Wild Animals/Big Cat Diary

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Question
Hello,

I watch a show called Big Cat Diary, and never seem to tire of it.  It focuses, on lions, leopards and chetahs.  What I do not understand is why the cats do not seem to react to the existence of the filming crew, and actually sometimes lay near the trucks and lounge around, as if they are not there.

Since they are always looking for food, why don't they perceive the crew as prey? (not that I am hoping for this, of course) but I do not understand why they seem to be so safe?  I hear of attacks on people, so they are not incapable.  What makes the crew so comfortable to film so nearby?

Thank you

Answer
Hi Kee,

Concerning many of the big nature documentaries involving wild animals such as what is shown on the Big Cat Diary, it is important to remember that most of the crew are seasoned professionals and have previously worked with these types of animals in other capacities.  This could be through Wildlife Sanctuaries, Big Game Hospitals and even Public and Private Zoos.

The most important thing to remember is that even a single episode of a nature program may take months to create.  The crews will deploy devices in the field such as stand alone game cameras, remotely operated cameras and even make use of blinds, also called hides, and ghillie suits which camouflage the equipment and crew during filming.

Another popular means of filming involves the use of specialized vehicles that permit filming from the top or rear.  Wild animals, especially big cats, are easily accustomed to the vehicles after months and even years of their constant presence and do not perceive them as either a food source or even a threat.

Not to condemn any of the nature programs in particular, but the last important topic that is commonplace among these types of shows is a rather unethical approach; i.e. 'cheating'.  That topic would involve ratings.  The number one way to remain 'on the job' and be able to keep filming and airing a show is the popularity of that show and the ratings that are received.  While I cannot speak personally about the ethics or tactics deployed by Big Cat Diary, it is very common for a crew to stage a scene using wild animals that are either controlled and captive and in some instances even trained.

If you are familiar with IMAX films, Chris Palmer (environmental and wildlife film producer and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University) explained that during the making of his films:

"I rented wolves for that film because we wanted to get closer to the wolves. We couldn't get close-ups of the wolves in the wild. Wolves don't like to be around people. They will move away, and they will move 50 miles a day. So trying to get an IMAX camera close to wild wolves is virtually impossible. In Yellowstone, or the Yukon, for example, it was just impossible. The only way to get close-up of wolves and bears is to rent them out, and that’s what I did when I made our “Wolves” IMAX film.

Another example is from our IMAX movie “Whales.” We have a scene where you see the skull of a killer whale at the bottom of the sea to illustrate one of the dangers to migrating humpback whales. Killer whales are one of the main obstacles [humpbacks] have to overcome as they take on their 3,000 mile journey from their breeding grounds in Hawaii to their feeding grounds in Alaska. So we show a killer whale skull. But we put the skull there. The audience thinks it was there naturally on the sea bottom. But we actually put it there."

For more information, I would recommend the following:

Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom by Chris Palmer

Wildlife Films by Derek Bouse

Wildlife Film-making: Looking to the Futur by Piers Warren

Wild Animals

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