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A cinematographer's dream shot.

The dramatic scenes unfold with remarkable beauty and clarity. On the flickering television screen, a cheetah dashes across a tawny African grassland after a gracefully bounding gazelle. A monstrous crocodile explodes from its watery hiding place and, jaws agape, lunges for an unsuspecting wildebeest drinking on the riverbank. An orphaned wild puppy, yipping mournfully, is abandoned by its adopted family as darkness falls on a dry, desolate grassland.

Most of us can only dream of witnessing such heart-stopping scenes in person. But thanks to a few talented and tenacious wildlife filmmakers, millions of people are able to share such remarkable moments from the comfort of their living-room couches. The patient photographers, who often work for months to capture a single perfect shot, have allowed generations of TV watchers to appreciate the wonders of a natural world that might be otherwise forever invisible.

NATURE celebrates one of the leading pioneers of wildlife filmmaking: Hugo van Lawick. SERENGETI STORIES highlights the films and life of this remarkable cinematographer, who has transformed into a graceful art the challenge of documenting the daily drama on Africa's Serengeti Plains, one of the world's most important wildlife havens. Through clips taken from a lifetime in the wild, SERENGETI STORIES shows how van Lawick brought a playful sense of humor and a powerful talent for storytelling to wildlife cinema. "Hugo certainly is one of the pioneers of translating science and natural history into compelling entertainment," says natural history film producer Barry Clark of Mandalay Media Arts in Los Angeles.

Hugo van Lawick 

The legendary filmmaker Hugo van Lawick.

But SERENGETI STORIES is a bittersweet biography, for it documents the closure of van Lawick's storied Serengeti camp, a filmmaking oasis in Tanzania that has played a pivotal role in fostering a new generation of cinematographers. Slowed by illness and age, van Lawick has opted to give up his life in the bush. As SERENGETI STORIES shows, however, van Lawick's life in the wild produced a bountiful harvest for wildlife film lovers. Indeed, some of his films have become timeless classics, famous not only for their craft but also for their impact on science and conservation. Shortly after coming to Africa in 1959, for instance, the young Dutchman, who had been educated in England, was encouraged to film the work of an unknown young primatologist named Jane Goodall.

While studying chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Forest Preserve, Goodall had made some remarkable discoveries that challenged decades of conventional wisdom. For one thing, she found the chimps shared a habit once believed unique to humans: they used tools, fashioning blades of grass into lures used to fish tasty termites from their mounds. She also startled the scientific world by announcing that chimps, long celebrated as peace-loving, were actually meat eaters who hunted and devoured monkeys. Many researchers who had dismissed Goodall's findings were forced to reconsider them after van Lawick captured this controversial behavior on film.

The scientists weren't the only ones influenced by van Lawick's chimp films, which told the emotional story of a chimp troop's struggle for survival. Around the world, television viewers were enthralled by the sight of the young researcher lounging in the forest with the chimps, carefully observing their every move. Soon, the playful names Goodall had given her subjects -- "F" names, from Fifi to Freud -- were virtually household words, chimp conservation became an international cause, and Goodall herself became a reluctant scientific superstar. In 1964, Goodall and van Lawick's creative partnership became official when the pair married. However, the pressures of their equally busy lives later led to a divorce.

Fellow filmmakers say even the early chimp films bear the hallmarks of van Lawick's developing style, which mixed humor, pathos, and careful attention to an individual animal's personality. "What I like about Hugo's work, something that is not seen in many wildlife films, is that he develops characters," says filmmaker Michael deGruy, whose program on cephalopods, INCREDIBLE SUCKERS, aired during NATURE's 1997-1998 season. "Now, many wildlife films allow you to meet characters. Van Lawick's films helped prove Goodall's chimp theories.But in Hugo's work, I feel that I am with his characters long enough to get to know them and care about them. Needless to say his photography is brilliant, but this is not unique -- it is his storytelling that separates his work."

"His influence on all our work, and certainly mine, is his storytelling," adds Mark Fletcher, a film editor who has worked with van Lawick on numerous films over the last decade. "He loves drama and all that, but his favorite sequences are the humorous interludes in the story. The animal falling flat on its face, or being teased by flies, or being frustrated and unable to do something. 'Brings out character,' he would always say."

Such moments are abundant in SERENGETI STORIES, which uses a suite of carefully selected clips to illustrate van Lawick's style. There is the pathos of THE WILD DOGS OF AFRICA, which tells the story of the wild dog puppy Solo, the lone survivor of a litter killed by a competing mother. And there is the terror of RACE FOR LIFE, in which a giant crocodile surprises some wildebeest -- but isn't quick enough to catch a meal. And, in a tense scene from BLOOD BROTHERS seemingly plucked out of a classic Western, three cheetah brothers swagger in unison across a dusty plain to confront a pair of unwanted cheetah twins. The confrontation ends in a draw, but viewers sense the story is far from over.

Indeed, for decades past and probably decades to come, that promise of more interesting scenes to come has kept viewers captivated by van Lawick films.


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