Tag Archives: Lions

Interview with Digital FilmMaker Magazine

I was recently interviewed for one of my favourite magazines – Digital FilmMaker! Here is the original with some of my photos from my ‘A Lion’s Tale’ shoot in Kenya; exactly a year ago. Hope you enjoy it and feel inspired to do your own!

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  1. Why will this project be of interest to readers of Digital FilmMaker?

Hopefully this will be of interest to anyone wanting to shoot their first short film and have only just begun to delve into this creative, thrilling world of visual storytelling. Also, that it is indeed possible to do on a very small budget, whilst travelling to amazing places in the process! Natural history differs to drama in that you cannot predict what the wildlife ‘characters’ will do; or control a great deal of external environmental factors. However, with careful planning and preparation during the pre-production stage; it is possible to make an emotive and personal human-wildlife story that resonates with your target audience.

  1. What had you done project wise in the lead up to this?

This was one of the first and biggest project that I was completely involved in. I studied Zoology during my undergraduate years and played around with cameras in different university societies; but nothing on this scale. I lived in southern Spain all my life before moving to the UK to study as an 18-year old, and upon graduating I then came to Bristol to pursue an MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University of West England. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to get into filmmaking (since I was 12), growing up watching David Attenborough and living in the countryside greatly inspired me. However, there was no academic support in Spain for me to progress in this field, and so dreamed of getting into camerawork and research at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol; where a staggering 40% of the world’s wildlife documentaries are made. The Master’s course certainly helped me achieve this, and part of the MA involved making our own film, drawing upon all the skills we learned alongside it. Whilst my academic background was scientific, I had always loved being creative as a child; storyboarding, drawing and writing took me to the far-flung exotic and biodiverse places I saw on our television.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 21.58.46Where I grew up in Southern Spain – the light and birdlife greatly inspired me.

Watching producers and cameramen/women filming behind the scenes sparked my interest; combining the best of both science and art worlds. Then when I was 13 my father bought me my first DSLR, and could finally capture the Bee-eater birds and Short-toed eagles that were always tantalizingly out of reach. Armed with my telephoto lens, I wanted to share my passion with others but knew that being self-taught wouldn’t be enough to cut it in this competitive industry.

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I therefore had a lot of catching up to do at University; joining the Leeds Student Radio societies, television and photography clubs so that I could begin to create a portfolio and apply for the MA. This included a conservation YouTube Channel about local biodiversity, and two radio programs that I produced; Weekly Wildlife Watch and the Travel Talk Show. Whilst radio and LSTV taught me how to write, shoot and focus on story; PhotoSoc helped me to compose and learn about the fundamental principles of photography.

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  1. Who has done what on the film?

As part of the MA requirement, I saw the entire project throughout each of the processes – from the initial idea as a researcher, producer/director, camerawoman, sound, editor, SFX/mixer, grader and now social media manager promoting the content online. It was certainly challenging juggling the different roles, but I loved learning and trying out a variety of methods, techniques and styles from both the drama and natural history world. Learning through mistakes is certainly the best way forward in all walks of life, and by having total creative and editorial control I feel I’ve made something close to my childhood memory and dream. It certainly has been an extraordinary experience that I will remember forever.

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  1. And how did that utilise your individual skills?

With my camerawork, I attempted to adapt different styles of shooting as well as techniques to create a visual story that would suite a film festival audience. Such immersive filmmaking techniques include those seen on various BBC series capture the animal’s perspective to add an emotional level to the story, leading to a more powerful, captivating documentary. I attempted to capture privileged views of the lion in its environment, and learned a great deal about how different documentaries are made by analyzing the shots in different sequences.

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I shot in high speed in attempt to create a sense of drama for the first and last sequence of A Lion’s Tale, as well as with the use of extreme close ups (in particular the ranger patrol) for an immersive feel. The storyboarding of key sequences proved to be invaluable during the shoot, as it allowed me to focus on what I wanted to achieve in terms of framing, direction, action, speed.

