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Filmmaker Michael Schlamberger describes his experiences filming in Plitvice.


Michael Schlamberger, director and cameraman for LAND OF THE FALLING LAKES, earned his PhD in medicine before he decided to become a photographer and cameraman. In 1992, he established ScienceVision as an independent film production company together with his wife Rita. Since then, he has been producing wildlife documentaries for the international market. Many of his productions such as THE EMERALD RIVER, THE ALPS - THE REALM OF THE GOLDEN EAGLE, or SAHARA - THE ENGLISH PATIENT'S DESERT received numerous awards.

Michael answered a few questions for NATURE about his experiences filming in Plitvice.

What inspired you to create a film on Plitvice?

When I visited Plitvice for the first time, this unique landscape immediately put me under its spell. The combination of countless crystal-clear lakes cascading into each other, the almost surreal underwater landscape, and the extensive primeval forests is something I had never seen or even imagined before. At the time, my task was to create an illustrated press report, but this is how the idea to make a film was born. Then the Balkan War began and filming in this region was impossible for several years. When the situation finally relaxed and access to the national park was possible again, we decided to start filming in 2001.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the Balkan War affected Plitvice?

Plitvice is located in Croatia, but it had always been a Serbian enclave where Croats and Serbs lived next door to each other. During the war, Serbian troops occupied the area and drove out the Croats. Europe's oldest national park, previously a tourist attraction, was suddenly transformed into a large army camp. The soldiers mined the fragile travertine dams and threatened to blow them up in a ruthless attempt at political blackmail. For a long time, it was feared that this "World Heritage" site would be lost forever. On several occasions, UNESCO sent out missions to prevent the worst. Luckily, the travertine dams with their cascades did not suffer any damage in the end. But the wildlife is still reeling from the repercussions of the war. Shooting game in the surrounding forests to top up their supplies or simply entertain themselves, the soldiers drastically reduced the red deer population. As a consequence, predators such as bears, wolves, and lynxes are extremely short of food.

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Michael Schlamberger on location
How were you able to film such a variety of animals and in various seasons?

Plitvice is the site of Europe's last extensive primeval forests. It is home to wolves, lynxes, the largest brown bear population, and one of the last stocks of the Ural owl. In spite of this, it is no easy task to find and film these animals. It took almost a year to sniff out their favorite spots on the shore, in caves, or nests. Fortunately, we could always count on the invaluable support of the park rangers, who knew many places frequented by bears and wolves. Nevertheless, we had to spend a lot of time in our camouflaged hideouts to get close enough to the animals. We also used several remotely controlled cameras that could be operated via radio link. The advantage of these cameras is that they can be left in their position for days without disturbing the animals at all.

However, not all animals could be filmed in this way. In some cases, filming the secret life of the animals was only possible after they had become accustomed to our activities. The shots of the young Ural owls in their cave were made in a preserve. Long before the start of the breeding season in winter, we installed the camera and the lights. Thus, the female owl could get used to us and would not feel disturbed thereafter. For the bank vole sequences, we set up a little studio in middle of the forest. The spotlights allowed us to control the constantly changing light conditions and to obtain intimate pictures of the young voles in their hiding places. Some animals -- for instance, the European otter -- are so shy that it is all but impossible to even spot them. In particular, it is an almost hopeless task to try to get close enough to them while underwater. For the film, we had to shoot with a captive animal under controlled conditions -- by no means an easy task, particularly in the winter.

The winter also presented major difficulties. As it snows a lot in Plitvice in the winter, access to the lakes and forests is difficult -- especially with diving equipment and underwater cameras. We had to drag the entire equipment all the way to the lakes in the early hours of the morning and then take it back in the late afternoon after a strenuous five hours of underwater filming.

What was the most difficult aspect of filming the region?

Shooting the waterfalls was also a considerable challenge. To introduce a spatial dimension, the camera had to be moved along the cascades as far as possible. We did this by developing special cable-cams. For this purpose, steel cables were fitted, then a motor-driven, controlled camera platform with wheels was mounted on the cables. Although this sounds easy in theory, in this delicate environment it was an extremely demanding task. As the limestone is very brittle, most trees are simply unable to resist the tension. Each set-up was an adventure in its own right, and the outcome was always uncertain. But the spectacular shots were a most handsome reward.

What will you remember most about filming in Croatia?

The surreal underwater world and underground cave systems will probably remain my most vivid memory. Never before had I seen or filmed a living creature like the olm. It simply looks like an otherworldly life form. (See Eco Explorer - Wildlife.)
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