Production News

August 1, 1999


Survival, one half of the U.K.-based United Wildlife team, has their usual extensive slate of productions on the go. Ranging from the sublime to the dangerous, all of the following projects are being distributed by London’s ITEL.

In a pool of water no bigger than a tennis court, pythons, hippos and crocodiles fight for supremacy in a match that the World Wrestling Federation couldn’t top. The only thing missing from the mix is a team of Survival cameramen, and they’re soon to be added. Using breathers that don’t release bubbles, and all the latest technology, it is their fervent hope that they survive the filming process.

Crocodile Spring is a 52-minute look at the underwater lives of these three dangerous animals. Ready for January 2001, the special has already attracted the interest of ITV in the U.K., National Geographic in the U.S., as well as ZDF Germany. The budget for this underwater adventure is approximately £580,000.

While no one considers it far-fetched to think that chimps have thoughts and feelings, one scientist gets odd looks when she suggests that elephants might also have a lot in common emotionally with humans. Joyce Poole believes that elephants feel joy, grief and even love. Elephant Minds is a 52-minute look at these giant animals, as they care for wounded companions, locate buried sources of water, and grieve for their dead. Elephant Minds even suggests that these animals are self-aware and live ‘intensely emotional lives,’ as Poole puts it.

Ready for January 2002, this hour has a budget in excess of £400,000. So far, ITV has signed on.

In what could have become a Hollywood movie, viewers are invited to spend a year with a new mother – a girl recently made leader of her tribe just as it faces starvation, poisoning, war, and giant cave-dwelling crocodiles. Pamela Anderson need not apply (implants or no implants), because in this case, our hero is a monkey – a Golden-crowned lemur from northern Madagascar. This peek into the life of a tough little monkey is called Golden Monkeys and the Crocodile Caves, and comes in at 52 minutes. Ready for January of next year, this monkey movie is destined for ITV, and also comes in somewhere in excess of £400,000.


If you bought your dog a watch for his birthday, take it back. He doesn’t need it.

Although, just as we humans do, animals live by time, date and geography, unlike us they seem to have an innate knowledge of all three. Their ability to tell time, however, is critical. From hibernation to breeding, this mysterious knowledge keeps animals alive.

How Animals Tell the Time, is a one-hour special from London’s TransAtlantic Films, produced in conjunction with Animal Planet and La Cinquième. The hour will be completed by the end of the year and comes in at a budget of about US$400,000. The special makes extensive use of graphics and humor to tell the tale – why do wolves know when to hunt, but dogs have to be told when to come and eat? Maybe he does need that watch after all.

The first series of TransAtlantic’s Horse Tails began broadcasting this summer on Channel 4, but a second series is now in the works. Focusing on the special relationships between people and horses, this 13 x 25-minute series will begin filming in December and is scheduled to be completed by year-end. Episodes are currently filming at press time in South Africa, Spain and Canada. The budget for the series is approximately $1.5 million.

A second 13 x 52-minute series of Trailblazers is also in the works. Each episode follows the journeys of explorers who tackle the untamed world (or what’s left of it). According to TransAtlantic, the first series received the highest-ever prime-time ratings on the Travel Channel during the last quarter of 1998. Filming begins in January, for a summer of 2000 completion. This new series is also destined for the Travel Channel, and has a budget in the range of $2.2 million.


Thomas Horton Associates of California has spent another year using its cameramen as bait, in an effort to wrap another four hours on the most feared predator of the deep, the shark. (While many of their previous shark efforts were coproductions, these newest hours were commissions from Discovery U.S.) Look for Sharks of the Deep Blue (about deep-water sharks in the open ocean) and Sharks in a Desert Sea (sharks in the Sea of Cortez and the Baja Peninsula) to be ready for `Shark Week’ this August. Sharks of the Pacific will be completed for spring of next year. Sharks of Australia will be ready for the Australian Olympics in July 2000. Each of the films will be a broadcast hour, and are being produced for under US$350,000.

tha also has a non-shark series in the early stages of development. With the help of 20-year-old Philip Cousteau, grandson of the famous underwater explorer, THA is working on a 26 x 30-minute series entitled Dive Explore. Test shooting has been completed, with the younger Cousteau showing himself to be as capable as his adventurous forebearer.