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Early morning starts – shooting high speed with the FS700 and Canon 100-400mm.

Equally, I took the camera off the tripod and onto a small inexpensive rig to allow for camera movement – and emphasizes the feeling and mood for a scene. The use of jibs, cranes and float cams are increasingly being used in natural history to create dynamic movement and a parallax between the scenes as seen in drama. The development of gimbals has now made this possible, although I had to resort to a very crude version of one in the end – my arms!

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  1. So what’s the film about?

The Born Free story began with lions, and now 50 years later since the original film, A Lion’s Tale looks at the legacy that actress turn conservationist Virginia McKenna has left and the conflicts that lions and all wildlife face in Kenya. Set in the original heartland of the true father of lions, we journey to Meru National Park to see the Born Free team and Kenya wildlife service rangers on the front line of conflict and education. The world’s largest ivory burn is about to take place, as a symbol of Kenya’s determination to help all wildlife and stop the illegal trade. Will the next generation take up the challenge? Is there hope?

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This film reveals how Kenya’s new generation of conservationists is looking out for all wildlife, including the elephants, which is witnessed at the world’s largest ivory burn event – a symbol of stopping all wildlife trade and helping humans and nature co-exist. Gaining access to this historical event was one of the greatest challenges and provided me with the opportunity to capture a unique moment in time. It has quickly been adopted in the media with several feature films and documentaries have highlighted the event (The Ivory Game, Hugh’s Ivory War). It was a truly unforgettable experience, which I self-shot and have now begun to edit into a separate film alongside this production. Filming beside my heroes, both in the conservation and camera world was one of the highlights of the shoot. The worlds press and filmmakers were gathered to document it, and it was truly a sobering sight to see the 150 tons of ivory go up in flames.

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  1. Who wrote it and what inspired that?

The story of A Lion’s Tale began with my passion for lions and chance meeting with leading ape conservationist Ian Redmond.

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This love of Africa and felines started during my childhood, when I was encapsulated by the true story of George and Joy Adamson. For me, the purpose of making A Lion’s Tale was to emotionally engage and raise awareness – focusing on one of the major issues not only concerning lions, but all wildlife in Kenya. The original Born Free story captured the emotions of millions during its release in 1956, a time when our relationship with the natural world and ‘wild’ animals was viewed negatively.

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And so, whilst a large conservation movement was seemingly triggered with the momentum of a single film, it was the emotive driving force behind the true story about the real Adamson’s who released an orphaned lioness into the wild that led to actress Virginia McKenna to change her entire career and life plan – from actress to activist. I also felt it timely to produce with the upcoming ivory burn and Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species meetings in Johannesburg. I didn’t want to write a set script; and by using the characters’ voices in the film I hope this has allowed audiences to connect with and care about the cause – not be lectured on it. The major theme of the film is hope – an emotion that all humans can relate to and a message that I believe everyone involved in the filmmaking and conservation industry can use as a device to inspire and drive change.

  1. And who produced it and pulled the project together?

I was the producer of the project and responsible for all the script-writing, scheduling, budgeting, interviewing, shooting, etc. which did take extensive planning. After conducting all the research, calling and making the contacts; getting out on location was thrilling but accounted for only 20% of the production! Logistically it was challenging, Meru National Park is not a well visited park like the Maasai Mara or Amboseli. I booked a direct flight from London Gatwick to Nairobi to go and film at the Born Free office based there, the ivory burn and then a small carrier plane into the heart of Meru for the lions.

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Upon descending Meru, all I could see was a small office – no runway as such but more of a dirt track – then suddenly a giraffe galloping away from us in attempt to avoid a collision! However, the Born Free team and Kenya Wildlife Service were remarkable, they helped make the shoot a success – driving me to all the locations within this most beautiful and underrepresented of parks. The ivory burn was undoubtedly the hardest to get permits for; but with a lot a patience and incredible support from the Born Free’s president (CEO) as well as one of my contributors, Will Travers, I was fortunate enough to be able to film at the historic event.

