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The Call of the Forest, Madagascar Planet Earth 2

Mark MacEwen filming in Madagascar for Jungles program of Planet Earth 2.

For much of the last 3 years i have been filming on 'Planet Earth 2', a series recently aired in the UK and is airing in the USA on the 18th February 2017 on BBC America, AMC and Sundance TV.  I was fortunate enough to work on 3 of the 6 programs in a large capacity,  'Islands' , 'Jungles' and 'Cities'.  The series took me all over the world from Komodo island to the jungles of Costa Rica, Madagascar several times and India.

On one of those occasions filming in Madagascar,  I was lucky enough to spend time in the Mitsinjo Association in Andasibe. Home to one of the most amazing animals Ive seen in a very long time, which considering the diversity Madagascar has to offer is no mean feat.

Its here that I met a Lemur called 'David' (named after David Attenborough). David is infact a female Indri Lemur, the Largest of the Lemurs left in Madagascar.

Its one of the most gentle and inquisitive animals I've had the pleasure of filming. Indri are monogamous and live in small family groups, moving with amazing grace and agility through the canopy, feeding mainly on leaves but also seeds, fruits, and flowers.

I was hoping to film them Calling in the forest, this generally happens early in the morning which is always a challenge in Jungle as there is often so little light at that time of day, also Jungle tends to have very thick canopy cover, so if they decide to call at the tops of trees you find yourself scurrying about the jungle floor with a 30kg camera kit on your shoulder hoping to find a small gap in the leaves big enough to film through.

Mark MacEwen

The Call when you hear it is truly amazing, unlike anything I've herd before, the closest sound i can think of is whale song its like a long cry through the trees, the first time i herd it, I was lucky enough to be very close to the group, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, gave me goose bumps and i stood there smiling in disbelief.

Its such a haunting sound to hear when you are walking through a jungle, made all the more significant when you find out that in the past decade, half of the Indri families in Madagascar have disappeared due to deforestation.  

Indri also have the ability to move through the forest as if they are flying, with a single leap they can easily cover 10m, and it was another of the things we wanted to film for Planet Earth 2. To do this I used the Freely MoVI M15, a handheld piece of equipment which allows me to follow an animal and stabilise the camera at the same time. That makes it sound far easier than it is, it gets heavy quickly and to get the shots for the program took lots of time, sweat, a lot of blood shed to various insects but no tears. I had to try and predict the moment the Indri would choose to leap and try to time myself and the camera with it, while not falling over getting stuck on jungle vines and remembering to press record at the same time. Its slightly like an award ballet, the Indris movements are so graceful and mine so cumbersome in comparison, but when timed together hopefully produced some beautiful imagery.

My hope in using the MoVi is to make the viewer feel like they are moving through the environment with the indri as much as possible. It makes filming feel more immersive in a place like this and gives me more creative freedom to use light and the environment. But trying to predict an indri jumping and then watching it leap 50m in around 2 seconds through thick Jungle is a real challenge and very daunting, there were times i did question what i was trying to do as I definitely can't move through jungle like an indri. But when it worked its was thrilling to be part of.

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I can't thank Rainer Dolch and the Team at the Mitsinjo Association in Andasibe enough, and they have done incredible work to re plant and conserve the rainforest and animals, and to be able to spend time with the Amazing Indri there felt like such a privilage , its one of those must sees for me. Look out for it in the opening to the Planet Earth 2 series and especially in the Jungles program. You can see a few of the shots in the trailer below.

Komodo: The Land of the Dinosaurs

I’ve been involved for the last year and a half in a fantastic new landmark series for the BBC called 'Planet Earth 2". It follows on from the original Planet Earth series which first aired around 10 years ago. It’s taken me to Madagascar several times, India, Costa Rica and Komodo.

It’s the second time I’ve filmed the Dragons of Komodo Island and it’s a place that’s very special to me. As a child I like many others used to love reading about dinosaurs, I remember the first trip my parents took me on to the Natural History Museum in London and walking into the main hall to see the enormous diplodocus on display there and still think about it today and how it fired my imagination. I remember Reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and dreaming about one day experiencing such an adventure myself and for me Komodo is such a place.

Padar Island with Komodo in the Background.

