Editor’s Desk: Behind the Scenes in Africa

Jul 3, 2015
The Reptile Report
by Editor in Chief

The Reptile Report - More than once, since returning from Africa, I’ve been asked, “What was it like?” Of course, that question has many, many answers. The exotic land, its beautiful people and extraordinary animals, its unusual foods, crazy streets and stunning wilderness, all offer different answers to “What was it like?” But what was it like to travel with a film crew? What does it look like to film a wildlife documentary?

Come with me, and take a peek at Africa from behind the cameras.



Brian, Aaron, and Jason anxiously awaiting our departure flight from Dulles International Airport.


For me personally, the workload was a light one, with just my notes and my little point-and-shoot camera to worry about while filming was going on.  It’s another story for the film crew, though.  Two cameramen, Aaron and Russ, each carried a large and complex video camera, along with a variety of heavy tripods to mount them on.  The sound guy, Lyndon, was never without his boom and a heavy bag strapped to his chest filled with his portable mixing board, a variety of microphones, and all the bazillion little bits and pieces that might be needed along the way.



Russ and his camera



Aaron and his camera



Russ and Aaron



Lyndon and his gear


In addition to all that, we had the drone, a Ronin mount (a heavy, complex gyroscope mount that allows the video camera to “float” while in motion), tracks for rolling a camera, countless GoPros and mounting equipment for those, a multitude of huge, heavy batteries, cases of hard drives for storing all the video footage, and too many other accessories to count.  All of this had to be packed and unpacked every time we moved locations (which was often).  Batteries had to be charged every night (often with limited outlet availability) and all the day’s footage had to be transferred from video cards to the primary hard drives and then to the back-up hard drives.



The faithful drone



Drone following Brian and our guide, Rich



Aaron carrying the Ronin (Photo by Shannon Benson)



Brian sporting the latest GoPro fashion



An intrepid little GoPro gets propped up in a pile of poop to try and capture some video of a hippo pod that would not come out of the water while we were close enough to film.  We hoped that if we went away, the GoPro would catch them coming out of the water.



When we went back to get it later, the hippos were out on land (see them scurrying back into the water as the guys approach) and we had high hopes for some good video.  Unfortunately, it was a total miss that time.  But this rugged little camera was also carried around and played with by a troop of baby monkeys, and sniffed at and stepped on by a herd of Cape buffalo, so it managed to catch a lot of great stuff along the way, despite the grumpy hippos.


For fifteen days straight, we worked.  The work was thrilling, exhilarating, fun beyond words.  Sometimes it was hot out in the sun.  Sometimes it was freezing cold, especially when driving in an open truck before the sun has even come up.  The closest thing to time off during those fifteen hectic days was the eight hour drive from Limpopo to KwaZulu-Natal, but we still got quite a bit of amazing filming done during the first half of that day.  Every day was filled to the brim.  So we took rest and goofed off whenever we could.



Driving around on the open trucks in the early morning hours was always a very chilly experience



A cheetah hangs out during some dawn dialogue filming



Every day started super early.  Here, we’re setting up for an interview as the sun comes up over the Usuthu River.



Brian had to bare himself to the cold morning air in order to get mic’ed up, not to mention enduring the inevitable playful jeers from the crew.



Peter and Jason hanging out in the truck while the film crew was working nearby



Brian blows off a little steam goofing around with one of the cameras



Night times were spent around a hot fire.  Coals were scooped from the fires and used to cook almost all of our meals.  Even breakfasts and lunches were cooked outdoors over hot coals.



Peter grabs a quick siesta when his talents aren’t needed elsewhere



Aaron takes a break to commune with a cheetah


Every day of filming was also an exercise in patience. With so much equipment to keep up with, and so many people and personalities to contend with, it was a bit like herding cats trying to get everyone and everything all set and ready to go for each scheduled shoot. There were always camera bits that had to be retrieved from elsewhere, a battery to swap out, a memory card to find. We’d think we had everything together, and then someone would ask, “Should we bring such-n-such, just in case…?” And then someone would be dashing off to find the such-n-such.

There were also long discussions about the day’s goals and stories, and how each shot should be set up. Then the shots had to be set up. Cameras were set on tripods here, then moved over there, and often moved yet again. Then one camera taken off its tripod and held on a shoulder instead. Something was always changing and adjusting. For someone that may be a little compulsive about punctuality and efficiency, watching a wildlife film crew in action can be a bit nerve wracking.



