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Out of the Dark

Capturing wildlife at its most natural is a difficult task, even for experienced natural history filmmakers. After sundown, the task becomes that much more challenging, as artificial light often affects animal behavior. So, when Tele Images Nature (part of the Tele Images group in France) decided to do a film about animal behavior at night, it investigated a number of innovative lighting and capture techniques.
August 1, 2001

Capturing wildlife at its most natural is a difficult task, even for experienced natural history filmmakers. After sundown, the task becomes that much more challenging, as artificial light often affects animal behavior. So, when Tele Images Nature (part of the Tele Images group in France) decided to do a film about animal behavior at night, it investigated a number of innovative lighting and capture techniques.

Wild Nights is a 3 x 52-minute series that studies the nightlife of South Africa’s savannahs (‘Savannah after Dark’), Guyana’s forests (‘Night in the Virgin Forest’) and Egypt’s Red Sea (‘Night Underwater’). The series is being shot in hd, which producer Claire Nouvian explains makes the issue of lighting even more pressing. ‘The HD900 by sony seems to be much less sensitive to light than a regular Digital Beta. This means that you lose a lot of flexibility in your apertures and, consequently, in your depths of field…. I’ve called sony and in their opinion, the HD900 should react better in low light conditions, but from our cameramen’s point of view, the HD900 needs more light than a Digital Beta 700, for instance.’

For the South African shoot, the crew used balloons to float hmi lights (which produce a bluish-white light similar to that of the moon) over 40 meters above the ground. Circles of helium balloons, anchored by the light’s power cord, were set up in areas rangers pinpointed as ripe for action. When scouting for random animal activity, air balloons with spotlights could be sailed overhead. ‘The results were outstanding,’ says Nouvian, who captured exceptional behavior of lions, leopards, giraffes, hippos and hyenas using the method.

One action sequence did evade the crew, however, when a bulb that wasn’t sufficiently cool refused to turn on. Explains Nouvian, ‘When you turn an HMI bulb off and then try to turn it back on immediately, it flickers for a while. We missed a beautiful shot because of this. A bunch of female lions killed a baby giraffe aged four months, and a fight took place between the giraffe clan and the lionesses. I was almost in tears when the light wouldn’t turn on. It was outstanding action that very few people will ever witness and it’s gone forever.’

To film aggressive, tiny or skittish animals, Nouvian used cameras developed by military scientists to register heat patterns. For wildlife filmmakers, this means an animal’s movements can be recorded even in dense foliage. ‘We managed to spot a lesser bush baby hopping from one tree to another,’ recalls Nouvian. ‘Other film crews had to wait months to get a decent sequence of this tiny and hectic animal. We staked out with the thermal camera and spotted the little mammal as it was jumping around. When he settled down in the tree for more than a few seconds, we shot him with the hd and got a beautiful sequence. We also spotted pangolins and honey badgers. These animals are rarely seen.’

Additionally, infrared projectors were positioned on land vehicles and around watering holes. These create a light that is invisible to animals (and the human eye) but is picked-up by infrared cameras. ‘The only hint of our presence that is left to the animals is our smell,’ says Nouvian.

Despite the advantages afforded by these technologies, Nouvian and her crew still relied on ingenuity. ‘Although there was a lot of preparation work, we still had to adapt all of the concepts to field use,’ she says. And the challenge continues: At press time, shooting had just begun for the underwater segment of the series, which will use a luminous mat called a Firefly to brighten the dark water.

Wild Nights is scheduled to deliver in December 2001.

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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