Padar Island with Komodo in the Background.

In order to prepare myself for the trip, I thought a little background reading about the potential hazards a Komodo dragon poses to a human might be useful and get the excitement levels up. I read various articles on the web, which made my eyes wider as I did more research. Just a few of the recent victims of Komodo dragon attacks included: an 8-year old boy; a group of stranded divers; a celebrity's husband.

With this in mind, myself ( DOP ), Emma Brennand ( Researcher) and Louis Labrom ( Camera Assistant and Tech Wizard) set off for our trip at the end of July: our Mission - to film the Komodo Dragons fighting. It was coming to the end of the mating season the reports were good that the behaviour was still happening but we knew to film the spectacular fight we hoped for, we would need all the luck we could get. It took us 4 days, 4 flights, cars and a boat that was to be our home for the next 3 weeks just to get us to the island.  But the journey is so worth it the moment you catch your first sight.

When you approach the island on Boat it delivers all of those images I'd imagined, the prehistoric looking huge rocky mountains, strong ocean currents, whirl pools and you just know you are going to see something amazing.

Past Dragon victims on Rinca Island   

Past Dragon victims on Rinca Island

 

Our challenge would be to find two male dragons that were going to battle over a female. We had expected it to difficult as filming most animal behaviour is, but not as hard a challenge as it proved to be. The problem with Komodo in the breeding season is that the dragons disperse all over the island in pursuit of females and are much harder to find. But we had an amazing team with us of local Rangers and Achmad Ariefiandy a scientist who had been studying the dragon on Komodo and Rinca Island, without whom none of it would have been possible.

At first sight the Komodo dragon is an intimidating animal, it is the largest living species of lizard, growing to a maximum length of 3 meters (10 ft) and weighing up to approximately 90 kilograms. The skin is like armour, teeth like a shark and pure muscle.


It didn’t take long to get our first glance of a dragon walking along the beach and reminded me of the moment in the Jurassic park film when the glass of water ripples when the Tyrannosaurus rex approaches. You feel every foot step, the power of the dragon runs right through you, especially when you film them and have such close spine tingling experiences. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when one stops close and sizes you up.  It’s putting adrenaline through me now as I think about them and write this. All of us took a sobering breath, smiled in excitement, and started to plan our strategy for the next few weeks filming.

Like many top predators there is a lot of down time, dragons, like lions and many others sleep a large part of the day, but when they decide to do something it looks great. I filmed as much of this sequence as possible on the Freefly MoVI M15, It is a stabilizing gimbal that I own several of and have been using for several years, that to my mind has no equal. I have teamed it with a Teradek Bolt Pro 2000 HD wireless system that is amazing, it gives astounding range and great picture quality coupled with the Small HD High Bright Monitor and i use it alongside the RT Motion Follow focus, the Follow focus has been fantastic and works brilliantly with the MoVI as the receiver is so small it adds no weight to the system and the whole Follow Focus is made beautifully and gives my focus puller the best chance to do his job.

Sometimes you have to step away !!!  MoVi M15 with Red Dragon, Teradek bolt pro 2000 and Rt Motion follow focus.

Sometimes you have to step away !!!  MoVi M15 with Red Dragon, Teradek bolt pro 2000 and Rt Motion follow focus.

The ability to get the range of shots it enables me to get has revolutionised wildlife filming recently, and from a style point of view suddenly allows the animal to take us on a journey, following its movements and life in an immersive and less strictly long lens observational way. It's added so much to wildlife filming styles and suddenly brings much more of a drama feel to wildlife. For the long lens work I used the relatively new canon 50-1000, its a monster of a lens and a beast to carry but the image it produces is stunning and there really is no equal at that focal length for this sort of work.

It was an amazing place, wonderful team and incredible subject to work with and did not disappoint, and to see how it turned out look out watch BBC Planet Earth 2. and for a behind the scenes video: 

Myself on the Left, Emma Brennand and Louis Labrom

Myself on the Left, Emma Brennand and Louis Labrom



One big cave and a lot of Mexican free-tailed bats

Well that was a lot hotter and more unpleasant than we all expected! At the start of June I flew to Texas for a BBC1 NHU production called Life in The air, currently Airing on sundays on BBC 1 at 5pm, to film a sequence based on the flight and navigation of Mexican free Tailed bats. I have filmed them once before for a BBC series called 'Human planet' and it really is one of those sights that everyone should see. They are one of the few bats that emerge in the summer months often before dark in their millions, which does help for filming and you can watch the shapes snaking out over the horizon for miles, it is truly amazing.

