How NatGeo DP & Crew Spent Months Filming Badass Big Cats
Cinematographer Bob Poole and his skeletal crew shot with long lenses deep in the wild for Nat Geo's Big Cat Week.
National Geographic’s 8th annual Big Cat Week premiered Sunday, Dec. 10 and is now in full swing. Following powerful predators through daily dramas, the series features jaguars in Brazil, tigers in India, lions in Tanzania, and more. Big Cat Week is an extension of the Big Cats Initiative, a global initiative supporting on-the-ground research and conservation projects to halt the decline of big cats in the wild. Using education and public awareness campaigns, they have supported over 100 projects to protect seven iconic big cat species in 27 countries, and built more than 1,700 livestock enclosures to protect livestock, big cats, and humans.
Tonight’s Big Cat Week episode Man Among Cheetahs features longtime nature cinematographer Bob Poole’s months among cheetahs in Kenya, as a mother cheetah and two cubs face a life of fierce odds.
Watching the episode is absorbing, and Poole’s commentary—based on his years of experience—gives context into the glimpse viewers are getting of the powerful animals onscreen. The show plays like a drama, and it is easy to become emotionally engaged in the momma cheetah’s struggle for her cubs’ survival. Poole’s onscreen presence warmly welcomes the viewer into the cheetahs’ world, and it is a pleasure to feel as though one is joining Poole on a filmmaking adventure.
No Film School talked with Poole about his filming process to find out how he tracks the cheetah family, how he captures their daily life while keeping a safe distance, and the stamina it takes to create a wildlife documentary.
No Film School: Why is this project important?
Bob Poole: Being part of Big Cat Week for National Geographic—which is all about the Big Cat Initiative—is really important because we’re losing big cats all across the globe, and if we don’t do anything about it, they just aren’t going to be around. National Geographic is putting forth a big effort to try and turn that around: it’s the 8th annual Big Cat Week and there’s been a lot of a success already with trying to preserve habitats for big cats, mitigating human and wildlife conflict, and stopping poaching. To me, being part of all that is really important because I’ve been around these things all my life and I can’t imagine a world without them.
NFS: Do you see big cats a gateway issue: that it’s easier for people to connect with them than with other species, in the quest to raise awareness about the threat of disappearance of more and more species?
Poole: Absolutely. From a filmmaking perspective, of course, these charismatic mega-fauna are the key because you can tell big stories about them. Big cats—lions, leopards, tigers, and cheetahs—they aren’t going to survive unless their ecosystems are intact. Of course their prey—all the animals they live on—share that environment and they need food to eat, so the environment has to be healthy. If you save big cats, you save everything else—from the insects to the biggest of elephants.
"The glass is super important, but also the cameras have to be stable: the longer the lenses, the more stable the platform has to be."
NFS: Can you talk a little about behind-the-scenes, the how-to of filming this show, such as what gear or practices you have found helpful?
Poole: In our work, we never want to disturb the natural behavior, so we work with long lenses and top quality cameras, 4K resolution and higher. The glass is super important, but also the cameras have to be stable: the longer the lenses, the more stable the platform has to be. We’re working out of a vehicle so there’s a lot of ingenuity to making that work. If people are interested, on my site there’s a lot of information about how we go about doing this. The episode tonight is really a making-of film—you’re with me on this adventure, this wild ride trying to keep up with a mother cheetah and her cubs, and there’s a lot of how I go about making that possible.
NFS: What lenses and camera did you use for this show?
Poole: I was using a Sony F55 with a R7 record deck, so shooting raw in 4K up to 120 frames per second. I’m using a Fujinon long lens, with a range around 50-1000, going to a 4K converter. It’s more about the platform: it’s been a work-in-progress for a decade building that kind of camera car that can handle that situation.
NFS: How many people do you have on the ground with you?
Poole: I had a cameraman/producer who was filming, and my wife was with me as second camera, still photography, and spotter.
NFS: Do you ever carry protection with you when you shoot?
Poole: No. Not typically. Not with big cats, there’s not huge amounts of danger. Big cats aren’t after us; they’re busy living their own lives. They’re really not interested in humans, as long as you are putting yourself out there in a way that is non-threatening. You don’t walk around these things. You’re working out of a vehicle when you are working with big cats.
"It was an exhausting project because we were working on four hours of sleep a night for a couple of months, and we’d just sneak in catnaps during the day to get through."
NFS: How do you find the animals again each day? Do you use a night crew?
Poole: Because we were following them 24/7, I had a night crew—just a spotter crew, they didn’t have a camera or anything, because a cheetah mom with cubs will bed down for the night to hide from lions and hyenas. If they didn’t get discovered or chased, in the morning they’d often be where I left them in the evening. It was an exhausting project because we were working on four hours of sleep a night for a couple of months, and we’d just sneak in catnaps during the day to get through.
NFS: If a filmmaker wanted to do this kind of work, what advice would you give them?
Poole: Wildlife filmmaking is totally different than other filmmaking. They always say, "Don’t work with animals or children." You have to understand how the animals think, you have to start to understand their behavior, and predict what will happen next and place yourself in position. It’s a lot of understanding the animal, and you do that by making lots and lots of mistakes over time. You start to recognize animals and what they are going to do, individuals as well as different species… you learn how to move around wild animals, and how to gain their trust. There’s so much to it. It’s what I’ve done all my life and I find it endlessly fascinating.
Man Among Cheetahs premieres tonight, Monday, Dec. 11, at 9/8c
Nat Geo WILD’s Big Cat Week specials are running all week on television, and will all be available on video on-demand and the Nat Geo TV app (AppleTV, Roku, iOS phones and tablets and Android phones).
For more information on the Big Cats Initiative and how you can be involved, check out Nat Geo's Big Cat Initiative website. To learn more about Bob Poole’s work and filmmaking techniques, check out his website.