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'Night' Vision: Shooting for Animal Planet After Dark

By Jon Silberg 

Animal Planet's 20-episode series Night explores what goes on in remote regions of the wild after the sun goes down. Each episode follows animal trainer and behaviorist Brandon McMillan in his search for nocturnal behavior of all manner of fauna in jungles, mountain ranges and deserts. He and his crew even visited six-foot-long cannibalistic squid 50 feet underwater in the Sea of Cortez.

   

The crew—McMillan, two cameramen, a sound man, a director and a producer—spent 20 weeks with heat- and motion-detecting camera equipment to capture moments even the most dedicated naturalists have never seen.

"A whole new world of animals comes out at night," says Videographer Clint Lealos, who has shot on a number of documentaries for venues such as Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and the History Channel. "There are all these things you've never seen before. Animals like lions and hyenas that you might see loafing around all day—come night time, they're up and hunting. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this."

"The idea for the show is, 'I'm taking you on a journey through my eyes,'" explains McMillan, who has trained animals including bears, hyenas and elephants for movies such as Disney's The Jungle Book 2, the HBO series Carnivàle and hundreds of commercials. "For every episode, we recruited an expert in specific animal behaviors. For crocodiles, we recruited a crocodile expert. He might not have known much about lions, but he knew everything about crocodiles. If we're going to look for a lion, it's important to know that they have incredible night vision, so they will definitely see us before we see them. A rhino's sense of smell is phenomenal. They'll smell us before we set up any of our night vision equipment. Between my experience with animals and each of the experts, we were as prepared as possible to bring our equipment into these habitats with some amount of safety. Even so, there were a lot of close calls."

   

At one point, in Florida waters known for crocodiles, Lealos got out of a canoe and climbed onto some mangrove trees to get B-roll of McMillan paddling through the canals by himself. "I heard something that almost sounded like a cat growling from very far away," Lealos recalls. "Almost immediately I heard it again, and it was coming from about ten feet away. I said, 'Okay guys, we better get out of here!'"

Obviously, traditional camera equipment would have proved useless on a show shot under such a negligible amount of illumination, and Lealos began researching the best tools to bring along on the 20-week expedition. The team is assisted in navigating pitch-black habitats by night vision, thermal imagery, parabolic microphones, infrared beacons and other custom-designed devices.

"Your best friend is the thermal imager," the videographer says. He got hold of a specialty infrared camera made by Oregon-based FLIR Systems, a company that specializes in infrared and near-infrared thermal imaging for construction, law enforcement and environmental science. "This was an extremely expensive tool," he says, "but once we had it, we could locate animals we'd never have found any other way. You could look at a big field and see that something very far off was emitting heat. It didn't always work, though. It didn't help with reptiles and it doesn't do anything underwater, but it was essential for much of the work we did."

   

The camera itself, he describes, "is basically just a lens with an RCA jack coming out the back. We'd use that to get the images into a Sony HDV clamshell VTR that we'd wrap in a pouch and tether to the camera. We'd use the flip-out screen to see what we were shooting. In the monitor we'd see a black-and-white image, and anything hot would glow white. You could be looking out over the Serengeti with the most awesome spotlights and you're not going to see anything, but with this you'll see a little glowing dot and know that there's some animal out there."

They also brought along an Electrophysics AstroScope, which Lealos explains is "an image intensifier that takes the light level you have and boosts it. It's green, like the 'night vision look' you see in a lot of movies." The back of this scope attached to the lens mount of a Panasonic AJ-HDX900 high-definition camera, and then a regular video lens mounted to the AstroScope's front. The essentially monochrome image is displayed as levels of green—extensive testing has indicated that the human eye is able to discern objects and depth within a field of green better than any other color—but the cameramen had to make do with the black-and-white camera monitors.

The crew also packed a Sony HDR-HC9 HDV camera for its infrared Night Mode. To create the necessary infrared illumination, they brought along small infrared Litepanels units. "At first we thought we'd get a lot out of the Sony camera's infrared function, but we realized quickly that it's hard to get a strong, powerful infrared light that can illuminate a large area," Lealos says. "We got some great material with the camera's infrared setting, but for any kind of wide area, there just was nothing that we could bring along to give us enough infrared light to work with."

   

They did get some very unusual footage of a Florida panther by combining the Sony on its infrared setting, the infrared Litepanels fixture and a Wildlife Eye motion sensor that would roll the camera automatically if anything scurried past. "If there are people around, a panther's not coming," Lealos observes. "The motion sensor was the only way we could even hope to do that job."

The crew also used a pole camera from Zistos Corp., which supplies portable video systems. The pole-cam was modified for the series so it could record to the HDV clamshell. "It articulates, so it can move in any direction, and takes a color video camera with built-in [full-spectrum] LED lights, or you can replace that with an infrared camera with built-in infrared LEDs. The pole-cam was great for getting close to crocodiles and alligators, or up to a termite nest or down into holes where snakes live."

Some of the material was acquired with Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi still cameras fitted with Pclix intervalometers, which allowed for a series of images over a long time period that were put together as time-lapse shots in post.

"The crew was so professional, and when we saw an animal, all their years of experience and training just kicked in," McMillan notes. "There was no time wasted, no discussion. They just went into action.

"It's the kind of job where you have to have a strong stomach," he adds. "Watching a panther or an alligator or a lion with its kill. You have to watch an animal get taken out right in front of you. But you have to realize it's just nature. They don't have the luxury of going to the supermarket and picking up a steak all nicely wrapped. This is how these animals eat."

Lealos sums up his observations of nocturnal behavior in the wild: "I absolutely think differently. Before I went, I'd kind of think everything's sleeping at night, but there are so many animals out there doing their thing. It was an eye-opening experience for sure."