Video & Filmmaking

How Silverback Films Crafted Unique Ways To Visualize a Familiar Story

December 21, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

© Silverback Films

Rather than ending each show with a kill, “We wanted people to empathize with predators because the simple fact is that they fail most of the time,” says executive producer Huw Cordey.

The predator is the staple of the nature documentary, stalking, running down and ultimately rending its victim in an often bloody finale that is as predictable as it is entertaining (if you’re into that kind of thing). Nature is much less red in tooth and claw in The Hunt, a documentary series produced by Silverback Films and distributed by the BBC. Instead, it’s an epic tale of mostly epic fails.

“Predators have been the villains in many nature films,” says Silverback Films executive producer Huw Cordey. “We wanted people to empathize with predators because the simple fact is that they fail most of the time. We wanted to capture that sense of struggle.”

The filmmakers behind The Hunt include several alums of the BBC’s Natural History unit, which produced Planet Earth, four feature films for Disneynature and other cinematic nature presentations. The Hunt features scenes from the blistering Namibian desert to the frigid Arctic tundra and more than two dozen locales in between. But The Hunt required more than just sweeping cinematography. It needed to tell an old survival story in a new way. “Animals do the same thing today that they did 1,000 years ago, so we have to reinvent the genre using current technology to tell better stories, even if they’re not unfamiliar,” Cordey says. “It’s a combination of taking familiar animals and giving people an unfamiliar look [at them] and then finding unfamiliar animals and behaviors to highlight.”

To do that, Cordey and the team at Silverback had to leverage filmmaking technology in novel ways—so novel, in fact, that the series narrator, the famed naturalist David Attenborough, told The New York Times he was “astonished” by what he saw.

© Silverback Films

The stabilized camera rig allowed the filmmakers to follow predators such as the African wild dog. © Silverback Films

Take the wild dogs of Zambia. While camera crews have captured wild dog hunts in progress, it was nearly impossible to follow a wild dog hunt from start to finish because the dogs move so fast (40 miles per hour at top speed) and their prey flees unpredictably. The typical approach, Cordey says, is to fix a camera to the side of a car and hope you’ve positioned it correctly to catch the dogs as they run by. “You’d miss 80 percent of the hunt,” Cordey says. “We wanted to be with the predators.”

Cinematographer Jamie McPherson, an accomplished hand at the Cineflex—a helicopter-borne, gyro-stabilized camera housing built by General Dynamics—had a better idea. He rigged a Cineflex to a scaffolding frame attached to the bonnet of a vehicle. This way, the car could follow the action over rough terrain with a stabilized camera that could move smoothly to track the dogs at ground level. Meanwhile, an airborne crew using a Cineflex in a helicopter half a kilometer away got a wide shot. Wherever the hunting dogs veered, the crew had a camera on them.

Indeed, McPherson’s unusual, custom-built Cineflex rigging was central to a number of The Hunt’s signature moments, Cordey says. His most innovative was a custom platform for an elephant—the “Eleflex”—which captured incredible close-ups of a tiger stalking an antelope.

India’s national parks don’t allow vehicles to plow through the jungle, for obvious reasons, so nature documentarians who wish to film tigers must do so from the road or from an elephant. The latter are prized because they’re the only animal that’s not afraid of tigers and tigers generally ignore them, Cordey says. In the past, film crews have strapped down tall tripods onto an elephant’s back but that approach was unsteady and resulted in an “unattractive angle,” Cordey notes. McPherson’s “Eleflex” solved the angle problem. Rigged to the elephant’s back and no heavier than the tourists the 60-year-old giant was used to ferrying, the rail system McPherson devised allowed the Cineflex to be raised or lowered up and down the side of the elephant, depending on the action. This enabled the production to get ground-level footage of a tiger stalking its prey, while a crew on the road, with a Cineflex on a jib arm, was able to get shots looking into the forest.

While The Hunt has its share of iconic predators doing their thing, it also has its share of novel creatures. For instance, The Hunt has the first footage of the Darwin’s bark spider (only discovered in 2009) spewing its silky webbing, and footage of the Australian abdopus octopus walking on land as it crossed between pools of water. Other animal behaviors—such as a polar bear climbing a cliff—were also caught on camera.

© Silverback Films

The Hunt executive producer Huw Cordey, standing, and cinematographer Jamie McPherson, seated, in a jeep outfitted with a Cineflex on a jib arm. © Silverback Films

For all the close-ups and unique vantage points afforded by technology, the team had to be acutely sensitive not to disturb the animals and to keep the technology from intruding into the story, Cordey says. “We don’t want to be doing ‘penguin cam’ or ‘dolphin cam.’ We want people absorbed by the animals and not have the tech in your face.” That immersiveness required some concessions to documentary faithfulness: While almost all animal noises are captured in the field, animal footsteps or the beating of wings, which would be impossible to record in the field without disturbing the animals, had to be added in by humans in a studio after the fact, Cordey says. (True fact: there are “footstep artists” who specialize in creating the sounds of footfalls in a studio by beating their hands in sand, gravel and other materials, Cordey says.)

Much of The Hunt was shot on Sony’s F55 cinema camera using Canon’s HJ18x28B telephoto zoom lens, though scenes were also recorded using a RED Dragon. High-speed footage was captured using Phantom Flex 4K and 2K cameras, and infrared footage was captured using a FLIR camera. Canon’s 100mm Macro lens was “a popular lens for our small stuff” and the Canon HJ14 was the production’s “workhorse wide angle” lens, Cordey notes.

One technology that was conspicuous for its absence in The Hunt was a drone camera. Silverback relied on helicopters for its aerials. “Drones sound like angry bees, and if there are animals that don’t like angry bees, that’s a problem,” Cordey says, though he hastens to add that they’re continually evaluating them for future work.

Cordey says a core team of six camera operators filmed about 50 percent of The Hunt, while local freelance camera operators tackled the rest. “We wanted to do as much as possible with the core team so they feel they have a stake in it.” While the crews were varied and dispersed, they used the same cameras and settings to ensure as much uniformity as possible in the look of the final footage.

For Silverback, having a film crew that understands animal behavior is paramount as close calls and dangerous encounters are inevitable. The Hunt had its fair share of those, including a run in with an insistent polar bear who broke into the crew’s wooden hut and “cleaned it out. We seriously considered pulling them out,” Cordey recalls. Fortunately, the crew chased the bear off and no harm was done, at least to any living thing—the hut, on the other hand, was thoroughly trashed.

Finding these animals and recording these unique behaviors requires two critical ingredients, Cordey says. “We work with large budgets and a lot of time. That’s a combo that’s absolutely needed because you need money to fail,” Cordey says. “If budgets are tight, it’s more difficult to create those surprises.”

The filmmakers spent countless hours filming in the hopes of capturing an elusive moment. Silverback’s crews recorded an average of 150 minutes or more of footage for every one minute ultimately used in an episode, Cordey says. Silverback’s camera operators don’t typically hail from a film production background, either—they’re mostly biologists or naturalists by training. Producing nature films, Cordey says with a laugh, “requires such huge amounts of patience and resilience that your average DP wouldn’t put up with it.”

Related Links: 

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Ed Panar’s Animals That Saw Me Volume Two

Into The Wild: Capturing The Planet’s Imperiled Ecosystems