I’m often asked what it’s like to be a National Geographic cinematographer, what a typical day looks like. The reality is, there is no typical day and it’s one of the many reasons I love this line of work!
So, in anticipation of Women's Equality Day on Wednesday 26th August I’ve decided to share a day from one of my National Geographic documentaries ‘The Real Black Panther’, which involved over 18 months of fieldwork in a remote region of South-West India tracking and filming a rare melanistic leopard.
My alarm wakes me at 5am and I groggily get up, still half asleep to make some coffee in the hopes of waking me all the way up. My camera batteries have been charging overnight using stored solar power (or, when it’s too overcast we have a petrol generator) and I pack them into my camera bag. Next I grab the memory card attached to my laptop, it’s been copying since midnight, when I had set another alarm to get up and swap out from another card because my laptop takes about 4-5 hours to copy onto a hard drive (yes, I was in desperate need of an upgrade but we didn’t have the budget for that!). Each card is 1TB and given I’m filming in such high quality, a minimum of 4k right up to 8k, in slow motion (which means high frame-rates, and therefore more data), it’s actually pretty easy to fill a card on a good sighting, which of course I’m always hoping for.
I then set my files to backup onto another hard drive while I’m out filming, put the card into my RED Helium 8K S35 and format it. Today I’m filming on the Sigma 300-800mm lens so it’s a very large, very heavy setup. I bend at the knees and lift the behemoth and start walking to my filming vehicle, it’s still dark.
I click my camera into my tripod head which has been bolted into the filming vehicle, an open back tray with a bench seat. It’s my office for the duration of this shoot. I go back to the shack which has been converted into a room and grab my camera bag, hat, and thermos.
My driver, Mahdu, meets me at the vehicle with a small cooler box containing a few snacks, which will be our breakfast, and perhaps lunch if we find the panther, or have another great sighting like a tiger or other leopard.
I jump into the back of the vehicle and Mahdu takes off toward the entrance of Nagarhole National Park, even though the park itself isn’t fenced it’s entry is strictly monitored and restricted to between 6am and 6pm. As a filmmaker this is a huge frustration because, depending on the time of year, that sometimes meant leaving the park during or even before ‘golden hour’, the gorgeous light of dusk.
For now though, the sun is just getting ready to appear as we sign in with the park official at the entrance and then start heading toward the part of the park where I last saw the Panther in the hope of spotting him again.
Nagarhole NP is 250 square miles of mostly inaccessible forest, with a few single width dirt roads criss-crossing a portion of it and a tar road spitting it into 2 sections, the second part we referred to as the ‘backwaters’. When it comes to Panther sightings we rarely saw him on that side of the road. As we bounce along the dirt roads I listen carefully for Langur monkey alarm calls, the best indication in such a dense forest of a predator sighting. After several months of filming I can determine between alarm calls made for tigers versus leopards. In general the alarm call for a leopard (including our main subject, a melanistic leopard) is more exaggerated since they pose a far greater threat to the agile monkey and can follow them up into the trees. Tigers on the other hand, are more of a nuisance and mean temporarily retreating to the trees and waiting until it passes.
The sun rises and turns the forest into an amazing pink for a fleeting moment and after some slow driving and careful listening we arrive at the part of the forest where I suspect the Panther is. I have to make educated guesses when it comes to tracking this elusive cat and with most of my experience up to this point tracking leopards in Africa, I’m used to more open habitats and looking for signs on the ground. This is a totally different experience and I also consider where the nearest waterhole is, where in his (estimated) territory we are, knowing he’ll be gradually scent marking his boundaries, typical leopard behaviour. By putting all the puzzle pieces together I predict what general region he’s in.
Then, we wait.
And listen, and wait.
A tourist vehicle approaches, pulls up next to us and excited guests check out the camera gear and National Geographic signage and ask if I’ve had any sightings yet, they're hoping to see the Panther too, and tiger’s of course.
Our drivers chat and discuss what they’ve seen so far and where. They found a tiger in a different part of the park but are now on their way back to their lodge. Tourist vehicles are only allowed in the park from 6am until 9.30am and then back for a few hours in the afternoon.
As they drive off I chat with Mahdu about the tiger and have to decide whether we go there to an almost guaranteed sighting, and all going well, some nice footage, or to stay and hold out hope for the Panther.
It’s a decision I face often, and while I do need to film the entire habitat including all of the animals that live here, including normal patterned Indian leopard, Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, an abundance of birds and deer species, monkeys, sloth bears, and Indian wild dogs known as Dhole.
But, this film is about the Panther and leaving could risk missing the opportunity to film him, or perhaps just a short glimpse to confirm his location and the hope of finding him again the next day.
I decide to stay.
I pour some chai tea from my thermos for Mahdu and I and we have it with some biscuits to appease our rumbling stomachs.
We drive around the area, stopping regularly to listen carefully to the sounds of the forest. I peel off some layers as the forest heats up in contrast to the chilly morning. The hotter it gets, the less likely animals will be on the move, instead choosing to rest in the shade until the heat passes.
The hours pass by and we repeat this process over and over.
I keep my camera on and running in standby mode at all times, knowing the Panther could appear at any time, not giving me advance notice to prepare, I can’t risk missing it. It means I’ve already burnt through three batteries and I’m now switching to my fourth. I have two left.
On some shoots I have the benefit of an inverter I can plug the camera into and not have to worry about having to keep batteries with me, but not on this shoot. These aren’t the small kind either, they’re called ‘bricks’ for a reason.
Then it happens.
This time without even a peep from the langur monkeys, they haven’t seen him yet, but I do. His black fur is so silky and dark it seems to absorb the light. I scramble to get him in frame and find focus and then track him manually as he takes a step out into the sunlight and his even darker spots become visible.
He takes in his surroundings and then moves confidently toward our vehicle, looking down the barrel of my lens as he takes each stride. He stops, as if posing for me and then peels off to the left as I hold the shot and let him exit the frame. Once he does, I hurriedly whisper to Mahdu to reposition the vehicle so I can reframe.
My heart is pounding but I keep my excitement contained as I film as much as I can knowing what a special and fleeting moment this is. It lasts only minutes but feels like seconds and hours at the same time. And then, as suddenly as he appeared, he melts into the shadows of the dense foliage leaving me wanting more.
If I knew then it would be months before he was seen again I still don’t think I could have cherished that moment any more. Like every second spent with him, whether I’m able to film him or not, I always knew how incredibly special and rare it was.
It was a successful day, some days aren’t, most actually. That’s the nature of … filming nature. Never predictable, never contained, always rewarding.
We head back to camp where I take off all my gear, plug in batteries and set cards to download and start going through the previous day's footage to catalog it. I then have a conference call with executives at National Geographic to discuss the film's progress and how the storyline is taking shape.
Branches crackle as a fire heats the ‘donkey boiler’ (not an actual donkey) so I can have a warm shower and wash off the day's dust. I prepare my gear for tomorrow and eat some dinner (curry, of course) before collapsing into bed, a thin mattress on a slab of cement. It’s not the most comfortable bed, in fact it’s not comfortable at all, but I’m so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open.
I set my alarm for midnight (I have to swap out those memory cards so I can clear them for the next day's shooting) and one for 5am to start all over again, hoping for a glimpse of this rare, melanistic leopard to share his story with you.