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  1. Did you have much in the way of money to play with?

Not at all! I calculated a rough budget of £3000, as most of my negotiations brought the prices down and the park fees to film were waivered in return for me editing a separate version for them. This may seem ludicrous to most drama filmmakers, but in wildlife the budgets are far smaller and so this is where precision also plays a part throughout the production process. In total it cost £2600 for a 10 day shoot – this of course excludes all the pre-production and post costs as I was the one researching, filming, directing/producing, editing, grading, sound mixing; however the music was beautifully composed by MA student Richard Collins as part of his course. The facilities were provided by my university and the training in advance, but also a lot of practical reading and watching hours and hours of ‘How to…’ videos! Kit was also borrowed from the university and so most of the budget was spent on flights and accommodation. I did however set up a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise half the funds to go; kind support from family, friends and strangers alike. IndieGoGo was the platform I used as it’s less risky if you don’t hit your top target.

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  1. And what were your kit choices for this film?

Kit wise I used what was available at university; the Sony FS700 with the kit lens (18-200mm f/3.5-6.3), the 50mm f/1.8, 100mm Canon f/2.0 primes and the 100-400mm with the EF metabones adaptor. The telephoto was crucial for getting close to the action when it would have otherwise been too far and dangerous. This was especially the case with the lions! For sound; radio mics, Sennheiser 416 with the 522 mixer, and a Tascam for good measure – the latter was used to record atmos in the field. The wild sounds of Kenya truly are as vivid and vibrant as you would imagine. I loved recording the young group of school children who sang to us, it stirs up many joyful memories when played back.

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The film was edited on Premiere Pro, Pro Tools, and graded in Da Vinci. In hindsight, I would have loved to have taken an DJI Ronin MX gimbal, FS7 and a Phantom 4 Pro drone for the aerials; but very grateful for the access to the kit we had, especially as students. You are only ever truly limited by your own imagination.

  1. Where does it sit alongside the rest of your portfolio of work?

In terms of technical difficulty, time scale, and aspiration to make – it’s right up there! As I am sure many of you reading this have experienced, we are our own worst critics. However, this is one project that I was excited and dare I say it, proud to have made. It’s been a life-long ambition to meet my heroine Virginia McKenna, and never thought I would get to experience the true Born Free story alongside the incredible people who keep that spirit of the Kenyan wilderness alive.

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  1. So where are you with the film right now?

The film is now complete, however there are a few colour grading tweaks being done by a professional, as I now have the confidence to hit the bigger festivals! It was something that I lacked skill-wise, and could only grade and colour correct to a certain extent. I’m looking forward to the festivals and so far, it’s collected awards at six in the US, UK, India and Spain; winning recently at the Wild Film Fest in Falmouth. But more importantly, it’s been shared in the schools back in Meru where it was filmed, and where the real difference in changing attitudes towards these amazing animals can be made. They are the generation that can make all the difference.

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  1. How is it looking at this stage in the game?

All finished! It took me 10 months in total, with my fellow course mates and I recently enjoyed a screening of our films at the Everyman theatre in Bristol. It was incredibly rewarding to see in on the big screen with family and friends, as well as some BBC staff who came to support us. A project that you are so involved in does, to a certain extent, take over your life for a while – but it’s such an incredible feeling to see the end creation. Although I always say that if I didn’t set myself a cut-off point, I’d be forever editing! I received a heartfelt letter from Virginia McKenna, my main character, about how much she enjoyed the film – and that was very special indeed as she had a huge influence on me when I was growing up.

Incredibly exciting day at the #premiere of #alionstale @ the #Everymantheatre #Bristol😀😎🦁🐾🎞 #mawfonlocation

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  1. And how do you plan to promote it given that this is such a competitive marketplace?