Plans are to shoot segments all over the world, with Cousteau hosting and leading some of the adventures himself. Some ideas for segments involve environmental issues, exploration, scuba tips from the experts, as well as segments filmed in international aquariums which answer questions about the dwellers of the deep.

THA is on the hunt for a U.S. partner for this series, which should run about $260,000 per episode.

On the raw footage front, producers seem to be taking advantage of the library of underwater footage tha has compiled over years of submerged shooting. Without marketing of any kind, tha reported almost six-figures in footage income last year.


Have you ever wondered why we call both chihuahuas and great danes dogs? They don’t look the same. They don’t act the same. (One does television, while the other does comic strips…)

Technically, it’s because they can successfully interbreed (don’t try this at home…). These and other mysteries are being explored in a new one-hour production from Boston’s pbs outlet, wgbh, and the N.Y.-based prodco, the Documentary Guild. Destined for NOVA, the project is entitled The Science of Dogs. Distribution is being handled by WGBH International, and the goal is to wrap the special in the spring of 2000.

Among the many aspects of dog physiology and behavior which will be examined in the hour, the production will also look at the latest breakthroughs in genetics to explain the origins of the dog, their breeding and their behavior. The possibilities of dog cloning is also considered. (As is the possibility that some research scientists have too much grant money on their hands.)

The vet bill for this hour is in the US$500,000 range, standard for a nova episode.


While many in the wildlife community take a microscopic view of the world, focusing on one animal or group, Africa (w/t) is aiming to be the definitive series on the entire Dark Continent. Although a series of eight one-hour programs, the programming credits threaten to take up most of that time. Africa’s credits will read: New York’s Thirteen/WNET, National Geographic Television, Magic Box Mediaworks (headed by former PBS head programmer Jennifer Lawson), and London’s Tigress Productions. Distribution is being handled by Explore International.

The series will explore Africa on a region by region basis, from the Rift Valley to the Sahel. The producers’ intention is to showcase the relationship between the continent’s human history, her environment and her culture. It is not intended to be an encyclopedia of all things African.

Ready for 2001, the series has a budget in the US$8 million region.

Tigress Films, Thirteen/WNET, PBS and Washington’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises are also working on a one-hour entitled Intimate Enemies. As the wet season ends and their prey begins to disappear, lions must turn to a source of food which can easily cost them their lives. A water buffalo can feed a family of lions for days, but can also kill their attacker if the attack isn’t perfectly timed. The two share a life-and-death bond so, as the producers call them, they are Intimate Enemies.

The hour will be completed by May 2000, and is being distributed by DDE. The budget for this one-hour is in the $600,000 range.


Building on the success of Everest (which grossed US$76 million after its March ’98 release, and at one point was showing concurrently at 90 theaters worldwide), California’s MacGillivray Freeman Films has upped the ante, and announced the beginning of a 10-film IMAX series. Dubbed the `Great Adventure Film Series,’ each film should be about 40 minutes in length, and cost between $6 and $7 million. The total projected budget is ballparked at $65 million, which is a reasonable figure, considering Everest’s takings.

One of the most interesting aspects of this new project is the distribution schedule. The producers have committed themselves to one film a year, and will be handling all their distribution in-house. The Great Adventures will be released into the North American and Australian theaters each March. Annually in May, they will enter the European and African markets, and in October they will open in Asian theaters. The producers expect that their goal of playing in at least 60 North American and 20 European and international theaters in the first six weeks of release is attainable.

The first effort in the series has been dubbed Dolphins, and will see initial release in March 2000. The film uses footage shot by renowned marine photographer Bob Talbot, and music by ex-Police frontman, Sting. The film is being produced in association with the National Wildlife Federation, with major funding from the National Science Foundation, and the Museum Film Network. mff is working with National Geographic Books on the publishing and educational outreach tied to the film.

