December 2017

Wildlife Cinematography

, art director at Animat Habitat.

The stories we are told in wildlife documentary films have mirrored a not-so-long history of long-lens camera technology. Operating out in the natural world behind the scenes of intimate moments that have been captured on film, such as in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Studios Planet Earth series, cameras have expanded our experiential understanding of the wild places and the animals that live in them. This article delves into a history of wildlife cinematography, or long-lens cinematography and photography, in general, as the craft pertains, in particular, to White Elephant—a journey with an elephant across a sea of sand.

Note this history overlooks many of the logistical challenges that face any expedition into the wild, in some cases the most extreme conditions on earth, which many natural history film crews have weathered to return with the awe-inspiring images that reveal a part of our world—a world apart.

By wrestling a precious particle of the world from time and space and holding it absolutely still, a great photograph can explode the totality of our world, such that we never see it quite the same again.
— Draper, R. ‘The Power of Photography’, p.31-32, National Geographic. October 2013. []

‘Namibia's arid gravel plains are so incredibly hot that rain often evaporates before it hits the ground.’ Namibia – Planet Earth II e/4: ‘Deserts’ © 2016 BBC Earth []

Natural History Unit

Founded in 1957, in Bristol, United Kingdom, the BBC Studios Natural History Unit (NHU) has been producing wildlife documentary films for sixty years. The familiar face of many BBC Studios wildlife documentaries, the most recognizable voice of the genre, Sir David Attenborough was in the picture at the inception of the NHU, when he insisted on bringing cameras with 16 mm film for his first expeditions to Africa. Sixteen-millimetre film cameras were relatively compact and considered ‘amature-ish’ at the BBC, at the time, where 35 mm film was the broadcast standard. Attenborough instead recognized the advantages of a less ponderous, more portable camera for his particular use case, and returned with footage of wild animals that had never before been filmed. [1]

Forty-five years later… After the scenes of never-before-seen and unusual underwater species, the epic scale of open oceans and shallow seas on standard analog screens, and, all in all, the studio success of the 2001 documentary series Blue Planet, series producer Alastair Fothergill started making the next, most expensive documentary series commissioned by the BBC. And so the NHU repeated its formula with a series looking at the whole planet. [3]

That time – for the first time – the series was filmed in full high definition.

Another five years later… There was no sequel in store when BBC Studios Planet Earth first aired in 2006. This high-water mark series of eleven hour-long episodes – ‘Pole to Pole’, ‘Mountains’, ‘Deep Ocean’, ‘Deserts’, ‘Ice Worlds’, ‘Shallow Seas’, ‘Great Plains’, ‘Jungles’, ‘Fresh Water’, ‘Forests’ and ‘Caves’ – invited an audience into the world of wild animals in a way that was not possible before. Planet Earth creative director Mike Gunton explained how the series was meant as a final statement, as quoted in an article titled ‘The Crazy New Camera Tech That Made Planet Earth 2 Possible’ written by David Pierce for Wired, “When we make a landmark [show], we try to say, ‘This is the last word on the subject.’” [2]

In time, advancements in camera techniques and technologies equipped the NHU with more compelling ways of telling stories in the wild.

In a telephone interview with the New York Times, BBC Studios NHU series producer Alastair Fothergill further articulated the motives behind the filmmaking for Planet Earth : “If you are a polar bear living out on the ice, what does this really mean—what does it mean to live out on an endless flat world that literally melts beneath your feet during your life?” The BBC Studios NHU series producer continued over the telephone, “When we see the polar bear struggling on the ice, we say, ‘This is something that, with global warming, may become more of a problem.’” Fothergill postulated that a part of the message was about raising awareness for our natural environments. [3]

This meant traveling to places. And making places to hide. Then traveling and hiding, again, the next season when footage from the last would not suffice to tell a whole story.

