit for them, simply sharing their content in a review/analysis/report].