The second release is titled Journey Into Amazing Caves, and will open in March 2001. The film is a spelunker’s dream. Over 40 minutes, viewers will be able to explore the underside of the world, in locales as diverse as the ice caverns of Greenland and the underwater aquifiers of tropical Yucatan. The crew will even be donning scuba gear so they can explore the depth of undersea lakes few filmmakers have dared to swim.

The third film in the series is Space Journey, set to be released in 2002. The remaining seven titles are still awaiting final decision.


Alexandria Productions of Virginia has begun work on a large-format project of their own, diving the wreck of a seventeenth century Spanish sailing vessel, the Santa Margarita. The production is being assembled with the help of the Safari Network (a Wyoming-based collaborative venture of non-fiction filmmakers, allied for the development and production of blue-chip nh programming), and the IOTA Group. IOTA is the Seattle company responsible for locating the shipwreck near the island of Rota in the northern Marianas. IOTA have also struck a deal with the Rota government to share in the spoils.

The Santa Margarita was carrying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of treasure when she sunk in 1601, almost a thousand miles off course. She was running the trade route between Manila and Acapulco, carrying Ming dynasty porcelain, gold jewelry, fine silks, and spices, and perhaps even a large cargo of gold, intended as payment for the 1599 Royal Taxes.

Safari is on the hunt for coproduction partners, and although diving has already begun, it is expected that it will take at least two diving seasons to fully explore the wreck, as the window of visibility is limited to only the few months before typhoon season.

The ultimate format of the project is still to be determined. A large-format version would be budgeted at around US$8 million, while a television-sized version could be done for about $1 million.


Following up on his hit Rat (which won, among other things, the first RealScreen ID Award), Mark Lewis, via his New York-based Radio Pictures, has turned his attention to the regal king of the jungle, the chicken. Chickens have long occupied a place in our society and refrigerators, but how much do we know about this seemingly simple bird? Lewis promises to expose the darkest regions of the chicken soul, using such marvels of modern technology as the chicken-cam to further his efforts.

The final product will be a one-hour special (called Chicken, oddly enough), ready for March 2000. The hour is being produced in association with pbs and Washington’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises, who also will be distributing the project. The budget for this chicken epic is in the US$600,000 range.

DDE will also be distributing, and have a hand in coproducing, Return of the Golden Seal. The one-hour special follows the life of a Cape fur seal, as it journeys from the colony in which it was born out into the wild ocean, and then back again. On the way, it must fend off jackals, harsh climates, aquatic predators and fishermen, all the time looking forward to, as the promotional material puts it: ‘a titanic clash with other sex-crazed bulls for the right to be master of the beach.’ (One of the funnier lines ever attached to a wildlife special…)

The hour is being produced by Zebra Film Productions of Bristol, in association with Thirteen/WNET, PBS and DDE. The production should be wrapped up by June of next year, and carries a budget of approximately $500,000.


From the wilds of Dallas, Texas, Zambezi Productions brings you Maneaters, a one-hour one-off about animals you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. Focusing on lions, sharks and crocodiles (who, to be fair, don’t really hang out in alleys all that often…), the series should be wrapped by late fall. Although the title sounds a little gory, the producers stress that it won’t have a sensationalist approach, but rather will try to explain why animals behave the way they do, and what people can do to avoid being there when they do it.

With a budget of around US$300,000, negotiations are underway to have the special picked up by a major U.S. cablecaster.

Another Zambezi effort, Trackers, is currently in development. The 13 x 30-minute series will travel to different parts of southern Africa to follow expert trackers through the bush, examining animal behavior and hearing some of the legends and myths about the animals in that part of the world. Currently in negotiations with a Dutch distribution company, the series comes in at $130,000 an episode.


