Tag Archives: Natural History

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].

 

 

July 16th Benahavis , Marbella

WOW! Today saw the most incredible river gorge system and had an amazing time at Benahavis, situated just 3 miles, beyond the glitz and glamour of the popular tourist and celebrity resort city of Marbella. Benahavis is a Spanish mountain village situated between Marbella, Estepona, and Ronda, approximately seven kilometres from the coast. It is dotted by an impressive 9 out of the 60 golf courses in the Costa Del Sol and is renowned for its restaurants, it is often called the dining room of the Costa del Sol. On the southern face of La Serrania de Ronda mountain range, Benahavis is one of the most mountainous villages on the western Costa del Sol. Situated near the resort beaches as well as the spectacular mountains of the Serrania de Ronda, its terrain is traversed by the rivers Guadalmina, Guadaiza, and Guadalmansa. It is place of great natural and historic beauty, such as El Cerro del Duque, Daidin, and the Montemayor Castle.

The town itself is surrounded by natural parkland, and retains a typical sleepy Spanish “pueblo” feel. La Zagaleta, an exclusive gated residential estate and country club overlooking the village, lies within its municipal boundaries, and contributes to Benahavis’ status as the richest municipality per capita in Andalucía, which is also clear from the rather luxuriant cars that cruised past us. In recent years there has been extended development of the village and the surrounding area with many hundreds of dwellings being built, not only reducing the percentage of local inhabitants, but also despoiling some of the beautiful landscapes in the mountains and approaches to the village.

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We arrived at 1pm at the car park to a stunning view of the mountain crags and cliffs, not a cloud in the sky and temperatures reaching 36 degrees; a climbers dream world. As we made our way down to the start of the trail, quite a few locals had beaten us to the large river pools that populated the valley gorge, many of which can be jumped into from great heights from the cliff edges. So we thought we would get stuck in too! A smallish jump of 5 metres to start off with into the turquoise waters of the river Guadalmina was a very refreshing and exciting way to start. I took my trainers off, rather disconcerted by the chance of them dragging me down a bit when I jumped in. Gosh, what a refreshing feeling that was to jump into such cool, clear waters after the short walk up to it. We then wanted to further pursue the trail down the river but were stopped in our tracks due a bridge being built overhead, and we were told that it would open up again later in the week or next day, so a rather vague answer. Nevertheless, we went back up and decided to pluck up the courage to jump off the 10metre cliff into the river pool! I was genuinely excited about it, although daunting at first, it was so much fun feeling the freedom of doing it, I can’t describe it! Truly euphoric.

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We all video recorded it with an underwater Olympus camera, will post up a link to it here soon. I jumped twice in the end! As we walked back up the car, we noticed that the red tape had been removed, and presumed that the bridge had been put up. So we refreshed ourselves and headed back up, after the girls flirted with some rather fit looking passer-byes, of course I was much too embarrassed to participate! I then jumped off the larger cliff edge for another thrill before we headed downstream. Many fish populated the large pools of water as well as the main river itself, and were busy avoid our clumsily placed feet. Emma remarked how amazingly good our ancestors would have been good at navigating the river with ease and being able to stalk their prey with subtle movements. We quite fancied the idea of ancestral Homo erectus picking their way through the same pathways, many thousands of years ago. The sight was amazing as we carefully picked are way downstream, hundreds of mating dragonflies danced in unison with their partners and they mated in mid-aid, such a delicate ritual and myriad of colour. Blue, black, fuchsia and emerald green filled the air like sheening confetti. This rather large one pictured below was dead unfortunately after its mating orgy, male dragonflies with compete with other males to mate with as many females as possible before dying.

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One part of the river revealed a mangrove-like back setting that was truly stunning. Couldn’t resist having a photo!

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We eventually got to a more enclosed cave-like part of the river gorge that was far more quiet and serene. We were all so excited to be seeing such beauty and found it thrilling in plunging into the deep darker waters. As we swam the rock formations above us were deeply grooved and shaped by water percolating through it, dripping on our heads which was a welcoming refreshing drink.

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Like the scene from 172 days! Don’t fall on us rock!

The water itself was again a deep turquoise/green colour and was welcomingly warm. Every time we rounded the corner new, stunning sights met us, and the views of the high La Serrania de Ronda mountain range, dotted with pine trees and scree slopes, contrasting against the deep blue sky-perfect weather. I sure did get a good tan that day! One of the pools looked like the scene from a Georgio Armani perfume photo shoot, was too tempting to ask someone to do a pose and throw their hair back! Lots of swimming, many “oh my gosh isn’t it beautiful’s” and many photos. We eventually reached the dam and soaked up the warmth from the sun at the top/ The bridge had literally just been put up and was not yet open to the public, but nevertheless, was up there and had enabled us to have the most incredibly fun afternoon.

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During the late 1990s, the Junta de Andalucía constructed a dam on the site of an old marble quarry, and now for much of the year the once ever-flowing Río Guadalmina is merely a dried-up river bed, but not here! Who would have thought that this tiny secluded little gorge, hidden from the “costa del sol” tourists would have been literally an hours drive from where I live? I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Southern Spain to go and visit it, its free and fun! It’s a bit tricky to get to, but there is plenty of parking and the walk to it is only 5 minutes. I will post up a map for you to follow, but its probably best to punch in the poscode to the town, then follow the bridge over towards the La Serrania de Ronda mountain range.

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Here is a 1:25000 map as promised, enjoy your adventures!

mapa benahavis