A team of cinematographers ventures to some of the most remote corners of the world to shoot the documentary miniseries Deep Jungle.

In the opening of Deep Jungle, a three-hour miniseries produced by Granada Wild for WNET’s Nature series, a camera glides through a dense rainforest while a narrator describes a new generation of explorers penetrating the world’s jungles: “These 21st-century pioneers are taking with them an arsenal of high-tech tools, and they can reveal the forest as it’s never been seen before.” The montage that follows fulfills that promise to spectacular effect: thousands of bats light up in a rainbow of color through thermal photography; a scientist uses an infrared beam and a Global Positioning System to create a 3-D map of the jungle canopy; and a tarantula and its babies are discovered deep inside their burrow with a spy-cam, provoking the mother’s attack.

Deep Jungle, which will be broadcast on public television on April 17, April 24 and May 1, gives as much play to the cameras and technology used in the study of rainforests as it does to the scientific knowledge these tools make possible. “We didn’t go in with the philosophy of trying to show every gadget we could,” says David Allen, series producer and one of the principal cinematographers. “It just turned out to be a complete tour of cinematography techniques. The different locations and bits of behavior required a plethora of gadgets and every kind of filmmaking.”

The “wow factor” of the series is tremendous. Viewers see how researchers take equipment like the Thermascan, which was designed to monitor heat stress in industrial machinery, and adapt it to render nocturnal creatures visible. They see the secret of Angkor Wat revealed through infrared satellite imaging; aboard the space shuttle, this camera can peer through jungle vegetation and show the Cambodian archaeological site to be part of an ancient metropolis the size of greater London, connected by a vast network of canals. The series also illustrates how an ornithologist used a 1,000-fps industrial video camera to break the mystery of the Red-Capped Manakin’s mating call. It shows scientists using an infrared camera to record — for the first time in the wild — Darwin’s night moth unfurling its 12" proboscis.

But for every imaging apparatus that might dazzle viewers, there is a classic cinematography technique happening without fanfare behind the camera: long-lens photography, macro work, handheld sync sound, dramatic reenactments and much more. The production’s core cinematographers — Allen, Gavin Thurston and Kevin Flay — are natural-history veterans who have worked on numerous productions for the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet, among others. Cinematographers Justine Evans, John Brown and Richard Foster shot additional footage. All are well versed in Super 16mm, Granada’s customary format, and have extensive experience in the field. “Any one of us should be able to switch from shooting at 600mm to shooting on the end of a periscope pretty quickly,” says Allen.

The standard camera package comprised an Aaton XTRprod and an Arri 16SR-2 or 16SR-3 High-Speed, Zeiss prime lenses, Zeiss 10-100mm and 12-120mm zooms; wide-angle Canon and Zeiss zooms; and a long lens, such as Allen’s 300-600mm Canon. Many had their own periscope systems ending in a selection of wide-angle C-Mount lenses for a frog’s-eye view. A Sony DVW790 DigiBeta camera mounted with Fujinon lenses was often taken along for sync-sound and low-light shooting. Some cinematographers brought more specialized gear, such as a Photo-Sonics Actionmaster (to film flying lizards at 500 fps) or a borescope (to go eye-to-eye with a spider). Others operated Photo-Sonics’ Phantom V5.0 in Granada’s studio to capture falling raindrops hitting a butterfly at 1,000 fps and 1024x1024 pixels. Allen notes that although all of the cinematographers were experienced, “there are specialists within the specialty — people known for their brilliant long-lens ability and jungle-craft, who can get close to the animals, predict where they’ll be, and get those stunning shots at the end of a very long lens. Others are able to go into a scientific research situation and film more stylized material; that’s more about lighting, set work and controlling small critters, as opposed to tracking a large animal.”

Throughout 2003-2004, the camera team spread out over Borneo, Peru, Brazil, Cambodia, the Central African Republic and elsewhere to shoot, often under incredibly difficult conditions. According to Allen, Deep Jungle could have included far more about the cinematographers’ trials and tribulations, but the producers refrained. “It was much more about the scientists,” he notes.

The prominent exception is Thurston’s pursuit of the charismatic but elusive Sumatran tiger, which is chronicled in the opening program. Thurston’s assignment was the series’ biggest gamble, for the Sumatran tiger had been caught on film only once before. Only 400 remain in the wild, and their turf is barely accessible — just getting to base camp required a two-day hike through jungle terrain. “It’s hot, it’s steamy, the ground is really wet, you’re carrying heavy packs, and you’re looking out for elephants and so many different animals,” says Thurston. “You’re not taking a gun or bear spray, and you have to have your wits about you. They’re arduous conditions to work in. That’s why they send the British SAS to train in [neighboring] Borneo; it’s one of the toughest tropical places on earth.”

Thurston’s accomplices were camera assistant Ralph Bower and Jeremy Holden, a scientist with Flora & Fauna International who has spent years studying Sumatran tigers. To count the animals’ numbers, Holden had been using a “camera trap” consisting of still cameras triggered by infrared sensors. With Bower’s help, Thurston took this a step further. Their innovation was a motion-picture trap using off-the-shelf components: remote cameras that automatically switch from normal day to infrared-night setups, TrailMaster infrared motion sensors (much like those used in standard security systems), infrared lights for night action (tigers are nocturnal creatures), a Video Walkman with 40 minutes of tape, and two car batteries per trap. “The batteries weigh a ton,” says Allen. Add a pelican case with camera and recording gear, a knapsack with infrared sensors and cables, and another knapsack with infrared lights, and each trap weighed 90 pounds — a heavy load to transport on foot.

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.