Non-Fiction to go

August 1, 2000


There are 6,000-year-old rock carvings on the shores of Russia’s White Sea that depict beluga whales and their hunters. Although they may not be as numerous as they once were, belugas continue to congregate on the islands in the White Sea today, and are still attracting human attention.

A small group of researchers are trying to ‘make contact’ with these remaining whales for a study (undertaken by the Russian Academy of Science) that will help explain whale communication and intelligence. The production will travel from the Eastern Canadian Arctic to Northwest Russia to explore the world of the beluga whale, allowing modern science to tackle the mysteries of a species that has lived alongside man since the beginnings of recorded history.

Beluga Speaking Across Time is a one-hour doc being undertaken by Canaz Corporation in Toronto and coproducers Matila & Rohr Productions Oy of Finland. Principal photography began last June, with the film set to wrap early in 2001. The hour-long project is being distributed by Film Option International in Montreal. So far, the production has attracted the participation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, TV5, Access/ Canadian Learning Television, SCN (all of Canada) and YLE in Finland. The budget for the film is about US$640,000.

Keeping Up With the Dolphins

It is a rare event in natural history docs when filmmakers get to track individual animals over an extended period – especially two decades. For starters, only a handful of animals actually live that long in the wild, and the rest usually don’t leave forwarding addresses.

But this is precisely what California-based Hardy Jones is doing with Caribbean dolphins in Twenty Years with the Dolphins. ‘We’re revisiting a population of dolphins in the Bahamas which I first encountered in the late ’70s,’ he says. ‘We’ll be filming some dolphins that I filmed a decade or more earlier. One of them was only a calf in ’79. Some of these dolphins have become very habituated to people and have become a major tourist attraction and source of income for local dive tour operators.’

Since his initial contact with these friendly Bahamian dolphins, Jones has made numerous return trips, but none in the past decade or so. During the interim, some of the dolphins he filmed earlier have relocated to other venues. ‘Some individuals have moved from the north ridge to the south ridge and vice versa. Some have changed groups a few times and even gone back to groups they’d left. It’s a fascinating story about the complex social life of a population of dolphins, and how they’ve adapted to a changing world.’

Twenty Years with the Dolphins is a one-hour doc and will rely heavily on Jones’ 16mm archival footage, but will include plenty of new footage shot on Super 16. It should be completed by late fall and will be available at MIPTV.

It is being coproduced with and distributed by HIT Entertainment in London, and is budgeted at between US$350,000 and $400,000. Carl Mrozek

I don’t mean to bug you

Oxfordshire-based Oxford Scientific Films and Survival Anglia have started work on a US$1.6 million series for TLC in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K. The 3 x 1-hour series is tentatively dubbed BugWorld, and is set for a December 2001 delivery. Production got rolling last July.

BugWorld promises an introduction to a host of insects that ‘infest our lives.’ The series will feature real-life accounts from scientists, historians and victims. It will also offer a ‘bug’s eye view’ through the use of macroscopic photography and post techniques – including the moth’s ‘suicidal view of a candle.’ Among the included pests will rank: beetles, spiders, cockroaches, flies, grasshoppers and the humble but annoying ant.

Whither lion?

Looking for the whole story? The Talking Picture Company and Off the Fence Productions of Amsterdam are hoping to provide it. A 13 x 30-minute guide to African creatures (both great and small), The Whole Story hopes to tell the complete tale of animals we thought we knew. Each episode will cover a different species or family, and will investigate all aspects of their behavior, from what they eat to how they communicate with each other. The series should be wrapped by March of next year, and comes in at about US$160,000 per episode. Discovery Europe and Discovery Networks International are the broadcasters involved.

When good pachyderms go bad

Norwich-based Imago Productions has a number of irons in the fire for the upcoming year.

The 15 x 30-minute series Vets in the Sun is not about war heroes on vacation, it’s a look at veterinarians practicing in the United Arab Emirates. They may be called in to handle anything from sick cats to cheetahs, chimps, race horses or camels. The vets featured in the series originate from around the world, including England, Scotland, Canada, Australia and Germany.

Vets in the Sun has been commissioned by Discovery Europe, and will be distributed by Australia’s Beyond International. Set to be delivered in the second quarter of next year, the series carries a budget of about US$1 million.

Elephant Delinquents is a one-hour special about young male elephants running amok – and even killing other animals. This film follows a bid to curb elephant delinquency in South Africa’s Hluhluwe National Park by shipping in ten mature bulls from Kruger. The film will tackle a number of questions: Are the young males really to blame? Is it the lack of parental guidance that makes them act out? (Maybe it’s all those violent nature shows?)

The project is a copro with Discovery Networks International, and will be wrapped up for this autumn. It has a budget of about US$170,000. Currently, Imago is looking for coproducers for the film.

