On the Slate

Adventures in rehab
July 1, 2002

Adventures in rehab

Oxford Scientific Films once relied almost exclusively on blue-chip commissions. But since the London-based prodco integrated with Southern Star Factual almost one year ago, diversity has become its new mantra.

Wild Orphans, a 6 x 30-minute series, is an example of OSF’s new lower-budget fare. A coproduction with Pretoria, South Africa-based Wild Pictures, the program tells the story of South African Brian Jones and his quest to save untamed baby animals left to fend for themselves. The former game ranger first began his rescue missions when he was a child. As an adult, Jones set up an animal orphanage and sanctuary, and now rehabilitates abandoned creatures. His ultimate goal is to release them back into their natural environment.

Wild Orphans is a commission for National Geographic Channels International and has a budget of US$30,000 per half-hour. The series will air at the end of the year. Southern Star Sales is distributing.

On the higher end of the budget scale, OSF is working on two ‘Natural World’ specials for the BBC: Ladies of Viramba and The Elephant and the Emperor. Ladies follows the adventures of three female researchers as they track a troop of Yellow baboons in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park. The latter project tells the tale of a destructive elephant that initially causes mayhem, but turns out to be an ‘architect of regeneration’. Each program has a budget in excess of $450,000 and is 60 minutes long. Both Ladies and Elephant are slated to air in 2003. BBC Worldwide is distributing.

Captive-ating creatures

Most visitors to the Doué-la-Fontaine Zoo in western France – which is set up in a former quarry – spend a few hours learning about the 70 animal species that reside there (40 of which are endangered). Thierry Machado wanted more than a cursory look, however, so he stayed for a year. During that time, the filmmaker recorded the everyday lives of the zoo staff and the creatures they care for. Along the way, he captured some incredible moments, including the birth of twin cheetahs and the death of an old giraffe.

A Year at the Zoo, a copro between Saint-Ouen, France-based Gedeon Programmes and ARTE, reveals Machado’s observations. Budgeted at †380,000 (US$370,000), the program has an early fall delivery date. Two versions – 1 x 52 minutes and 5 x 26 minutes – will be made.

Gedeon is also in production on two other wildlife programs: Bats, Loveable Bats and SOS Animal Traffic. In Bats, doc-maker Jehanne Puységur seeks out people in both the scientific and lay communities who love, rather than loathe, these nocturnal mammals that allegedly suck blood (okay, not all of them). SOS follows veterinarians Isabelle and Jean-François Lagrot as they tour the remote regions of the world with their five-year-old daughter, Julie, learning about the illegal wildlife trade.

Bats is a one-hour copro with arte slated for delivery by the end of the year. SOS is a 3 x 52-minute collaboration with France 5 that will wrap around September 2003.

Me caveman, you short-faced bear

The BBC’s NHU is one of the last bastions for high-end wildlife docs. This year, two of its multi-million-dollar projects will wrap, both of which have been years in the making.

The first is a 10 x 50-minute series called The Life of Mammals. Sir David Attenborough hosts this epic undertaking, guiding viewers through an exploration of the most diverse group of animals in the world. From the two-inch pygmy shrew (the smallest) to the blue whale (the biggest), and from the sloth (the slowest) to the cheetah (the fastest), 4,000 mammal species inhabit every corner of the globe. Attenborough shines a spotlight on a few in particular, including the ever-popular chimpanzee and the exotic Australian echidna, an egg-laying mammal that resembles a hedgehog. (Humans are included too, recognized for overrunning the Earth.)

The second project from the Beeb’s NHU is Wild New World, a 6 x 50-minute series that looks at the early history of North America. When people first entered the continent 14,000 years ago, much of the territory was covered in ice, but it still supported a diversity of life. The early settlers met with animals such as mastodons, giant short-faced bears, sabre-toothed tigers and tree-sized ground sloths. With the help of computer generated images, the program will bring to life these long-extinct beasts for TV viewers.

The Life of Mammals and Wild New World are both copros with the Discovery Channel. Mammals carries a total budget of us$12 million; Wild New World‘s price tag is $6 million. The two series will be ready for broadcast by the end of the year.

Been there, bought the t-shirt

If you had to come up with a list of the top-10 natural wonders of the world, what marvels would make the cut? Toronto, Canada-based prodco Summerhill Entertainment has given this query some thought in a two-hour special called Earth’s Natural Wonders.

