Notes from the Field

What areas do you film in?I do a lot of filming in Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, as well as South Africa. So those countries are about as remote as you're going to get. What are your particular concerns about those areas?Well,...
August 1, 1999

What areas do you film in?

I do a lot of filming in Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, as well as South Africa. So those countries are about as remote as you’re going to get.

What are your particular concerns about those areas?

Well, the big thing about Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana is malaria, from a safety perspective. You’ve got to take medical precautions for malaria. Regarding equipment, it’s against theft. We often take out additional insurance or make sure our insurance covers us in neighboring countries, for loss of camera gear because stuff does get lost or stolen. Regarding crew safety, sometimes I take out medical evacuation plans, so that if somebody gets malaria or gets very sick there’s a medical evacuation because particularly in Mozambique and in some places in Zimbabwe, there’s not very good hospitalization, so you want to fly people back to South Africa and get hospital treatment there. So, often I’ll go to that expense and get short-term medical cover for the shoot.

How do you ensure the safety of film and equipment?

We shoot predominantly on digital tape, digiBetacam. We don’t shoot much on film. And we obviously keep tape stock in a cool place, normally in a cool box and its fine. Regarding equipment, I had special cases made that are dust-proof and quite shock-proof because the roads are really bad. Your gear gets dumped around quite a lot. So, I had special cases made that have absorption in them, for the camera obviously, so it doesn’t rattle around and fall to pieces.

What are your safety concerns, as to encountering animals?

Most of the time you’re trying to attract them to film them, you’re not trying to avoid them. We film a lot of sharks, that’s one of our specialities, and we’ve got a guy that free swims with great whites and Zambezi sharks. Before we filmed in cages, which didn’t give you very good filming results because you always saw bars and the sharks sort of behaved in a strange way. So he’s actually a spear fisherman, not an underwater cameraman. And what he does is he baits the sharks to bring them in and then free swims with them to film them, and it’s a completely different picture you get, a completely different way that the sharks behave than if you were filming with cages or with scuba gear.
When filming sharks, one guy will film the other guy will cover him with a spear gun, in case the shark gets a bit too inquisitive. That’s the only precaution we take with sharks. Occasionally while filming crocodiles, we hide in the water and then somebody will have a rifle in case the crocodiles come too close.
The people who we use to film and the people who guide us when we film are, sort of live amongst the wild animals. We’ve just been filming crocodiles in the Akevangr delta. We’ve been going around with a guide there who is very knowledgeable, who has a really good understanding of crocodiles and we were getting right up to them.

Is using a guide safer than going yourself?

It depends on what you’re filming where. It’s always very good to use a guide from the area that you’re filming. In the Akevangr, we use a guide from the Akevangr. And they have so much more local knowledge, so one you don’t get lost. If you’re on a foot safari in the Akevangr and you get lost, you’re in a lot of trouble. Two, they often know individual animals, `oh this crocodile always hangs out here, it’s quite relaxed and docile, or this crocodile on the island is a lot more dangerous.’ So, often they’ll know some animals that have been problematic because they spend every day in that specific region. So, always when we go into an area to film, we always pay a local guide or a local person who’s close to the animals to take us to them in order to explain which ones to be careful of and stuff like that. That goes for elephants and for anything else.

Why do you shoot on digicam?

It’s just a preference. The type of films we’re making, we’re not making for the two-year BBC wildlife films. We’re making slightly shorter production time periods and packing a lot of value and making very strong stories. Our production length is not as long, so it’s more cost-effective to shoot on digital Betacam, widescreen. Sometimes we do shoot on film, but very occasionally. And when you shoot on film, what you do is you shoot your allocation of film for that day and you bring it back to a refrigerated or very cool place and keep it there, and then fly it out as often as you can.
The other big precaution, foreign filmmakers coming into film in Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe or even South Africa for that matter, depending on where they’re filming, need to get film permits, either to film in the national parks or to enter the country with camera gear. You’ve got to be dead-sure that you’ve got those permits. If you haven’t got those permits, you can be turned away at a border pass or you can get into a bit of trouble. You’ve got to get all of the right documentation before you go into African countries to film.
The best way to go about that is to speak to producers based in southern Africa who deal with the stuff every day, and they can either put you in touch or they can do it on your behalf and charge you a fee, or they can find somebody who does it.
It’s often better to use local crew. I’ve done some work with foreign producers who’ve come over with their whole crew complete. It’s often better to use particularly local camera operators who’ve worked in those environments and filmed in those environments and know the local people and stuff like that. And taking that one step further, it’s often good to make contact with a local producer and say look, I’m producing a film about this for a number of reasons. A local producer will know all of the stories, know the characters, know the loops around them. He’s much closer to the whole information. Secondly, often local producers have been filming those exact stories and have some of the budget for them and would be interested in a coproduction.

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