The Planet Earth film crew made three separate expeditions to Nepal and Pakistan over the course of two years to capture the first-ever intimate images of a snow leopard struggling to hunt a mountain goat down near-vertical Himalayan slopes. The behind-the-scenes Planet Earth: Diaries featurette for the ‘Mountains’ episode reveals just how extraordinary the challenges and circumstances were in that region, at that time. Fothergill, in the same telephone interview with the New York Times, spelled out how the Planet Earth team had taken the nature documentary medium beyond Blue Planet (2001), “going for emotionally engaging sequences, a very big cinematic score, a pretty minimal narration.” And a message – that there is a need to raise awareness for the natural world on the brink of climate catastrophe – was taking form. [3]

A lot of the animals in Planet Earth people have never seen before. How can you expect anybody to care about a snow leopard if they have never seen one?
— Alastair Fothergill, interviewed in ‘All Creatures Great, Small… And Endangered’, New York Times, 2007 []

‘There may be as few as 3,500 snow leopards left in the wild.’ Hemis National Park, India – Planet Earth II e/2: ‘Mountains’ © 2016 BBC Earth []

Today, ten years after BBC Studios Planet Earth (2006), we can see that the cameras behind Planet Earth II were lighter, better, faster, smaller, all in time for when the second set of episodes first aired in 2016. The trajectory of standard analog to the full high-definition television standard, in the early 2000s, has continued with Planet Earth II, in the mid-2010s, with pixel resolution pushed into an ultra-high-definition screen space. Moreover, the set of six new hour-long episodes – ‘Islands’, ‘Mountains’, ‘Deserts’, ‘Jungles’, ‘Grasslands’ and ‘Cities’ – reflect a decade of advancement in long-lens camera technologies.

Tracking imagery has advanced from sweeping, overhead helicopter moves to more mobile all-terrain vehicles, boats, drones, all the way to handheld camera rigs. Aerial imagery has advanced from wind-blown air balloons to dynamic drone aeronautics. Time-lapse imagery has advanced with high frame rates. Night-time imagery has advanced with low-light and no-light camera technologies. And, yet, the art of wildlife photography has stayed more or less the same.

Hurry up… And wait.

1 Yong, E. ‘An interview with David Attenborough’, National Geographic. December 29, 2008. Website Link

2 Pierce, D. ‘The Crazy New Camera Tech That Made Planet Earth II Possible’, Wired. March 26, 2017. Website Link

3 Slenske, M. ‘All Creatures Great, Small… And Endangered’, New York Times. March 18, 2007. Website Link

Tracking Cinematography

Many modern techniques for wildlife documentary filmmaking involve moving the camera alongside the animals – traveling with a herd, a pride, a pack, a cackle, a crash, a dazzle, a tower, a troop, a group, a colony – and keeping up while keeping steady has only been made possible with recent advancements in camera technology. The issue, in particular for long-lens cameras, has been stabilization. Handheld camera shots shake, or wobble. With camera wobble, individual frames will appear out of focus. The footage will be blurred. Aerial camera shots share the same problem, and any amount of zoom will magnify those wobbles. A film unit could achieve cinematic motion with a track, or dolly, or crane where practical. In the wild, wherever, almost all wildlife footage that was not filmed underwater was captured with a camera on a tripod. The camera was panned to follow the animals, then repositioned with the tripod, repeating that process, if possible.

That all changed in the early 2000s. That is when the BBC switched from film to digital high-definition cameras for Planet Earth (2006). The switch to digital cameras gave the BBC Studios NHU film crew access to a Cineflex ‘heli-gimbal’—a first of its kind stabilization system for a helicopter mounted camera. This was how a helicopter crew was able to film wildlife movements from a kilometre above, with little interference to the individual animals below, all the way zoomed in, without wobble.

The gimbal was the gambit. The gimbal part was originally developed for the military—for guided missile technology. In this case, the gyro-stabilized system cradled a camera with a 400 mm long lens, and the system of gyroscopes, sensors and motors combined to counteract any movement of the helicopter—to keep the camera pointed straight and positioned stable. The gimbal camera was mounted underneath the front of a helicopter, and a cinematographer operated the unit with a remote from inside the cockpit.

So the Planet Earth film crew was the first to use a high-definition gimbal camera for wildlife documentary filmmaking. And for the first time, the filmmakers were able to frame animals in context of the vast landscapes they inhabit. This helicopter gimbal system, the heli-gimbal, was used for high-altitude footage as well as the overhead shots of a number of hunts.

