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Lights… Camera… Slither!
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Tue, 16 Apr 2013 12:26
Bryan Vorster, Emily and Graham Wallington and Robin Bruyns

Martie Bester recently got up and close and personal with some snakes, in 3D.
I've often wondered what kind of snake 'sweet-hissed' Eve into complete disobedience in the Garden of Eden. It couldn't have been an anaconda because anyone, even in the nude, would have run a mile at the mere sight of this serpent. Nor a spitting cobra, as it would not have felt at home in the lush surroundings of paradise. I reckon the culprit must have been a green mamba.

I recently went to a 3D snake shoot produced by Graham and Emily Wallington, co- owners of WildEarth TV. As I drove to the location near Kyalami, Johannesburg, my thoughts turned to the first time snakes had made an impression on me. It was while watching the original version of the movie Clash of the Titans.

A character that both impressed and scared me was Medusa, the Greek mythological gorgon with her outrageous hairdo consisting of live snakes. Although the Greek gods and warriors would not look at the gorgon as her gaze turned them to stone, in terms of original hairdos, Medusa was quite the trend setter, if you ask me.

But back to modern times and my set visit. Graham Wallington and Robin Bruyns filmed the snakes with a 3D rig they designed and built themselves and christened the Mojito.

“This camera is designed to take 3D pictures very close to the subject, so that we can shoot the snake approximately 20cm away from the front of the camera, which has a very low end-to-ocular distance so that the 3D effect is good,” said Wallington, who claimed the Mojito is the smallest 3D beam splitter in the world.

“We designed the Mojito in CAD and then grew it out of nylon in a 3D printer,” continued the director. “It has two zoom lenses so that we can get really close to the snakes. With a joystick at the back, we can control and tilt and pan the camera, which means we obtain excellent levels of 3D footage.”

Luminous

Watching Wallington film a green mamba on the Mojito, I thought that if a snake could be described as ‘elegant’ this one would qualify. The green mamba, a luminous snake with an otherworldly glow to its brilliant colour, effortlessly curls itself around twigs and branches, and lies draped, like a beautiful ornament in the leaves of trees that camouflages, it from its prey.

For this encounter with the snake, Wallington handled the Mojito, while Bruyns filmed on a Panasonic Z 10 0000. “What makes the Panasonic special is that it is very efficient, user friendly and flexible,” said Graham. “On the negative side, you can’t adjust its intraocular distance, which means that it must always be more than about a metre and a half away from the subject, whereas filming on this little Mojito beam splitter gives us close-ups.”

He continued: “Therefore, working with the two cameras gives us two angles, one almost macro and one slightly further away long-lens type shot.”

As I leaned in closer to get a better look, I was careful to maintain a safe distance while the mamba’s triangular head darted curiously in every direction. However, I found it comforting when expert animal trainer and handler, Bryan Vorster, debunked several myths about snakes.

“As a general rule, if you leave snakes alone, they will leave you alone,” said Vorster. “Five people die yearly from snake bites in South Africa. If snakes were aggressive hundreds of thousands of people would die,” explained Vorster. Also, contrary to beliefs conjured up in horror flicks, snakes do not give chase, instead they tire rather quickly.

Safety first

Vorster has been handling snakes and birds on movie sets for decades. To ensure there is no danger on set he explained that they always discuss the entire process beforehand. “I tell the filmmakers how I think the snake is going to react in a given situation and if there is a safety problem we’d rather wait until we are sure things are under control.”

The green mamba, the star of the show and known to be one of the deadliest snakes on the planet, almost seemed docile, and was not disturbed by my persistent questions to the filmmakers.

Only later would I discover (thanks to Vorster) that snakes don’t have the ability to hear, so back to the Garden of Eden we go. Unless Eve could speak ‘parcel tongue’ (snake language as explained by the wizard Harry Potter) she would have had a hard time striking up a conversation.

However, in spite of their hearing impairment, snakes are able to smell 1 000 times better than humans, smell being a snake’s main survival attribute.

'In the blue'

Blissfully unaware of my impending T-shirt tan, I was mesmerised as Vorster handled a rattlesnake that was ‘in the blue’ – a wonderfully descriptive term given when snakes shed their skins. This process leaves them almost blind as their eyelids (which also shed), take on an eerie shade of blue. I thought, in wonder, how snakes enter a new existence with glistening scales and bellies – slicked to coil and curl, slither and slide – after each shedding.

Looking through the monitor of the Mojito, the snakes seemed vividly real and much more captivating than I could ever have imagined. The WildLife TV team had innovatively captured the essence of snakes in 3D, which allows viewers to get up close and personal with these impressive creatures, without venturing out in the bush.

And so my thoughts returned to Eve. People blame her for all kinds of things, but I imagine temptation in paradise was hard to resist with the hypnotic flicker of the snake’s tongue – the words probably darted out of its streamlined mouth, like silk strands that would have clad Eve in temporary robes of wonder.

By Martie Bester

Screen Africa magazine - April 2013

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