Frankencam's New Operator

Igor and Frankencam together in Arizona


The Inverse Size Law I: Camera Vs Subject.

One of the most unexpected results of close-up photography is that the smaller the subject, the more gear you need to be able to film it. The inverse law of subject size. Hence the 20 cases (er - you took 20 cases to film the lions too - ed). If someone could be bothered, they could make a study of this phenomenon, quantify the relationship, and have an obscure law named after them. For this trip, we are using Frankencam* whenever possible. Frank weighs in at about 40 kilos when fully loaded, whereas the ants weigh around a 500 000th of a kilo.

Frankencam being assembled on a shoot last year

Yesterday, those members of the crew not sure about the value of Frank were finally convinced of the need for a camera that allowed us to be well away from our ant subjects while the tiny camera glided among them. The ants of the day were harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbartus in the process of nuptial flights. The males and winged queens come out of the nest, fly off and mate. The males die shortly afterwards, while the queens start new colonies. At this stage in their life cycle, the worker ants are very aggressively defensive and will attack anything that moves.

These harvester ants also have a vicious sting containing the most powerful venom of any animal yet tested. And they really hurt - about two times a bee sting per ant - some of us sustained over 50 stings filming the flying females while Frank was being set up. Swarms of workers would come running out of the nest towards intruders, climbing up legs and stinging as soon as they felt like it.

Incidently, if you are wondering what kind of clothing would be best in this situation, we can tell you that shorts and flip flops probably aren’t ideal, but those of the crew wearing shoes and long trousers got stung at least as much if not more.

Was it worth it? - to see nuptial flights of any species of ant is quite hard. To see it when you want to and have the equipment to film it is practically a miracle.

- affectionately known to us as Frank, is an Ammonite invention, a motion-control device developed over the years to help overcome the various problems associated with filming insects.


Taking It All Back Out Again - 20 Cases

It’s always 20 cases these days. The return from Botswana had two of us turning up at the check-in desk in Maun with 20 filthy label-encrusted pelican cases of equipment and two pieces of personal baggage. That was to film lions. Now, we’re leaving for Arizona to film ants - with about 20 cases. We’ll probably need two cars to carry it when we get there.

In the old days, we would have had maybe 5 or 6 cases - a 16mm film camera, a few lenses, tripod, a couple of batteries. and maybe 30 tins of 16mm film (equivalent to 2.5 hours of material). But we are told public demand needs more and more incredible imagery. So now, to film ants, we need to take about 5 different cameras, which if used carelessly could easily create hundreds of hours of digital video. There is a 'normal’ camera, for er 'normal’ scenes, a miniature HD camera that rides on Frankencam* for moving tiny wide angle lenses into the heart of the action, a small infra red camera to film ants that don’t like visible light, a Starlight camera to film ants that really don’t like light or heat. All these cameras need about 50 different lenses. ‘Normal’ lenses, close-up lenses, really close-lenses and ultra-close lenses.

There is a case of cables - video cables, power cables, usb etc etc etc. And gaffer* tape. Thankfully, budget constraints meant we had to cancel the slow motion camera. So we’ve just got the 400 kilos - packed carefully into 20 filthy label-encrusted cases (the insides are of course immaculate).

We’re now off to the desert with all of this 'advanced’ technology to meet some of the most advanced societies on the planet - the ants. Let’s hope that our numerous cameras don’t disappoint and come back with incredible scenes of the incredible things we have read about.

* Frankencam is a motion-control device invented by Ammonite

** The gaffer is traditionally the person who is in charge of all the lighting, who liases with the director and director of photography. The gaffer may just have a '2k’ to move around or they may be in charge of thousands of lights using enough power to run a small town. Either way, gaffers have given us some very good tape.


Ant Filming Preparations - Or How To Turn Pants Into Camera-Stabilising Systems

Sometimes the best solutions to filming problems are lo-tech.

Many pairs of trousers returned from Botswana in a grave state of repair. They have now been transformed into glamorous shorts with additional handy bean bags - to use as ballast and to stabiise the camera, this makes filming little things, low on the ground easier.