Also look for a third run of Whipsnade, an 11 x 30-minute continuation of the zoo series which seems to be enjoying some success on Anglia TV and Discovery.

Animal X-Files

The mysteries of the natural world have fascinated humans for as long as we’ve walked the Earth. Research on conventional beasts – like tarantulas, scorpions, bats and bears – fill entire libraries, but our curiosity about more exotic and elusive creatures – such as lake monsters and killer bunnies (Monty Python?) – remains unsatisfied. Storyteller Productions of Perth, Australia, is attempting to fill the void with Animal X Series Two, a 13 x 30 minute series about real mystery stories involving animals, monsters and beasts.

Some of the subjects slated for further inquiry include the Bunyip – a monster of Aboriginal mythology, which is said to live in water holes, emerging at night to capture humans – and several legendary lake dwellers, from the Lake Champion Plesiosaur in the u.s. to the Loch Ness-type Morgawr monster, which has been spotted around Great Britain’s Cornish coast for centuries. As for the killer rabbits, they reside on a sheltered group of small islands near Africa and reportedly evolved into carnivores after the local vegetation was depleted. Penguin eggs and young birds are now the bunnies’ mainstay.

Following in the footsteps of the first series, Animal X Series Two is part wildlife show, part investigative report, says executive producer Mike Searle. Each half-hour episode will feature three to six reports, ranging in theme from the mythical to the miraculous. Storyteller is open to re-formatting, and will offer the program in 6 x 60-minute and 39 x 10-minute versions.

London-based Mercury Media is distributing the US$1.3 million series. Animal Planet has signed on to coproduce Animal X Series Two (they acquired the first series). Production will wrap in February 2001, and the program will air in the second or third quarter. SR

Go deep! No, further!

New York-based production and exploration company Deep Ocean Odyssey has enlisted Aspen’s American Adventure Productions to produce 6 x 1-hour specials for NBC Sports in the U.S., and are on the hunt for other broadcasters as well.

The specials, tentatively titled Deep Ocean Odyssey: With Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jaques), will follow explorers on a series of deep water expeditions to the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The goal is to produce ten tales for international broadcast, broadband, internet programming, large-format and museum screening. All of the films will be recorded in high definition, and the stories will include the quest for pirate treasures, visits to historical shipwrecks, exploration of underground volcanoes, and a search for the elusive giant squid.

The producers will be taking advantage of two Deep Rovers – the most advanced manned submarines in the world – able to dive to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) and carry a crew of two. Along with an array of regular cameras, three high definition cameras will be along for the ride, slung to the outside of the submersibles. These unique high def cameras have specially designed housing that allow them to work at the extreme pressure of a 3,300-foot dive.

The budget for each hour is in the neighborhood of us$1 million. So far, no distributors have come on board. The first special, which will follow the search for deep water sharks off the coast of South Africa, is scheduled to air on Superbowl Sunday – January 28, 2001 – just 30 minutes prior to kick off.

American Adventure is also working on an US$8 million large-format dramatic feature called China: The Panda Adventure, to be produced in association with the IMAX Corporation. The film is based on a true story about the woman who brought the first live panda from China to the West in the 1930s.

Humans are animals too

Madrid-based distributor Gondawana Films will soon be ready to offer a number of new natural history series, all of which are being coproduced by fellow Madrid-based Transglobe Films and Impala.

The Black Pearl is an 8 x 52-minute effort tackling the past and present of Cuba. The series will examine the history of the island (including its illustrious pirate past), the people (their culture and music) and the wildlife inhabiting the isle (both on the island and in the reefs which surround it). The series will be completed for first quarter 2001 at a budget of about US$135,000 per episode.

The Heirs of the Earth is also an 8 x 52-minute series. It examines ethnic groups and cultures that have managed to remain largely unchanged with the progress of time. Taking in locales as diverse as America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, the series will visit with the inhabitants to learn their customs. Scheduled to be completed by the end of next year, filming will begin this November at a budget of about us$155,000 per episode.

The Last Nomads is a 4 x 52-minute series dedicated to nomadic lifestyles. The cameras will try to capture these dying breeds of wandering tribes, and witness the problems they face. The series will also capture their lifestyle and demonstrate each tribe’s customs and beliefs. Ready for the end of 2001, the budget for each episode is about US$195,000.

Tiger by the tail

Montreal, Canada-based Primesco International will soon be distributing a 40-minute, large-format film that has been dubbed Tigers: The Glory of India (w/t). Produced with Virginia, U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation, the US$3 million project will follow in the footsteps of Jim Corbett, a hunter and naturalist who is considered to be one of the fathers of modern conservation. The film will track him through the Himalayan foothills as he searches for a tiger that is thought to have extraordinary powers. In the course of the film, the viewers will also meet Bacchi, a young tigress trying to raise cubs as humans begin to encroach on her habitat. The film tells the tiger’s story, but also examines the condition of the Indian landscape and environment. The film is set for a September 2001 release.

