“The problem with filming cheetahs is fairly obvious,” explains Nick Easton, producer director on the BBC’s latest wildlife blockbuster Big Cats. “They’re the fastest land animals, so you can’t follow them running on foot, and they’re quite slender and nimble so driving alongside in a truck is too dangerous. In the end, we hacked some new technology, managed to capture a cheetah at full stretch in slow motion and saw things no-one has ever filmed before.”
Big Cats – just like the BBC’s recent David Attenborough spectacular Blue Planet II – is laced with unprecedented close-ups and never-before-seen behaviours from some of the natural world’s most iconic animals. The series covers almost every big hunting cat – from cheetah to lion to jaguar to the more obscure Black-footed cat and the Pallas cat. But to get world-first footage was as much the result of the hacker’s art as it was the filmmakers art.
The BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) – the biggest wildlife-documentary maker in the world, producing some 150 hours of radio and television every year – has had hacking in its DNA since it was one of the first to put TV cameras in the field back in the 1950s. “The bar we set for ourselves is always rising,” Easton says. “No-one wants to see the same shots in a different programme. So, each series we make we have to push tech further than it’s currently configured, combining technologies for the first time and always going for shots that no-one’s made before.”
For Big Cats this meant state-of-the-art low-light cameras – the new frontier of wildlife filmmaking – for nocturnal shots; grabbing a high speed remote control trolley, an advanced stabilising system and laboratory cameras to catch the cheetah; converting broken drones into field communications equipment; and deploying a military spec thermal imaging camera specifically designed to be mounted only on a tank.
Some things were shot the traditional way – albeit not necessarily through choice. Hunting the Black-footed cat – the smallest African cat, little bigger than a domestic moggy – the team were faced with a size problem. The cats are around 35cm long, have underground lairs, are nocturnal and are exclusive to the Karoo desert – a desert in southern Africa that’s roughly the size of Germany. Their only hope was a scientific team that had successfully radio-collared one dark pawed feline, nicknamed Gyra.
“The problem was, the scientist’s truck was a big but delicate piece of equipment and they weren’t keen on us fixing or modifying it,” Paul Williams, another producer director on the series explains. “These cats can travel 20 miles per night, they’re constantly on the go. So, whenever we spotted Gyra we’d slow the truck down, lower the camera and tripod land quickly try and get shots. This was a very slowly pieced together portrait.”
“It’s all slowly pieced together to be fair,” adds Easton. “Ten weeks was about the shortest shoot for one cat. I spent 16 weeks in the field to get some shots. And while equipment is getting smaller, it’s not that much smaller. We still have to carry 6-7kg tripods up the Himalayas.”
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Run like a cheetah
Nick Easton loves shooting cheetahs. “The last year or so has seen remote buggies become stable enough and heavy enough to carry a camera,” he explains. “For Big Cats, we used a buggy developed jointly by a wildlife camera operator and remote-control car enthusiast called The Mantis, a Newton gimbal stabilising system from Sweden and a Phantom Flex high speed camera – which started as tool for scientist to record extremely quick events.”
While filming for Big Cats, Easton collaborated with Professor Alan Wilson, professor of locomotor biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College. Wilson has a paper coming out in Nature in the spring using his own and Easton’s findings to show the cheetah’s speed is actually a by-product of its manoeuvrability – the predators need to accelerate, brake and turn to keep up with their plunging prey and it’s the acceleration that gives them the speed.
“We were able to show that cheetahs keep their claws out all the time while running to act like spiked running shoes,” Easton explains. “We were hacking the kit to the limit – there are shots where you can see the gimble lurching from side to side. But we caught shots of the forces travelling through them as they decelerate that support Alan Wilson’s argument.”
Drones on a stick
The NHU pioneered the use of drones in filming – in 2013 they adapted a surveillance UAV for the first time and hired an experienced US drone pilot to teach the camera teams how to fly. Since then, says Williams, they have become an essential tool in the look and feel of big wildlife series – although some countries, like India, still ban their use.
For drone shots, the Unit deploys tiny 4k cameras – designed with an attached gimble by drone company DJI. To mimic a swooping drone shot Williams tried sticking the camera on a long pole but found his Wi-Fi connection unreliable.
“I fly drones myself and they use Air Bridge – which gives a live signal from drone even when kilometres away,” he explains. “We asked some drone hackers – can we take an Air Bridge chip from one of the many drones we’ve destroyed over the years and use it on a ground based camera? They modified the chip – which meant we could stick the camera on the end of a ten-metre pole and drive cars or boats along for a drone shot effect.”
To film the elusive, shy and vigilant Pallas cat, or manul, Williams connected the modified Air Bridge Osmo via a gyro stabilised gimble mounted on a remote-control vehicle – which he can control from a kilometre away. With the buggy-and-camera system built in house by the BBC’s engineering team, the NHU owns the concept. What did they call it? The CAT-a-pillar.
The camera as big as a tank
The first time the NHU used a Leonardo thermal imaging camera – which uses a low light/infrared detector array developed by the UK’s Ministry of Defence – it had no viewfinder and, as the camera was designed to be mounted on a transport plane, was so large they needed a tank to move it into the field.
“We used it on the Great British Year to film hares in a field at night,” explains Williams. “That’s all we could manage with it. Since then, we’ve worked with the company to help them move into the wildlife market with smaller, lighter versions.”
The team used Leonardo’s latest – the SLX Merlin – to shoot jaguar hunting turtles on a Costa Rica beach in the dead of night, something that has never been filmed before. The thermal resolution was so high that the team could make out the cat’s spots because they were reflecting a slightly different heat signature.
“Low light and thermal camera tech is the frontier of wildlife filmmaking,” explains Williams. “The jaguar shoot in particular – if the jaguar saw the camera the operator might be in real danger, so shooting at night was also a lot safer.”
The team knew that the Black-footed cat Gyra had a kitten that only emerged from her lair 30 minutes before sunset for just half an hour. In the end, Williams crept close to the lair an hour before sunset, placed a Sony Alpha A7S II mirrorless camera, designed to shoot 4k video in very low light, near the lair, wired a recorder to it, hit record and went away until the sun had gone down.
“Because the A7S records in 4k and we’re only delivering programmes in HD we can crop the image in the edit and do moves we didn’t do in the field,” Williams explains. “It’s like those CIA movies with a picture on the wall – enhance, enhance. The detail that 4k offers means we were shooting on a 1500mm focal lens but cropping gave us the kind of shots a 2000mm lens would provide.”
The first episode of Big Cats is on BBC1 on January 11