Bringing It All Back Home

The baggage has come back from Botswana, the cases will need forensic cleaning to ensure that no seeds or bugs become illegal immigrants.

Lion filming will continue in the autumn.
When we've got access to the footage we'll put some up

Meanwhile notes from the field will bring you news of the epic ant filming expedition that starts next week.

This is what the camp breakdown looked like...


Last Night Filming In Botswana

A quick search of the sandy tracks in the morning showed us that our family of lions had now moved to a spot where it would be impossible to film them, water channels and thick bush meant we had to go elsewhere and find some other animals to film.

We needed shots of impala herds, more elephants and anything else at large in the area

As we came round a bend, a couple of sitting giraffes got up and wandered away from the track and stared in their usual way. This was very interesting as giraffes at night seem to be very hard to find. It could well be because they spend time quietly sitting and ruminating rather than wandering around making themselves a target for predators.

We have seen the same pattern with many animals, springbok, topi, buffalo, oryx, wildebeest, gazelles, spending many of the hours of darkness sitting almost silently, ruminating. The darker the night, the more likely these animals are to be sitting, sleeping even, usually in a tight bunch. And it’s very clear that lions have great difficulty in locating these herds. It would explain why giraffes were so hard to see
at night, these two soon stopped staring and sat down again (an awkward process for giraffes). With the starlight camera, despite bright moonlight, the giraffes were almost impossible to spot, even if you knew where they were, their tall necks looking more like tree trunks. With the thermal camera, we could see them clearly, as well as herd of elephants moving in the background. And we could also see that there weren’t any lions anywhere near us.

That was a fascinating night, free of the pressure of having to find or keep up with lions, we could at last have a good look around, get some much needed shots of other animals featuring in the film, especially impala.

Tomorrow we start the pack...


Walking And Roaring

After following the tracks of our lion family up and down the edge of the swamp, we finally found them. They had walked a good 10 kilometres on the sandy trackroads before settling down in some bushes. As we came round the corner, a warthog (startled by another vehicle) just ran right into them and met a grisly end. The brother of the bloody nosed male appeared out of the undergrowth and sent the females off the kill, while still allowing the cubs to feed. Minutes later there was only a head left, which the male chewed on.

Then, we heard some roaring not far off. Clinton identified this as the bloody nosed male – and his lady companion who roared as well, giving the game away. Our pride all roared back. This went on for an hour or so, the bloody nose male never coming closer than a couple of hundred metres. Shame we didn’t have a decent microphone as the whole car was shaken by the roars all around. You can hear a lion roaring on a still night at least 10 kilometres away. Lions can probably hear it from much further. Either way, at 10 metres it’s an incredible sound.

One little warthog barely touched the sides, and the whole pride were pretty hungry. Now we were going to get some hunting behaviour. Off they set – on the road – stopping looking and listening every few hundred metres. A herd of impala gave itself away with a rustle of a leaf or some noisy cud-chewing, the lionesses spread out in readiness for attack. But in the bright moonlight, one impala spotted the lions and gave an alarm whistle causing the entire herd to leg it – cubs watching all this with interest.

The lions moved on and we continued to follow them for another five kilometres and didn’t see another single animal. With the thermal camera we could be sure there was nothing on the menu out there tonight - the pride gave up and went to sleep. Waking after a couple of hours, the pride continued their journey – South, looking for a large herd of buffalo we guessed. They left us at the edge of thick woodland where we couldn’t follow.