And so the heli-gimbal made possible the smoothed sweeping aerial shots that defined the cinematic look of the original series. BBC Studios NHU series producer Alastair Fothergill recollected productions before Planet Earth, again on the telephone with the New York Times, “the only aerials you could film in nature documentaries were wide angles because if you flew close enough to get a tighter shot you would frighten the animals.” This advance in long-lens camera technology enabled the Planet Earth film crew to zoom way in on individual animals, and follow their movements from way out in the sky where a distant helicopter was less of a disturbance. That changed the way a film crew could capture animal behaviors, such as hunting, as Gunton described to Wired, “There was something about using helicopters that gave a majesty to it.” [2, 3]

The Planet Earth crew was able to film – without interruption – African wild dogs hunting impala in the Okavango delta and Arctic wolves chasing caribou in northern Canada and so on.

Most hunts seen in wildlife documentary films will actually be a composite of many different hunts, with many different animals, all edited together to tell a story. Instead of cutting together a sequence of impractical tripod set-ups, as creative director Mike Gunton told Vox, "Once that wolf started hunting, you could just fly along, keeping your distance, and in one shot you could see how that drama played out. […] It was so gripping because it was unmediated." This connectedness with the story through an unmediated lens – a window into the wild – is the big idea for White Elephant. [4]

If you go up to the high arctic tundra and just sit there, you might be unbelievably lucky if a wolf would run past you. It would be gone in a matter of seconds. We were able to film a complete hunt continuously from the air and get a complete sequence, which in the past would have been impossible.
— Alastair Fothergill, interviewed in ‘All Creatures Great, Small… And Endangered’, New York Times, 2007 []

For the hunt sequence with African wild dogs, a heli-gimbal camera crew up in the helicopter communicated with ground crews to spot and track the pack. Once the chase was on, the heli-gimbal camera operator still had to focus on the right dog at the right time. And once the heli-gimbal camera was focused and zoomed in, if it was pointed at the wrong dog when the pack split, the limited field of view complicated any mid-shot shift in focus. In this case, the heli-gimbal camera crew returned with an incredible sequence of flanking maneuvers, formidable cooperation and, for an impala, an improbable escape. The sequence, from beginning to end, revealed more about African wild dog hunting behavior than any other document before.

A gimbal camera – a long-lens camera with gyroscopic stabilization technology – had become much more accessible when it came time to film Planet Earth II. Cinematic camera moves once fixed on a track, or dolly, or crane, and once reserved for ‘Hollywood movies and glossy advertisements’, were now possible with a gimbal camera equipped to a truck, or a boat, or a helicopter, again. The gimbal cameras were now light and compact enough for handheld rigs. (Also drones.) And that advance in camera technology aligned with what the NHU wanted to do with Planet Earth II.

We know when we go to the cinema, now, the camera is never static. It is always on the move. It is always on a Steadicam. It is always [on a track]. It is always flying. […] We wanted to reflect that in our approach, not just because we wanted to pay homage to cinema, but because the reason why cinema does that is because as soon as you have that sense of moving camera. It feels more immersive. It feels more connected.
— Mike Gunton, executive producer, Planet Earth II, interviewed in ‘How the BBC makes Planet Earth look like a Hollywood movie’, Vox, 2017 []

So now, not only were the animals on the move, the cameras were too.

Capturing more dynamic and intimate animal behaviors on film, however, is less constructive if the footage will be blurred. These days, almost any camera in the cradle of a handheld gyro-stabilized rig enables the cinematographer to run alongside any willing wildlife and capture sharp, steady footage. The latest wildlife documentary films feel among the animals, as the audience follows along in the footsteps of elephants and ants and so on.

You see from the perspective of the animals. With the new episodes, everything is more in close, more intense. “It demands proximity,” Planet Earth creative director and Planet Earth II executive producer Mike Gunton is quoted again in the same article by Pierce for Wired, ”it demands you have the camera in the world of the animal.” This effect of taking an audience on a journey that relates to how a wild animal inhabits its natural environment, in the end, was the cause for a more compelling narrative. [2]

We wanted to push the proximity—get in close to the animals because we wanted to see the world's landscapes – our planet – through the animals' eyes.
— Mike Gunton, executive producer, Planet Earth II, interviewed in ‘How the BBC makes Planet Earth look like a Hollywood movie’, Vox, 2017 []

‘An African bull elephant swishes his trunk at the carmine bee-eaters following him through the grassland.’ Botswana – Planet Earth II e/5: ‘Grasslands’ © 2016 BBC Earth []

Planet Earth II film crews made the most of the smaller handheld rigs for sequences that showed what it was like to move through its six featured habitats. Like the heli-gimbal, these handheld rigs house gyroscopes with sensors to gauge orientation along three axes and motors to counteract those movements. Beforehand, a Steadicam was too combersome or costly for filming such sequences in the wild.

