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.

Lynne and Phil Richardson each set up their own blinds at different ends of the spring to maximize their chances of capturing any behavior, using their Aaton cameras. That's the traditional way of filming.

My cameraman and I filmed the Richardsons with a Sony PD-150 and the Canon XL1 mini-DV cameras as they went about filming. We mostly handheld our cameras getting up close to the action, shooting at any different angle we could think of.

We also had a lipstick camera, which was about two inches [five centimeters] long and half an inch [1.3 centimeters] wide, attached to a wire and a monitor. We attached the lipstick camera to Lynne so we could get her point of view as she and her trackers were tracking the lions.

We also placed a lipstick camera in a tree above the Richardsons' camp, where a troop of baboons lived. We have some images of baboons actually walking up to the camera and sticking their noses in the lens out of curiosity. They eventually forgot about the camera and went about playing and carrying on naturally.

Baboons drink out of the waterholes in the spring where the Richardsons had set up their camp. So I placed a lipstick camera in the waterhole, and a baboon stuck its head down to drink. This was all captured on camera.

The Richardsons took the chance of placing a lipstick camera in a lion's den when a lioness had walked away to hunt one afternoon. They found two three-week-old cubs in the den. Phil and Lynne Richardson sat hidden 50 yards [46 meters] down the river and filmed some incredible shots of the mother coming back to the den and nursing her cubs.

Did they mask their scent from the wildlife?

They positioned themselves downwind from the wildlife so their scents would not be detected. Lynne and Phil spent four seasons in the field filming. It took time to habituate the lions, to a certain degree. You can never really habituate a wild animal. But the animals tolerated their presence enough to allow them to film. As long as you do not go beyond the lions safety zone.

And that's when the Richardsons were charged by the lions when they accidentally stumbled upon the lion pride. We were charged by the lions, as well, when we were filming them. It was quite a frightening experience.

My cameraman and I filmed Lynne and Phil as they were being charged. They had stumbled upon a lion cub, so the pride was very protective of their cub. The lions started to surround us very slowly. We were almost completely surrounded, but we managed to back away. That's the chance you take filming on foot and in the wild.

How have these filmmaking technologies changed the way we see animals in the wild?

By using the infrared night vision cameras, Phil and Lynne Richardson were able to observe one particular behavior that you wouldn't normally see. They observed an orphaned elephant calf being rejected from its herd. Its mother had died from starvation. Orphaned calves are sometimes adopted by another female member of the herd; but this one wasn't. The Richardsons spent several days watching this calf trying to survive on its own. It eventually died.

With night vision cameras, they watched all the elephants from the herd come down to the riverbank where the dead calf lay. The elephants were curiously sniffing its body and spending time around the calf, nudging it and responding to it. It's a behavior that has been observed before, but it's very unusual to see. With the night vision camera, they were able to capture this behavior on film.

What other new filmmaking technologies are being used to shoot wildlife documentaries?

Macro-cinematography [up-close photography] is becoming more popular as audiences want to see things up close that they would normally not be able to see. Some photographers are using specialized lenses called endoscopes. These lenses look like periscopes. A colleague of mine recently produced a film about Japanese hornets. By using these specialized lenses, he was able to film inside a hornet's nest, from the nest construction to larvae development and the interaction between workers and the queen.

The "Crittercam" is a system in mini-DV, designed much smaller than the traditional mini-DV camera. It's placed on the wildlife in order to capture behavior that we would normally never see. It collects data detecting temperature, speed, depth, video and audio. The "Crittercam" contributes enormously to scientists research.

Satellite imagery is slowly becoming popular. I just pitched a film which would involve using a satellite videophone to dial in to our studio here and see the person who is calling from the field. That person could then download video clips of footage that he or she had shot of the location to show you exactly what they're filming.

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