Magazine article American Cinematographer

Animal Instincts

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Animal Instincts

Article excerpt

With The Last Lions, their 22nd film, filmmakers and National Geographic Explorers-i ?-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert hope to draw attention to the big cats' plight. At the current rate of decline, lions will be extinct by 2020. Whereas 1.5 million of them once roamed the planet, today there are 20,000. They are endangered by loss of habitat, blood-sport safaris, and poaching to satisfy the Asian market for medical elixirs, among other things. "As filmmakers, we can no longer be observers," says Dereck, who has been filming big cats with his wife for nearly 30 years. "We have to be advocates."

They decided to shape The Last Lions around a compelling protagonist, Ma di Tau ("Mother of Lions"). The film follows her for a year as her life on Botswana's Okavango Delta undergoes radical change. When the story opens, she and her mate are loners, separate from any pride, a lion's hunting coalition. A fight with a hostile pride leaves Ma di Tau's mate fatally injured. Weeks later, he dies on camera, and Ma di Tau becomes a fugitive, her three cubs hunted by Silver Eye, the leader of the rival pride. A brushfire drives them across a crocodile-infested river to Duba Island, an outcropping recently created by a shift in the wetland's water channels. This virgin territory has attracted other new residents as well, including aggressive buffalo. The herd both threaten her family and offer hope of survival. We watch as Ma di Tau tries various tactics to kill a buffalo, succeeding only when she overcomes her fear of open water and learns to conduct water hunts. But when Silver Eye's pride arrives, our protagonist's cubs are again threatened. After a devastating loss, Ma di Tau wins the leadership of this pride.

Filmed over six years, with the core footage drawn from a 12-month period, The Last Lions literally took place in the Jouberts' backyard. Their primary residence has long been a canvas tent across the river from Duba Island. This proximity allows them to do what's necessary for their style of documentary: spend full days with the lions for years at a time. "Dereck and I have always felt that if you don't give a film like this two years, you're failing, " says Beverly, who handles sound and still photography while Dereck operates motion-picture cameras. "You can't tell an animal's story in one season; you need to do all four. And often you discover something you've missed when you start editing, so it's also important to do the following year."

Their day starts at 4 a.m., when they load up the Land Cruiser that serves as transport, dolly and tripod rolled into one. "It's also a submarine!" adds Beverly, since wetlands crossings can submerge the filmmakers as well as their gear. The vehicle's doors have been removed to facilitate quick exits, and camera mounts have been added at the lion's eye level and near the running board. "We didn't want to be shooting down on our subjects," says Dereck. "We wanted Ma di Tau, in particular, to be a hero, so we wanted the audience to be able to look directly into her eyes, or get down really low and look up at her. I always carry a set of Baby Legs for those opportunities to hop out and get right down in the grass.

"We very much wanted The Last Lions to feel like a dramatic feature rather than a straight documentary, so I tried to move the camera quite a lot, " he continues. "I stripped down a Steadicam and attached the arm to our Land Cruiser, and that gave us some very nice floating-movement shots going into the hunt and following the main character. I've got the mount on all the time and attach the arm when needed. I'm not sure I'm ever going to be able to rebuild the Steadicam because I've lost all the nuts and bolts! But that's the joy of owning your own gear."

For the shoot, Dereck typically carried three higb-definition-video cameras, and the models reflect how the tools evolved during production. "We started off with a Panasonic VariCam [DVCPro-HD], which was nice because it allowed us to shoot some slow motion," he says. …

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