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17 September 2014
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Red-crowned cranes silhouetted against bright sunrise ©Charlotte Scott
Filming Wild China

From long, patient stakeout to ultra-high speed photography, find out how the challenges of filming China's wildlife and places were met and overcome.

Filming techniques

Although China is not yet quite as accessible to film crews as many other countries, the Wild China production crew were given unprecedented access to almost all areas. This allowed us to film over 60 wildlife sequences, with around 20 involving relationships between people and animals, plus a lot of landscapes.

Most of the series was filmed using high definition video cameras. Well over 80% of the series was purely observational, without any special techniques other than field craft. In a number of cases, more sophisticated filming techniques revealed behaviours which couldn't be filmed simply by observation in the wild.

Many of the clips mentioned below can now be viewed on the Planet Earth Explorer.

Camera technology
Pallas' pit viper striking and missing a bird. Filmed with an ultra-high speed camera ©BBC NHU

Ultra-high-speed camera: one of Wild China's most ambitious filming ventures was to record the predatory behaviour of Pallas' pit vipers on rocky Shedao island in the Bohai Gulf.

The serpents emerge from hibernation in the spring in time to ambush passing birds who use the island as a staging post on their northward migration. The problem was to predict which snake would strike at which bird, and to capture an event that lasts just a fraction of a second, with no chance of a rehearsal.

We used a specialised camera which records up to 2,000 images per second on to a hard-drive – the same camera famously used in Planet Earth to reveal the spectacular leaps made by hunting great white sharks.

After each strike, it took the computer around 15 minutes to retrieve the stored images and reveal whether filming had been successful. The camera was then reset for another attempt. Our most successful sequence shows the lightning-fast reactions of a bird, slowed down 80 times, as it barely evades a viper's strike.

Time-lapse: filming the world's deepest canyon in a remote region of Tibet turned into a nightmare for producer Gavin Maxwell when, several days out, his crew's main filming camera was damaged beyond use.

The Yarlung Gorge ©Gavin Maxwell

Switching to his trusty Nikon DSLR, he was able to save the day by taking a series of still pictures of the landscape at intervals.

The photo-files were then stitched together on his laptop computer to create time-lapse images in which the movement of clouds and shadows is sped up by a factor of 50–250, bringing the landscape to life in super high-definition. Watch the clip.

Infra-red: animals that are active in the dark may change their behaviour if lights are shone on them, but using an infra-red light source gets round this. Infra-red light isn't picked up by the animals, but can be by a specialised camera, allowing a form of covert filming.

The technique was used to record François' langurs as they ventured deep into a subterranean cave; to reveal the nocturnal prowling of yellow weasels in the alleyways of Beijing's Hutongs, and to film a crèche of tiny baby bats roosting inside a hollow bamboo stem in the jungles of Yunnan.

Thermal camera: using specialised macro lenses, the team were able to document the extraordinary pollination of the elephant yam by carrion beetles for the first time in the wild. To attract its pollinators, the yam uses an in-built convector heater to waft its hideous, dead-meat perfume up into the jungle. But how do you show this on film? The answer is with equipment that can 'see' heat.

Developed by the US armed forces to spot enemy soldiers at night, thermal cameras record the heat signature of any object that's warmer or cooler than its surroundings. However, while available in the UK, such military hardware can't be hired or imported into China.

Fortunately, the Eden Project in Cornwall had a specimen which came into flower during our filming period and we were able to rush a crew down there in time to record this unique nocturnal event with the perfect tool.

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Chriu walking across vast expanse of frozen plain ©George Chan

Extreme cold: filming chiru (a kind of antelope) on the Tibetan Plateau in midwinter presented some extreme challenges. These rare creatures live in one of the remotest places on Earth. After four days acclimatising to altitudes of around 5,000m in Lhasa, we set out on the five day drive to the location.

For much of the year Tibet's un-metalled roads are an impassable quagmire, but in December the temperature drops to -30° and freezes the roads solid, making travel much quicker. Having located the chiru through a local guide, we set off across open terrain, panting and breathless in the thinly oxygenated air.

Usually, filming large mammals involves patiently creeping closer and winning their trust over the course of days or even weeks. However, wrapped up in up to eight layers of clothing to keep out the cold, and burdened with heavy equipment, our approach was anything but stealthy!

