But the Water Kept Rising…

Project: Parklife: Africa...
October 1, 2000

Project: Parklife: Africa

Description: A series of 13 x 30-minutes focussing on the people and wildlife of Kruger National Park in South Africa – how they manage to live and co-exist in what is one of the premiere wildlife sanctuaries in the world. Each episode weaves several stories together, combining traditional wildlife filmmaking with on-the-spot verité. A cast of reoccurring characters gives viewers a link to what life and work in the park is like.

Producer: South African Natural History Unit (SANHU), Route 66 Productions, Johannesburg

Coproducers: Animal Planet (U.S.), Discovery Int’l, Hit Entertainment (U.K.)

Director: Paul Gasek

Budget: us$2 million

Sometimes you have to wonder if someone’s trying to tell you something…

From fires to record-breaking floods, the series that set out to see how man and nature cope in Kruger National Park has had to do some coping of its own. Filming for Parklife: Africa began in August 1999, and despite several delays, the final product is almost in the can.

The idea for the series came from Gareth Pyne-James and Tracey Harding of sanhu, a group established to provide expert guidance for outside crews and facilitate filmmaking in the country. Both Pyne-James and Harding have spent the last four years working with people from the South African National Parks, and in particular those from Kruger. It seemed like a natural progression to turn their experiences into television. It was only a matter of finding partners.

The first stop was Chris Haws at Discovery International in the U.K. Haws was taken by the idea and with the help of distributor/frequent partner Carl Hall from London’s Hit Wildlife, made a formal presentation to Discovery/ Animal Planet in Bethesda. In August 1999, the final go-ahead was given and the production team was assembled.

The goal for the series was to film the stories as they happened. Therefore, it was integral to set up a system whereby park staff could keep the producers in the loop. The logistics were difficult, to say the least. Kruger National Park is vast and the stories could happen anywhere. Add to that the fact that post production was happening in Johannesburg – 400 miles away.

Nature did little to help. In February 2000, a flood devastated Kruger, keeping much of the park underwater for three months. The crew kept busy repairing flood damage, but little filming was accomplished.

Flashback to 1997: Director Paul Gasek is hired by California’s Unapix Entertainment to direct a 13-part series on the ESPU, South Africa’s Endangered Species Protection Unit, a police force dedicated to protecting wildlife. Destined for Animal Planet U.S., the series sees Gasek spending ten months in Pretoria, filming out of the police station.

Two years later, when Animal Planet needed a director for Parklife, they called Gasek. While he initially wanted to be involved, he was producing an hour on caves for Cronkite Ward in D.C. (for TLC), and wouldn’t be free until February. Although he hadn’t kept his hopes up, the job was still free when he wrapped, so he came on, eager to direct another series in South Africa.

Gasek was relieved when he saw the footage cameramen Herman Cloete and Jacques Goosen had already shot for the series, but saw an opportunity for better storytelling and more interaction between the characters. He thought it was imperative to bring the characters to life on the screen, and pull viewers deeper into the psyche of the park. One method of accomplishing this was to ask questions of the park team during an animal capture, another was to quiz the scientists as they worked on the animals.

One of the major difficulties, according to Gasek, was meeting the needs of the international market. Talking heads work in the U.S., but don’t fly as well internationally. It was important to find a balance. ‘I think [for] coproduction deals, all partners need to keep their eyes open in order to be fully aware of the range of expectations and needs. How close are the partners in what they require, in terms of story and style? What real differences are there, and how will they be addressed in the actual production stream of the product? What is the best approach for meeting everyone’s needs in the most efficient way? In the initial enthusiasm for a project, seemingly unimportant details of compatibility can get sidelined. Better to cover it at the beginning than at the end when the pressure is on – when little things can needlessly become big things.’

February 20/00: Gasek leaves Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for London to hook up with the Hit team. They work out a set of goals for the series.

February 22/00: Gasek arrives in Johannesburg. The floods are at their peak in Kruger and Mozambique, and the sanhu helicopter (a six-seater with a five-axis gyro-stabilized camera) is needed to rescue the production equipment from an edit suite in the heart of the park. Instead of being able to work on the series, Gareth Pyne-James and pilot Piet Otto spend most of their time rescuing stranded residents of Skukuza from the raging waters.

Mid-February to Mid-March: Gasek and the crew screen footage as the flood waters slowly subside. They cut together a rough episode template and send it back to London, where it is well received.

March 15/00: In order to find more stories for the series, Gasek and crew go to Kruger and spend two weeks doing interviews with scientists and technicians. Heavy rains come and go, and at the end of one day a newly repaired sanhu camp is washed away.

People are still trying to salvage their homes and regain some semblance of normal life. The landscape is treacherous and filming in the park is impossible. Water flows over the low bridges. Over the course of the next three weeks, the production team manages to get one story about insects in the can.

May 2000: Shooting begins again with a story about the tuberculosis problem affecting Kruger’s lions. The team films State veterinarian Dewald Keet as he baits and darts lions, tests and then releases them. Unknown to the crew, he keeps a powerful magnet under a counter in his caravan (used to turn off the radio collars). One of the two cameras has been set up on it, and its chips are wiped clean, destroying the footage. The footage from the second camera is salvaged.

Plans change almost hourly, and the crew is put onto something resembling a 24-hour stand-by, ready to respond to events as they occur. In Shingwedzi, they shoot a story about a fish ladder and river ecology, and then it is off to the next shoot. The month-long sprint ends with a story about alien plant life invading the park – the second biggest threat to biodiversity after human beings.

June 2000: The Park has dried enough for the crew to venture off the roads. They begin filming sequences of elephant and rhino captures, and of life in the village of Skukuza. They also begin a multi-part story on the dwindling wild dog population in Kruger with a helicopter tracking flight. As they fly towards Skukuza, one of the members of the team discovers they are actually tracking a collar at their headquarters that someone inadvertently left on. Two weeks later, they have found the real item, and take a trip into the Veld to explore the dog’s den and count puppies.

Scheduling continues to be a nightmare, and post production becomes a worry for Gasek, who cannot be in the park directing and doing post at the same time. Brenda Goldblat from e-TV is brought in as supervising producer, in charge of post at Route 66 in Jo’burg.

July 2000: The month begins with a huge operation

to recover 13 escaped bull elephants that are destroying a small farm in Phalaborwa. From there they go to Olifants, to shoot with Swannie Swanepoel about the Cybertracker, a new palm pilot which is revolutionizing data gathering for Park ecosystems management and, because of that, the life of Kruger’s native field rangers. They then carry on to cover a week in the survey of Kruger’s Cape buffalo herds to discover how far north bovine tuberculosis has spread.

August 2000: More shooting. Keet is surrounded by lions and has to be rescued from his vehicle by sanhu cameraman Eric Reisinger. Fires break out in Mooiplas. Kruger Rangers and native leaders meet to discuss the lions that are killing their livestock.

In Johannesburg, post production is speeding along, but the delay caused by the flooding is beginning to tell. Several of the stories still have to be finished, and Gasek thinks it’s going to be a close call: ‘The weather and the animals never read the script and could care less about deadlines.’

Gasek’s contract expires on August 25th, and South African director Brian Tilley is brought in from Cape Town to supervise the shooting through September. Gasek returns to Washington to produce another hour for Cronkite Ward.

October 2000: Hit Wildlife brings Parklife to MIPCOM.

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