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The daily life of a Kalahari meerkat clan is beng documented in 3D by South African production company WildEarth, which has developed a unique beamsplitter rig specifically for the purpose.

Led by the alpha-female Cleo and her mate Gandalf, the Gosa Gang in the Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve ventures out each day from dusk to dawn to forage for food and keep watch for predators. Cleo’s sister Delilah is heavily pregnant and about to give birth…

Since WildEarth began filming Kalahari Meerkats 3D in March this year, one set of pups has been born and killed and the Gosa Gang has had to deal with a territorial take-over.

These are examples of the continuing wildlife soap opera that viewers can see in the 2D Making of Kalahari Meerkats 3D programme shown as part of WildEarth’s LIVE broadcast on www.wildearth.tv/meerkats, www.tswalu.tv and www.ustream.tv/meerkats. It will soon be available at www.dailymotion.com and www.livestream.com.

The project came about as WildEarth needed a change after broadcasting its LIVE safari from the Djuma Game Reserve in the lowveld for five years continuously. The company had also shot the 3Dsafari series in Djuma.

WildEarth CEO Graham Wallington explains: “Specifically we wanted to tell a story that was more focused on a single family group. In addition the vast bulk of our audience is female and therefore more interested in mother-baby stories than in animals killing and maiming each other.”

Wallington and his wife Emily have known Gus van Dyk, the general manager of Tswalu Game Reserve, for years and were aware of their meerkat habituation programme.

“We instantly knew that these cute little fellas have what it takes to be 3D wildlife superstars,” says Wallington.

The Gosa Gang is one of the more habituated clans in the territory which has a small hill overlooking it – ideal for WildEarth’s LIVE signal repeater.

On meerkat watch

Kalahari Meerkats 3D is currently positioned as a 3 x 30-minute part series but WildEarth plans to produce half-hour episodes of about one a month.

According to Wallington, Kalahari Meerkats 3D is quite similar to the famous Animal Planet series, Meerkat Manor, in that it tells the story of a single gang of meerkats living in the Kalahari.

“However, our series differs because of the 3D aspect and because we shoot entirely from meerkat eye-level, without any zooming in at all. We spend the entire day with the meerkats when they are above ground, no matter where they go. Plus we will broadcast the making-of LIVE stream, which means that our viewers watch the story unfold and will likely experience nostalgia when they see the finished 3D series.”

The ‘Hero’

WildEarth’s 3D beamsplitter rig (where one camera is placed on top of another) consists of two new GoPro Hero2 cameras, which Wallington describes as ‘utterly amazing little cameras’.

He elaborates: “The camera crew shoots 25fps of 1920 x 1080 HD video, with an impressively high dynamic range. Of course the standard GoPro lenses are just too wide and that barrel distortion would not be comfortable for a 30-minute programme, so we changed the lenses accordingly.

“We specifically wanted a small lightweight beamsplitter rig that could be carried all day by a relay team of operators shooting continuously at meerkat eye-level. The only small camera with good enough specs is the GoPro Hero2 and so we worked with GoPro South Africa and a team of engineers and designers to build a beamsplitter rig to house two GoPros. To keep weight down the rig was ‘grown’ out of nylon. We believe it is currently the world’s lightest and smallest 3D beamsplitter rig – weighing in at less than 2kg.”

Initial 3D tests were done with the cameras in side-by-side rigs but this configuration did not enable the team to shoot the meerkats close enough without having an un-fuseable background when viewed in 3D, caused by the relatively high inter-ocular distance (the distance between the lenses of the two cameras) of 30mm.

“A beamsplitter configuration allows us to reduce our inter-ocular distance to 5mm which results in perfect 3D, even if the meerkat is 25cm in front of the camera,” comments Wallington.

Surround sound is recorded by a stereo X/Y microphone positioned above the beamsplitter.

The camera operator star of the show is Rob Bruyns, who plays a role in the series in that the story is told through his eyes. Bruyns is supported by a team of four newcomer cameramen.

WildEarth’s ultimate objective is to film and broadcast LIVE a wild and natural meerkat birth in a sleeping chamber below the earth.

Social life

Fans are constantly updated about the meerkat family dynamics on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Gosa.meerkat.gang) and Twitter (@WildEarth or www.twitter.com/wildearth).

“Within the first few days the broadcast was viewed over 70 000 times in the US alone and there is a growing group of Gosa Gang followers on Facebook,” notes Wallington.

Kalahari Meerkats 3D will only be licensed once complete but there is already commitment from 3flow, which is available in France, the Dominican Republic, New York, India and Chile as well as MTV in Hungary.

Screen Africa magazine - July 2012