Behind the Scenes
Lighting technician Cecilia Krigge spotlights for leopard in
the African night.
by Peter Tyson
If you think filming leopards at night is difficult, you're right. At the same
time, you have no idea. Amanda Barrett and Owen Newman, producers of
Leopards of the Night, and their team spent more than 3,300 hours over
the course of three years shooting the film on location in Zambia and Namibia.
It was the hardest film either has ever made, they say. Here's why:
The workday began around four o'clock in the afternoon. That's when the film
crew headed out into the bush in two cars. (One held Barrett and Newman with
the cameras, the other bore the infrared lights and lighting technicians Vernon
Bailie and Cecilia Krigge.) The going was extremely rough. Foot- and hoofprints
that elephants and other large animals leave in the wet mud of the rainy season
dry out, forming concrete-hard holes during the June to October dry season,
when the team filmed. "Leopards just glided over those holes, but it was very
bumpy for the cars," says Owen Newman, who was cameraman as well.
The first order of business was to find a leopard. That often meant hours of
searching for eyeshine with white spotlights and listening for the alarm calls
of impala and other prey. Many nights passed when they never even laid eyes on
a leopard. When they did, they had to bring the cars close without disturbing
either the leopard or its prey. Once in position,
hours might pass before something filmable happened. And it was cold: while the
days were scorching, nights were chilly enough to require scarves, hats, even
mittens. Typically the team stayed out all night, only turning back about four
in the morning. Sometimes it was longer. Once they spent 56 hours straight in
the car, waiting for a leopard to return to a kill it had placed up a tree.
"For all that effort, sitting in the sun all day and no sleep, we used about
two shots," Barrett chuckles. In the end, they averaged one good filming night
every three weeks.
The film crew's
lighting car sticks to the heels of a roaming leopard.
Filming at night also engendered many technical challenges. The team brought
along a Sony 7000 film camera for shooting in low-light conditions, such as
moonlight. But they had discovered during an earlier film project that leopards
typically only hunt in pitch dark; if the moon is out, the cats will wait for
it to slip behind clouds before they make their move. So, in a first in
natural-history filmmaking in Africa, Newman turned to infrared cameras. He
used either a Baxall or Cohu standard night security camera. Sensitive to
infrared light, which the team provided via special infrared lights that Bailie
aimed off the back of the lighting car, these cameras can film in total
darkness (see The Camera That Caught a Leopard).
Night goggles offer lighting technician Vernon Bailie a window into the night.
Since they were working with technology that no one had ever used in that kind
of situation before, they had to learn as they went along, Barrett says. For
one thing, neither infrared camera had a viewfinder. So Newman, perched in the
back of the camera car, had to fly by the seat of his pants, as it were. First,
he took cues from Barrett, who sat up front wearing a pair of night-vision
goggles. While these devices, which provide a grainy, bright-green view and are
"a bit like looking through very bad eyeglasses," Barrett says, they allowed
her to pick out leopards and other wildlife in the darkness. She then described
to Newman where to aim his camera. "I would say something like, 'The leopard is
at three o'clock, about 25 meters away, crouched down by a patch of grass,'"
Newman then aimed his camera in that direction and watched a nine-inch,
black-and-white monitor to see what he was picking up. But whenever he used a
large lens, such as a 300 mm, the depth of field was so shallow that he often
missed his target even when he was looking right at it. "I could be looking at
blades of grass, and the leopard could be six inches behind or in front of that
and I wouldn't see it on the monitor because it was so out of focus," Newman
recalls. "I would be swinging the lens around and changing focus all the time.
It was very frustrating, especially when the leopards were stalking."
Focusing a long-focal-length lens on a moving leopard was a
As if filming weren't challenging enough, Newman constantly had to switch
between the low-light and infrared cameras and their respective lighting
systems, depending on what the leopard was up to. He did that in the pitch
dark, up to 12 times in a night. "He got it down to seconds," Barrett says,
"but you'd only need one thing to go wrong, and you'd have lost a filming
opportunity that might have taken three weeks to present itself." And things
went wrong a lot, because traveling over the uneven ground meant that cables
and other connections were regularly shaken loose.
Even when Newman had successfully zeroed in on a leopard, he was at the mercy
of the leopard's own unpredictable behavior. "Compared to cheetahs and lions,
leopards are very, very smart hunters," Barrett says. "They'll try one way,
then they'll change their minds, double back, go all the way around the target
animal in a big detour, and try it from the other side. We would have to move
with the leopard, without upsetting either the prey or the leopard." She
laughs. "We'd get all the way there, and then she'd change her mind again and
try another angle."
Even a pestering insect
cannot disturb the exquisite concentration of a stalking leopard.
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They also had to be on their guard against the leopards themselves. While the
cats largely ignored them, the film crew could never forget that these were
wild animals. "Once we were just below a male leopard that had killed a baboon
and was eating it in a tree," Newman recalls. "He got a bone stuck in his cheek
and couldn't get it out. After that he became quite aggressive, thrashing his
tail from side to side and getting angry with himself. We decided to back away
Leopards were not the only creatures to be wary of. Once, while filming a
pride of lions vying with crocodiles over an antelope kill, the team lost track
of the lions in the pitch darkness. "We had five lions behind the car, about
three in front, and one by the side," Barrett remembers. "Then a couple started
mating. Bear in mind we were in a completely open vehicle. We didn't know if
one by accident might jump into the car to get away from a crocodile or another
lion. That made us sit up and concentrate." Most dangerous of all, it turns
out, was the mosquito. During the filming, both Barrett and Newman came down
with cerebral malaria. In fact, the disease caused Newman, who suffered two
debilitating bouts, to sit out the only night he missed in ten solid months of
Leopard researcher Philip Stander and his
Bushmen colleagues adjust the radio collar of a tranquilized leopard in
Despite the myriad difficulties associated with making the film, there were
substantial rewards. For Newman, it was the chance to be out all night in the
African bush, with myriad insect and bird sounds and various plants coming into
flower. ("As you moved through the park," he says, "you could sometimes tell
where you were just by the flower smell.") Barrett particularly appreciated
working with the Bushmen. "They were so much in their element in the desert,
whereas we were staggering around hot, sweaty, clutching water bottles," she
recalls. "We wouldn't have lasted a second if they had left us."
Most rewarding, of course, were the leopards. The team filmed leopard behavior
never before seen, including the supreme concentration the cats hold while
stalking prey in the pitch dark, and the surprising fact that a leopard—usually the most silent of stalkers—will sometimes deliberately stamp the
ground with its foot to disorient prey. For Barrett, the most fulfilling moment
of all came one afternoon when a male leopard they'd been working with for
three days and nights sauntered over to sleep in the shade of the car. "He had
just killed and was full of food, and he was very relaxed with us because we
hadn't done anything to upset him," she says. "We could hear him snoring. He
was in the peak of condition, with a thick, muscular neck and his sleek fur
reflecting different shades of apricot and chestnut in the sunlight. Beautiful
"His sleek fur reflected different shades of apricot
and chestnut in the sunlight."
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
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