Luckily, the male chiru were so busy rutting and showing off to one another that they took little notice of us. We soon found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of super-charged antelopes racing about in high-speed pursuit of one-another, providing one of the highlights of the series. Watch the sequence on the Video highlights page.

Tibetan brown bear on mountain slope ©Milo Burcham

The bear necessities: Tibetan brown bears range over a vast glacial landscape that has no roads, so after setting up a base camp with enough food and coal for 14 days, the small crew set off on foot, carrying the minimum of filming kit.

Even so, carrying camera, lenses and tripod over long distances at an altitude of 5,000 metres isn't fun, and to make matters worse, bears have a fabulous sense of smell; so not only did the team need to stay out of sight, they had to circle downwind before they could stalk their quarry.

An unexpected hazard came from the area's numerous streams. Easy to cross in the mornings (water having frozen during the night), they turned into raging melt water torrents by late afternoon.

In the end, sheer grit and determination paid off and the team were rewarded with a remarkable sequence showing the relationship between Tibetan foxes, brown bears and their common quarry – the rabbit-like pika.

'Pandamonium': The giant panda's mountain habitat is riddled with steep ravines and cloaked in bamboo thickets. During the mating season the male pandas crash noisily around, barking and roaring as they do so, but within moments they can charge into the next valley as they pursue a female.

Panda partially hidden by bamboo ©Gavin Maxwell

Trying to keep up with the action, we had some desperate scrambles up the mountains on hands and knees, dragging heavy camera gear through the bamboo and trying to avoid having our eyes gouged out by the sharp stems!

But the hardest challenge was simply getting a good clear view. We could hear pandas just metres away from us, but couldn't see a thing through the dense bamboo.

Time was running out and we were starting to curse the stuff when our guide spotted a female up a tree, in a relatively clear area. We were able to set up on the opposite side of a gulley and, thankfully now camouflaged by the bamboo, film an entire drama as it unfolded. Watch the clip.

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Underground and underwater

Lighting the pitch-black world of animals that live underground is an age-old challenge for wildlife film-makers. But it isn't the only problem. How do you film subterranean behaviour without being limited to ultra-close-up, front on, front-lit shots?

Burrowers: the answer is to replicate the animals' subterranean tunnel network in a studio setting, inserting strategically-sited glass panels to facilitate filming.

Properly cared for, animals such as the bamboo rats featured in the Shangri-La episode and the tiny Roborowski's hamsters shown in Beyond the Great Wall soon settle in to their artificial home. They then show a wide range of natural behaviours, including breeding – allowing filming to proceed without undue disturbance or stress.

Dragon eggs: baby Chinese alligators add another complication to the usual underground filming list. They are so rare and endangered that it's illegal to disturb or film a wild nest in China.

After much negotiation, the Chinese Alligator Breeding Centre in Xuancheng kindly allowed us to film eggs from their incubator which we were able to place inside a realistic artificial nest just as they began to hatch out.

This allowed us to tell the story of the remarkable conservation project that protects the last-remaining wild Chinese alligator nests in the densely-populated 'land of fish and rice' close to the Yangtze River.

Underwater: where the water is sufficiently deep, clear and still, a cameraperson equipped with scuba gear is able to stay put and allow the surrounding wildlife to get used to his presence.

This is how we filmed the coral reef sequences in the Tides of Change episode. However, filming a shy and secretive amphibian in a shallow mountain stream is a different proposition.

To obtain images of the much persecuted Chinese giant salamander in its native habitat in the streams of Hunan's Tianzi Mountain nature reserve, we needed to locate a specimen which would remain relaxed and unstressed once it had spotted our cameraman.

Fortunately a local conservation breeding centre was able to supply a large tame individual which was already used to close contact with human beings and behaved quite naturally when placed in a mountain stream. Watch the clip.

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Studios and sets

The forests of Yunnan are the centre of diversity for the world's most beautiful and colourful pheasants, making this a must-have story for our Shangri-La programme. However hunting pressure has made them so shy and wary of people that just the sight of a film crew is enough to scare them away, making it impossible to film their extraordinarily intricate and intimate courtship behaviour in the wild in China.