I plan to promote it through a variety of social media platforms; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. and by connecting with influential Born Free supporters who can use their media presence to share and connect the film with the intended audience. Equally by continuing to enter festivals, I hope to promote it further worldwide. I also shot some 360 VR ‘behind the scenes’ clips to showcase on my website, especially during the ivory burn. Tapping into this market is key to reaching the younger audiences or those not necessarily interested in wildlife. During the run up to the film’s creation, I built up an online audience offering exclusive clips and images from the shoot as well as other stages of its development. It’s really important to engage with them and respond to what they have to say; as well as offer any advice. They also want their voice to be heard.

  1. Can you tell us about the other projects you’ve been working on?

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 19.05.27At the moment, I am employed at the BBC as a researcher with the digital team – one of the most innovative, creative and energetic group you’ll meet at the Natural History Unit! I’m loving every moment, most recently we released exclusive Snapchat stories for Planet Earth II in the US, and now I’m working on another digital project associated with the Blue Planet series. It’s incredibly exciting as you get to help out in various productions with different roles. Film-wise I do have a couple of personal project ideas in the pipeline, and I am very keen to shoot another short using the superb Panasonic GH5 – watch this space!

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  1. How do they differ from this one?

They differ in that they are not located in Africa! I’ve always been incredibly drawn to the continent but now have storylines I’m researching in Australia and Japan, both having more of a cultural-human element to them. However, another short I’d love to shoot is more of a pure wildlife blue-chip style, and I now have access to better equipment and financing to facilitate the projects.

  1. What is your favourite genre and why?

I’m a little biased when saying I adore making natural history, but it’s something I live and breathe every second of the day. For centuries, humans have told stories to make sense about the world- illuminating behaviour, making order out of chaos and to create moral meaning. It’s the way we can comprehend and pass on information, with which we have the insatiable need for form and structure in the way we tell them. Natural History has been documented for thousands of years through visual, physical and audible means, whether through the primitive Stone Age depictions of a hunt through cave paintings, to the now pioneering ultra-high definition wildlife films. Nature is endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and as a curious person it’s something that I’m always passionate and keen to share with others. I am certain most of us have this desire to learn about the world around us. I do of course enjoy watching a great variety of programmes and films; adventure, comedy, sports, fact ent, animation and action! You can learn many lessons from different genres.

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  1. Are there other genres that you’d like to tackle?

Natural History will always be my passion – but I do believe you can cross-pollinate genres and get interesting results. A superlative example the award-winning success Virunga directed by Orlando Von Einsidel; where wildlife documentary meets investigative journalism. It combines elements of “The seven key steps of story structure” as described by screenwriter John Truby, and regardless of it being a non-fiction film, Virguna also contains strong dramatic elements and a classical story structure of good versus evil. Battles depicted through the civil war and conflict between the park rangers and the oil companies are also tied in with the need to survive, along with the desire to exploit natural resources for profit. These all conjoin into a single cause and effect pathway through the combined use of a ‘run and gun’ shooting style and profound emotive pauses. It would be interesting to try a more daring, journalist approach with a conservation story – thrilling audiences by being immersed right in center of the action.

  1. So what is the filmmaking climate like in your neck of the woods?

Wildlife filmmaking is quite different to drama in my experience. Whilst we are adopting more cinematic techniques and technology using gimbals and aerials to create a parallax and dynamic edge; the set-up times, cast (!), budgets, and approach are quite different. I worked recently on a drama set as a camera assistant and found the whole thing fascinating; there certainly are no repeat takes when filming a wild animal in action! Equally, whilst in drama you have many specialized roles such as focus pullers, gaffers, and make up; wildlife crews are noticeably smaller as costs for location shoots would soon quickly rise – budgets are noticeably smaller. Most crews are a jack of all trades, and you learn quickly how to be as multi-skilled and useful to a team as possible. It’s the most incredibly rewarding and thrilling industry, and you never quite know what animals you will see and how they will behave. If you’re lucky, you can capture unique behavior that’s never been seen before.