California’s Solid Entertainment will be distributing five new 50-minute episodes of The Aquanaut’s Guide to the Oceans. Ready for the beginning of next year, the producers are hopeful that this effort will build on the success of the first six episodes (which sold to Animal Planet Europe, rai Italy, BetaTaurus Germany, Planete and Canal+ in France, to name a few).

John McKenney, series producer and head of the Californian prodco Jack McKenney Productions, has spent almost as much time underwater as he has above it. (McKenney’s father, Jack, was also an underwater filmmaker. John’s sons have begun to follow suit.) For this series alone, McKenney has compiled over 300 hours of underwater footage.

The five new episodes are budgeted at about US$400,000 each. ‘Shark Secrets’ will feature rare footage of shark mating and birth sequences. ‘Dragons of the Sea’ demonstrates that there are real aquatic life forms that could explain myths and legends. ‘Whales – Kings of the Ocean’ is a look at the largest mammals on earth. ‘Oceans 2000′ is a two-part look at the ocean in the last century, and a look into the next.


Viewers can expect to see at least two new projects originate from the natural history arm of Paris-based Télé Images in the next 18 months.

The first, Intruders, is a 12 x 26-minute series being coproduced with La Cinquième and Les Productions Espace Vert from Montreal. The series focuses on those plants and animals who have inadvertently, or through some human oversight, invaded and conquered territory which was alien to its species.

Internationally, there are many examples of animals flourishing in places they have never been before, at the cost of the indigenous species: the Nile perch which is destroying Lake Victoria; the Argentine ant which is upsetting the Californian ecosystem; or the Zebra mussel which has overrun the Great Lakes in Canada.

Shooting has already started, and will run to April of next year. The budget is in the range of US$200,000 per episode.

Also from Télé Images comes The White Frontier, a 6 x 52-minute series being produced with France 2. Named for the line where the Arctic Ice packs meet the frigid and black water, The White Frontier looks what happens as the mediums meet. Three experts (an expert on ice phenomenons, a bear specialist, and a vet specializing in marine animals) will examine how the undersea and ice floe world interact. How do marine mammals break the ice to breathe? How does a polar bear fish? All questions will be answered.

Shooting will last from this summer until the end of 2000. The budget for the series will run to about $500,000 an episode.


Amsterdam-based indie production and distribution company, Off the Fence, has a large slate of projects on the go for this and next year.

Where are you after you’ve gone beyond completely lost? Find out in Beyond the Unexplored, a series of 10 x 60-minutes and one half-hour. The series is produced by GreenScreen in Germany, with coproducers in the form of SpiegelTV GmbH (Germany) on four of the films, and Premiere Medien (Germany) on another four. OTF is handling distribution. The series should be wrapped by June of next year at the latest.

The series looks at the unaccountable in the world, including what appears to be a 12,000-year-old, 30-meter high pyramid submerged in the waters off southern Japan. The structure might suggest the existence of a civilization which pre-dates ancient Egypt by a thousand years. The series has a budget of approximately US$180,000 per episode.

Tracks (w/t) is a one-hour special looking at the last of the Bushman trackers of the Kalahari. The film relies heavily on mini-cam technology for unimposing human and animal POV shots. The special is a production of Earthrise Productions of South Africa, and OTF, for Turner Original Productions in Atlanta, with coproducers in the form of The National Wildlife Federation and Taurusfilm GmbH of Germany. The hour is being produced in association with National Geographic Channels Worldwide. otf is handling distribution.

Ready for the end of this year, the budget for the hour is approximately $350,000.

Fit for the Wild is a 13 x 30-minute series, from The Wild Side/Aqua Vision Television Productions (South Africa) and OTF, with New York’s Unapix International as coproducer. Ready for December, the series tells the story of animals who have adapted to live in 13 different African habitats, from the deserts of Namib to the Indian Ocean. Distribution of this $80,000 an episode series is being handled by OTF (for the Netherlands) and Unapix International.

