Kali the lioness and her cubs, who are prominently featured in Discovery Channel’s Serengeti. (source: Discovery Communications)
Discovery Channel’s new documentary series Serengeti, which premieres on August 4, is a breathtaking, visually gorgeous wonder. It’s also the type of family-friendly entertainment that parents lament there’s not nearly enough of. A press release for the series calls it “the real-life Lion King,” a very apt phrase since this is the type of filmmaking that Disney used to specialize in.
Narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Black Panther), and created and directed by filmmaker John Downer, who specializes in wildlife documentaries, Serengeti follows the lives of various animals—lions, baboons, hyenas, elephants—over the course of a year, observing their relationships with other animals and their environment. One of the more prominently featured animals is Kali, a lioness who gives a whole new meaning to the term “single mother.” Alienated from her pride, she struggles to survive on her own and provide food for her quartet of cubs.
I had the opportunity to talk to Downer about what must have been an epic undertaking. “We filmed for nearly two years with three crews,” he told me. “The shifts were four weeks on location with two weeks off between, but there was always a presence of at least one crew on location throughout the period, and often there would be two or three crews filming at the same time. With three editors and two assistants, the editing took a year and a half. The main editors came on board half-way through the filming period. We shot three and half thousand hours of footage—reduced to 6 hours—a ratio of around 580:1. To watch the footage in real time without a break would have taken 146 days!”
I asked Downer how in God’s name did his crew manage to get close-ups of a vulture’s head while it was in mid-flight? His response: “We used many revolutionary filming techniques; this is one that we will not be divulging!” He was happy, however, to tell me about his “Bouldercam,” a camera housed in a hard covering that makes it look like, well, a boulder. “The Bouldercam was one of the very first specialist ‘spy’ camera devices that I created. Over the years, it has continually been updated as nothing can beat it in terms of getting close to animals. It is designed to be lion proof. It is basically a buggy carrying a camera on a stabilized pan tilt and roll mount. The camera is protected inside a strong fiberglass exterior that is smooth like a boulder. Because it is rounded, lions can’t get their teeth into it, and the lens is recessed, so they can’t grab that either. It needs to be tough as often the lions’ first reaction is to try to test it for destruction. But they soon get bored and then the filming can really begin. They rapidly accept it into the pride, and may even use it as footrest or a pillow. Cubs love it, so it provides some of the most enchanting and intimate shots of the series.”
Downer also went into detail about the various types of equipment he used in the making of Serengeti. “We use a wide variety of cameras for different applications,” he said. “Each vehicle is kitted out with at least five camera systems, and a different combination of camera types are in each car. Before we began, we spent four weeks just testing cameras in the field to get the perfect combination of camera systems we needed. One vehicle might have four cameras filming at any one time getting different viewpoints of the same event. One of the most important developments was a range of different stabilized mounts that allowed us to shoot on the move. Some are bespoke systems, but the most versatile is a Shotover F1 equipped with a 1500mm lens. We shoot primarily on RED Helium cameras, but supplement these both with Sony A7IIIs and Panasonic Lumix GH5s, depending on the application. We capture at between 4 to 8k, depending on the camera. As to drones, our principle devices are DJI Inspires which can shoot 6k RAW, but we also use other smaller drones specially modified to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. As well as Bouldercams, we use disguised remote cameras that can be placed and waterholes etc and be triggered remotely by the animals.”
It should be mentioned that the vividness of the colors in the series’ footage is just as stunning as the footage itself. One particularly beautiful example is a panoramic shot of the Serengeti plain where, in the far distance, a storm is brewing, the black clouds and purple sky on the horizon in the background contrasting with the bright sunlight in the foreground. “I wanted to capture the beauty and color of the place as it appears when you are out there,” Downer explained. “Often films about Africa look washed out, mainly because they are filmed in the dry season when the grass is short and it is easy to get around. But this is the time the light is bad and there’s dust in the air. We filmed in every season, and after heavy rain, there is incredible clarity, and colors pop out. The cameras are set to capture a flat picture that preserves all the color information so it can be restored in the grade. My colorist uses Baselight. He is an artist and knows how to bring out every detail and also the interplay of light. Every shot is given the same level of loving care that applies to every other aspect of the production.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of Serengeti is the depiction of the relationships between the different sets of animals. I asked Downer how he and his team were able to figure out the personal dynamics going on between the animals. “Firstly, we know the animals and their behavior,” he answered. “If you take the team as a whole, they have over 100 years of experience filming these animals, so they know their behavior inside out. Then it is about dedication and time with them. We would set off before dawn and come back in the dark, every daylight hour spent with our subjects, so we got to know them as characters and started to understand their motivations. The animals also get so used to our presence we are totally ignored, allowing us to capture intimate moments of behavior that are seldom seen.
“I’ve been using ‘Spy’ camera techniques which allow intimate close up views of animals, since I made a film about lions nearly 20 years ago. Each subsequent subject required new developments, so over the years I’ve built up an arsenal of technique that can be applied to any animal, But when I made Spy in the Wild, we started to use ‘Spy Creatures;’ these were animatronic animals with cameras in their eyes. This had a surprising result: the way the animals reacted to them revealed details of their behavior that has seldom been captured. It showed their emotions as well as personalities. But more than the technique itself, it was the fact that we were able to enter their world and look at their family lives in a new empathetic way. It revealed that in so many ways they were just like us, grappling with the personal problems of relationships, parenting, jealousies, and doing the best for their families. More than anything, it was this empathetic viewpoint that was carried forward into Serengeti.”
I concluded my interview by asking Downer what his next projects would be. “We are just completing Season 2 of Spy in the Wild, which will be going out next year,” he said, then added, “But Serengeti is also calling…”
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