The American Society of Cinematographers

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Taking Flight

Director of photography Simon Niblett brings an intuitive approach to the high-flying documentary The Eagle Huntress.

Photos by Andrew Yarme and Asher Svidensky courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The documentary The Eagle Huntress (trailer here) paints a portrait of daring opposition to centuries of male prerogative in a traditional Kazakh community. Set against the remote beauty of the Mongolian steppe and Altai Mountains, the movie follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, who — with the support of her devoted father, Agalai — sets out to become a champion eagle hunter. The true story resonates beyond borders, and it could only be told by filmmakers willing to embrace physical, financial and artistic risks.

      The movie marks director Otto Bell’s first feature, but he and director of photography Simon Niblett had previously collaborated on numerous shorts. The close camaraderie they established on those projects was only one reason Bell called on Niblett for his feature-documentary debut. The cinematographer is also an expert in tough outdoor shoots and an inventor of specialized camera equipment that he constructs at his own workshop in England’s coastal village of Bantham, in the county of Devon. (Production featurette here.)

      Niblett says his approach to equipment is intuitive, not reactive — meaning that rather than getting a piece of gear and seeing what it can do, he looks first at what he wants to accomplish, then creates what is needed to reach that goal. He calls this “back-to-front technology — what to do, then how to do it.” For The Eagle Huntress he used an ABC Speedy crane, which he modified for greater reach.

      Bell became fascinated with Aisholpan’s story through a series of stills taken by Asher Svidensky. Those photos attracted worldwide attention, and Bell persuaded Svidensky to help turn the photo essay into a film. Other filmmakers were also interested, so Bell had to act quickly, but Niblett was committed to another project at the time. Instead, Bell made his first trip to Mongolia with Svidensky and New York-based cameraman Chris Raymond.

      Flying into Ulaanbaatar, the trio continued in a twin-prop plane to Ölgii, a village in the Bayan-Ölgii province of northwest Mongolia. From there, it was a two-hour ride in a Soviet-era bus to the nomadic yurt — known locally as a “ger” — where Aisholpan’s family makes its summer home. Over the course of the journey, with Mongolia’s seemingly endless beauty stretching out on all sides, Bell realized the landscape itself would have to play an important role in the documentary.

      The filmmakers sat down with the reserved Kazakhs over a cup of tea, and discussions began about the possibility of making a documentary. This was a delicate moment. To achieve the results he wanted, Bell and his collaborators needed to gain the trust of people who are deeply tied to the timeless patterns of nature and the customs of their ancestors. These Kazakhs survive traveling by horseback and pickup truck across the steppe, herding goats and cattle during the warm months and settling into small villages during the brutal winters. Only men hunt. Training a girl to be an eagle hunter flouted age-old rules.

      The elusive goddesses of documentary seemed to be smiling, though. Bell recalls the moment during that first meeting when Agalai said, “My daughter and I are going to steal an eaglet from its nest in the morning. Is that the kind of thing you would like to film?” The director’s joy was matched only by his trepidation; the small crew had not come prepared to shoot a scene of such magnitude. They had only Raymond’s Canon EOS C300 Mark I, Svidensky’s Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and Bell’s GoPro Hero4 Black, with Bell’s older Zoom H4n digital recorder for recording sound. But there was no chance of reshooting this crucial event.

      Capturing an eaglet is the first of three main trials undertaken to become a master eagle hunter, and it has to be done during the brief period when the bird has learned to fly but is still living in the nest, fed and protected by a fierce mother. Once an eaglet is taken, only one hunter works with it for seven years before releasing it back into the wild.

      For Aisholpan and Agalai, stealing the eaglet was the culmination of months of preparation. He, a two-time winner of the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii, had taught her to hold and feed his bird, how to gently remove its hood, how to call it to her. Bell and Svidensky followed Aisholpan and her father up a mountain, then scaled down a steep cliff to a ledge where Agalai lowered his daughter — who wore the GoPro on her sweater for POV shots — by rope down to the huge nest. Meanwhile, Raymond was situated below to establish the vast background and the cliff’s height.

      In order to shoot up at Aisholpan and be close enough to record sound, Svidensky and Bell were also lowered to a precarious ledge, below and to the left of the nest. Bell recalls, “Asher didn’t have a tripod, so I was just trying to get him to hold [the camera] steady. I was holding the Zoom [recorder], talking in Asher’s ear, and meanwhile we had the mother eagle circling overhead.” It took Aisholpan more than one try to capture the fledgling in a bag, but she succeeded. Her triumphant smile as she holds her eaglet became the climax of the film’s first act.

      Once Niblett’s prior commitment wrapped, he was able to join the production as director of photography following this first sequence. He made four trips to Mongolia, and he used three of his own cameras; a Red Epic Mysterium-X was the main camera, a Blackmagic Production Camera 4K served as the second camera during the Golden Eagle Festival, and a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera was used for drone shots. “The Epic affords high frame rates and can be stripped down to use on the crane and DJI Ronin gimbal, [the latter of] which we used both on the crane as a remote head and handheld out of a truck for some horse-riding tracking shots,” Niblett explains. “The Pocket camera was the perfect drone camera due to its small size and raw capabilities. We used a 12mm [Olympus Micro Four Thirds] lens exclusively with the Pocket camera.” The cinematographer adds that the lens had to be dismantled “at least twice to clear the dust that gathered from takeoffs on the steppe.”

      Even with the need to move between grand landscapes and intimate portraits, Niblett used only a few lenses with the Epic and Blackmagic Production Camera: a PL-mounted Tokina 11-16mm (T2.8) zoom rehoused by Duclos Lenses, Red 18-50mm and 50-150mm zooms (both T3), Canon L-series 200mm and 300mm primes, and a Canon 150-600mm T5.6 zoom. All of the Canon lenses were Optex-modified for PL mounts. “The Canon 150-600mm was a $25,000 lens when new — circa 1985 — and is super sharp,” Niblett says. “I use a Redrock Micro lens motor and thumb wheel  to focus it.”

      The documentary’s second act culminates at the festival. After training her eagle for months, Aisholpan and Agalai — wearing traditional regalia — set off on horseback, riding a full day to compete against 70 of the greatest Kazakh eagle hunters. During the festival, Niblett was supported by camera assistant Ben Crossley, who was positioned with the Blackmagic Production Camera on the mountaintop from which the birds were released. Niblett stayed on the ground with the Epic to capture competitors on horseback calling to their eagles. A DJI Spreading Wings S1000 drone, rigged with the Pocket Cinema Camera, was also put into service, capturing aerials of the eagles swooping down to land on their masters’ arms.


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