Getting on ground-level in BBC America’s “The Hunt”

Ahead of BBC America's premiere of the eight-part series The Hunt, EP Alastair Fothergill and series producer Huw Cordey tell realscreen how they used unique approaches to get a closer look at the predator-prey relationship.
June 30, 2016

Ahead of BBC America’s premiere of its first major natural history copro, The Hunt, this weekend (July 3), realscreen chats with series producer Huw Cordey (pictured below) and executive producer Alastair Fothergill about the making of the landmark series, filming in controlled conditions and the show’s popular digital ‘Making Of’ featurettes.

In one episode of The Hunt Vlogs, a YouTube companion series for BBC America’s new program The Hunt (pictured above), series producer Huw Cordey films himself rising at 4:25 a.m. to start a day of shooting wild dogs in Zambia.

The five-minute clip finds the Silverback Films producer, his cameraman and a field assistant driving patiently across the plains in search of fast-running subjects, enjoying a cup of tea in their Jeep, and eventually boarding a helicopter to catch aerial footage of cheetahs hunting oribi antelopes – all while GoPros inside the vehicle and helicopter capture the team at work.

making of the hunt 3

The Hunt’s digital ‘Making Of’ featurettes

If the popularity of these “featurettes” – some of which have gone viral – are any indication, viewers are hungry to unlock the ‘Making Of’ secrets of the BBC’s latest landmark effort, which gives the most essential of relationships a cinematic treatment.

The program – narrated by Sir David Attenborough and three years in the making – premiered in the UK on BBC1 in November and will air in the U.S. on BBC America this Sunday (July 3) at 9 p.m. EST/PST. Produced by Silverback in partnership with The Open University, The Hunt is a copro between BBC Worldwide, BBC America, CCTV9 and NDR Naturfilm.

The series comes from executive producer Alastair Fothergill and Cordey, two of the makers behind Planet Earth, who were keen to move away from series led by place or ecology, instead putting the focus on behavior.

“There’s no doubt that there’s one behavior that is the most exciting and dynamic in nature, and that is the relationship between predators and prey,” says Fothergill. “We’ve always known that and that’s why in our past series one has always wanted to include one or two predation sequences.”

Now, there’s an entire eight-part series of them. But despite its grisly-sounding title, The Hunt won’t have stomachs doing somersaults, as it combines drama with natural history to give predation sequences something of a new twist, and a (mostly) blood-free narrative.

The Ultra HD series also presents an impressive number of “filming firsts” for television, including footage of blue whales feeding on krill. Until now, there have existed only a handful of such underwater shots, and none showing the mammal’s full 90-foot length in high definition. It took the crew 56 days at sea and 560 hours of work to secure the seven minutes of film.

Elsewhere, the “In the Grip of Seasons” episode finds an Arctic polar bear filmed for the first time as it risks its life to climb a bird cliff, while another is discovered carrying out the elusive “meltwater pools hunt” for basking seals. A remarkable land-walking Australian Abdopus octopus – only discovered in 2011 – also enjoys its film debut. Meanwhile, a special 6K infrared camera was used to get footage of tarsiers and deep sea squid.

filming a blue whale in the pacific ( richard herrmann / silverback films 2015)

Filming a blue whale in the Pacific (© Richard Herrmann / Silverback Films 2015)

On the tech tip, much of The Hunt‘s drama is derived from a number of innovative and close-ranging camera angles. For a tiger sequence, a gyro-stabilized Cineflex camera system was hung off the side of an elephant (which tigers won’t attack), while producers used an iPhone-sized camera on a lightweight crane to film a one-million-strong army ant colony spreading across the jungle floor.

Realscreen caught up with Fothergill and Cordey to hear more about how they installed their “Eleflex” and what sequence required the use of controlled conditions.

You’ve both worked on such landmark BBC series as Frozen Planet and Blue Planet. I was wondering what your process is in terms of hammering out, collectively, your vision for this series.

Alastair Fothergill: There’s been innumerable programs both in the U.S. and UK where predators are depicted as the villains. Nature, blood and tooth and claw. What’s interesting is that’s absolutely not true to nature: predators usually fail. They are the hardest working animals in the natural world. We felt there was a really interesting fresh story to be told in this failure. And actually, we believe very strongly that once the animals are killed the story is over: you know they’re going to eat their prey. So what’s interesting is not the kill, but the hunt. And we very deliberately call it The Hunt for that reason.

Also, we were aware – because we’ve done lots of audience surveys in the past – [that] part of the audience always says, ‘We can’t watch predation sequences’ and we were very worried we were going to lose that audience who would not come to it just because they heard it was about the hunt. That’s why the very opening sequence of the first show says that [predators] usually fail. We very, very, very rarely dwell on the kill. And, in fact, what we hoped to do was really get the audience rooting for the predator.

Huw Cordey: And it’s the unpredictability, the uncertainty that made this series more of a drama. By using the latest technology, we were allowed to put the audience right at the feet of the predators so they could run with the hunting dogs and swim with the killer whales. But it wouldn’t be the drama if you knew what was going to happen each time.

I think predator sequences have always been a bit of a cliché. The natural tendency is to want them to succeed if you have a sequence in the film, and it was really refreshing to do a series where the life of the predator is incredibly difficult and where they fail most of the time.

