Patience, passion and perseverance are the qualities required to venture into the world of natural history and wildlife filmmaking. Broadcast Pro met with Yusuf Thakur, UAE-based filmmaker and founder of VFX, a visual media communications company in Dubai, to find out what it takes to create a documentary in the wild Standing in the midst […]
Patience, passion and perseverance are the qualities required to venture into the world of natural history and wildlife filmmaking. Broadcast Pro met with Yusuf Thakur, UAE-based filmmaker and founder of VFX, a visual media communications company in Dubai, to find out what it takes to create a documentary in the wild
Standing in the midst of the 2000 sq ft VFX studio in Dubais Al Quoz industrial area, making an authentic film about the natural history of the UAE is not the first thing that springs to mind. For Yusuf Thakur, however, its the revenue generated from the corporate work he does within this studio that enables him to undertake his passion project filming wildlife.
Thakurs documentary, Jewel of the Mangroves, which was shot on a Panasonic DVCPro standard definition (SD) camera several years ago, was recently broadcast on National Geographic Abu Dhabi. The subject focuses specifically on the Mangrove Kingfisher, a bird species that lives and breeds in the UAE region of Khor Kalba, north of Oman and south of Fujairah. Khor Kalba is home to the oldest Mangrove lagoon in Arabia flowered with Avicennia Marina trees.
Filmed with no formal budget and shot over 12 hours, every day for six months and with Thakur as the only single crew member, the 30-minute documentary premiered on the channel in Arabic at the beginning of August 2012. It is the first UAE local production to be shown on National Geographic Abu Dhabi.
“The good part of natural history is that it never dates,” says Thakur, who has completed nine natural history and wildlife films in the UAE.
“I filmed Jewel of the Mangroves on a tape-based Panasonic DVCPro SD camera a few years ago now, but I have been consistently making trips back there to see the mangroves.”
National Geographic Abu Dhabi started airing just two years ago and it show its library of programmes in SD.
Thakur adds, “I approached Nat Geo with my work. It has a format, style and strict criteria, but I told them, well I already have a film.”
When Jewel of the Mangroves was filmed, Khor Kolba was not a protected nature reserve, so it was possible to set up cameras for a shoot. Today, the whole area has been barricaded and completely closed off from access with a guarded gate, in preparation for the opening of an official nature reserve this October, and therefore making filming nowadays impossible.
“Today we wouldnt be able to do such a shoot,” says Thakur, who has been filming in HD ever since the completion of Jewel of the Mangroves.
“But there is no point in remaking a film which is already good enough,” he adds.
If Thakur was to shoot the same documentary today, however, he would opt to shoot with the RED ONE or the RED Epic, as “it allows for filming in 4K/5K and RAW and will have a long shelf life plus it can be fully graded giving you complete control on the final look and feel”.
Jewel of the Mangroves, the winner of four international awards, was edited on Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere.
“You can edit Native R3D without transcoding,” he says, “and grade it in Resolve. The good thing about Resolve is that it opens native R3D files. With RED footage, it very important to not transcode till the final ouput to ensure that we can achieve the best picture quality from the RAW R3D.”
At the moment, Thakur is working on a series of three 45-minute films on UAE natural history that are being shot in 4K.
“It is like a feature length documentary that is divided into three segments,” explains Thakur.
“The first part covers the mountains and wadis across the GCC, but specifically in the UAE. The second part focuses on the desert while the third is to be shot underwater.”
Thakur is also working on a series of short three-minute natural history films, each one educating about a specific species in the UAE and the GCC, for example, a falcon filmed in its own environment. All shot in 4K and HD using a RED Epic camera to capture footage of scenery and sequences, the aim is to create up to 50 of these short films, 25 of which are currently completed.
Thakurs passion for wildlife stems from his Indian upbringing.
“My second name, Thakur, means landlord, and I come from a family where land ownership, hunting and guns were a given,” he recalls.
“But, I always disliked the idea of hurting animals and had a strong objection to hunting. My passion for wildlife stems from there.”
His experience began with assisting the crew of an Indian wildlife shoot.
“I did the sweeping, the rubbish bags, anything to get some experience,” says Thakur, who went on to complete a film degree from The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and has now been filming wildlife for almost 20 years.
Thakur relocated to Dubai in 1995, experimenting and filming wildlife in between jobs. In 2000, VFX was founded, initially based in Sharjah, and has taken on commercial production ever since. The company now has eight full-time employees including Thakur, who films, directs and edits. It is due to this commercial work that he is able to fund his wildlife projects.
“The budget is personal,” he says.
“We do the commercial projects to make the personal projects feasible. If I quantify the amount of money I spend from my pocket, I will never be able to justify it. I could never recover that kind of money in terms of salary, hotels, crew, food, and so on.”
When VFX does commercial work, a big crew is necessary. For his documentaries, the crew mainly consists of just himself plus a secondary cameraman, and very rarely up to four crew members in total.
“With wildlife and natural history, you dont work with large crews because its a painful job where you have to sit for hours and hours, and its not easy to film,” explains Thakur.
“You constantly have to tell yourself to be there and stick it out, because it takes a huge personal and physical toll on you. Its not like sitting somewhere with air-conditioning. Last year, we filmed kestrels breeding in the desert during June, July and August with average temperatures outside rising to 56 degrees. In this sort of heat, you can have nosebleeds every day; its tough. A lot of people ask how we cope. There is no magic formula, you have to be driven, you need to have a lot of patience, and most importantly, persevere.”
Then, of course, there are animals to consider. “Youre not supposed to be there!” he says.
“As far as the birds and the animals are concerned, you are in their environment and that causes them stress. It takes a while before you can get any footage of the bird or the animal mating because it takes time for them to break down that barrier and understand you arent there to cause any harm.”
Filming wildlife in the UAE is tougher than in the likes of Africa or India, according to Thakur, who believes he could film 10 times more usable footage in a matter of days there than he would in the UAE.
“The difficulty here is getting consistent footage because the simple fact is, the animals are scared. But a lot of natural history work is done by waiting it out, and it may sound old school, but if you want the money shot, you have to wait it out. Even with the best crew, the best equipment, you wont get it overnight.”
VFX says it has always used equipment based on affordability and quality. Since 2008, Thakur has been shooting with the original RED, and earlier this year, he upgraded to the RED Epic, and editing always with Adobe software.
“Since cameras and technology changes so rapidly, it is important to buy equipment that will at least last for two or three years – not months. Thats why I prefer the RED camera, which we bought in 2008. In 2012, we bought the EPIC. The RED ONE is still the most affordable 4K camera which shoots 120 frames at 2K. Five years and its still the work horse for us. Recently RED cameras are being used extensively in documentary production by most of the major nature and documentary broadcasters on blue chip documentaries so I suppose we made the right choice,” adds Thakur.