Filming Life Force in New Zealand
By Brant Backlund – Producer/Director Life Force: New Zealand
PRODUCTION TRAGEDY TURNS INTO AN OPPORTUNITY
We were filming the magnificent Fiordland landscapes in New Zealand where everywhere you look is one jaw dropping natural feature, vista, or waterfall after another. It’s easy to see why this remote corner of the country has achieved World Heritage Status.
The Fiordland town of Milford is very remote and only accessible by one road that is relatively quiet during the winter. We wanted to do a time-lapse shot of the famous view across the Fiord to Mitre Peak. It’s a postcard image that has been shot many times before, but never gets old. We wanted to film the tide rushing out so it would look like the land was rising from the sea. After studying tide, weather and moon charts, we identified one night that promised clear skies during the entire tidal cycle – a very rare occasion in a place notorious for its rain.
Incredible luck... we had a chance to film the tide rushing out, while the stars whirled across the sky behind Mitre Peak! So we arranged shifts with our cameraman, Mike, setting up the shot and starting it running at about 9:00pm (high tide). Camera Assistant Lindsey had first watch from 9:00pm until midnight. That’s when I took over. I crawled out of bed and dragged myself to the film site. Lindsey said she had a great watch, listening to the sounds of frogs and Kiwis calling in the forest. She went off to bed and I settled in for my watch.
All went well for about an hour, but that all changed at about 1:00am when staff from one of the restaurants in town where we had dinner earlier, came by and told us a bonfire was about to be lit -- just in the bottom left of my frame! I asked them if they could move, delay or cancel their bonfire, but they said about 100 people were soon to arrive and that the few permanent residents of Milford Sound had spent all day building up the fire site.
For the next hour I paced around the camera, not sure what to do. Maybe it won’t be in shot, I thought. Or maybe the tide will be out by the time it’s lit. But when they lit the bonfire the tide wasn’t out yet and the fire most definitely was in shot! Soon a huge blaze erupted in the distance... hardly the pre-human New Zealand we were trying to portray. I kept the cameras running, but felt defeated.
Mike came around at his scheduled time of 2:00am to relieve me, and just laughed when he saw the site. We packed up the gear, disappointed at the wasted opportunity.
But months later, in the cutting room, this shot resurfaced. We realized we could utilize this tragedy as we needed to portray a sequence depicting the arrival of humans in New Zealand. We had always wanted to keep it non-literal and artistic. So we ended up using the time lapse of the bonfire erupting to achieve exactly this. It is now a great intro to this sequence in the final show.
SHIPWRECKED ON THE SNARES
Getting to set foot on the Snares Islands South of New Zealand is a special privilege. Only a handful of people are given permission to go there each year, usually researchers. The islands have an interesting past, to say the least. In the middle of the 19th century, four convicts from Australia were discovered as stowaways on a sailing ship. They were left on these tiny isolated islands to die. Against the odds, they survived, living on the abundant wildlife.
The story took a grisly turn when one of the four was pushed off a cliff by the others. Amazingly, five years later, the other three were rescued.
With this story in the back of our minds, we went to work, filming the islands’ amazing natural spectacles. One of the most surreal experiences of my life was the morning ritual of the Sooty Shearwaters. The island is home to around 3 million Shearwaters. They live in the underground burrows that pock-mark the entire island. The morning we filmed their daily departure out to sea, we had to venture deep into the forest by 5:00am. This meant a 4:00am wakeup call. With headlamps guiding the way, we trudged with our film gear through a forest of tangled branches. Along the way the strange kazoo-like honking of the Shearwaters became louder. Pretty soon, it was like being inside a stadium -- the noise a deafening roar. Emerging from their burrows, they were everywhere, running around underneath our feet like a plague of rats.
We filmed their daily march to the cliffs, from where they leap out and fly off to the sea to find food for the day. It was like a river of birds flowing through the forest, streaming past us for several hours. We were speechless.
On our way back to our main base -- an 82 foot vessel called the Evohe -- we only had breakfast on our minds. We were spoiled with some home comforts and that morning we were hoping for bacon and eggs.
But arriving at the bay where the boat was anchored, our breakfast fantasy turned to panic. No sign of a mast in the bay - our boat was gone! Instead, the only safe mooring on the island was being pounded by an incredible swell that would have smashed the Evohe against the rocks of the island. The weather had shifted during the night and unable to alert us, the crew was forced to leave the island.
After the initial shock, we settled into reality. We headed for the island hut’s emergency rations and, with bacon and eggs a distant memory, began picking through instant noodles. For desert, it was a chocolate bar, partially infested with weevils. I was later told that some of these rations had been there since the 1950’s. Over breakfast, the story of the four previous castaways was a hot topic. We joked (a little uneasily) about who would be cast over the cliff first.
Luckily, we were only forced to play ‘castaways’ for one day. Eventually the weather shifted and the swell calmed down. On the horizon we saw the Evohe approaching. Even though we knew we were not in immediate danger, a collective sigh of relief came from the filming crew. And the next morning we feasted on bacon and eggs, and carried on with the shoot.
THE TRUE NATURE OF PENGUINS
The penguins on the Snares Islands are remarkable creatures. Every day they waddle, hop and stumble through the forest where they nest, to the ocean where they find food. Their determination and resilience is amazing... however, I have some doubts about their intelligence.
Many different colonies of penguins inhabit the Snares and each colony chooses a different site deep in the forest where they nest as a group.
One particular colony makes an extreme journey to get to and from the ocean every day. They have to navigate an obstacle called ‘Penguin Slope’ -- a giant slab of Granite rock which sits at a dizzy angle. They have to navigate this twice a day – slipping and tumbling down in the morning; clawing and struggling their way up in the evening.
We saw several of these penguins with blood staining their white belly feathers – evidence of misplaced steps on the slopes.
One day our underwater cameraman decided to follow these penguins to see where they nest. Surely they must have the best spot on the island to put themselves through this ordeal every day.
When he arrived at the colony’s nest he was perplexed at what he saw. Sure enough, they had a nice nesting spot, but just 30 meters further on was a different colony with a similar nesting spot. The only difference was that the second colony simply walked a few paces in the other direction, over flat terrain, before slipping gently into the cool clear water of the ocean to hunt for fish.
It seems some stubborn founding father of the ‘Penguin Slope’ Colony decided to do it the hard way. Then every successive generation learned that this was the way to get to the ocean for food. That’s the way it is and the way it will always be for them. Beautiful, amazing, tough... but not exactly brilliant.