Consulting over camera assembly



Setting up to shoot a particular sequence with wild rhinos



Sometimes there was a lot of standing around involved, waiting for circumstances to catch up with our plans


Multiple takes might be required. Additional camera angles are worked and new sequences may be added to the already established story. We’d think we were finished with a sequence and then someone would come up with something else that should be included and we’d start all over again. The motto was always, “Better to have it on film and not use it than to later wish you could use it and not have it.”

Day after day, the film crew never lost patience and never gave up on getting the shot. Because of that, what seemed like chaos slowly and steadily grew into one breathtaking story after another.



Brian and the crew hiked to the top of the Usuthu Gorge and climbed onto a precarious rock outcropping to get the perfect shot.



Filming an interview, with elephants in the bush


Of course, we can’t forget the element of filming with animals. They rarely behave in the way you want them to and things don’t always go according to plan. But once again, I can point out the supreme patience of the filming crew. They never gave up on the animals and would wait as long as necessary to get the shots they were hoping for.

Working with the animals provided an endless source of both awe and amusement.



In Baboon World, the bigger and uglier a female’s behind is the more attractive she is supposed to be to potential mates.  This particular wild baboon took a shine to Peter…



…and didn’t miss any opportunity to offer her behind for his approval.



Brian and Rich did an interview, still a little jittery with adrenaline after a closer-than-expected encounter with wild rhinos, little knowing…



…that the same curious rhinos had circled around and were sneaking back in for another close look.



Our first close encounter with a Nile crocodile.  The guys are excited and get all set up to do the shoot.  And just as they’re about to roll, the croc spooks and disappears into the water in a splashing flash.



Even the plant-life would get in on the act.  Not only did it try to hide the animals from us, those wicked thorns would reach out and grab any loose jacket or sweatshirt we’d shed as the day grew warmer.  We’d drive past a thorny tree and the next thing we know, a colorful jacket is dangling over the road a hundred meters behind us.



The guys got all set up to do a sequence with a cheetah under this lovely tree, but she decided she wanted to sit in the other shady spot, forcing the entire crew to reset and scramble to adjust lighting gear in order to accommodate her.



Brian gets photobombed by a nyala antelope while filming some dialogue above the banks of the Jozini Dam.



A flashing elephant gives all the guys yet another reason to be intimidated by the gentle giants. (Look, I swear the elephant is laughing about it, too!)


It’s not all fun and games, though.  Anytime we were out in the bush, our guides always had guns with them.  Despite how it may appear in some of the pictures, we were always careful and hyper aware of our surroundings.  We witnessed tragedy that proves beyond any doubt that man is, by far, the most dangerous animal in the bush.  We saw the stark reality of the circle of life, hunter and prey.



Rich checks his gun as the guys get ready to do some filming in the bush



Site of a recent rhino poaching



We were able to get remarkably close to these cheetahs and their newly captured prey



To answer some questions about these photos: Yes, they are wild cheetahs.  Yes, they caught and killed the impala themselves.  No, we were not in any danger being this close to them.  Despite their wild nature, they are habituated to humans and accustomed to hunting with them.  They were very alert to their surroundings, always looking out for other predators that might steal their dinner, but they looked around and past us as if we were no more significant to them than the bushes.


Another inevitable question about this trip is, “What was the wildest/most exciting/coolest/favorite moment of the trip?”  There really is no easy answer for that, and I’m sure each member of the team would have something different to say.  But for sheer, adrenaline-pumping excitement and awe-struck emotional impact, I would have to say the capture of the Nile crocodile at the Jozini Dam.  This story, along with many others, can be seen in the finished documentary, Brian in the Wild.  I won’t retell it here, but this photo journey would not be complete without a few of these…



A stunning backdrop for croc hunting



The croc-catching team from front to back: Brian, Mark (the scientist studying them), Clint (our guide), Lyndon on sound, Aaron on camera, and the boat skipper.



Scrambling to get the croc safely on shore and get the cameras set up at the same time



The leap onto the croc



This gorgeous specimen measured out to be 4.37 meters (over 14 feet) long!



The film crew poses for a well-deserved photo for photographer Shannon Benson


So that’s a little bit about what it was like to be on a wildlife documentary film crew. It was hard work, but at the same time it hardly felt like working. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and built memories that will have lasting impacts on all our lives. We ate great food and saw the stars in the sky as few get to see them.

Here’s where you can order your own copy of Brian in the Wild!

If you made it all the way to the end of this, I thank you, dear reader, and I hope you have enjoyed the journey!



Sunset over the Jozini Dam


Judy Clothier
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