Tricks of the Trade

From latex dino models to tarantula lairs, natural history filmmakers have built - and filmed - them all. What's the secret to successful sets? SUSAN RAYMAN gets the scoop
August 1, 2000

In Journey Into Amazonia, the image of a sleek female jaguar fills the screen. The camera gets close enough to record the rise and fall of her breath, and the wind gently lifting her fur. Known to be both elusive and dangerous, wild jaguars have rarely been captured on film, much less for an extended period of time.

How then did the filmmakers from Bristol-based Icon Films manage to get such impressive footage for their 3 x 60-minute series (coproduced with PBS and Washington D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises) about the Amazon and its wildlife? The key to their success was a combination of luck, ingenuity and a tame jaguar named Chitara.

‘I don’t think anyone can claim to have successfully filmed a jaguar in the wild,’ says Andrea Pogson, assistant producer on Amazonia. ‘Even if you could find a jaguar in the wild, they’d be very difficult to film because you can only see maybe two or three meters in front of you… It’s very, very dark in the jungle.’

The dilemma faced by Amazonia‘s filmmakers is one many natural history filmmakers confront: How to convey an accurate picture of a particular environment when time, finances and Mother Nature are working against you. Their solution is equally common. Sets and staged sequences are often a necessary element, even for productions with powerhouse budgets.

‘Most people would rather film it the way it is, with real, live animals and plants, preferably in the wild,’ says Sean Morris, director of the natural history division for Oxford Scientific Films in the U.K. ‘The order of preference is: One, you have to show what really happens; secondly, you try and show it completely in the wild with animals and plants that don’t even know you’re there; then, as you get into situations of [filming with] altered time speeds, micro, macro, underwater or whatever, you have to start bringing in sets or tanks; and finally, if you can’t do any of those things . . . you work with the graphics people.’

According to Morris, the revolutionary shift in natural history filmmaking came with the likes of entomologist and OSF co-founder Gerald Thompson, who produced <The Alder Wood-Wasp and Its Insect Enemies in the 1960s. Thompson’s film proved that it was possible to capture the behavior of animals as small as insects, though to do so he had to bring them inside. From there, sets and staged sequences have become par for the course.

Chance findings

Sometimes doc-makers have to seek out their subjects and sometimes they stumble across them. Finding a tame jaguar was a stroke of fortune for the Amazonia film crew. ‘In Manaus [where the crew was based] there’s a military zoo, and their mascot is a jaguar,’ Pogson explains. ‘She’s like a domestic cat – a complete pussycat – so we arranged with the Colonel to borrow his jaguar for a few days.’

To create a convincing environment, Pogson says they built a huge set, fencing in an area of about 30 x 30 meters in the jungle. To prevent the three-year-old animal from either jumping or digging its way out, the fence stood six meters high and was buried one-and-a-half meters into the ground. Ultimately, says Pogson, ‘the biggest problem was keeping her away from the cameraman because she wanted to play.’

Another unexpected treasure for the US$1.7 million series turned up in the form of a tarantula. The spider, along with its babies, was inadvertently transported from the jungle to England, hidden in a camera case. The cameraman, who up to that point was not involved in the project, is a personal friend of the filmmakers and called to share his discovery. The Amazonia crew were thrilled. ‘It’s actually a very unusual tarantula because it exhibits parental care. It also eats mice because it’s so big,’ Pogson says.

Again, the only option was to create a set in which to film the animal. ‘That particular sequence we filmed like a feature,’ Pogson recalls. ‘We storyboarded it, we knew exactly what shot we wanted for each thing. We had the spider’s lair set up, we got all our cut-aways and shots of a live mouse running around when there was no spider there at all, and then we put the spider in with a mouse that was already dead. And then the spider proceeded to turn it inside out and eat it. We had to cut most of it out, it was just too gruesome. I was amazed at how well it worked considering how far away from the Amazon we were. It was quite frightening really.’

As time goes by…

The decision to shoot a timelapse sequence almost automatically implies a controlled environment. Says BBC producer Neil Nightingale, who worked on The Private Life of Plants and more recently on The Millenium Oak, ‘We could do a certain amount of timelapse in the wild, but when you begin to think about it, there is a limit because you’ve got night and day, you’ve got wind and rain – all these things, which will destroy a shot.’