Each hour of Summerhill’s program will focus on five spots, exploring how each was

created and why it qualifies as a natural wonder. The prodco’s list consists of: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, Venezuela’s Angel Falls, the Northern Lights, Brazil’s Amazon River, Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, Ontario/New York’s Niagara Falls, Mount Everest in Nepal, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Budgeted at CND$250,000 (US$160,500) per hour, the special will be ready by year’s end. Discovery Channels International and Discovery’s Travel Channel have signed on.

Summerhill is also currently working on the fifth installment of Canadian Geographic Presents. The 2002/03 series includes six one-hours: ‘Horizontal Everest’ follows an

intrepid explorer to Ellesmere Island; ‘Orcalab’ focuses on the troubles plaguing the oceans and their inhabitants; ‘The Soviet Muskox’ considers a mysterious Canadian experiment in eastern Siberia; ‘Super Beaver’ looks at this buck-toothed mammal’s behavior; ‘Wild Technology’ looks at the natural wonders revealed by micro-electronics; and ‘The Shapeshifter’ profiles one of nature’s most resilient animals, the coyote.

Canadian Geographic Presents is a collaboration with Canadian Geographic and Discovery Canada. The CND$1.5 million (US$965,000) series will air in January 2003.

The trash heap’s high and the living is good

A garbage dump might not be the first place that comes to mind as an example of a thriving ecosystem. But at one site in Riga, Latvia, filmmakers Uldis Cekulis, Laila Pakalnina and Maris Maskalans have discovered a surprising range of living things, including birds, insects, plants and mammals. Their film Dreamland will illustrate that the dump is an ‘elite residential area’ for these non-human creatures, offering a steady supply of food and shelter throughout the year.

So far, the filmmakers have taken note of approximately 100 bird species, some that are likely inhabitants (seagulls, pigeons, jackdaws), and some that seem out of place (eagle owls, northern goshawks). Mammals, too, cover a broad spectrum, from mice and rats to foxes, beavers and hedgehogs; even humans are part of the mix. Dreamland will focus on a few of the dump’s residents and how their lives are intertwined.

Vides Filmu Studija (Wildlife and Environmental Film Productions) is the prodco behind Dreamland, which is slated for a December 2003 release. Australian broadcaster SBS has already signed a pre-sale agreement for the US$93,000 one-hour project.

The year of the dog

Over the past few years, Australia’s Gulliver Media has carefully fostered relationships with broadcasters in China. This year, the Brisbane-based prodco’s efforts paid dividends – the company signed two coproduction agreements, one with Central China Television (CCTV) and the other with Anhui Television (AHTV).

Blooming Magnificent! is the joint undertaking of Gulliver and CCTV. The one-hour doc follows gardener Beryce Nelson of Toowoomba, Australia, on her voyage to the Yunnan province in China in search of ‘the one perfect new flower’. Yunnan is where many of today’s popular garden flowers, such as azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons, were discovered by Chinese and European explorers. Far from being tapped out, the area reveals a new species of flower almost daily. Budgeted at about AUS$300,000 (US$163,000), Blooming Magnificent! begins filming in October and is slated to wrap by June 2003.

Gulliver’s copro with AHTV is Of Dogs and Gods, a one-hour one-off about the social history of dogs in China. In ancient times, Chinese citizens regarded dogs as trusted companions, fit to accompany their masters to the grave. Today, dogs fulfill many roles in Chinese society, from family pet to menu item. The film will explore the evolution of the relationship between man and dog, and will include historical footage and personal anecdotes.

Of Dogs and Gods also carries a budget in the US$163,000 ballpark. Filming on the doc, which takes place in China, France and the U.S., is set to begin in early 2003. Projected delivery is the end of next year.

Primate bonding

Deep in the rainforest of the Central African Republic, Chloe Cipolletta patiently works towards a goal once deemed impossible – to habituate Western Lowland gorillas to human presence. The 30-year-old scientist has spent four years in the Dzanga-Sangha reserve, aided by the Ba’Aka people, who live and work in the rainforest. The results so far have been promising. If Cipolletta’s experiment (which is run in part by the World Wildlife Fund) is ultimately successful, eco-tourism will be introduced to the area, to help offset the high cost of protecting the gorillas’ – and the Ba’Aka’s – homestead from logging.