Wildlife In Camp

Usually, after a cold night filming, we need to warm up with a fire before we can sleep, Whisky helps too. In the Kalahari, there was always the chance of a lion or leopard wandering in at this time of night, but that is quite unusual. In Moremi, we often have company, in the form of hyenas. Hyenas aren't present in the Kalahari, but they are ever present at campsites in Moremi. They will try and eat anything, milk cartons, plastic bottles, car exhausts. We could usually pick out a pair of eyes looking back at us while clanking and crunching sounds came from the kitchen area. Needless to say, anything remotely edible was locked away in a steel trunk, but hyenas have an incredible sense of smell and would always give it a go. (Years ago, while filming in Kenya, I was foolish enough to leave my smelly shoes outside the tent one night, in the morning the only evidence that they ever existed were some bits of chewed shoelace). In Moremi, hyenas are rarely seen anywhere apart from camp sites, giving the impression that they are only scavengers of human waste*. This may be true here – we didn’t see a single hyena out and about at night – but the likelihood is that the camp hyenas are mostly lone males.

Yesterday morning, we were also paid a visit by the bloody-faced male and the female he has been hanging out with. He just wandered past camp barely even registering the humans hiding in cars or tents, perhaps too deep in thought considering his situation - encouraging intruders into the range of his own pride - to notice mere cowering humans.

* Hyenas are still regarded as scavengers, despite research showing they are primarily predators.


Driving In Circles

A tip off from a tourist guide
finally led us to the lions we wanted to film – well, it was only the cubs – still no sign of the females, but the cubs were looking pretty hungry, and chances of filming hunting behaviour were better than ever. When we returned that evening, the cubs were still there – still no sign of their mums. Just at after sunset, the cubs all ran off – they had heard their mothers calling from the bush, and the whole pride was reunited. Now all we had to do was follow them using the thermal camera. But the whole group promptly set off into thick mopane bush. We did get close to the lions but they just slept for a couple of hours. When they finally woke, they went into even more impenetrable bush – the car got stuck on some logs, and we had to let them go.

Clinton Ewards, a Botswanan wildlife expert working with us, had a good knowledge of this group – and based on his past experience guestimated where they might reappear. And he was right, there they were, looking a bit surprised to see us. But very soon, they headed off into thick forest again. We had to return to camp, cold and dejected. (The weather here is only slightly warmer than the Kalahari, and the Antarctic high pressure is still hanging around.)

The next morning we sent Sondag, the bushman tracker and Korbus, the trainee Dutch Reformist minister off to pick up the trail, to read the morning news printed on the sandy roads. Our family was soon found again. They had done a complete circle.


Bigamous Lion

NB: This post was written 5 days ago but there has not been enough signal to use the sat phone for emailing

The tarmac road to Moremi
(the new camp) soon gives way to a hard graded dirt road, the kind of road that would shake most ordinary vehicles to pieces in a matter of hours. The Toyota land cruiser is one of the few vehicles which can put up with this kind of abuse. When we got to the camp, we heard that the one of our vehicles has not only taken the wrong road, but that it has also broken down. We arrived just before sunset to find a half-built camp under a spectacular sausage tree*. There was just time for a quick drive around to look for tracks before dark.

Moremi game reserve borders the Okavango swamp, and like the Okavango sits on a huge flat bed of fine Kalahari sand. Car tracks in these areas offer a perfect substrate for animal tracks. Every morning, the night’s events are easily read, and to a degree timeable. Many of the animals prefer to use the tracks, especially lions, as they offer a silent way of moving around. For us, the tracks give us a quick way of finding our lions. Even if they just cross a road, 9 lions usually leave clear evidence. Any degradation of the tracks, by wind, insects, rain etc allows us to make a good guess as to when the tracks were made.

The next morning, we set off early an very soon found some lions, two females, a full grown male intent on mating with one of the females, and a young male with some kind of severe eye injury. The big male’s face was also bleeding from a huge gash on his nose.

Interesting - but they weren’t the lions we were looking for – they were bloated from recently eating a huge meal and wouldn’t be interested in food for another 4 days or so. The only thing of significance was that the big male with the cut face was apparently two timing. His own pride was the very pride we were looking for, 5 females and 4 cubs - and they would be very annoyed if they knew what he was up to – especially in a place they would regard as their own.

*The Sausage tree is so called because of its enormous sausage-shaped fruits weighing about 10 KG each, loved by elephants but a bit of a menace to smaller animals - baboons have been killed and lions knocked out by these falling fruiteorites.