In India, in particular, the handheld gimbal cameras enabled the Planet Earth II film crew to capture a sequence for the beginning of the ‘Cities’ episode that seems like a chase scene from a Bollywood blockbuster. Langur monkeys leaped from rooftop to rooftop in a battle above the Indian city of Jodhpur. Inured to the bustle of urban living, the monkeys ignored the cameras moving along with the crew within the city. Handheld gimbal cameras made sequences like the macaques in Jaipur and the monkeys in Jodhpur possible.

When filming Planet Earth II, the crew soon realized that the handheld gimbal rigs were the only camera equipment in use wherever it was safe to walk along with the animals. That is not the case with a lot of animals. And so the handheld gimbal has not replaced the tripod. This new, now accessible technology has instead added another category of techniques to a varied visual language of cinematography.

Also drones.

4 Fong, J and Lee, D. ‘How the BBC makes Planet Earth look like a Hollywood movie’, Vox. February 20, 2017. Website Link

Aerial Cinematography

The ‘heli-gimbal’ footage certainly qualified as aerial cinematography. And still there were other specialized aerial sequences where a helicopter was not practical. Initially, there were some inventive solutions in the making of Planet Earth. Then, in time for the sequel, there were drones for specialized establishing shots, unmediated hunting shots, and everything in between.

First, a slow, aerial sequence over jungle canopies in the ‘Forests’ episode of Planet Earth (2006). That sequence was captured from a ‘Cinebulle’. This inventive design was a hot air balloon equipped with a platform instead of a basket. The remarkably basic technique, propelled by a large fan, produced smooth aerial shots that grazed the treetops without disturbing the canopy—without the bluster of helicopter blades billowing into the Amazon rainforest. However, the fan-propelled aircraft was a bit slow to turn. The behind-the-scenes Planet Earth: Diaries featurette for the ‘Forests’ episode takes you into the Cinebulle, which more than once wound up tangled in the branches.

Technological advancements in drones and in lightweight long-lens cameras both converged with gimbal technology in time for the Planet Earth II film crews to capture intimate, cinematic aerial footage, in close, and in some cases, from new, dramatic perspectives of the planet. The days of hanging out of a helicopter have passed. Today, anyone from a film crew or any film school can be anywhere – on land, or on a boat in the ocean – and can send up a little octocopter—an eight-bladed drone or remotely operated aerial vehicle (ROAV) to have an eye in the sky. This technology is moving so fast that over the course of filming the second set of episodes, drones have shifted from high-technology to the commonplace.

Drones were relied upon, in particular, for the ‘Islands’ episode where there was no access to a helicopter. The wide shots with millions of chinstrap penguins on the volcanic Zavodovski Island were achieved with a drone with a camera with the gimbal technology to stabilize the picture. Most of the sequence of penguins returning from, and into, rocky waters was achieved with a drone equipped with a gimbal camera, too.

And so a drone pilot will puppeteer the cinematography, allowing filmmakers to play with perspectives that were not possible before.

Art of Wildlife Cinematography

Hurry up… And wait.

Two more categorical advancements in nature documentary filmmaking have been low-light cinematography and off-speed cinematography. The application of these camera technologies have helped to advance our understanding of the natural world, each in a unique way. In particular, the histories of both low-light and off-speed camera technologies have mirrored the stories we see represented in nature documentary films about wildlife.

The visual style of night-time sequences, for example for Planet Earth and Planet Earth II, was however a monochrome imitation of the technology. Alas the visual languages of night-time and time-lapse sequences align less with the art direction for White Elephant. And so a history of low-light cinematography and off-speed cinematography will be deferred to a more appropriate place and time at Animat Habitat.

The art of wildlife cinematography remains.

