Just getting to one of the locations of BBC America wildlife documentary series “Dynasties” — presented by David Attenborough and following the lives of endangered animals — requires an 11-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, a two-hour connection to Harare, Zimbabwe, an hourlong chartered Cessna 206 trip to Mana Pools National Park airstrip and an hour’s drive to the banks of the Zambezi River.
Imagine the logistics of making the trek with 50 bags of gear.
Difficulties abound. Authorities will “go through every single piece of equipment, every battery you have, to match serial numbers,” says Nick Lyon, director of the series’ “Painted Wolf” episode. He adds that producers need to be aware of certain restrictions, including the prohibition of camera equipment of American military origin.
Lyon and executive producer Mike Gunton (who won an Emmy on his last collaboration with Attenborough, “Planet Earth II”) were not allowed to bring in the latest HD thermal cameras, which they were going to use for night shoots. Instead, they deployed the Ammonite thermal camera, a retrofitted model that’s a favorite of Justine Evans, a DP who specializes in night wildlife cinematography.
“It’s not even SD,” says Lyon, “but [the images it takes are] incredible. It’s much more about the dynamic range than the number of pixels” when you’re working in thermal. “Our colorist, Simon Bland, who had been working on another series, swears the image was better. Justine was operating that camera, and the exposure was impeccable.”
Lyon and his team of rotating wildlife cinematographers and producers spent two years with Bushlife Safaris, a company in northern Zimbabwe, following the painted wolves, also known as African wild dogs, and learning the animals’ habits. But it would have been impossible to capture the story as well as they did without the help and talent of their guides, who in effect served as location scouts.
Bushlife is run by wife-and-husband team Des and Nick Murray, prolific African bush guides. They, along with longtime professional guides Henry Bandure and Simeon Josia, who have worked for the Murrays for nearly a decade, were integral to the success of Lyon and his team. It was Josia who helped put Evans in place to get a pivotal scene during a night shoot a few weeks into her first monthlong trip to Mana Pools.
“I knew how to position the vehicle and what to look for,” Josia says. “I used the night goggles and would tell her, ‘Go left; go right. This is happening here; that is happening there.’ We were the perfect team.”
Josia describes how they captured something exciting and sad and never before witnessed. “We caught a hyena taking away one of the wolf pups. Justine caught that on camera, and then we followed them for maybe another 20 minutes as the wolves hung their heads. It was like they were mourning. I’d never seen that before in all my time as a guide.”