The Hunt sits in the tradition of other blue-chip landmark series like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, but what sets this series apart is its detailed focus on a particular group of animals. There has never been a landmark series that has tackled the subject in this way before, really honing in on strategies behind predation and evasion. But it’s not just about behaviour – to truly understand predators you also need to understand the habitats in which they live, because it’s the latter that shapes each hunter’s strategy. So, The Hunt combines great behaviour with a sense of place.
Every landmark wildlife series must push the boundaries of the genre and The Hunt certainly does that – this is natural history meets drama!
It’s difficult not to be impressed by all the animals that we filmed – each has something special, whether it’s the intelligence of killer whales, the patience of Nile crocodiles, the ingenuity of a Portia jumping spider, or the stamina of wild dogs. However, the animal that probably captured my imagination more than any other was the leopard. These cats are the masters of stealth – you could walk past one sitting in light cover and you wouldn’t even know it was there. But since they don’t have stamina or huge amounts of speed, they need to get to within four metres of their target to have any hope of success. That is quite a skill – though not easy – which is why only one in six hunts succeed and why they mostly hunt at night, when they have the added cover of darkness.
The leopard we filmed – a 12-year-old female – used stealth in a remarkable way. She hunted in broad daylight on an open plain, using only a narrow gully as her cover. Her strategy was to walk along this gully (basically a dry river bed) looking for impala grazing close to the edge. We only saw her succeed once, but it was amazing to see her burst out of the gully, grab an impala in one fluid movement and drag it back into the gully. The whole attack lasted less than six seconds – pretty impressive given that the impala was probably 20-30 kilos heavier. You can count on one hand how many times a whole leopard hunt has been caught on film so this moment felt quite special.
We had to employ almost as many strategies as the animals we were filming! Traditional strategies, like hide filming were important, but on The Hunt we pushed the boundaries on some of the other filming techniques which really added to our editorial. For instance, we used the Cineflex – a long lens gyro-stabilised camera system normally used on helicopters – on a whole range of ground transport so that we could track our subjects as they moved and hunted. This strategy allowed us to keep pace with wild dogs while they chased wildebeest, stalk with a leopard and a tiger, and follow hunting killer whales and polar bears.
It’s a perspective that really puts the audience at the heart of the action and in the drama of the moment. In India we even came up with a design for mounting a Cineflex on a domestic elephant to film tigers. Tigers don’t see elephants as a threat so using our ‘Eleflex’ as we called it, allowed us to follow the cats into areas that it would have been impossible to take a vehicle.
Good question, but it varied from sequence to sequence. It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for a wildebeest being drowned by a crocodile or torn apart by wild dogs but, at the same time, you can’t help admire the huge amount of effort that goes into each hunt.
Audiences needn’t be concerned though, our focus for the series is the strategy rather than the kill, so viewers will be spared gory scenes!
You have to remember that survival is on the line for both hunted and the hunter. Indeed, the situation is arguably more acute for predators who fail most of the time. Nile crocodiles, for instance, only succeed once in every 10 strikes, so by the time they do catch a drinking wildebeest, you’re rather rooting for them! In this series, we really want the audience to feel empathy for predators but I don’t think it really matters whether you root for the hunter or hunted. The important thing for us film-makers is to generate enough emotion for the audience to engage with one or the other.
Every habitat brings its own challenges. Filming in the Arctic in early spring requires huge planning and a lot of resources. To film the polar bears’ meltwater and aquatic hunts we had to hire an ice-breaking ship for five weeks – not a cheap undertaking! At the other end of the temperature extremes are deserts – if you’re trying to film hotrod ants in the Namib you have to deal with sand temperatures that often hit 70C, while, at the same time, focusing on an animal only a few millimetres long. Then there’s tropical forests, which are often regarded as the most challenging habitat – not just because of the humidity and the rain, but because finding and getting close to animals can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. And who could say the open ocean is any less challenging than jungles? Here every shoot is unpredictable. You can set off to film one species but, even with the best planning, whether you find it or not is often pot luck. Quite often you end up filming something different!
I can’t boil it down to one moment as there were so many and you’ll see the best of these in our making of films that accompany each episode. However, my favourite moments would include the following: cameraman Rolf Steinmann being chased by a polar bear and his comments about filming the meltwater hunts after the skidoo pulling all of his camera equipment sank to the bottom of the sea; the trials and tribulations of cameraman Mark Smith as he tries to film the world’s smallest otter, the Chilean sea otter; the ‘Eleflex’ used to film tigers in India; and the excitement of filming a feeding blue whale – something that has never been done before.