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Masters of Disguise

Where Alaska's Harriman Glacier spills out of the fjord and icebergs fall into Prince William Sound, a sea otter swims around chunks of floating ice. What the otter fails to notice is that one of those white masses isn't ancient water slowly returning to liquid form, but is instead Michael deGruy, a Santa Barbara, U.S.-based filmmaker. To capture vivid, low-angle shots of the mammal in its habitat, deGruy is wearing painter's coveralls over cold-water diving gear.
July 1, 2002

Where Alaska’s Harriman Glacier spills out of the fjord and icebergs fall into Prince William Sound, a sea otter swims around chunks of floating ice. What the otter fails to notice is that one of those white masses isn’t ancient water slowly returning to liquid form, but is instead Michael deGruy, a Santa Barbara, U.S.-based filmmaker. To capture vivid, low-angle shots of the mammal in its habitat, deGruy is wearing painter’s coveralls over cold-water diving gear. He has enclosed his camera, which is mounted on a boogie-board (a sawed-off surfboard), in a white plastic cover; ruffled white cloth further hides his form. DeGruy calls the look his ‘berg-man’ outfit.

Wildlife filmmakers go to great lengths to acquire the most aesthetically engaging and commercially rewarding images of their subjects. Broadcasters, wishing to supply what consumers demand – footage of animals behaving naturally in the wild – pay well for the results. Camouflage minimizes the telltale signs of human presence and allows camera crews to get close to their subjects.

DeGruy says he can get within 1.8 meters of an otter by disguising himself as a piece of bobbing ice and treading water slowly. ‘When [the otters] see the icebergs move, they are used to it. You can’t move fast, that’s all,’ he notes. ‘I was able to get next to the otters; there was no way I could have otherwise.’

Experience has shown deGruy – who has filmed marine life ranging from whales to sea lions to octopi for his company, The Film Crew – that low-tech, simple camouflage solutions often outperform more elaborate getups. For example, he has used ‘static’ bird blinds camouflaged with brush and branches to film whales, but says such a hideout suffers from the shortcoming of being anchored in place. ‘I can’t move it down the beach if all the action is happening a hundred yards away,’ says deGruy, ‘so I tend to build scenarios where I’m able to move.’ One such scheme, also used when filming sea otters in Alaska, involved outfitting a Zodiac boat with a nearly silent electric motor and white material, so it resembled a mini-iceberg. ‘I was just sitting under that with a tripod and a little hole for my lens to poke out of,’ he says. ‘That worked really well.’

A convincing disguise is only half of the battle, however. The other challenge is finding the fortitude to wait for the action to start. ‘If you’re not a patient person you are going to fail in this business,’ says deGruy. ‘Pure and simple, that is more important than anything else.’

Dan Breton of New York, U.S.-based Ganglion Films spends a lot of time scouting locations before he sets out to film sea birds. His goal is to place his bird blind, which is made of discarded sacks and rope scrounged from the shore, in the most favorable spot to catch them coming and going – and not be noticed. While shooting auks this July at a nesting ground on the Icelandic island of Grimsey, just south of the Arctic Circle, Breton crawled into his elaborate blind and stayed there for as long as 14 hours at a stretch. ‘They are totally fine when you’re not in it, and they’re totally fine once you’re in it, but you’re definitely a disturbance until you get inside,’ he says of the auks’ behavior near his blind. Once out of sight, ‘it’s like the birds think you fell into a hole in the Earth.’

Experimenting with what works and evolving learned methods is essential to the art and science of camouflage. ‘Every situation is different, so everything you do [even if it has worked before] you are trying for the first time,’ says Garth Lucas of Johannesburg, South Africa-based Talking Pictures. Lucas has filmed wildlife throughout Africa and has used every trick to minimize his human presence, from rolling in dung to disguise his scent, to setting up motion sensor cameras and leaving the area. The latter approach worked, but ‘lots of things on camera move, so a lot of footage is wasted,’ he notes. It seems you can only remove the human element to a point.

One of the more successful tactics Lucas has employed to fool an animal into thinking no humans are around is to build a replica termite mound. ‘We’ve used it to sneak up on a pride of lions. There is a hatch that opens and a camera pops out,’ he says. This Trojan horse also alleviates the tedium of a shoot. ‘It’s quite comical,’ he explains, ‘because we ended up falling all over ourselves when getting into an uneven spot of grass.’

Lucas notes an important point: wildlife are like people in that some pay attention more than others. ‘Every animal has a completely different character so you can’t say, ‘this worked last time so it should work here.” But, the payoff of effective camouflage is prize footage. Says Lucas, ‘You’re trying to get as much natural behavior as possible; the least human presence the better.’

Too Close for Comfort

By Matthew Sylvain

The drive for close-up shots of wild animals can take a heavy toll on equipment. That’s the lesson South African filmmaker Craig Foster learned when he tried to capture images of vultures devouring a carcass in Botswana. Using durable plastic housing to shelter the unit, Foster hid his camera inside a dead buffalo. The camera was safe, Foster thought, since the animal’s skeleton would guard his equipment against the birds’ claws and beaks. He was wrong.

‘They tore the whole housing and the camera to pieces,’ he says. ‘Too many’ birds arrived, and in their frenzy of ‘tearing and pulling and digging,’ they clutched at anything. When it was over, nothing remained of Foster’s custom boardcam. ‘They’d actually buried it,’ he says of his destroyed camera. Nonetheless, his crew from Cape Town, South Africa-based EarthRise dug it up and managed to extract some usable tape from the smashed cassette. The footage was chilling: ‘There is a spot where it goes to black – clunk – and this huge claw comes down.’

Garth Lucas of Johannesburg, South Africa-based Talking Pictures was in the Kaokoveld region of Namibia when he got too close for comfort. He was tracking a black rhino – which is blind – for a series called Animal Babies. Lucas thought he would be safe as long as he stayed down wind. He was wrong.

Says Lucas, ‘We hadn’t seen one [rhino] in two-and-a-half weeks. Finally we found one, and we sort of crept slowly up to it. As we set up the camera, the rhino twitched and then charged us. It crashed a camera, a 16mm Arriflex. We were wearing camouflage, but we were certainly spotted and run over.’

No one was hurt. ‘I was up the closest tree, as was the cameraman,’ Lucas adds.

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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