After learning of Cipolletta’s work, Nat Geo primate specialist Mireya Mayor headed to the car to learn more. While there, Mayor joined Cipolletta in the forest. The first excursion was terrifying; a 182-kilogram silverback male and his female companion charged the two women. The following day, Cipolletta and Mayor (who were not injured) tried again, and this time their encounter with the animals was more relaxed. Before long, however, the gorillas began to fight amongst themselves and disappeared into the forest, throwing the future of the project into question. Cipolletta turned to the Ba’Aka for help. In the end, their tracking skills allowed the experiment to continue.

Gorilla Diaries is a one-hour special about Mayor’s excursion to the Dzanga-Sangha reserve. Produced by London-based Cicada Films for Nat Geo TV, the doc has a budget of £200,000 (US$300,000). Cicada plans to deliver the film this fall.

Watch out for the naked zebra

NHNZ has condensed its name and broadened its focus, but the Dunedin, New Zealand-based prodco remains a prolific source of wildlife programming.

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright (w/t) is a one-hour one-off for Nat Geo Channels International about the rapidly diminishing population of Asia’s big cats. Rescue workers have been attempting to stem the rate of decline, but each day several tigers die despite their efforts. As a result, rescue teams have adopted a heartbreaking strategy: help only a select number of animals and leave the rest to die. Tiger, Tiger considers the difficulties confronting the majestic striped felines and their would-be saviors. Budgeted at US$330,000, the doc will wrap in June 2003.

On a lighter note, The Most Extreme (w/t) is a 13 x 60-minute series for Animal Planet that will ‘count down the 10 most extreme animals for any given behavior,’ taking into account natural history, science, history and trivia. Carrying a total budget of $2.3 million, The Most Extreme will be ready by the end of the year.

Animal Imitators (w/t) is a one-hour one-off for TLC about animal lovers who commune with nature by acting like creatures of the wild. The tamer ones howl at the moon, like wolves; the more risqué paint stripes on their body, to resemble zebras. In this $280,000 doc, viewers will learn what compels these people to get in touch with their inner beast. The program will wrap in March 2003.

Other NHNZ projects in production are Equator (w/t), a 4 x 60-minute series that journeys around the Earth’s epicenter; and Spinner Dolphins (w/t), a one-hour special.

Busy beavers and bunnies

European wild beavers are a shy bunch. They sleep in underground dens or watery forts while the sun shines, waiting until night to set to work felling trees. Few people have seen more than a glimpse of these flat-tailed, buck-toothed rodents. But, Slovak biologist Tomas Hulik has won the trust of some wild beavers to the point where the animals allow him to follow them wherever they go.

The Incredible Hulik is a 52-minute special about the biologist’s observations – how the beavers behave, their family life and their individual characters. Paris-based distributor Docstar (which closed in August) and Austrian pubcaster ORF originally commissioned the US$400,000 documentary, which Cosmos Factory of Vienna, Austria, is producing. Germany’s ZDF and Discovery Channel U.S. are also coproduction partners. London, U.K.-based Explore International, will handle distribution in some territories.

ORF and Docstar also collaborated on Realm of the Hare, a one-hour one-off about a phenomenon particular to snowshoe hares in Canada’s Yukon territory: Every 10 years or so, the population of hares explodes and then suddenly collapses. Copro partners include Vienna’s Interspot Film, Canada’s Hares Productions (a Great North company) and German pubcaster WDR.

Both projects will wrap by the end of 2002.

Birds of a feather

It’s not easy being beautiful. In fact, for the blue hyacinth macaw, beauty has brought it to the brink of extinction. Poachers have ruthlessly tracked down the birds (also the largest parrots in the world) in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay for sale as pets – if they survive the ordeal.

But, conservationists have a plan to counter the practice. With the cooperation of local police, they have secured the services of jailed poachers, offering them freedom in exchange for help finding and protecting the birds. Blue Wonder, a one-hour one-off, follows this venture.

Budgeted at around us$400,000, Blue Wonder is a copro of London-based Parthenon Entertainment and German pubcaster ARD/NDR. It’s slated for delivery in May 2003. Nat Geo Channels International has already bought the program.

Parthenon has several other projects on the go. Big Cat Challenge looks at the interaction among lions, cheetahs and leopards in South Africa. Day of the Jackal focuses on this much maligned pack animal that has thrived for thousands of years. Last of the Dragons journeys from the deserts of Africa to the rainforests of Asia to look at the origins of modern reptiles and explore the myth of the magical creature.

All three projects carry a budget in the $300,000 range and will be delivered in early 2003. Nat Geo and NDR have already signed on for Dragons; Nat Geo has pre-bought Jackal.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.