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Not Your Average High-Speed Cheetah Chase: Production Innovations for the BBC’s ‘Big Cats’

For more than two years the 'Big Cats' team traveled to 14 different countries and filmed 31 out of the 40 species—more than any other crew has done before.

“The problem with filming cheetahs is fairly obvious,” Nick Easton, producer/director on the current BBC One wildlife nature series Big Cats, tells Stephen Armstrong. “They’re the fastest land animals, so you can’t follow them running on foot, and they’re quite slender and nimble so driving alongside in a truck is too dangerous. In the end, we hacked some new technology, managed to capture a cheetah at full stretch in slow motion and saw things no-one has ever filmed before.”

For Big Cats, the production team pushed technological innovation: “This meant state-of-the-art low-light cameras—the new frontier of wildlife filmmaking—for nocturnal shots, grabbing a high speed remote control trolley, an advanced stabilizing system and laboratory cameras to catch the cheetah, converting broken drones into field communications equipment, and deploying a military spec thermal imaging camera specifically designed to be mounted only on a tank,” Armstrong continues. To read the full article, click here

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Camera Buggy

Cheetahs are one of the most familiar animals from natural history television. Their elegance, grace and spectacular hunting technique have made them TV favorites for years. To show these cats in a new light, reflecting the latest and truly surprising scientific revelations, the team needed to get closer than ever before—an ambitious task, given that they were up against the fastest animal on land.

Working with wildlife cameraman Rob Drewett and buggy operator Andy Nancollis, the team hacked a buggy of their own design to get closer than ever to a cheetah chase and film it at close quarters.

Thermal Camera
Thermal camera technology allowed the crew to capture never-before-seen behavior.

Luke Barnett, camera operator, says, “Being able to see in the dark is like having super powers. It is true that you are in part blinded to the outside world by the bright viewfinder, and this, after many weeks of staring, leaves you both captivated and reliant on the screen.

“When the battery dies (and there is no warning) you are plunged back into a primal darkness and the fragile state of being only human, with potential killers just the other side of some canvas.”

The CATerpillar

Episode producer Paul Williams worked with an engineering team to develop and build a custom remote filming vehicle, fitted with a miniature gyro-stabilized gimbal, that they named the CATerpillar.

The only one of its kind, this innovative piece of gear can be controlled from over one kilometer away—allowing super high definition images to be wirelessly and remotely filmed.

For more than two years the Big Cats team traveled to 14 different countries and filmed 31 out of the 40 species—more than any other crew has done before: from the ghostly Canada lynx in the frozen North to the bizarre Pallas cat in remote Mongolia, the mysterious and elusive swamp tiger of the Sundarbans and the adorable and daring rusty spotted cat of Sri Lanka.

It’s not just the enthralling behavior of the big cats that make this series groundbreaking, but also the insights it give us into the secret lives of the rarely-seen small cats. Only now has the latest filming technology and a surge in scientific research enabled us to bring these superstars out of the shadows.