But the down side to filming these amazing creatures is that they live in caves where the inside temperature was over 40 deg C. Due to the fact that the caves contain histoplasmosis (a potentially fatal infection due to its fungus) we had to dress in full protective gear: essentially a full plastic suit, face masks, glasses, rubber gloves and boots. Highly unglamorous and sweaty as hell. It was some of the toughest working conditions I've been in for a long time.

It's hard to describe what it's like spending time in that environment. An almost overwhelmingly strong smell of ammonia hits you first as you approach the cave, the next thing that you feel is the heat as you step in, then you start to sweat. This all happens before you realise that every bat you walk under is peeing on you, there are mites falling on you all the time and then you have the flesh eating beetles to contend with. The floor in the cave had a life of its own, if some unfortunate bat fell from the ceiling small flesh eating beetles would rush towards it keen to make it their next meal. And thats all before the technical challenge of working out how to film them had begun.

It was an amazing place to be when the bats were leaving or returning to the roost, the sound of thousands of bats whistling past your ears and the occasional one crashing into your ears. I filmed much of this on and infrared converted Red Dragon, and I'm still amazed how well it coped at high frame rates in the infra red light. The bats' wings were translucent under the right lighting and looked stunning.

But for me, the highlight was filming the bats emerging at a famous cave called Frio, in Texas. It is vast. The first entrance is so big you could fit a 737 plane in there, it was perfect for our filming. There are estimated to be several million bats in that cave and the emergence is spectular.  I had an Arri Amira and a canon 30-300 for the job and they didn't let me down. From where I was filming inside the cave I could see the huge number of bats congregating in the cavernous chamber before moving out to forage for insects. It was incredible, the sound of that many wings rushing around you and the moment they decide to leave the cave, the next spectacle starts as they snake across the landscape for miles.

It was a great team to be involved with and needed all the hands we had to get the logistics, planning, Vast amounts of equipment, and the shear determination against the odds to make it a successful sequence, oh and the enormous amount of gatorade to keep us going!!! So special thanks to the amazing team : Giles Badger, Rachael Norman, Jo Stead, Nickolay Hristov,  Lou allen, Isaac Banks, and Chris.

Home Bound

Wood Carving river

Its been an amazing two and a half months filming from India, through New Zealand down to the Sub Antarctic Islands on its southern tip, and now I'm sat in an airport on my home to the family, cant wait, its been a long time. I just need to remember how to be a dad and husband again.

Ive filmed Macaques, Langurs, Holi festival, Albatross, Tuatara (reptile, bit like a lizard), Giant Weta, Maori Wood carving, a sheep muster on some of the steepest mountains I've seen for a while, and finally Sooty shearwaters, its been a blast. We used every mode of transport i can reasonable think of other than a train, but cars, helicopters, planes of almost every size.

Sheep Muster

 

Sheep Mustering as it turns out down here, happens just before winter sets in, the farm we filmed at has some of the most amazing scenery I've been in and Kate and her shepherds get dropped by helicopter to the top of one of the more impressive mountain ranges and over two days navigate their way through this landscape trying to bring down 7000 sheep from the steep summer grazing. All while wearing shorts !!!!! It was too cold for me to think about doing that.

Albatross

But the final part of the shoot was spent on a small boat in a large stormy ocean, trying to find the elusive Sooty shearwater before this amazing little bird starts it migration from the sub antarctic tip of New Zealand all the way to the California coast, a journey that means it covers roughly 47,000miles a year. The chicks spend all of there time in the nesting burrow until their parents leave without them and then embark on this amazing journey.  We only had a few days to film them and spent the first day clinging onto the boat in incredibly rough seas, but Ive never seen the number of Albatross we had like that before, well over a hundred, Buller Albatross, White Cap and the occasional Southern Royal and all within touching distance.