Because the series is focused on the predator/prey relationship, did you need to rely on anthropomorphizing the animals in the various sequences? 

a cheetah hunts a thomson's gazelle (photo: grgoire bouguereau)

A cheetah hunts a Thomson’s gazelle (Photo: Grégoire Bouguereau)

Fothergill: We wanted people to feel what it was like to be in a pack of hunting dogs, to feel the stress that a leopard feels when it’s desperately trying to move silently closer to its prey. But if you actually analyze the narration and you look at the lines that David [Attenborough] says, they’re very rarely anthropomorphic because I don’t think you need to do it. and I think it can be heavy-handed and obviously, scientifically, it can be very dangerous to anthropomorphize animals apart from possibly higher primates, and even there it’s an area of confusion, having made many films on chimps myself.

The hunting dog sequence very deliberately started with all the pups playing with their mother in the water, so you can – from the very beginning – talk about a mother with all her pups, and they’ve got to hunt together, so immediately you’re in the shoes emotionally with the animal. You have to set up the context and you have to construct the sequences and storyboard them. And we were storyboarding them just as you would if you were doing a Hollywood movie, but of course our actors don’t read a script.

Cordey: In order to create sympathy for predators we have to create a language and stories that enable people to relate to them, and I think we were very encouraged by people’s response. People did start rooting for the predators and that was important. Yes we did anthropomorphize a bit, but I think it was very modest on that.

How have some of the advances in equipment allowed you to do your work? The Cineflex cameras you used were positioned very uniquely for some of the shoots. 

Fothergill: Huw and I believe very strongly that you mustn’t allow the technology to get between you and the audience. But yes, I think the biggest technological breakthrough for The Hunt was taking the Cineflex off the helicopter where we had used it for Planet Earth. It worked brilliantly [for that series] on the helicopter because you could find a polar bear and pull out and pull out and pull out, and finally understand the world that the polar bear is in. [For this program] we decided we wanted to run with the dogs and crawl with the leopards. We put it on an elephant in the jungle episode with tigers because in the past people had used elephants, but they had filmed from the top of them looking down. We constructed a scaffolding – a very lightweight aluminium scaffolding thing – on the side of these elephants…and the Cineflex [was] literally on ground level, so when the paw of the tiger goes forward you’re there in close-up and that really gave you the tension in the tiger’s hunt.

a polar goes in for the kill (photo: silverback films)

A polar bear goes in for the kill (Photo: Silverback Films)

Cordey: One of the other great things about using the Cineflex, is that it meant we were always ready to go. You could film continuously. If you’re filming on a tripod you have to stop whatever vehicle you’re in, put your camera on the tripod and film, and you miss most of the event. The Cineflex allowed us to run with the animals and be at footsteps with the predators, but more importantly, we could just run the cameras continuously so every single detail of the hunt we captured.

In recent years, there’s been lots of interest around your ‘Making Of’ featurettes and specials. It seems like they’ve transitioned out of being a value-added element into these very distinct programs in their own right. 

Fothergill: It’s quite a funny story. The first time I ever did one was on Blue Planet. As more channels appeared in the UK, it was very important that all programs ended on the hour, on the half hour. We were halfway or two-thirds of the way through shooting - which took five years to shoot – and my boss at the BBC said, ‘Oh by the way, the 50-minute shows you’re making need to run 60 minutes,’ and I said, hang on, 10 minutes times eight? We can’t just pull out of a hat, and she wasn’t giving me any more money. But she had commissioned a 50-minute ‘Making Of,’ and that had been going very, very well and I thought, why don’t we expand the 50-minute, and do eight 10-minuters. They have become extremely popular.

The classic example with The Hunt is that we have filmed, for the very first time, flocks of blue whales feeding underwater. And I’ve been wanting to do that forever, and I spent so much money on Blue Planet just to film the [top-side] footage and I got one or two decent underwater shots. To film the whole of the feeding of blue whales underwater is extraordinary and it’s a fantastic sequence, and people just don’t understand that. In the ‘Making Of,’ we wanted to say, ‘You just need to realize: we’re not clever, but you need to know what a privilege this has just been,’ and I think that’s a very important part of it.

a fledgling sparrowhawk spars with a jay (photo: silverback films)

A fledgling sparrowhawk spars with a jay (Photo: Silverback Films)

The use of controlled conditions – in which certain shots are filmed independently of the sequence – has been a point of controversy for the BBC in past years. What do you make of that debate and how important was it to use some of those techniques for this particular program? 

Fothergill: I don’t think you can make a landmark series without some degree of controlling situations, but I would say The Hunt had very very little of it. We work on the basis of trying to do everything in the wild, in natural conditions, unless we can’t – not for time reasons but because of safety or practicalities.

I would say nine times out of 10 they were wild animals. We use very, very long lenses on things like the Cineflex and with very good field crafts we can get close enough to get those kinds of shots. Of all the landmark series that were done recently, I think The Hunt has got the very least of controlled conditions because animals don’t hunt in controlled conditions. The one exception was the falconry birds. We had a sequence in the coastal episode with urban falcons chasing knots [of redshanks] off the coast of England. It was an unbelievably fast-moving hunt and really, really hard to get. To make an edit we did a few cut close-ups and we used the falconry bird, which we took to the same location and just shot very, very close up to make it work.

It’s very important that it’s true to nature, because in a world where so much of our media is created with CGI and so much of it is fake reality-type shows, I think one of the reasons people are drawn to natural history, is that it’s natural history. It is nature.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.