In such circumstances, filming in captivity is the only way to show natural behaviour, so we built a set within the enclosure of a pair of Temminck's tragopan which had been raised in captivity in the UK. Being totally at home with humans, they were able to concentrate on each other, rather than the camera, allowing us to reveal the male's amazing courtship display during which he inflates an area of brightly-coloured skin around his chest and horn-like wattles on his head in order to impress the female. Watch the clip.

Jumping spider on a rock with blurred shot of Everest in the background ©Gavin Maxwell

Perhaps our most ambitious filming challenge was to record the hunting behaviour of the world's highest-resident creature – a tiny jumping spider that lives at over 6,000m on the upper slopes of Mount Everest. This involved a long trek up to base camp on the Chinese side of the mountain armed with tents and high definition camera equipment including specialized macro lenses.

However, having successfully filmed the world's 'top predator' in a wild setting, it became clear that some of its jumping behaviour was just too quick to see with normal-speed photography, and would only be revealed using an ultra high speed camera. With no possibility of getting a heavy, bulky and cumbersome super-speed camera system up to the Everest glaciers, some smart thinking was required.

After consultation with various spider experts, we managed to track down a suitable stunt-double – a look-alike cousin that performs the same behaviour at sea level, allowing us to film successfully in ultra-slow-motion in a studio set. Watch the clip.

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Patience and timing

The biggest challenge in wildlife filming is anticipating those sudden unpredictable moments. The answer to the question: 'how long did that take to film?' is often: 'just a second or two – but we had to wait five days for it to happen'.

Patience: on the tidal mudflats of Chongming Island near Shanghai, our crew followed a professional bird catcher, Mr Jin.

Once a supplier of wild birds to Shanghai's dinner tables, Jin is now a conservationist who uses his skills to ring and monitor migrating waders. He uses a net-trap operated by a string, calling in the birds with decoys and by imitating their calls.

Having set out before dawn, the crew crouched beneath an umbrella in the mud as birds flew by out of range. Finally, just as the tide was about to force a retreat, a plover entered the trap, the cameraman hit the button and the shot made it into the film.

What doesn't show on screen is the sheer adrenaline it took for the team to stay perfectly primed and ready for action over the preceding hours of nail-biting anticipation.

Fishing bat skims the water surface at night. Filmed with an ultra-high speed camera ©BBC NHU

Fishing bats: one of the most exciting stories to emerge from our pre-filming research came from a Chinese scientist who had found fish-scales in bat droppings in a cave near Beijing. They belonged to a widespread species called Rickett's mouse-eared bat, notable for its huge feet. The scientist believed the bat must be using these to catch fish for food and was keen to see how the technique worked.

It was clear that such a sequence, never previously filmed, would be perfect for the cave story in our opening programme. It would also be a real contribution to zoological research in China. However, high-speed filming requires a lot of light, making location filming impossible. Wild bats would simply avoid any brightly-lit patch of river.

The scientist's students had a number of fishing bats under study, housed in a large flight chamber. We were able to get the bats gradually used to our filming lights over several nights. After that, they were happy to catch the fish in their enclosure with enough lighting to allow us to film our ground-breaking images, revealing how the bats used their outsized curved claws at full stretch to hook fishes from the water, while the bats remained airborne keeping their wings dry. Watch the clip.

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 Also in Wild China


Programme details

Video highlights

 TV programmes

Heart of the Dragon
Sunday 11 May, 8.05pm
rpt Saturday 17 May, 7.00pm

Sunday 18 May, 8.05pm
rpt Saturday 24 May, 5.15pm

Sunday 25 May, 9.15pm
rpt Saturday 31 May, 6.00pm

Beyond the Great Wall
Sunday 1 June, 9.00pm
rpt Saturday 7 June, 5.35pm

Land of the Panda
Sunday 8 June, 9.00pm
rpt Saturday 14 June, 5.30pm

Tides of Change
Sunday 15 June, 9.00pm
rpt Saturday 21 June, 7.00pm

 Elsewhere on

Planet Earth Explorer
Tour the world in fantastic footage and see these techniques in action

Life in Cold Blood
How reptiles and amphibians were shown as never before

 Elsewhere on the web

Thermal cameras
Invisible Light explains how thermal cameras work

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