Filmmakers Use High-Tech Gear to Stalk Lions

Anna Brendle
for National Geographic News
January 3, 2003

Walking With Lions is more than just another wildlife documentary about lions. Husband and wife team Phil and Lynne Richardson lived with their 18-month-old daughter at a water hole amongst lions, elephants, and baboons in the African bush of northern Zimbabwe's Zambezi Valley.

Using video technologies—like miniature infrared cameras and lenses for nighttime vision—helped them capture natural behavior without interfering with the wildlife. National Geographic News spoke with filmmaker Maya Laurinaitis, who followed Phil and Lynne Richardson to produce an accompanying documentary, Living With Lions, a profile of the Richardsons' experience in the African bush.

What makes Walking With Lions and Living With Lions different from other wildlife documentaries?

What's unique about these films, particularly with lions, is that the filming is done out of the vehicles. It's done by foot, and lions are very dangerous animals. The Richardsons decided to film the wildlife on foot because this particular spring was surrounded by a gorge and impossible to reach by vehicle. This spring was the only source of water for miles around, and one pride of lions had made this their home, an ambush site for wildlife that come to the spring to drink.

What new filmmaking techniques were used in the production of Walking With Lions and Living With Lions?

In order to capture natural behavior, you don't want to disrupt the wildlife. By using standard lights at night, Lynne and Phil Richardson felt that they were not seeing the animals behave naturally.

So they decided to use infrared lights and infrared cameras. Phil designed special plates for the cameras and stands for the lights. Everything was remote-controlled. They had to walk to the camera locations and position themselves behind a blind, with only a flap of canvas separating them from the wildlife.

When you use infrared cameras and lights, it's pitch black. The only image you do see is on the camera monitor. You hear sounds of animals all around you, but you can't see them. It can be extremely dangerous, especially since lions can see very clearly at night. So they can see you, but you can't see them.

Elephants are also very dangerous. They are actually more dangerous than lions. The sequence that Lynne and Phil Richardson set out to film was the dynamics between the elephants and lions.

What techniques haven't changed in wildlife documentary filmmaking?

They both use the traditional Super 16mm Aatons, and they come with different lenses, from macro, wide to long lenses. Typically those types of cameras are set on a tripod.

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