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BBC 1 Dynasties: Chimpanzees

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.


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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.

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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 :-)





 

 

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.

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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