The wild ones do not follow a script. At the beginning of a wildlife documentary film production, a crew must search wilderness areas to identify possible animal characters and try to imagine the sequence of shots that will tell a story. A director of photography must scout possible camera placements in the locations where the animals may come through, with lighting, perspective and personal safety in mind. At this point, wildlife documentary filmmaking becomes a game of chance and endurance, with the crew making a best guess about what might happen and making sure the camera stays set. A filmmaker then must be in the right place at the right time, or be patient enough to wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

‘Marine iguanas basking in the sun.’ Fernandina Island, Galapagos – Planet Earth II e/1: ‘Islands’ © 2016 BBC Earth []

It's a trap!

Instead of staking out, in a blind, or hide, at all times of day to capture wildlife on film, advances in motion sensor cameras, which capture footage autonomously with machine learning and motion sensor technology, have provided a number of advantages. Motion sensor cameras, or camera traps, can be used to learn wildlife habits throughout a habitat, scout places to set up a blind, or even provide well-positioned, ultra-high-definition still footage of rare and secretive species without a human behind the lens.

That was the greatest advantage of this technology—the information with minimal human interference. And in some places, great footage, too.

That was how a crew for Planet Earth II filmed a snow leopard, living an endangered and elusive existence in the Himalayas. We can only see what happens with those snow leopards through a camera trap where there is no human involved, other than to set it up. This NHU film crew worked with scientists who knew certain rocks where they spray, ‘Islands’ episode producer Elizabeth White explained to Hanh Nguyen for an article titled ‘Planet Earth II Producers Reveal 6 Sneaky Ways They Filmed Their Animal Stars’ at IndieWire, “on those particular rocks they would rig a camera so that you had a view that also gave you the landscape.” Some camera traps were placed for establishing context and others were placed for close-ups and so on. Then the film crew can return to collect what was recorded, “Nothing”, White started, “And then suddenly, as if by magic, over the crest comes a snow leopard.” [5]

Ultimately, the way a wildlife documentary film inspires awe is not just with pictures. It is with storytelling. The visual style of the BBC Studios Natural History Unit has shifted over the decades from more informational to more theatrical, but the sense of storytelling has remained.

The imagery is of course the first thing that catches the eye—catches the attention. But without the revelation that storytelling brings, it palls quite quickly. So, no technology will ever replace the ability to tell a story that grips and fascinates and emotionally connects with an audience.
— Mike Gunton, executive producer, Planet Earth II, interviewed in ‘How the BBC makes Planet Earth look like a Hollywood movie’, Vox, 2017 []

It is said that an average minute of wildlife documentary footage takes about a week to film. A wildlife documentary film crew has to allocate a lot of that time to letting the animals grow accustomed to the presence of the camera and crew. This may involve leaving the camera set up in a wilderness area for a number of days, or, for example, powering up a drone in a wilderness area, without flying it, and letting the animals grow accustomed to the noise of the propellers. Once the animals decide a camera is neither predator nor prey, most will return to natural behaviors.

For all these technological advancements, the BBC Studios NHU filmmakers still spent a lot of time staked out in blinds, or hides. ”From the bitter cold of the Antarctic tundra to the smoldering heat of the African plains“, wrote Charles Bryant of How Stuff Works about how the series Planet Earth worked in an article titled ‘How Planet Earth Works’, “[NHU film crews] endured conditions that many living things [cannot] survive.” [6]

These techniques and technologies behind the scenes have shaped how cinematographers have pictured wildlife. And those perspectives have contributed to a language of wildlife photography that is important to appropriate when setting up digital render cameras—when approaching realism in computer-generated animation. This language of tripods, tracks, dollies, cranes with long-lens cameras has now added helicopters, trucks and drones with long-lens gimbal cameras to a growing vocabulary of cinematic moves and perspectives. And this will be the language in use behind the scenes of White Elephant.

One more thing…

The first key to the success of filming a series like Planet Earth or Planet Earth II is the guidance of local knowledge—people indigenous to the region. Everywhere the NHU traveled, film crews were shown the way in one way or another. Local guides led them through deserts and jungles. Local knowledge helped to keep them safe, and to locate the animals in the wild, in places many people would find inaccessible. And so, another small part of a wondrous world apart from us is captured on film for the people to see. And to save.

5 Nguyen, H. ‘Planet Earth II Producers Reveal 6 Sneaky Ways They Filmed Their Animal Stars’, IndieWire. February 15, 2017. Website Link

6 Bryant, W C. ‘How Planet Earth Works’, How Stuff Works. Website Link



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