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  1. Are you at the stage of making any money from this as yet?

No, I decided that this project would not be for profit, despite my access to the ivory burn. I wanted this to be an educational and inspirational piece and shared far and wide; available to anyone with an interest in wildlife and Africa. Now that I know I can make a short film – next time may be different!

  1. So where do you see this filmmaking route taking you in the future?

I hope to follow in the footsteps of some of my filmmaking heroes; Sophie Darlington, Sue Gibson, Justine Evans – the best female camerawomen in our industry! But equally, I do want to pursue my passion for producing and continue to create compelling stories. I recently met the producers who worked on Planet Earth II who were incredibly inspiring- their work is truly in a league of its own. David Attenborough of course has been the greatest source of inspiration; and If I can make entertaining, emotive and compelling films that inspire others to want to make even the smallest of positive differences on our beautiful planet, then I’ll be a very happy earthling indeed.

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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! 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 digital and now the Oceans 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 been released TODAY...

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At the beggning of February I had an 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 then came across the GH5. 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 is! 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_1Look into my eyes. 400mm Leica lens at 1/400 sec, f/6.3, 1600 ISO, manual

fur_sealSleeping beauty. 400mm 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!

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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_bristol15mm Leica lens at 0.65sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualboats_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 15mm

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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 with high quality 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 DJI Ronin! And soon the GH5…..

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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Loss of Apex Predators

News & Views

Loss of Apex Predators in Dual-Apex Systems

By Tania Esteban, Samuel Ross, Jessica Rushall, & Louise Shuttleworth

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Apex predators are in global decline. The description of possible complex interactions between apices in dual-apex systems calls for further research.

Apex predators occupy the highest trophic level of an ecosystem, thus do not have natural predators themselves. They are capable of affecting ecosystem functioning through consumer-control and strong trophic interactions. There are currently unknown interactions between apex predators and mega-herbivores in systems where both are present. Because of this, the loss of apex predators from a ‘dual-apex system’ could affect communities in a highly complex manner. The decline of apex predators should be considered in systems with both mega-herbivores and apex predators. Tambling et al., (2013) explored this concept in an African ecosystem where lions (apex predators) and elephants (mega-herbivores) co-exist. In this article we discuss the potential effects of apex predator loss in this ecosystem.

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Mega-herbivores perform important functional roles in ecosystems. For example, elephants alter plant community architecture through trampling and overgrazing1. Direct aggressive interactions between elephants and other animal species also occur in these systems2, highlighting the key role of mega-herbivores in influencing species dynamics. Elephants also have indirect impacts on other herbivores through exploitation competition over resources, and depending  on the  system,  are sometimes able to outcompete smaller herbivores1.

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Figure 1. Weighted trophic interactions between species in the presence of apex predators: (a) with; and (b) without mega-herbivores. Interaction strengths are depicted by line thickness.

Lions are important apex predators in African ecosystems. They exert consumer-control, through predation on small and medium/large sized ungulate species, such as duiker and kudu respectively1. Like elephants, lions are classed as a flagship species because they are globally renowned, captivating, and of conservation concern. Lions are classed as vulnerable3, and are in decline because of hunting and persecution; diseases including CDV; and habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanisation4. If lion numbers continue to fall, large detrimental impacts on these ecosystems might be seen.

In multiple apex systems, interactions between apices are likely. Despite a lack of literature on the topic, there are potentially undescribed interactions between species occupying these apex roles.

