Natural History: Nature’s Next Frontier

Whether storming the box office, pushing technology to the limit or playing with storytelling conventions, natural history is challenging its reputation as a tired genre. ALICIA ANDROICH looks at innovative wildlife offerings
September 1, 2005

Whether storming the box office, pushing technology to the limit or playing with storytelling conventions, natural history is challenging its reputation as a tired genre. ALICIA ANDROICH looks at innovative wildlife offerings

Will Park make a mark?
U.K. prodco Impossible Pictures had monstrous success with Walking with Dinosaurs. Now all eyes are back on the indie as it prepares its latest endeavor, Prehistoric Park. A 6 x 1-hour series coproduced by ITV in the U.K., Animal Planet in the U.S., M6 in France and Germany’s ProSieben, Park is a CGI-driven project featuring natural history expert Nigel Marven – a familiar face from the Walking with… series. Marven will lead viewers back through time as he rescues species like the T.rex and mammoth saber tooth cats from extinction, then brings them into the 21st century to compare them to their modern-day cousins. As co-financers, Fremantle International Distribution has acquired the worldwide distribution rights (outside of France and Germany) to the series, which is skeded for delivery to ITV1 next year. Time will tell if Impossible Pictures can walk its way to new ratings records.

3-D hd on its way
Enthused with the possibility of bringing a major natural history 3-D HD project to both theaters and home HDTV screens as early as 2007, NHK has been testing its 3-D HD camera on nature and wildlife for the past few years. It’s also hard at work plugging a 4 x 52-minute series called Nature’s Unique Angles, which has well-known photographers shooting wildlife footage that’s difficult to collect. As Masaru Ikeo, executive producer of science programs at NHK, says, ‘Conventional documentaries usually observe wildlife objectively and indifferently. This series creates a feeling of intimacy, making viewers feel as if they are actually there on the spot with the cameraman.’ Audiences will get a look at mammoth blue whales mating and observe parenting that has never before been filmed. The doc will also give an in-depth account of the nocturnal lives of Norway’s owls, ants in the Malaysian jungle and white-tailed sea eagles in Japan. While some of the episodes are produced for air in Japan, others are re-edited into an English version, with distribution handled by Mico.

Get in line for Ants II
It’s one thing to get a recognizable scientist to bolster the reputation of a NH doc, but it’s another triumph altogether to get a Pulitzer Prize-winner as the main voice for a project. So is the case with Ants – Nature’s Secret Power, a 50-minute one-off coproduced by ORF and Adi Mayer Film in association with Docstar, WDR and bm:bwk. This 2004 doc was made with German zoologist and ant authority Bert Hölldobler (who has studied the insects for over 30 years), and was the first to record the camponotus schmitzi species from Borneo – the only ant able to swim and dive. The highly praised HD doc – it has won several awards, including a Gold Camera Award at the L.A. International Film and Video Festival – also takes a thorough look at an underground colony of grass cutter ants in Argentina using special macro film technology.

Good news for fans of the project: Ants II, carrying a €550,000 (US$690,000) budget, is in the pre-production stage, and is to be released in 2008. It will cover the topics that didn’t make it into the first film.

An inside look with HD
By now, natural history filmmakers are aware of the capabilities of shooting in HD, but Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone have taken the technology to the next level – literally. Filming 50 feet above the ground in African fig trees, the pair used a Sony 700 camera with specially adapted Zeiss Luminar Microscope lenses to capture fig wasps less than a millimeter long for their 52-minute film The Queen of Trees. The camera, on loan from NHK, and a portable macro bench the duo designed and built, allowed them to get intimate with their story – most of which takes place inside the figs of the nourishing tree. ‘Often people will take an insect to the studio and film it there,’ says Stone, from the couple’s U.K. editing suite. ‘We were taking the studio to the field.’

After six months of pre-production, that field is where she, Deeble and their small team spent two years filming, with backing from NHK, WNET, Granada International, the BBC and ZDF. The film delves into the wide-reaching relationship the tree has with the animals and environment around it, and especially its close bond with the wasps. Six months of post-production will wrap just in time for the film’s premier screening at Jackson Hole.

Drama in the burrows
You’ve been out for the night, and when you return home you discover that – thanks to an incompetent babysitter – your kids are missing. Now you’ve got to fight eagles, jackals and snakes to get them back. Such is life in the interactive TV game entitled ‘Meerkat Mission: Missing Meerkats.’ Targeted to families and children, the game – the first ITV game to be produced by Animal Planet – will be released this fall in the U.K. with the launch of Meerkat Manor. The show, a 13 x 30-minute docusoap produced for Animal Planet International by London-based Oxford Scientific Films, follows the dramatic goings-on of a family of 12-inch tall mischief makers that live in burrows on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. The stories of these meerkats could substitute for those seen in popular TV soaps: there are heated family disputes, love affairs, a kidnapping and near-death experiences. With characters like Flower, an empowered matriarch, and Carlos, a ladies’ man (or meerkat, actually), Animal Planet calls the show ‘Desperate Housewives meets Wild Kingdom.’ Distributed by Southern Star, Manor is slated to premier on Animal Planet in September.

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