OTF also has a number of projects which will just be wrapping for the end of the summer. African River Goddess, the story of a young Nile crocodile breeding for the first time in South Africa, is a one-hour special. Produced by The Wild Side/Aqua Vision Television Productions, and coproducers GTV (South Africa), OTF and GA&A (Italy), the hour has a budget of around $330,000.

Charging Back is a one-hour murder mystery, where the killer isn’t the butler. It is the elephant. When orphaned elephants turn rogue rhino-killers, the race is on to try to keep the African rhino from the brink of extinction. Produced by The Wild Side/Aqua Vision Television Productions and coproducer gtv, the special is being produced in association with OTF and GA&A. Distribution will be done by OTF. The budget for this pachyderm who-done-it is about $310,000.


Toronto’s CineNova Productions has got the green light from National Geographic Television’s Program Enterprises Group to start work on National Geographic Adventures, a new 6 x 60-minute series. The stories for the series will come from the pages of National Geographic magazine, and will recount the exploits of adventurers who risk their lives in the name of exploration. This series, which ng hints will only be the first part of several more series, will concentrate on tales from the first half of this century (making it seem as though a second series, with adventurers from the second half of the century, is inevitable). Tales include an early 3,000-foot deep-sea dive in a steel submersible, and the story of a WWI Captain and his 28 companions, who trekked through Africa on a mission to destroy a German fleet.

The series should be completed by this winter, at a budget of around US$400,000 per episode. Distribution of this series will be handled by Nat Geo.


Along with their new name, Toronto’s Ellis Entertainment has a list of new natural history in the works.

Challenging conventions, one of the bigger projects Ellis has on their slate this year is about birds. Echoes of the North, a one-hour which is expected to be ready for the beginning of next year, is a special entirely dedicated to the loon. Cinematographer John Petrella follows a family of loons as they hatch, take to the water for the first time, and generally learn how to behave like loons. Having gained their trust, Petrella managed to film within a few feet of the birds, capturing what was largely agreed during the film’s Banff Television Festival preview, as remarkable footage. However, the broadcasters involved in the Banff pitch session expressed concerns about the subject matter. (Birds, it seems, are not popular.)

The film will have an original symphonic score, and use native legends about the majestic birds as the basis for narration. The budget for the special will be in the US$275,000 range. No broadcasters had signed on as of press time.

From beauty to the beast: Ellis is also working on an one-hour one-off about wolverines. Tentatively titled The Wolverine Project, this project focuses on the work of a pair of wildlife educators who are raising a baby wolverine to full grown, in an effort to teach people about the largely misunderstood animal. Happily, as the baby has grown up around humans, no one had been killed (or even slightly maimed), as of press time. Ready for January of 2001, the project has a budget of about $170,000.

In an innovative approach to trying to solve some of the problems of human interaction with wildlife subjects, Ellis is also hard at work on something called Critter TV (w/t), a 13 x 30-minute series still in the early stages of development. The idea is to try to address the problem of the alteration of animal behavior brought about by the presence of human camera crews during filming. Cameramen will follow animal researchers in the field for some shots, but will also shoot purely remote observational footage as well, which will rely heavily on graphic interfaces to explain animal behavior, and the results of animal research.

Ellis is in the process of putting together the graphic elements for the series. Each episode should come together for about $100,000.


Grifa Cinematographica from Sao Paulo, Brazil, has the answer for those looking for a nice remote place to set up camp. Their National Parks Series: Southern Region is a partial look at Brazil’s more than 30 national parks. The series focuses on not only the beauty of the parks, but will also be filled with the observations, folklore and music of the local inhabitants, blending the natural and cultural landscapes of Brazil. With the goal being to find `the best picture’ possible in the Southern region, the parks visited will include Aparados da Serra, Serra Geral, Lagoa do Peixe, São Joaquim, Iguaçœ and Superagui.

The series will be formatted as 6 x 26-minute episodes, which will be completed by November. The National Parks Series will be filmed on Super 16, and have a budget in the US$1 million range. Grifa is close to signing a deal with local broadcasters for the series, and will distribute it internationally.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.