Apex predators are likely to interact indirectly with other ‘apex consumers’ including mega-herbivores5. One of these indirect interactions can be facilitation by one apex on another; for example facilitation of predatory success of apex predators by mega-herbivores through environmental modification1. Another of these indirect interactions between apices would be the loss of one apex from the system. It is widely recognised that the loss of consumer-control has widespread effects, with the impacts of this loss propagating through the ecosystem. On a larger scale, trophic downgrading is a global threat, as systems are driven towards simplicity when consumer-control by apex predators is lost5.

In an African thicket ecosystem, Tambling et al., (2013) studied the interaction between lions (apex predators) and elephants (mega-herbivores). In this system elephants facilitate predatory success of lions through overgrazing and trampling of dense thicket vegetation. This allows access into the dense vegetation, which lions utilize because they are sit-and-wait predators. Lions will preferentially select for foraging habitats that maximise cover, over abundance or value of prey6. Therefore, modification by elephants facilitates an increase in encounter rates between lions and their smaller ungulate prey, as these  species predominantly inhabit this thicket vegetation1. In the absence of mega-herbivore facilitation, lions predominantly feed on larger prey species, as they do not have access into the dense thicket vegetation in which the smaller species reside [see figure 1].

As briefly discussed by Tambling et al., (2013), loss of apex predators in these systems could lead to multi-directional trophic cascades. Compared to unidirectional trophic cascades, impacts of predator loss can radiate through the system in a nonlinear manner. For example, apex loss could propagate down through trophic levels and ‘rebound’ back up towards the second apex (mega-herbivore) through changes in populations of smaller herbivores.

In a classic trophic cascade, apex predator loss results in increases in herbivore populations7. The extent of population responses to predatory release depends on ecosystem structure. In the African thicket ecosystem where mega-herbivores facilitate lion predatory success on small ungulates, if lions were lost from this system, the resulting population changes of small herbivores would be greater than in the absence of facilitation by elephants. Where elephants are not present, lions mostly cannot access small prey species that frequent dense thicket vegetation so they predominantly prey on larger ungulate species1, resulting in greater proportional population increases in larger ungulates if predatory release were to occur.

Following the exploitation ecosystem hypothesis, if consumer-control is lost, systems are limited purely by primary productivity so the extent of primary production determines trophic complexity8. If lions were lost from a dual-apex system, the ‘second apex’ would likely be affected, as mega-herbivores would face increased competition due to predatory release of other herbivores [See Fig. 2a]. Systems that support mega-herbivores face increased herbivory initially, so when apex predators in these ecosystems are lost, mega-herbivore populations are at greatest risk of collapse due to competitive exclusion of these species with low rates of secondary production9.

Although Tambling et al. (2013) studied facilitation in dual-apex systems, as far as we are aware there is no current research into the effects of apex predator loss in these ecosystems. The African thicket ecosystem should be used as a model for future studies into dual-apex interactions, as exploration of connections in this novel system was valuable. As briefly  outlined, complex multi-directional trophic cascades have not been widely recognised and described. If we are to gain valuable insight into the impacts of apex predator loss, we must research this area further, in different dual-apex systems, as currently little is known about the consequences of apex predator declines. Equally, the role of consumer control in structuring ecosystems is not widely recognised5. This further highlights the need to consider the effects of apex predator loss in ecosystems globally, and the importance of preserving all types of apex consumers in an increasingly downgraded world.

References

  1. Tambling CJ et al. (2013) Basic and Applied Ecology 14, 694-701.
  2. Slotow R, & van Dyk G. (2001) Koedoe 44, 85-94.
  3. Bauer H et al. (2012) Panthera leo: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (available at www.iucnredlist.org). Updated 2014 (Accessed 01 December 2014).
  4. Snyman A et al. (2014) Oryx, 1-7.
  5. Estes JA et al. (2011) Science 333, 301-306.
  6. Hopcraft JGC et al. (2005) Journal of Animal Ecology 74, 559–566
  7. Pace ML et al. (1999) Trends in ecology & evolution 14, 483-488.Oksanen L, & Oksanen T. (2000) The American Naturalist 155, 703-723