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Filming in Brazil and Africa

Filming in Brazil’s Cerrado and Africa’s Rift Valley Lakes

By Satoshi Okabe - Producer/Director - Life Force: Brazil’s Cerrado and Africa’s Rift Valley Lakes

We have spent more than three years on this project from the early development stage to completion. I know it’s not often that one is given the opportunity to play a part in producing such a globally appealing nature series, or to work on such a large-scale production for such a long period. So I was very keen and have tried very hard to make it successful, as I spent a long period of my career on it.

With this series, we attempted to integrate blue-chip nature film and the latest science. The aim was to attract a wider audience – those who follow the latest science as well as those who are interested in wildlife. It was the first time for me to do a format like this, but it was very meaningful for me to realize that this style works well giving me a broader range of options for my future productions.

I was in charge of two episodes: Brazil’s Cerrado and Africa’s Rift Valley Lakes. I’m truly confident about the quality of each, and hope the audience will enjoy them.

Glowing termite mounds in Brazil.

SPECIAL MOMENTS

No doubt it is the spectacle of the glowing termite mounds – emitted by the headlight beetles living in the mounds - when we filmed Brazil’s Cerrado. At night, the mounds in the grassland enveloped in tiny grains of green light, and the beauty was just beyond expression.

This scene could only be witnessed under specific circumstances at the perfect location, time, weather and other conditions of the area. Since we used a special shooting technique using a digital camera, we couldn’t tell exactly of how the images would turn out until we played it back.

The scene of the glowing termite mound with thunder and lightning in the background – but luckily with no rain - was almost a miracle. I was really moved when I saw the actual images that we shot in the field.

FUNNY MOMENTS

For filming Cerrado, the crew stayed at a lodge in Emas National Park where we met many wildlife visitors. Among them was a curious stout lizard called Tegu. One day, while I was filming it for fun, it jumped straight at me! This small dragon terrified me but later it seemed pretty funny.

Giant anteater in Brazil.

THE STAR OF THE BRAZIL SHOW

What was most impressive was the Giant Anteater - its weird morphology. The motion of its tongue is extraordinarily unique. It is uncommon enough to see a tongue flick in and out at lightning speed to slurp up termites, but on that tongue is very gluey saliva sticking as many of them as possible. One day, I was licked by a Giant Anteater. Expecting a gluey touch, I was surprised to feel it was not so at all. I don’t know the mechanism behind the tongue in detail, but presumably, the gluey saliva is temporary.  It’s understandable that always sticky saliva would hinder the rapid motion of the tongue. So this was a very impressive discovery to me.

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

Every shoot was hard, but the hardest thing was filming the Kampango (parenting catfish in Lake Malawi) female giving unfertilized eggs to its fry. It was obvious to scientists analyzing its stomach contents that the fry of Kampango grew up on unfertilized eggs which their mother laid exclusively for feeding. But no one had ever witnessed how was done. So, we wanted to film that scene but we had no idea about whether it would be in the daytime or at night, or how often a female laid such eggs. The location of the nest was at about 30m in depth which allowed us only half an hour per dive. What made it even harder was the extremely wary Kampango female. She would leave at the slightest sign of any human coming close. The strategy we devised was a high definition underwater remote control camera that NHK developed for filming the Olympic swimming. With four of us, it took us a whole day to set up that camera which weighed over 200kg with a cable of 200m in length. Then we had to wait for a while until the Kampango got used to it. After almost a month’s struggle, we finally were able to capture the decisive moment.

Filming underwater in African lakes.

INNOVATIVE EQUIPMENT AND TECHNIQUES

In Lake Tanganyika, we filmed the cichlids feeding on scales of other fish using an underwater high speed camera. The attack of a scale eater is so rapid that with the human eye, it just looks like a simple body attack.

Since there was no full-fledged underwater high-speed camera until then, we had to develop one for this project. Capable of shooting 500 frames per second, the very moment of the attack shot by the high speed camera was really astonishing. Although it seemed like a simple hit, the scale eater twisted its body a few times in order to bite off scales from the prey. This motion was also new to scientists, and we were able to film it for the first time in the world.

Filming the ant hills in Brazil.

DANGER ALL AROUND

Brazil’s Cerrado is a habitat of many poisonous snakes. We never walked in the grass-covered plains without snake guards. What was worse, the snakes preferred the holes on termite mounds, which were our filming target. When we shot the glowing termite mounds in the darkness, we had to be extremely cautious because it was then when snakes got most active.

Still, we sometimes got so absorbed in shooting that we only noticed a rattlesnake coiled up just beside the crew when suddenly we heard its bizarre noise! Fortunately, no one got bitten and we returned home safely laughing at this, but it makes me scared just thinking about it.