Victoria Falls
Interview: Producer/Cameraman Jamie McPherson

NATURE spoke with Victoria Falls producer and cameraman Jamie McPherson in April 2009. Here’s what he had to say about the making of the film.

Q: What inspired you to do a film on Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River?

A: Victoria Falls is such an iconic place. I had been there as a tourist, and knew it’d be an amazing place to do a film on wildlife – the falls and the Zambezi.

Can you tell us about research for the film, and how much time you spent on it?

We did our initial research by talking to people, and reading books. Once I made contact with a few people, through friends and through lodges, I headed out there for two weeks. I drove around and met as many people as I could and checked out as many locations as possible — to see what the wildlife was like out there. We needed to work things out ahead of time — looking in books for when the rainy season is, talking to local bird experts, etc. We timed everything out.

Books say there are lions and buffalo out there, but not whether it’s always possible to see them. It’s not a place many have filmed in before. We had to get a lot of permissions from different officials to film. We contacted the national parks authorities, tourism authorities and other conservation commissions in advance.

Altogether, Charlie (co-cameraman, Charlie Hamilton James) and I filmed for four months. We went back and forth. I went in March for a shoot at the end of the rainy season, then June; then Charlie went in July. I went back in September when the water level is lowest.

We rented a house in Livingstone, the closest big town. And we had a boat that we moored there.

How did you find Mr. White? Can you tell me more about him?

Initially, I met a few different fishermen out there, but the hardest thing to find is someone who is truly a knowledgeable fisherman. Mr. White was the only name that kept coming up. A Norwegian rafting guide told me, “You have to talk with him!” He thought Mr. White lived in a cave because most of the time he was by the falls and he often slept by the river.

Then I spoke to guys in the village who also recommended Mr. White. We wanted to do something different, and he was a perfect voice – a perfect story to tell, with wisdom and knowledge.

In an email you wrote a very moving account about Mr. White and the last days of your shoot. If you don’t mind, I’d like to include that here.

Sure.

Everyone said I should go and see this old guy at rapid number nine. He was the oldest fisherman in the area and the most respected. And sure enough, when I went to rapid number nine, there he was. His English wasn’t great, but he was very excited about a film being made about his river and he was happy to be involved.

He was born in Zimbabwe in 1934. He is known as Mr. White, but White is his first name. His family name is Matukanyuni. (He showed me his ID card.) His mother was Zambian and his father Zimbabwean. His mother took him to Zambia when he was four years old. He lived in the village of Songwe, near Livingstone. He worked as a gardener for a local hotel when he was young, but had always been a fisherman. He described himself as a fisherman. He was very well respected in his village and around Livingstone. Most people in the area knew who he was. He taught the kids in the village how to fish and had fished the same rapids in the gorge since 1947.

We had planned to film two more sequences with him in the last week of our shoot, but days before he asked me if I could take him to the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. He was diagnosed with cancer in the hospital in Livingstone.

The shots of him on the cliff above the gorge at the start and end of the film show the last time he saw the gorge. I was visiting him in the hospital in Livingstone and he said he wanted to get out of the hospital and see his river again as he was waiting for an appointment in Lusaka for further tests. He knew that we had wanted to film him looking down at the river and insisted we at least film that last shot. So with the nurse’s permission we went to the gorge for the last time.

I then sent him and his family to a specialist in Lusaka. The cancer was too far advanced for the treatment to work. He passed away in December 2008. He had three wives, eight daughters and seven sons.

He was a great man and I am very proud to have met him.

Victoria Falls is gorgeously filmed, just stunning. I know you filmed the falls and the Zambezi along with Charlie Hamilton James and Simon Werry. Can you tell us a bit more about how you got such dramatic visuals – your approach? Equipment?

We were trying to find new views of Victoria Falls and new ways of looking at it — from sunset to sunrise. We used local knowledge on the best places to film, and spent four months out there picking locations.

We used long lenses, high definition, and had a high-speed digital camera called a Photron, which films 5,000 frames a second. We used the Photron for the pied kingfisher and fish eagle footage. The camera is a lot of work; it’s not a camera you can pick up and run around with, it’s very complicated. We had to hook it up to a computer and a generator, and bring it by the river.

Simon Werry shot the aerials with a Cineflex. It’s great to see the falls from that perspective; it gives a sense of scale. A falls that is a mile wide is hard to comprehend but if you see it from the air, from above…

Can you tell us about filming the lunar rainbows?

Well, there are lunar rainbow tours, and the rainbows are visible to the naked eye, but with long exposure photography they really stand out. We used SLR still cameras to capture series of long exposure shots which are then stitched together to create the time-lapse shots.

How did you feel about safety?

We felt completely safe, the only thing was the hippos. The bull hippos are protecting their territory, and when the water drops they have to move. A local boat guy helped us negotiate around hippo bull territory. We just made sure to be careful.

In the film you show two different worlds – the one above the falls and the one below. Can you elaborate?

The world below is Mr. White’s world — very bleak, not many trees, but good fishing. And no hippos or crocodiles, so it’s safer. The world above is full of life because of the geography and shallows and sandy islands. They’re very different worlds, and in the film it’s more of Mr. White’s perspective. The Zambezi provides for him, even though it can be harsh.

There are so many lovely songs in the show. Can you tell us more about the music? Do the lyrics match picture in any way?

All our films have a musical style, something that suits the film. We avoided western songs, and chose music/musicians from Africa, like Rokia Traore. And we tried to avoid clichés.

I have to admit we didn’t choose music based on lyrics, but rather for the mood that the songs conveyed.

