Great Migrations, a jaw-droppingly beautiful look at, well, migrations, premieres this Sunday on the National Geographic channel. Wildlife filmmaker Bob Poole contributed several segments to the series and played chicken with elephants and dust storms in the process.
I talked to Bob about filming elephants for Migrations, the gear he used during his three year shoot, the dust megastorm he braved along the way, and much more. Here’s what he told me.
“What’s fantastic about Great Migrations is that not only did we go out and shoot in the highest quality video available, with the latest technologies not just in the cameras but in the camera systems for aerials and underwater and super high speed stuff – but I think we went farther than what’s been done before in terms of storytelling.
The great thing about migrations is that each migration tells a great story in itself – each migration has a beginning, a middle and an end. Great for storytelling. So we went out and tried to capture stories. We wanted to paint portraits of individuals within the herds, or within the giant masses of these animals, so that you could feel for the one and through that understand the rest.”
“On the ground we shot nothing less than 1080p. We used various cameras. I personally was using a lot of Sony cameras, that’s just what I own, and we also used Phantom HD which shoots incredibly high frame rate for super slow motion. Regular video shoots at about 30 frames per second; Phantom can shoot up to 1500 frames per second. We usually shoot around 500 fps, but still you can imagine, when you stuff 500 frames a second back into 30 you get incredible slow motion, all at 2K, which is much higher resolution than 1080p, so it’s super high def in super slow motion. It’s amazing, it just looks fantastic.
A lot of the images were shot with RED cameras; some of it was shot at 4K; there’s a lot of time lapse and macro stuff. All different kinds of cameras and techniques.”
“Balloons are so stable and they’re so quite that they make the perfect platform for filming. And though it’s incredibly low tech it’s very effective.
It’s not necessarily better, but it definitely yields shots you might not get from a helicopter. The thing that’s so cool about the aerials you see in Great Migrations is that most of them were filmed with a very sophisticated piece of equipment called a CineFlex, basically you take an incredible wildlife lens that you’d maybe use on a really heavy tripod on the ground, but you stick it on the belly of a helicopter, and it’s completely gyro-stabilized. And you can shoot images of up to a kilometer away of individual animals on the ground, so in other words the helicopter isn’t disturbing that animal.
But it has a different look. The balloon’s wide-angle, floating close over things is an extraordinary look too. We incorporated so many different shooting styles and camera equipment and techniques in the series. It’s a visual extravaganza.”
“The reason why we’re working on foot with those elephants is because they don’t tolerate vehicles. They’re very wild elephants; they’re not like the elephants you’d see on safari to Kenya or Tanzania or South Africa or wherever. These elephants really aren’t visited by tourists and they don’t tolerate cars whatsoever. That means that you have to film without the elephants ever knowing you’re there. But because we wanted to tell these intimate stories I had to get really close, and you need a lot of experience to be able to do that. You need to understand elephant behavior; you need to understand what their intentions are.”
“You anticipate where elephants are going, you wait for them to show up, then you position yourself long before they can have a chance of seeing you using the wind in your favour, and then as they come closer you sort of do play that chess game where you think, “alright, I still have time to move without them seeing me, but if I wait any longer it might be too late.”
So depending on what the shot is, you always have this decision to make which is kind of critical. But the scary thing is that often you’re in the middle of something really, really good and you don’t want to move; you don’t want to break the shot. And the elephants can move very fast, and suddenly you’re at this point of no return. You’re at this point now where if you move they’re gonna see you.
There’s a lot of times when you’re not really touching the camera anymore because you’re trembling, your heart is pounding so hard. They’re incredibly dangerous.”
“[The dust storm]was devastating to our camp and our equipment. One cameras was a total write off. Two of the other ones survived but it took a lot of work to get them cleaned out. But I still went through two more of the dust storms after that.”