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Wild Time: Powering the Production of a BBC Nature Documentary

At the beginning of this year, I took on the task of filming a program on chimpanzees in Senegal for the BBC. It will be part of a five-part series of one-hour mini features on single species.

Filming chimpanzees is no small undertaking. The last time I did was for a BBC series called Africa. I found myself in the middle of the rainforest in the Congo for five weeks, trekking the equivalent of a half marathon to full marathon every day for fleeting glimpses of chimpanzees. I was losing 2 stone [28 lb.] of weight in the process, filming long lens and using a Steadicam in one of the more extreme environments I’ve tried to do so.

So I thought about this Senegal project with some trepidation, but chimpanzees are such amazing animals—there really is nothing like spending time with them. There are moments when you film them that you really see and feel how closely related we are, and this was a chance to spend the next year and a half filming the drama unfolding of their lives. I could really only make one decision and that was to accept.

The chimps in Senegal live in a far more extreme environment than the one I filmed in the Congo. The environment here [in Senegal] is far more savannah and patchy woodland, appearing far drier and less forgiving. This atmosphere makes the chimps have lots of very interesting behaviors, from spear hunting bush babies to digging wells for water.

As I write this, I am approaching the end of my third trip to Senegal this year for the project. Each shoot has been very different and the story has developed every time. This shoot was all about trying to follow them using the Freefly MoVI M15 stabilizer with RED Dragon camera. I didn’t even know if it would be possible, to be honest, as the distances covered and some of the terrain makes doing it and adding cinematic movement to the film incredibly difficult. I had learned from my Congo experience that Steadicam was not an option.

Powering the camera and follow focus is a major consideration. I was fortunate to use Switronix HyperCore Slims. I’ve been really impressed with them. Their P-tap out is great for providing power for my follow focus and accessories. The fact that they are light and provide 82 Wh in such a small form factor made them the perfect choice for this sort of gimbal work, as they gave me longer working times.

I don’t think I’ve tried to use a MoVI with a subject more difficult than these chimpanzees. They go from fast asleep to marching you 10 miles in the blink of an eye. They can also be incredibly explosive, giving very little warning that something is about to happen.

At this time of year, the temperatures are brutal—reaching about 46 degrees Celsius [115°F] by 11 a.m. on most days. We have had our work cut out for us the last three weeks, but we have also filmed some extraordinary shots for the program. It wasn’t easy and they made us work hard and sweat a lot for every shot, but when it all came together at the same time, it really delivered. My worry now is that we will want to do it again.

I’ve lost about half a stone [7 lb.] on this trip—it should have been more, but the food is very good where we are staying and they have looked after me very well. I’m looking forward to seeing how this film changes and develops over the next year. I can’t wait for the next shoot back here and will keep using the HyperCores on my M15, but in the meantime, next stop is Peru for a series on mountains. The chimpanzee film is due for release at the end of 2017, so we still have many months of filming time left.

I’ve spent much of the last few years filming for a BBC series called Planet Earth 2, the follow-on to the original Planet Earth that came out over 10 years ago. Planet Earth 2 is due for release at the end of this year (2016). It’s taken me all over the world: Madagascar several times, Komodo, where I filmed Komodo dragons fighting, Costa Rica and elsewhere.

Mark MacEwen (Twitter @MacEwenMark) is a wildlife and documentary cameraman.