On the mighty Mississippi

For Chicago-based doc-maker Vic Banks (of Vic Banks Productions), the unique animals that have made the Mississippi River their home are among the most fascinating. He has scoured more than 1,000 miles of the river to film Mississippi Monsters, a 3 x 30-minute (or 90-minute one-off) program, and has encountered some amazing creatures along the way.

In a search for turtles, Banks says he came across one of the largest fresh water turtles found anywhere in the world, including the Amazon. He had set out hoop nets using smelly fish as bait, and found the monster turtle in the last one. Weighing over 100 pounds, its neck is creased with deep ridges and its shell is etched with scars accumulated over countless years.

Banks is currently in negotiations with broadcasters for the US$350,000 to $450,000 project. He expects to wrap primary photography by late winter/early spring. His previous film, a one-hour one-off called The Pantanal: Brazil’s Forgotten Wilderness, was picked up by National Geographic and Discovery Latin America. SR

Those aren’t real crocodile, are they?

Paris-based ZED Productions is both exploring the way things used to be, and the way they might be, in some of their upcoming productions.

A 6 x 26-minute series, Animal Gold explores how nature’s gifts – the qualities that help animals to adapt and survive – have now placed some at risk. From the tortoise’s ornate shell to the ibis’ scarlet feathers, the uniqueness and beauty of some animals means their doom at human hands. The series will explore all the aspects of the ‘animal business’ and look to come up with some solutions. Coproduced with La Cinquième and Odyssée (both of France), the series should be delivered in the summer of 2001. Each episode has a budget of about US$60,000.

At one time, man lived in harmony with his surroundings and even took animals for his gods. He often built his beliefs on supernatural spirits who lived in the forests. While these beliefs have all but disappeared, there are still some who live their lives according to this sacred alliance. In The Master of the Spirits, a series of 13 x 30 minutes, ZED and coproducers in the form of Italy’s RaiTre, and France’s La Cinquième and Voyage explore these people’s beliefs, and the incredible adventures they continue to have with nature. Ready for spring of next year, the series features everything from shark tamers to crocodile hunters.

The Guardian of the Forest is a 13 x 26-minute series coproduced with La Cinquième and RFO in France. The series recounts stories of people fighting to protect nature – not necessarily outsiders with a cause, but local people who have a vested interest in not seeing their own environment destroyed. Shooting begins this September, with wrap expected around the end of 2001. The budget for the series is about US$70,000 per episode.


Kiwi Kaleidoscope

As usual, Natural History New Zealand has been busy as Dunedin beavers (or whatever their kiwi equivalents happen to be), coming up with new production ideas for future months. What follows is just a selection of what’s on the slate.

Aleutians – Cradle of the Storms (w/t), is a 2 x 1-hour series being undertaken with Oregon pubcaster OPB and Japanese pubcaster NHK. Ready for June of next year, the project is being filmed in high definition and focuses on the Aleutian Islands, both their people and their wildlife. The weather of the Aleutians has been called the worst in the world, an unhappy reality for the flora and fauna who call them home. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox International Television, the budget for the series is about US$550,000 per hour.

Menacing Waters (w/t), is a one-hour coproduction with the Discovery Channel, and looks at the deadly venom of sea snakes and box jellyfish. (Two more reasons to stay out of the water.) The hour follows the path of the venom from the animals that inhabit the waters of northern Australia to the laboratories of modern medicine. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the hour will be wrapped by January at a budget of about US$550,000.

The Forgotten Rhino (w/t) is not the tale of a misplaced mammal, but rather a one-hour story about the battle to save the endangered Javan Rhino, and the success of efforts to resurrect the closely related Great Indian Rhino. Used for medicine and hunted for trophies, all five of Asia’s rhino species are on the endangered list. Rhino is a tale of exploitation, scientific persistence and survival. Ready for the end of 2001, the project comes with a price tag of about US$425,000.

A new twist: biblical reality programming. NHNZ will soon be offering The Year of the Locust (w/t). In the winter of this year, 1,000 billion locust eggs will be laid in Australia – giving our friends Down Under the rather odd distinction of having the highest density of locust eggs in the world. In the spring, all those eggs are going to hatch, and NHNZ camera people will be there (with return airfare in their pockets). The film will also be examining what is being done to stop this plague. Ready for the end of this year, the project has a budget of about US$450,000.

And if that isn’t enough for you on the bug front, the prodco will also be offering You’ll Never Walk Alone/You’ll Never Sleep Alone (w/t’s) a 2 x 60-minute series being coproduced with TLC. If you think your body is free of parasites and foreign species, this series is sure to cure you of that fallacy. Ready for early 2002, the project comes in at about US$600,000 per hour.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.