  • Jane Mahoney

    Stunning.. and it was like going back to Africa for me although i did not visit the falls. The animals, birds and sounds reminded me of my tranquility while becoming “one” with Nature during my month in Africa. Well done. The photography is exceptional. Your interview was most interesting. Thank you!!

  • wendy

    MAGNIFICENT! Jamie’s filming is the most skilled I’ve ever seen of Africa and its wildlife! I can hardly imagine experiencing, being so close, and filming such magnificent wonders! I’ll be watching for lots more to come from he and his comrades! Need any help carrying your cameras next expedition?

  • Pam Sussman

    Simply suberb , especially the pied kingfisher and eagle photography. I have known the entire area since childhood and have travelled the world. This made it made me really homesick for Southern Africa and all its natural beauty. Thank you. PLS

  • ruth tupper

    I’ve seen Victoria Falls. Your film is the most beautiful and informative I’ve seen about the scenery and wildlife of Africa. Thank you very much.

  • maurice weiss

    congratulations on a job well done

  • Larry Cross

    The filming was superior. It was masterful! Perfect lighting, perfect timing, perfect camera control. The genious of your skill implies an empathetic communication between you and your subject. You seem to know exactly when to press the ‘record’ button, and how to frame the shot!

    I was especially captivated by the filming of the scenes of the eagles who fished. I’ve watched wildlife photography my whole life (I’m almost 64 now). I’ve even done some myself, but I’ve never seen such brilliance and perfection from —any photographer— as I saw tonight on PBS (Channel 9 in the SF Bay Area of California)! — Thank you! You are blessed, and you have certainly blessed me with video that added value to my life.

  • Jim Blair

    Jamie, you are truely a master of your artform! The work you did on this film wasn’t just quality, it was perfection! I salute you,Charles,and Simon for the camera work that is without equal and woven into a storyline that keeps one literally glued to the screen. Well done man, Well done!

  • Nancy Coble

    Jamie,
    Your film on Victoria Falls is a “special treat” to watch since I visited the Falls this past March, and hiked a portion near Livingston’s monument in the pouring rain. I could watch it many times over. Thank you, Nancy Coble

  • Joy Wetterholm

    Jamie, I got chills watching this special show last night! I was there at Victoria Falls in 1986, and it holds a very special place in my heart. The photography was stunning – I could not believe the shots of the fish eagles coming out of the water. This was truly a masterpiece! Also enjoyed the story of Mr. White, very sad, but he lived everyday among all that beauty, and appreciated it!Thank you again.
    Seeing things like that make TV worth watching!

  • Tayto

    Incredible!! I thought you did an amazing job and can tell that God has blessed you with a gift.

  • Patricia Wilson

    Your filming was captivating. I feel so fortunate
    to have seen this amazing piece of your work/art.
    Thank you and your wonderful gift.

  • Praveen Mancherla

    Excellent job, i just saw the programme on animal planet..its was great..I was moved by the story of Mr White….Keep up the good work!!!!! Praveen,India

  • Ansar Hussain

    A true masterpiece of a documentary, with evocative filming. The story of river told through Mr. White was just fantastic if not tinged with sadness. Looking forward to seeing more like this….!

  • Jane Kenney

    Watched Victoria Falls last night on BBC2. Wonderful, magical filming with another dimension added by the story of Mr White and the other fishermen. Who took the kingfishers, was it Charlie? I have really enjoyed both your work on My Halcyon River and for Spring and Autumnwatch. A beautiful film.

  • Eloise Channell

    I absolutely loved watching the story of Mr White and his Victoria Falls. I have always wanted to visit the falls, and don’t think i’ll ever get a better insight to the nature and beauty of it than this film captured. Remarkable, thank you to all involved.

  • t.barber

    hi. i would like too know who is singing in the programme….

  • Lula

    The singer on the 34th minute is a Kenyan Singer by the name Ayub Ogada. The last song at the end of the documentary is also a kenyan gospel song.

  • sherry – Manhattan Beach, CA

    Hello. Just found this website after some searching. Saw the video for the first time last night. Astounding! Absolutely magnificent! I too, was fortunate enough to have been there, although in October. Kept thinking about how much I didn’t see. Thank you for adding that to my wonderful memories. I am homesick for Africa.

  • Sue

    Hi, you can find music info on the link to the right at the top of the page.

  • Bizzie Frost

    This was one of the most memorable and moving documentaries about Africa that I have ever seen. I grew up in Kenya, but have never been to Zambia or seen Vic Falls, but I loved the way this documentary used a local fisherman to be the narrator. There was so much poetry and feeling in it, to hear the story told through the eyes of an African who had lived on the river for most of his life, instead of having a “famous” voice tell it. I get goose bumps whenever I think about this documentary or tell people about it.

  • Richard & Audrey

    We grew up in Zimbabwe and were very impressed with your film making. The animals & birds brought back wonderful memories. Thank you for showing the world what a great place the falls is.

  • ageist

    Sir,Congratulations on the National award once again.

  • Lakshmi Priya

    What could be more beautiful and knowledgeable about the Victoria and Zambizi,than almost let the river speak through Mr.White?Mr.White,the perfect saint imbibed n himself the very soul of the river as such.People like him are true achievers and the film wonderfully portrayed his true self.And the river-so mystic,so beautiful,so lively and nourishing-it’s like all phases of life flow with those waters.Cannot finish thanking the makers of the film and of course dear Mr.White,who probably is still out there fishing silently in those banks,with all the other animals,birds,plants and insects,unifying himself with the soul of the river-from whisper to thunder.

  • Matt

    Beutyful film, beutyful story and music. We’ve loved it and seen it 2times.
    Thank you!
    Mr. White R.I.P

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.