For much of the last 3 years I have been filming a new series currently called Dynasties, it is 5 x 1hrs for BBC1 starting on the 11th November, and for one of the films I took on the task of filming a program on Chimpanzees in Senegal and being part of another Team of DOP’s filming the Lion program in Kenya.
Filming chimpanzees is no small undertaking, the last time I did was for a BBC series called Africa. I found myself in the middle of the Congo Jungle for 5 weeks, trekking the equivalent of a half marathon to full marathon everyday for fleeting glimpses of chimpanzees and losing 2 stone of weight in the process.
So I thought about taking this film on with some trepidation, but they are such amazing animals it was a tough decision. There really is nothing like spending time with chimps, there are moments when you film them that you really see and feel how closely related we are to them and this was a chance to spend the next few years making a film documenting the drama unfolding of their lives, so I could really only make one decision and that was to accept.
The chimps here unlike the ones I filmed before in the Congo, these live in a far more extreme environment. Unlike the Jungle of the Congo the environment here is far more Savana and patchy woodland, appearing far drier and less forgiving. But because of this they have lots of very interesting behaviour, from Spear hunting Bush babies to digging wells for water. But they can also move even bigger distances each day if they choose. Im no stranger to hard physical shoots and have spent many years in deep dark jungles or trekking in deserts to wading through waist deep snow in -35, but the first 3 days of filming these guys were the most sobering in my career. The days starts at 4am as you need to get to the chimpanzees before they wake up and move as it could take days to find them again and it ends when it gets dark. It was frequently over 40 degrees C, my Backpack weighed in at 33Kgs, holding camera batteries, water, food, lenses, and strapped to my front was a Red Dragon Camera with a Canon 50-1000mm lens. Those first 3 days i was physically broken and genuinely for the first time in my career i wondered if i could actually do this project, fortunately they took it slightly easier on me for the rest of that week and I got over the initial shock and was able to physically recover and carry on. That started the next couple of years filming. Often there were just 2 of us in the field day after day, Myself with the amazing Michel, he was a field assistant for the scientist who had been following these animals for years. An amazing man, he could recognise all of them often from a kilometre away just from the sound of their voice. without him none of this film would have been possible, he got us to places where we were able to see and film amazing behaviour.
Filming chimpanzees is hard enough as you are often lagging behind trying to keep up with them, they cover the distances so much faster than we can, you don’t get the same opportunities as with many other wildlife subject of working the light angles with them as you are often lucky just to filming anything at all, and they have the uncanny knack of managing to place a branch or blade of grass right between their faces and the lens, sometimes it really not fair and i could have sworn it was deliberate :-).
But we wanted to push the boundaries of how we can film these animals and bring their story and characters to the forefront.
To do this my third shoot was all about trying to use the Freely MoVI with Red Dragon camera and try to follow them, I didn’t even know if it would be possible to be honest as the distances covered and some of the terrain makes doing it and adding cinematic movement to the film incredibly difficult. The Gimbal system has to be hand held and instantly able to respond when something happens.
Its probably one of the hardest subjects Ive ever tried to use the MoVI with, chimpanzees go from fast asleep to marching you 10 miles in the blink of an eye, they can also be incredibly explosive, giving very little warning that something is about to happen and at that time of year the temperatures are brutal and from about 11:00 on most days are about 46 degrees, so I had my work cut out for me. But despite these challenges I believe we filmed some extordinary shots for the program, it wasn’t easy and they made us work hard for every shot, but to me it instantly felt different and new. We were suddenly going on a journey with these amazing animals, and the movement really allowed me to follow their story in a more immersive way and help their environment come alive on screen.
Its been an extraordinary series to have been involved with and feels like an exciting change to the already amazing landmark series i’ve been involved with for the BBC like Planet Earth 2, BP2. Really following individual animals lives, through the highs and lows, some moments have been the most emotionally involving things i’ve seen and some of the very toughest to stay impartial about in my career. Returning each time it felt like you were coming back to old friends, as wed got to know the individuals characters, there are genuine moments when filming chimpanzees were you can feel a connection between you. One looking into your eyes while you look into theirs it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I really hope we’ve done these incredible animals justice and you enjoy the series starting this sunday BBC1 11th Nov at 8:30pm.
The Trailer is below :-)