Changing their spots


A true labour of love, a trilogy of documentaries highlighting the plight of
leopards in South Africa will shortly see the light of day after five years in the
making. Independently produced by family-owned production company Perfect
Directions, this project made innovative use of technology to capture and convey
the story of these widely misunderstood cats.

The leopard is a mysterious animal that evokes a sense of majesty within many
of us. Yet a little known fact is that this magnificent animal faces great
persecution from a wide range of sources, despite being a protected species.

Much like rhino poaching, the persecution of leopards has led to their numbers
dropping very low in South Africa. Leopards are also elusive and have very large
territories and therefore their numbers are often overestimated.

In 2009, when the owners of the production company Perfect Directions, Deena,
Anton and Darryl van Niekerk, learned of the persecution that leopards in South
Africa face, they decided that the best way they could make a positive difference
in their own particular way was through a documentary.

They each have many years’ experience in the industry and have worked on
award-winning projects. Yet, despite this experience, they had never produced
anything of this nature under their own name and realised that broadcasters
would not readily fund the project. A decision was taken to fund and produce
the project themselves.

This was of course easier said than done. They researched the subject and soon
realised that the story was bigger and more involved than they initially thought
and decided that three full-length documentaries would be needed to give
adequate insight into the issues.

Naivety and a (perhaps slightly overzealous) drive to make a difference meant
that, by the time they had filmed for three months, they had exhausted all their
funds and needed external support in order to make the projects possible. They
approached a number of possible supporters and although there were many
dead ends, several companies and individuals recognised the positive impact
their support would provide and stepped in to help.

Shifting to DSLRs

The first change they needed was a more compact camera system that had a
higher dynamic range and better low light capabilities than the heavy broadcast
cameras they had been using. Stills were also important and thus the DSLR
route was decided on. They ran comparative tests between the Canon 5D Mk II
and the 7D (remember, this was 2009) and decided that the 7D was the best
choice as it had better low light capabilities and a faster shutter speed, which
would be perfect when being used to take stills.

Canon and Digital Experience in Fourways helped them to make this possible
with a 7D and 15-85mm IS kit. After building up more capital the crew bought
another 7D and a 70-200mm L MK2 f2.8 lens. The transition from broadcast
cameras to DSLRs was very difficult, especially as the nuances had to be learned
in the field with live action.

Sound gear

They had the filming gear, now for sound. Rode had recently launched their
NTG3 and realised the project would be perfect to demonstrate the purposefully
robust build of this excellent microphone. A Videomic, which attached to the hot
plate of the DSLR (later upgraded to a Videomic Pro and Stereo Videomic Pro),
was also supplied to support the audio collected by the NTG3. “The NTG3 proved
itself time and again as we used it to film in the barren Namibian deserts, the
forests of KwaZulu-Natal and every harsh and demanding environment southern
Africa could throw at it,’ says Anton.

By the time the first documentary was finished, new technology was available
and Canon loaned the company a 5D MkIII and C300 to film the last two
documentaries. The improved low light / low noise filming ability meant that the
dusk, night and dawn scenes – when leopards are most active – could be filmed
with greater image quality.

Patching the XLR line of the NTG3 feed straight into the C300, without the need
of going through a phantom power supply, also made the gear more mobile and
quicker to set up. The project also gained the support of Samson products, in
the form of accurate monitor speakers and headphones, vital tools in monitoring
sound both on set and in post-production.

Steep learning curve

“Making these films has been a steep learning curve as the animal conservation
world does not always agree on the best solutions to deal with persecution
problems. Yet the direction that organisations like the Endangered Wildlife Trust
(EWT) and Panthera have taken works, and is supported by many. It was
difficult to try and put our own emotions aside and not judge the people
persecuting these magnificent animals and to realise that they are merely
ignorant, it is up to us to help them to understand the animals and find a better
way of doing things,’ Anton says.

“The process of making the films has been exceptionally difficult. It demanded
much of us physically, like climbing the steep ravines to follow the leopards in
their home ranges, walking kilometres through sickle bush and some of the
roughest Acacia patches, high temperatures in the desert, cold nights waiting
for the leopards, close encounters with snakes, lions and the ever present ticks.
One night, Darryl came close to being attacked by a very large male leopard,
whom we thought had been properly sedated but turned out to be only slightly
groggy. These were the risks we were prepared to take to tell this very
important story.

“In the end we learned far more than we expected. There are incredible people
out there doing incredible work for nature conservation. Yes, there are also
terrible people doing terrible things and there is a fine line being danced right
now where a number of species are concerned. It was for this reason that we
chose to take the reckless risk and self-finance three full length documentaries.
They are almost complete and we look forward to sharing the story of these
enigmatic animals, and what we can do to conserve them, with the world,’
Anton concludes.


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