BBCs Wild Arabia team was in Abu Dhabi recently to shoot its first major TV series on wildlife in the Arab world. Producer Chadden Hunter shares exclusive production notes with Anuradha Mojumdar The Arabian Peninsula is a stage for breathtaking and beautiful landscapes, elaborate eco-systems and rich natural and cultural history. For a TV series […]
BBCs Wild Arabia team was in Abu Dhabi recently to shoot its first major TV series on wildlife in the Arab world. Producer Chadden Hunter shares exclusive production notes with Anuradha Mojumdar
The Arabian Peninsula is a stage for breathtaking and beautiful landscapes, elaborate eco-systems and rich natural and cultural history. For a TV series to attempt to capture this is a riveting prospect for audiences as well as the producers of such a programme. Whether it is the falconry festival and the camel beauty pageant or desert foxes and exotic aquatic life, the potential for new stories is huge.
As viewers, we have come to expect a certain standard, especially when it comes to programmes about wildlife thanks to the documentaries shown on Nat Geo Wild, Animal Planet and so on.
The fact remains, however, that behind the breathtaking images on screen, lies a harsh and punishing terrain whether it is the Amazonian forests or the heat of the Arabian desert, that the team has to endure before it can produce works of art. In the Arab world, the team shot in the peak of summer, when temperatures soar to between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius.
BBC Wild Arabia, which is in production, will be the first major television series to showcase the extraordinary wildlife, landscapes and culture of Arabia and will be shot in High Definition. Wild Arabia will consist of three episodes each lasting an hour. The series will cover the Arabian Peninsula and the main locations will be UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The entire shoot is being conducted with the support of the Western Regions Development Council (WRDC) in Abu Dhabi.
The BBC decided to take on Wild Arabia as a publicly funded series in early 2010 and partnered with Animal Planet to bring in extra funding for the project. In return, the series will also be aired on Animal Planet.
The idea of coming to this area of the world to do a natural history series has been kicking around for a while, says the shows producer Chadden Hunter.
For quite a few years, there has been an interest in a series about Arabia, knowing there are very rich oceans and some surprising stories that havent been covered.
The series will showcase the diverse terrestrial and aquatic life including a look at the oryx and the Arabian leopard. It will also cover the Bedouin culture, its camel and falconry festivals while also attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Empty Quarter.
Hunter is particularly interested in filming dugongs in Butina Island and is in talks with Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) to shoot its annual project to place trackers on dugongs tails.
That is a really great story about Abu Dhabis conservation efforts; it has a human side to it. Conservation in the Gulf has had a challenged history if you want to put it that way. It is the stories of people who are passionate about protecting wild life and nature in the area that we are looking for. When we involve humans in the story, it is great and has an exciting conservation angle, he adds.
Hunter recently completed shooting the date festival with a single camera person and will return in October to resume filming.
Shooting in summer posed some unique challenges, a major one being air quality, according to the producer.
It (air quality) is a real challenge because viewers love seeing things in beautiful light and they will generally see beautiful desert scenery with crisp shadows. We were trying to do time lapses of a full moon and also tried to capture moon shadows over the dunes but the desert haze really softens the shadows, so it is hard to get really punchy visual images in the desert, explains Hunter.
Storms also made filming difficult and special care had to be taken to protect the equipment. Storms are a real challenge on the cameras because the sand is like dust and is very fine. I expected sand storms to be big walls of yellow grains that you can feel on your face but that really fine Shamal dust just gets in the cameras entirely and also gets in the lenses, says the producer.
Hunter and his DoP were constantly cleaning the cameras and even used rain covers to keep sand and dust out. The scorching temperatures also threatened to take a toll on the equipment but innovative methods were used to combat this.
Hunter says cameras are so electronic now they have little chips inside and are almost computers.
If you have them out in the sun, for example, doing a time lapse during the middle of the day, the actual black camera body is just melting. Therefore, we were wrapping white pillow cases from the hotel around the cameras just to keep the sun out. Like a Bedouin head dress.
Since the entire series is shot in HD, a range of cameras are being used to film it including a Panasonic Varicam that is ideal for slow motion shots, according to Hunter.
We like to shoot what we call off speed, which is either speeding things up or slowing things down, just to add a little more style to the sequence. If its wildlife, having it in slow motion just adds a bit of gravitas to the scene. Also, time lapses are important for this series because we talk about the passage of time, and the series starts from ancient backgrounds in Arabia and go into modern times.
