Dream job: making wildlife documentaries

By Katie Cuttriss 29 November 2013
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Aussie filmmaker takes us behind the scenes of an epic global wildlife soap opera, where nature writes the script.

VIDEO: BBC Planet Earth Live behind the scenes

IT’S EARLY MORNING in the Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, and the last of the night is crawling to an end as animals dart into their secret daytime shelters before the sun rises over the savannah plains.

Australian Jasper Montana and the UK crew are preparing for the day. He has been up since before dawn, organising equipment and collecting the packed lunches. It doesn’t take them long before they all pile into cars and head out in search of their elephant characters.

The crew is out on location for five weeks of filming elephants in the Samburu National Reserve for the new BBC documentary series Planet Earth Live, airing in 140 countries around the world during the month of May. The BBC describes it as its most ambitious global wildlife series ever.

Filming elephants in Kenya

Jasper’s team is small. The four of them work out of a camp along the Ewaso River in the Samburu Reserve and they have just three weeks to deliver sequences ready for broadcast.

“Natural history television is notorious for requiring long periods of time in the field and it can sometimes take up to four or five years to produce a single series,” says Jasper, a researcher for this series. This time, he says, they only have five weeks to produce the goods.

Every day they film from dawn till dusk in the field. Though Samburu is not a large compared to other national parks in Kenya, the elephants can travel large distances during the night, so “the first step is to head out to where they were last seen the night before,” says Jasper.

After a few hours, they spot one of their little calves with its family. The crew hustle to get a prime position and set up the shot as hundreds of kilos of elephant muscle heave against the grassland.

Jasper Montana

Behind the scenes filming wildlife

Jasper, 27, a scientific filmmaker, graduated from the University of Melbourne with degrees in both zoology and film production. Since then he has worked on a range projects with BBC Natural History Unit. Now a researcher for BBC’s Planet Earth Live, he says this series is his biggest challenge yet.

“I have always been fascinated with the excitement of live television and its quick turn-around nature. With live broadcast there is no need to wait three years to have the reward of something you have worked on appear on television – it is right there happening, as you make it,” Jasper says. “We’re guided by this incredibly dynamic process of delivering animal stories to an audience, from the field, three times a week. It’s a challenge but it’s great fun.”

Working in the field means bringing limited equipment and making do with what technical support they can get. For one, the team has to run the project off a tiny generator. “We have to collect fuel for it twice a day from a hand pumped petrol station,” Jasper says.

The live broadcast will concentrate on the African elephants’ remarkably complex social lives. These African bush elephants are the largest living land mammals and the second tallest after the giraffe.  Following the matriarch (the oldest female in the herd), the filmmakers will bring the daily life and struggles into people’s living rooms, right as they are unfolding.

For Jasper getting to know the characters in the elephant herd is the best part of filming in Samburu. “I feel quite privileged to be given a sneak preview into the life of the elephants and I hope the viewers might be able to get this too. Each animal is an individual, with its own relationships and challenges”.

Watch the live elephant action on BBC Knowledge at these times (AEST):
Monday, May 14 at 7:30pm
Friday, May 18 at 5:00am and 7:30pm
Monday, May 21 at 5:00am and 7:30pm
Friday, May 25 at 5:00am and 7:30pm

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Ranger danger: risking death to protect wildlife

BBC Knowlegde: Planet Earth Live