In a studio setting, both the growing lights and the flashes must be perfectly timed for the sequence to work. Nightingale explains: ‘We would have the growing lights on for 12 hours and off for 12 hours. When they were actually on, we had to use computer-controlled blinds, so that the exposure didn’t differ between night and day. Each time we were about to take a stop-frame, the blinds came over and shielded the growing light, the camera and flash would go off simultaneously, the film would advance one frame, and the blinds would come back and expose the plant to the grow light again.’

When shooting in the wild cannot be avoided – as was the case when Nightingale was trying to record a budding Rafflesia flower in Borneo – a more elaborate set-up is necessary. He says they spent hours setting up tents to protect the buds from the rain, mounting three cameras, and balancing the flashes to cope with the different levels of light. To catch the blooms, they had to film for a minimum of 36 hours.

Model behavior

For Triumph of Life, a 6 x 1-hour series about evolution and natural selection, series producer Nick Upton (of Bristol-based prodco Green Umbrella) says they used a combination of 3D graphics, latex models and ‘natural’ footage. ‘The biggest challenge was to bring the ancient life of this planet to life on screen. That’s a really tough brief because a lot of the animals we needed to use in the program aren’t around anymore.’

The opening scene of the US$5.5 million series (coproduced with PBS and Devillier Donegan) is set on a tropical shore 65 million years ago, during the era of the dinosaurs. The beach in Costa Rica subbed in nicely for the backdrop, but re-creating the animals required more effort. ‘For some of the action shots or close-ups, we used latex models of bits and pieces of dinosaurs,’ Upton explains. The model-maker trained the crew how to hold the latex replicas of dinosaur heads and claws, and they mocked up the scene – somewhat like puppetmasters.

Regressing even further back to the period when the first creepy-crawlies appeared, the Triumph filmmakers were able to shoot in Trinidad using real animals, such as scorpions and centipedes, but had to re-create the environment. Says Upton, ‘We basically spent two days constructing this enormous set, with an ancient lakeshore and all the right plants. Then we had a smoke machine making it look like an early misty morning.’

The set, which was constructed on a couple of sturdy tables, measured 2 x 3 meters and was around 1.75m high. To re-create the lakeshore, Upton says they first built a 1.5 x 1.5m wooden box, quadruple-lined it with heavy-duty polythene, and filled it with water. Then, to give a sense of depth behind the shore, they layered planks of wood in a series of steps. They searched the island for mossy, flat rocks, and incorporated them next, after which came peat, sand and plants. Setting up the lighting to cast a subtle, early-morning look consumed another full day. The whole process was tedious and time-consuming, but the materials cost next to nothing – $15 was Upton’s estimate.

If there had been any other alternative, Upton says he would have jumped at it. ‘I hate building sets because it’s a lot of really hard work, and sometimes at the end it still doesn’t look very good, or you put on the lights and everything starts wilting. It’s absolutely a last resort.’

Under the sea

To circumvent some of the difficulties of filming in free waters, some doc-makers opt to shoot aquatic wildlife in aquariums. For the first episode of Amazonia, an underwater cameraman got one shot of a female tucunare fish with some young, but couldn’t get close enough to film extensively without disturbing them. Says Pogson, ‘If he were to try to approach a fish in the wild that has a nest or eggs, then obviously she would leave the nest, and those eggs would be open to predation. So we decided the best way to do it would be to build a huge tank. We had a tank like a swimming pool almost.’ Made of concrete and 10mm-thick glass, the tank was 5 x 6 x 2m. It took the principal cameraman about a month to build, at a cost of US$2,000.

Claude Bertrac of Brest, France-based prodco Planète Bleue, avoided the issue of construction by filming Le JT du bocal (News from the Fishbowl), a 13 x 13-minute ocean series for France’s La Cinquième, in the aquariums at the Oceanopolis theme park. Oceanopolis has six main aquariums – two temperate, two polar and two tropical – measuring 1,000 to 2,000 cubic meters each.

One of the advantages of filming in an aquarium setting, says Bertrac, is that the filmmaker can employ a technique of speaking underwater. For the JT du bocal series, a floating, bell-shaped enclosure made of plexiglass supplies a constant flow of oxygen to the narrator, enabling her to breathe and speak normally. He explains that when she wants to film something underwater, she can dive in with a hand-held camera, and then return to the bell to provide her commentary.

While other programs try to blend their staged sequences with natural footage for viewers, Bertrac says he doesn’t try to disguise the fact that his US$100,000 per episode series is primarily filmed in aquariums. ‘We will say we are in an aquarium, no problem. We are in an aquarium, it’s exactly like a studio. We want the truth. We think that aquariums are better for shooting and explaining our program. When it is not possible, we’ll go [film] in other places.’

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.