Saturday, 30 August 2008

Life In Cold Blood

I have to say one of the most exciting things I've ever seen was the clip in a Life in Cold Blood episode which I had been a part of filming. You see last year (after much begging) the brilliant Paul Williams, researcher for the BBC's Life in Cold Blood, invited me along to Failand studios for a few days to assist with filming.

To be brutally honest probably the most aid I provided was holding the waterspray to ensure the frogs were kept moist! We were trying to get a shot of this beautiful green frog landing on a leaf for a clip which would be played in slow motion:

For those of you who might have an inkling toward feeling cheated when you discover that some shots aren't taken in the wild, firstly imagine yourself in a humid climate being supped upon by leaches and ticks holding a camcorder which must not get moist and pointing it at a leaf in the hope that a frog might just come along and pick your leaf to land on... and secondly let me tell you that we stood there for two hours trying to get the perfect shot! It's no easy feat even when it is staged! And of course lets remember that importantly we're not faking unnatural behaviour; we're pretty sure that scientists have established that frogs land on leaves!
**NB: The BBC also has a very open policy where such filming is necessary - just look at Planet Earth's extras and those at the end of episodes in the Galapagos series!

Now I'm no professional cameraman so I was very excited when they did consider my idea of panning out and cutting the shot around whichever leaf the frog chose to land on (because it never bloody seemed to be our leaf!), BUT these BBC cameramen are perfectionists! Firstly they emphasised that they were shooting in HD (High Definition) and with a cut shot the quality would be reduced, and secondly no, they had set up the lighting perfectly for that leaf, they had a highly professional assistant spraying it evenly to keep it moist (yours truly) and it simply would not do for our friend to land on a poorly lit leaf. This is what is known as audience loyalty. These guys spend hours perfecting things so that the 3second shot is absolutely spot on for you, the viewer!
If you do see Life in Cold Blood: Land Invaders, note that in the shot between 20.59 - 21.25 minutes the frog take off was beautiful: given how long we had to wait hoping the frog would get the urge to leap I'm glad it was well worth it!

I do think Life in Cold Blood is an amazing program but it isn't without its limits. I suppose it may be a personal preference of my own that I like programs where you are given a chance to follow a story through completely. The nature of such immensely factual programs as Life in Cold Blood means that there is an inevitable tradeoff between showing the complete story of each behaviour and showing as many different behaviours as possible.
I did feel that some stories in the series are cut off a tad short but (without sounding too BJohnson) I don't presume to have greater editting skills than those giants at the BBC and I can't imagine looking at twenty odd hours of film with the task of cutting it down to just one hour!

So I suggest you do get onto the BBC iPlayer and watch whichever episode they're currently showing, because at the very very least it's a fascinating example of brilliant filmmaking, and there's a handy exerpt at the end of each episode to tell you how some of it's done!


Charlie said...

I completely agree with you. I managed to catch the Life In Cold Blood program on iguanas recently. If you haven’t seen it it’s definitely worth a watch. They managed to get some fantastic shots at night of iguanas perched on the end of branches. But the most incredible was when they found the world’s smallest iguana (and probably reptile) on a little twig amongst the foliage on the forest floor. Just amazing!

Charlie said...

Thought I'd also add that whether the scenes are staged or not, these programs provide a great opportunity for people to see and learn about a huge variety of animals which they would otherwise never have known about.

Samantha Dixon said...

Thanks Charlie. In fact the Head of the BBC's Natural History Unit commented on this topic a while back in reponse to an article damning the practise of in vitro wildlife filming:

Neil Nightingale writes "Steve Hewlett's piece Is It OK For Natural History Programmes to Use Fake Footage? gives a false impression of both the motivation for and our openness about filming animals in controlled conditions. He also suggests this is done for "entertainment". While the great majority of our footage is filmed entirely in the wild there are some animals and natural behaviours that are virtually impossible to obtain in the wild. If we did not sometimes film in controlled conditions we would be unable to bring these fascinating stories to audiences. It is for reasons of enlightenment and education that these techniques are necessary."

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