This emotional wildlife documentary series will connect you with nature


Cape Town – Serengeti, the new wildlife documentary series on BBC Earth (DStv 184) is a departure from any natural history show you've watched before, with John Boyega as the narrator of a much more emotional and dramatic nature series.

The 6-episode series explores the family relationships between different animals on Africa's savannah much more closer and intimate than ever before.


Produced by American Idol's Simon Fuller, Channel24 spoke to John Downer, the Emmy-winning wildlife filmmaker and the series director about the technology used to film animals so up close and personal, the challenges of filming in the Serengeti and why this series is important in terms of how it presents the natural world in a new way for the BBC.

What is special and different about Serengeti compared to other natural history series?

I've been making wildlife films for over 30 years and a lot in Africa, but this story is one I felt I really wanted to tell and all those years of experience allowed me to tell it in a way that is different.

What we've tried to capture here is the animals' stories from inside their world, the connections they have inside that world, but also families fortunes and misfortunes, and how the lives of all of the animals from the Serengeti interconnect in this incredible web that makes the Serengeti such a special place.

The camera gets really extremely up close to everything from an eagle to a lion cub while hunting. How is it possible to get up so close to the animals especially when they're actually moving?

That was my dream because I thought if we're going to tell the stories of these animals we don't want to see them from a distance, we want to be there, in their world.

It's all techniques we've developed at getting our cameras quite close and with making Serengeti we managed to take those camera techniques even closer. What's been so wonderful for me in my career is that the technology has caught up with what I want to do.

We could move with the animals, travel with them, and we have quite a few different camera systems. We have from ground-level just skimming the ground, we have hovers that could capture an event and keep travelling towards it; we were just bristling with a whole load of camera techniques which we've developed and changed and made more sophisticated.

When you look at a sequence it's very often made up of 5, 6 or 7 different camera techniques all merged into that one sequence. We have 3 camera vehicles and a range of different camera techniques which we deployed to get those different angles. We have the coverage to tell drama but very intimate drama.

The other thing that was important was that because we spent so long with these animals we and our cameras essentially became invisible to them. We were so much part of the landscape. A few years ago it would have been impossible.

A scene from Serengeti.

What is the approach with Serengeti?

What we've tried to do is to tell a story that will engage people in a different way. We took a more dramatic approach. Serengeti tells an engaging story but also one that speaks to the emotions and the family life of these animals.

How are the animals we see in Serengeti different from elsewhere?

With the Serengeti it is on a bigger scale but it is still filled with the most charismatic animals that people are familiar with.

What you have is a high concentration of animals that you know but people don't know the in's and out's of their family life. And those lives are inter-crossing all the time. The actions of one animal profoundly affect everyone else and it's a chain reaction.

We were trying to capture these very intimate stories but seeing how they're all trying to do the best for their young ones. So there are no goodies or baddies in Serengeti – you can root for any of them because they all have needs, they all try to get by and survive. One mother's success is another mother's failure.

We're not judgemental – let people see their world and the problems these animals face in their own lives and relate that to our lives because there's a lot of commonality between what you see in their lives and our own lives.

How did you end up working with Simon Fuller?

It came about because he loves Africa and I didn't know him before but he went on a safari holiday and he was just amazed by the stories – he had a really experienced guide with him.

So he came back with this idea of "why aren't we telling these amazing stories?" He knows nothing about natural history.

He's coming from the point of someone who's interested in the natural world and then experienced it and related to it. So he phoned me up and we met and we just had a shared dream coming from totally different viewpoints. It has been a perfect relationship because he's got a different view in terms of the experience for him but we have a shared vision for this production.

He comes from a totally different viewpoint of a TV producer who connects with global audiences. So he was saying "why can't we have a song in natural history?" and there's no real answer for that. And nobody thinks about it.

So that then became, okay how would that work and what could that bring? Well, it could bring a different level of emotion. It could express things that you wouldn't say in the commentary. He's a musical genius and he worked brilliantly with our composer Will Gregory and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

The other was about the language being used because we thought why always use the scientific terms you always use in a documentary. You can say the same with more relatable language and that helps us connect again. So those are the things he did and he's a real visionary and a perfect partner for me.

For how long did you film and what were some of the challenges you faced during filming?

We filmed for nearly two years. The series takes place over a year but because of the cyclical drama we went back for some of the shots we missed to fill in the gaps.

So we allowed ourselves nearly two years to film. The challenges are immense. I mean, trying to find the animals! And we decided to film where the grass is 8 feet high and you can't see into it. We were filming in the rainy season, you can hardly get around, all the plains are flooded but you still need to get the stories.

There were times when the flies were so unbearable that you spend all your time trying to get away from them but again you have to film the animals. So we're filming lions covered with flies where even for them the only way to get away from them is to climb up trees. So you get a whole pride up in the trees.

At one point there's nine lions up in a tree which I've never seen before and wouldn't have filmed if we weren't there at that time because it's the only time it happens. The challenging times were often the times that would turn up something really fresh and that we've never seen before.

The narration of John Boyega, it's interesting how it builds up to certain points. When he reads it does it terms of inflection and pacing and pauses, does he see what happens or is he reading it cold and then you match his words to the visuals? How does the process works?

What we tried to do there is use the voice almost like it is part of the music and soundtrack.

It's very carefully scripted and he is absolutely brilliant. He does it to picture. We play the whole scene. So he gets an idea of it. And then he will do it several times to picture with the inflection and the understanding. He was so into the storylines so he absolutely understood the sense of every line.

Two or three takes later you get that perfect rendition of storytelling that totally matches the picture. It is done to picture and I don't think you can get that level of performance with a cold read, it just does not work. You have to understand it and he wanted to understand it. There would be two minutes within an episode where nothing is being said. But he would watch that whole two minutes before he would pick up the next line. He wouldn't be disconnected because the previous scene and the mood changes the performance. So it worked brilliantly.

A scene in 'Serengeti'.

How did you decide the "language" style of the series?

We always had to listen to what the animals were telling us, and from their behaviour and the drama from their lives.

It was their story it was not stories. We're not imposing a story on them. They are telling us their stories. We then thought that needs to be reflected in the narration and we call John the storyteller. He is speaking for the animals because what we wanted to capture was what the animals had to say.

Underneath that there is also "what are they telling us?" If you look at Serengeti and its 6 episodes, there are so many take-aways for us as humans, in terms of our relationship with wildlife and our connection we have with them. It's the story of their lives, so we took that narration style which immediately makes you look at it in a different way.

It makes it different from the normal documentary of "I'm telling you this fact, I'm telling you that fact". We wanted it to be an emotional experience that connects you with nature rather than us as scientists telling you "this happened or this happened".

A scene from Serengeti.

Serengeti airs Sundays at 16:00 on BBC Earth (DStv 184)

(Photos supplied: BBC)

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