Wildlife film-makers reveal tricks of the trade

National Media Museum The National Media Museum's Nature, Camera, Action! exhibition includes equipment used to film wildlife

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New camera technology is allowing wildlife film-makers to get ever more stunning shots. But can we believe everything we see on natural history programmes? And why do hyenas keep eating the cameras?

Visitors to the National Media Museum in Bradford are being invited to discover "the secrets of making incredible wildlife films" at a new exhibition.

Here, three natural history film-makers who have contributed to the Nature, Camera, Action! exhibition give an insight into the tricks - and pitfalls - of the trade.

Martin Dohrn and Frankencam
Frankencam shooting a mantis Martin Dohrn uses his Frankencam to capture tiny insects in high detail

One of the star exhibits is Frankencam - an elaborate rig designed by cameraman Martin Dohrn to film ants and other mini-beasts in close-up and high definition.

Frankencam allows the wide-angle lens to move in any direction, with the camera operator using remote controls.

Any hand-operated camera would cause a shaky picture at such a scale - not to mention scaring the insects off.

"The original concept was to film nasty ants without having to get near the nest," Mr Dohrn explains. "Frankencam became a means to control the camera in such a way that you could look from all angles without actually touching it."

But there are some things even Frankencam cannot film - like inside an ants' nest. For that, you need to use a nest in captivity.

'Dishonesty' question

"Is it cheating? It is and it isn't," Mr Dohrn says. "If you want to film inside a nest, it's an important part of the story. You need to see how the queen is groomed by the workers. You couldn't possibly explain any behaviour without that.

"The question is - are the ants in pain? No. Are they being looked after? If they weren't, they wouldn't behave, so that's fine."

Mr Dohrn, who has filmed many different forms of wildlife over his 30-year career, says film-makers cross a line when they hoodwink the audience by making an animal do something it would not otherwise be doing.

"The real dishonesty, if there is any, comes when the behaviour that is required is not behaviour that the particular animal is interested in performing at that time," he says.

"I wouldn't like to pretend I've never been in a situation where I've been asked to control the situation, and I wouldn't like to pretend I've never done that," he continues.

"But my experience has told me I don't want to do that any more."

Hyena hazards

The production team from BBC Two documentary, Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains, discover that hyenas are chewing through their cables

The cameras used on programmes like BBC Two's Countdown to the Rains and Channel Four's Hippo: Nature's Wild Feast, which were both filmed in Zambia, have to be hardy.

"We take kit that has been tested for those conditions," explains Sarah Peat of Tigress Productions, which produced both of those series.

"But it's never been out on location for five weeks needing to grind through that range of extreme downpour, dust storm, 40 degree heat and higher, and weeks of humidity. The kit coped really well in extreme environments."

But there was one danger the cameras could not be saved from.

"The thing we have yet to outwit is a hyena, because they constantly nick our kit," she says. "They take the motion detectors and they took five trail cams on Countdown to the Rains and ran off with them.

"Hyenas just yank them out of the ground and take them off and play with them for a bit. We managed to retrieve two of the five and thankfully the [memory] cards were intact, so we actually had footage of these things going into the hyenas' mouths and being carried around."

Octocopter Drones known as octocopters have become a common way to capture stunning shots

Smaller cameras, drones and technology that smoothes out wobbly camerawork are some of the gadgets that are allowing film-makers to go to places they could not previously reach, according to Charlotte Scott of the BBC's Natural History Unit.

"In the old days, cameramen used to have the camera on their shoulder and run after someone or something, which looked a bit bumpy," she explains. "Now you can make it look absolutely smooth."

She continues: "The technology's getting smaller and smaller, which allows you to take really good shots but get into more nooks and crannies than you ever could before. That's the real, dramatic change."

The small, high quality cameras have been disguised in model animals for series like Dolphins - Spy in the Pod and Penguins - Spy in the Huddle.

Eye in the sky

They can also be fitted to octocopters - eight-bladed drones - and used in conjunction with anti-wobble technology to film smooth, swooping shots.

"In the old days, we had cameramen hanging out of the side of a helicopter," Ms Scott explains.

"But now, you can be on a boat in the ocean and you can send a little octocopter up and film dolphins swimming in the ocean.

Start Quote

The BBC constantly reappraises what the audience feels is acceptable”

End Quote Charlotte Scott BBC

"When I was filming in China [for 2008's Wild China], we were trying to film dolphins in Hong Kong harbour. We had to keep a certain distance away from them and every time you started filming they'd disappear. But with this, you could have a remote thing high above them, so it really opens up what you can film."

After several revelations in the press about scenes that were not what they seemed, can viewers really trust wildlife documentaries?

Ms Scott says BBC guidelines have been tightened over the years so viewers are not deceived.

The guidelines say reconstructions and simulations, among other things, can be acceptable but would ordinarily need to be flagged up to the audience in the voice-over or some way.

"The BBC constantly reappraises what the audience feels is acceptable," she says. "We have a list of everything we can and can't do."

"It's all about not deceiving the audience. I've been in the industry for about 20 years and it has changed significantly."

Nature, Camera, Action! is at the National Media Museum until 12 October.

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