For time lapses, Hunters team uses Digital SLR cameras such as a Canon or Nikon. The team has placed Cannon 550s in Southern Oman, where the team is filming the Arabian leopard. The cameras are placed in boxes connected to solar panels hidden deep in the mountains on tracks that are used by the leopards and will run for a year. Infrared beams help to locate the animals and a field assistant downloads the memory cards once every month.
Normally, we have little camera traps that have an infrared beam and low resolution and like security cams, we often use those to just scout a location to see if there is anything around. The ones we have now are DSLR camera traps shooting in HD and, as far as we know, it is the first HD footage of wild Arabian leopards.
Major parts of the series will be shot in Abu Dhabi, Hunter adds.
Before coming down, you dont realise the size of Abu Dhabi and the range of habitat that it has. The marine environments especially were a real surprise to me. Were doing quite a number of marine stories. You have many underwater stories here, whether it is dugongs or sea snakes or the protected marine life and that is great. On the coast, you have fantastic bird nesting colonies for flamingos and others.
Hunter points out that there is much to film inland as well.
You have got beautiful sections of the Empty Quarter desert; you have a genuine ancient oasis that has huge historical importance to the people and their families, and you still have traditional Bedouins with their camels and their dates living in the desert who might not be as nomadic as before. But there is a wide range of stories and wonderful people stories including camel racing that is so traditional and yet, modern.
The Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC) will be working with Hunters team to help facilitate production. Hunter mentions that the level of cooperation and interest in the project and the number of people that are excited about sharing the stories in Abu Dhabi has been immense.
Even though BBC Natural History is a production company in itself and a great deal of kit is already available, the team is looking to hire equipment locally and is being assisted by ADFC.
We have been talking via the Film Commission to twofour54 (Abu Dhabis content generation zone) about the resources that are available here such as certain kit that they have, whether it is cranes whereby we can get certain different angles or whether it is potential help to access with helicopter operators and filming of aerial photography.
Speaking about the project, David Shepherd, Film Commissioner of Abu Dhabi says: As the story builds and the filming requirements change, we will bring in support from the government and the different agencies apart from what Hunters team has already managed to establish. Our role is to bring in support as a government agency to make the film happen as easily as possible. Much of it is helping connect with the people who will assist the team with what they need. Once we understand the kit requirements, we will connect them with people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and see if we have the kit available here.
The team will talk to ADFC before filming aerial shots to understand which areas are best suited for the same. Hunter is keen to shoot the camel races using a Cineflex aerial camera, which he is also looking to source locally.
We first used the super-stabilised aerial cameras on Planet Earth and now they have become almost standard. You cant film aerials without being rock steady because the viewers bar just gets raised so quickly. They expect rock solid steady aerials because that is what they have seen, says Hunter.
The producer also wants to use the RED Epic which can film at 320 fps and is suited for slow motion as well as normal sequences.
We are all biting our nails off to get our hands on the Epic. In the past, to shoot slow motion, we had to take out the very special high-speed Phantom camera and that has been the one the BBC has generally used but it has got cables coming off it as well as laptop attachments. It also costs a lot more money and needs its own operator.
The EPIC, according to Hunter, is user-friendly and will also be used for shooting underwater time lapse sequences.
You will see all these sea creatures that look sedentary like sea cucumbers hovering at the bottom of the ocean. In slow motion, you will get a much more stylised view of say, waves crashing or a big animal moving so being able to take those technologies underwater is key, states the producer.
Other cameras being used are macros and the Starlight HD camera, which is suited to film at night because of its light sensitivity. Speaking about shooting on the Starlight, Hunter says: You can see a desert landscape and a fox running through it but also see a sky full of stars. We have never been able to do that in HD much and it is an exciting step forward.
The reason that the team employs a variety of cameras, according to Hunter, is because the BBC is now much more open to shooting on varied formats.
Traditionally, BBC has been fairly old fashioned about rules concerning HD that it has to match a certain criteria, so we had a few cameras to choose from. We are now much better at pulling in different formats so we can shoot on various cameras such as DSLRs and RED cameras.
What may be of special interest to broadcasters in the region is that the rights to the series have not been sold here yet.
We have held on to the Middle East rights so far. One of the reasons we have been talking to ADFC is to find a partner in the Middle East who will come on board and air the film on TV here, adds Hunter.