Wildlife Cameraman Masterclass
Shooting a hunt without the cineflex
In my previous article I had discussed about how the incredible cineflex system changed the way hunt sequences are filmed. They have given us a visual experience that is truly hard to beat. But not all films are shot that wa., There is a more on-the-ground approach that most of us are going to find ourselves in.
A hunt sequence can happen in two ways – A lucky event that unfolds in front of you when you are on a jungle safari, or, an opportunity that is planned for.
Sometimes film productions start a shoot with the goal of filming a hunt with the acceptance that they are in fact playing a game of chance, no one is overly optimistic about the chnce of being successful . But that said, predators need to hunt - and if one spends enough time with them, the chances of witnessing a hunt becomes a high probability.
The best wildlife cameramen in the world are also exceptional naturalists.
Their deep understanding of animal behaviour is part of why they are so good. If they follow an individual animal long enough, they will quickly be able to pick out patterns and accurately predict when and where sequences may happen. They are also masters of camera positioning and set up which becomes critical when the action begins.
Wether you are in a lucky situation or have meticulously planned for it, The actual events that unfold during a hunt happen at incredible speed. You will only have a few minutes. What you do in that time window will make the difference between glory and regret.
Remember these 4 rules when you are about to film a hunt. They are simple but critical.
Rule 1. Build a sequence - don't come back with a single wide shot.
For a film in the professional standards of BBC or Netflix , just one wide shot of the hunt happening will not do. You need to build a sequence that can be edited into a gripping scene. You can't just come away with a wide shot of the scene.
This is an example of an incredible predation scene that was shot mostly in wide with very few cuts. This is obviously not done by a professional but it is a good example. It is quite dramatic as it is now, but imagine if it were done right.
To build a proper sequence, you need shots of different magnifications - some closeups of the predator, its reaction on seeing prey and geography of the scene - where it is happening and the dynamics of separation. The ability to quickly visualise and build a sequence is what sets apart a professional cameraman from an amateur. Learning to do that involves studying films closely and learning how the editor constantly changes magnification to move the sequence forward. ( I have included an example of a well shot sequence after rule 3).
RULE 2. Never take your eyes off the predator - It's body language will be the cue to every decision you need to make.
Changing shot magnification to build a sequence comes with a big risk.
What if you decide to take a close up of the tigers face and at that moment the animal decides to charge. Damn! by the time you zoom out and find the tiger in your frame – it's all over. you can curse, wondering wether you should have stayed wide, but those closeups are critical too. How do you decide whether to zoom in or not?
It comes down to the ability to read the body language of animals .
There are usually different stages of posturing before the animal launces an attack. If you learn to read them you won't miss the big moment.
In this video I have used some clips to show the differences in body language as the stalk progresses.
watch full videos on youtube: Tiger hunts Baby Deer | BBC Earth
RULE 3 - Don't forget the reaction shots - What is the prey doing ?
You will need reaction shots to build tension. You could decide to film the prey later in some situations, but what if the tiger is hunting something that is more unique – say an injured adult gaur or a sambhar stag with beautiful anthlers? In such a case you may not get that later, you definitely need to grab a few shots – take the chance and go for it. Get a mix of mid shots and close-ups. You need to work really fast and be precise. Remember we are talking about bursts of 10-15 seconds – that is all the time you’ve got. At all times you need to be aware of what the predator is doing. Keep a watch from the corner of your eye.
THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF A WELL SHOT HUNT SEQUENCE - it has a good balance of predators and prey shots that build to a gripping encounter.
RULE 4. STAY CALM AND BE DECISIVE WHEN THE PREDATOR LAUNCES.
When a predator like a tiger launches into attack – it can reach up to 60-70 kmph. At this speed you need to follow the animal . It can change direction suddenly but you need to maintain composition. At this moment there will be a tendency to panic as there are millions of questions running through your head - what is the prey doing, will the predator be succesful or is it a failed attempt, should I zoom out?
All these thoughts are justifiable but if you are indecisive you will most likely be left with a series of unusable shots. If you want to play safe - the best bet is to keep the frame wide enough so that when the predator catches up with the prey - both will fit inside the frame. You should set this frame even before the launch happens.
When following the animal your panning has to be absolutely smooth. The audience should be transported into the scene – rough, shaky movements are disturbing, they take away the magic. And then there is focus. As the animals moves , you need to maintain focus – these are moments where eye , hand and mind need to be in a complete sync. These 10 seconds is where the years of practice and training will come of use.
This beautifully shot sequence shows how the cameraman chose a perfect composition based on his location, the projected movement of the predator and also a judgement of the prey size.
watch full video on YOUTUBE - Snow Leopard Hunting | Planet Earth | BBC Earth
When filming action I usually set the friction level on my tripod to slightly less these normal for a long lens. High friction is great for smooth shots, but doesn’t let you change direction quickly, however hard your try the tripod will resist and you will lose composition . Too less friction will result in wobbly shots – you need to find that point where you can achieve both – smoothness and maneuverability.
I recommend that you practice camera-movement and following focus regularly. It is like any sport or art. Practice makes perfect. You need to use one hand for panning and the other to change focus. It is all about muscle memory. I used to initially practice by setting the tripod and camera along the road and following vehicles for hours, Its a good exercise for beginners . I later shifted to filming cats. I would ask someone to throw a toy with a rope and let it play. Their movements are far less predictable than moving vehicles and is a real simulation of what can happen in the wild.. You will find that one day suddenly you can pan and keep focus perfectly without even thinking.
THE HUNT IS DONE.
If the animal is successful then you need to capture the behavior after that. Even though we know that there are no heroes or villains when it comes to predation, audience tend to empathize with the prey, feeling sorry for it. This is natural human tendencey. For the benefit of the predator we don’t really want to show the gruesome park of killing. Shoot it in the most elegant way and keep it subtle. The natural world may be harsh, but the audience is driven by emotion. It is up to us to communicate with responsibility.
When youre filming a hunt I feel you need to have the traits of a sniper – expertise at the highest level – a calm and calculative mind – extreme patience – and the ability of immaculate execution – only then can you film a perfect hunt. The big difference – you don’t kill someone at the end – you capture a scene of value that very few people witness – that you were lucky enough to film and something you will be remembered for.
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