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CAPTURING CHARACTER

Viewers may long remember van Lawick's films. But for many filmmakers, it was a visit to his vibrant filmmaking base camp -- featured in SERENGETI STORIES -- that will remain the experience of a lifetime.

Camp 

Van Lawick's Tanzania camp.

"They could make a great [television] series on what went on there," remembers cameraman Bob Poole, who spent two months at the settlement working on van Lawick's LEOPARD SON, an ambitious though financially unsuccessful effort to move natural history film into movie theaters. "It was so much fun to be in that extraordinary place. There were dozens of filmmakers around, plus the whole staff, who do everything from cook to fix the Land Rovers. Something was always happening. At night, lions would walk through the camp or elephants would be knocking things over. Seems like somebody was always lost out in the bush."

The camp, set up in 1971 in the wildlife-rich lands around Tanzania's Lake Ndutu, was a particularly important training ground for young filmmakers. "Hugo has a whole lot of people that he has invested time into, teaching them about filmmaking," notes Poole. In SERENGETI STORIES, for instance, young filmmakers Masha Bouwens, Matt Aebehard, and Sophie Buck are shown working with van Lawick. For Aebehard, working on the Serengeti "was a dream come true." For Buck, whom van Lawick first employed as a camp manager, filmmaking has become a way of life. "Here I am six years later operating camera, which is fantastic," the award-winning cinematographer says. In particular, she says, "Hugo has taught me mostly about light. [He] uses light in a very specific way -- it's [like] painting."

Those hoping to follow in van Lawick's footsteps must learn a great deal to be successful in this highly competitive field, in which moments of high adventure rise out of backbreaking hours waiting for the weather and the animals to cooperate. "The most coveted job of all is that of a professional wildlife cameraperson," notes a spokesman for the British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society, a trade group. "[It is a career] epitomized by suntan, safari suit, excitement, exotic places and incredible film footage. The reality, however, includes hard slog, discomfort, disappointment, and solitude."

"Your best light is in the evening and morning," explains Poole, "so that means you are out really early in the morning, driving around in the dark hoping to find what you are looking for. That night, you may end of up sleeping right out there with the animals, to be sure you are there the next morning.At night, lions would walk through the camp. I'm sure Hugo spent plenty of nights out with the animals. It's not one of those jobs where you routinely take days off. People think you are just out there sitting in your Land Rover, but it's a lot of work."

To be successful, "you have to be fascinated by wildlife," believes filmmaker Marty Stouffer. "You are watching and hoping something is going to happen. Maybe one time out of ten something does. Many times I've sat with a moose and it's just chewed its cud all day." For van Lawick and other Serengeti filmmakers, however, such persistence often paid off, allowing them to return to the Ndutu camp to tell the tale of their success over a hearty dinner. Now that van Lawick has pulled up stakes and left, moving into Tanzania's largest city, the camp site is bare and silent, but his work is not done. For there are still stories to tell and images of life in the wild that have yet to be captured on film and shared with the world. "I've got a lot of exciting things in front of me to do," van Lawick says.

 

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