How Not to Film Lions
by Robert Waldron
Lions are mostly nocturnal. So if you want to film them doing most of the things they do, you need to become nocturnal. This takes time, and often involves a lot of nodding off until you get the hang of it. It was this nodding off that caused the problem.
I and my production assistant, Ellie Mthanda, were filming a pride of lions in Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, for our film ‘Story of the Sands’.
The lions were licking water from a puddle of fresh rainwater. It was about nine in the evening, and there was a clear Kalahari sky sparkling with stars.
We got some nice shots of the lions’ faces reflecting in the water, and noted how their tongues curled backwards, scooping up the water into their mouths. Their thirst slaked, the lions flopped down in two groups, and nodded off.
We were supposed to take turns nodding off too, so that we could react if the lions got moving. I film off a bracket mounted on our Landcruiser door, which means keeping my window open so I can have a 180 degree view of the action.
When not shooting, I unclip the camera, and cradle it (all 9 kg of it) on my lap. Sometimes, I nonchalantly rest my arm on the bracket, which protrudes outside the truck. Relaxing and watching lions doing nothing, tends to
have the same effect on me, so I do nothing and relax. And so does Ellie. In this case we both fell asleep, and, as it turns out, me with my arm resting outside on the bracket. Now I’m not much of a believer in extra sensory perception, but that night there was definitely something extra about my senses.
I woke and saw a lioness just outside the window, about to grab my hand with her paw. I quickly removed said hand, and she did an about turn so quickly that her tail whacked the door with a thump, which woke Ellie.
I guess my hand may have been moving while I was in dreamland, or the lioness just saw some movement, or smelled the remains of a supper sandwich on my fingertips.
I was very lucky. An injury caused by a playful lioness in the remoteness of the Kalahari can be fatal. We were at least three to four hours hard driving through the desert from any help. So the lesson here was, never ever take lions for granted. Always take the right precautions.
We never film the big cats from outside the vehicle, except in special circumstances(more about this later). Also, it is illegal to film outside the vehicle in most officially protected wildlife areas.
Some may think that’s a scaredy-cat approach, and that’s fine. But remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the animal. If you’re trying to prove
how close you can leopard crawl to film a lion, chances are you’re going to get footage of an agitated lion looking at you, and you might miss it getting up and doing something amazing in the next few minutes. I have encountered lions three times alone, and on foot, unarmed. Each time was different, each time I desperately wanted to run, and each time made me want it to be the last time(More of this later, too.)
As world-renowned film-maker Alan Root has said “.. these days, it seems everyone is picking up animals, prodding them and cuddling them. God forbid you should leave it alone, it might behave naturally.”
I for one am a firm adherent of that. We are not the picking up and cuddling kind of film-makers. Again, in most countries, it is illegal to remove a wild animal, for example a snake, from its natural environment, and handle it and prod t and chase it around. That is not for wildlife film-makers. That’s for so-called reality shows, which often have a habit of creating situations which are in fact, not reality.
So, back to the bracket on our vehicle. If you’re going to film wildlife from a distance, and safely, you need to keep your camera steady (we’ve all seen those shaky YouTube clips) and shoot from inside a vehicle. (The vehicle also often acts as a hide, and is good to keep the weather off your camera and you.)
To get steady shots, you’re going to need a bracket or clamp of some sort. Our bracket holds a steel bowl that has a fluid system within it (called a fluid head) which allows you to mount the camera to it with a base plate. The fluid head also has a circular level, so that the head can be levelled to the horizon at any time by centering the bubble. From this platform, you can pan, tilt and move the camera smoothly to follow the action.The fluid head you can buy from professional video production gear suppliers. Sachtler and O’Connor are good, but expensive makes. You can get similar fluid action from smaller heads, for smaller cameras, available with tripods at your local photo store. You then need a thing called a bowl holder – also from pro video gear houses. You need to then take this to your local welding shop, where they can weld you a bracket that will firmly hook over the door of your vehicle with the window down. To this, they need to weld the bowl holder.
You can now put the fluid head and bowl into the bowl holder, and clamp it down(it has a clamp under the bowl). To connect the camera to this, you will need a base plate. This plate clips into the head, and is screwed in to the tripod thread hole below the camera. It’s handy because you can clip on and clip off the camera in an instant. If all this sounds like a schlepp, I can guarantee you its more of a schlepp trying to find other half-baked solutions , and you will be rewarded with steady, smooth shots. If you don’t have the budget for a fluid head and bracket system, make yourself a good bean bag.
Get some canvas or other hard material, and fill it with rice, and sew this up. The bag should not be tight to bursting, yet not soggy and loose either. It might take some experimenting to get the right fullness. Once you have the bag right, it should be able to rest on your vehicle window edge steadily, or even hang slightly over, without sliding off. It should cradle your camera in the dent of the bag firmly.
From this, you can shoot fairly steadily,but won’t be able to do smooth moves like panning etc, while shooting.
Next: How to find an Elephant
© Copyright 2012 Robert Charles Waldron. All rights reserved.