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Filming Meerkat Manor

A brief diary from John Brown on filming meerkats in the Kalahari Desert

For 6 months between October 2004 and April 2005 Oxford Scientific Films made a series about the complex lives of a family of meerkats living in the Kalahari Desert.

The series, called Meerkat Manor, consists of 13 half hour programmes that follow the daily lives of a group of meerkats concentrating on the relationships between half a dozen or so key animals within the family.

The animals we filmed are part of a detailed long term study run by a team from Cambridge University and we have an extraordinary level of understanding of these animals thanks to their research. All the individuals are named, we know how all the group members are related and we have a pretty good understanding of many of the rules by which they run their lives. The research team have habituated more than 20 meerkat groups whose interlocking territories cover the whole of an old cattle ranch now owned by Cambridge University. Each individual has a unique pattern of die marks allowing for easy identification and, should the marks rub off, they all have a tiny transponder inserted under their skin allowing the researchers to positively identify each and any of their study animals. The level of habituation is perfect for filming; the meerkats basically ignore you and, provided you are sensitive to their ‘personal space’, they allow you to put the camera pretty much anywhere. One of the great features of the study is that there are so many habituated groups that when there is a border conflict it’s likely that both groups involved will be habituated, allowing you to cover the action with complete freedom. With other habituated animals I’ve filmed in the past – baboons and chimps – it was impossible to fully cover a border dispute as, although ‘your’ group was habituated the opposition would usually take one look at the ‘baboon plus cameraman’ combination and turn tail. Over the six months of filming we had 20 pups born, three matings filmed, a puff adder attack, a huge pitched battle with a neighbouring group, a couple of traumatic den moves, females evicted, plus a huge range of other weird and wonderful storylines that make the films pretty compulsive viewing. It was amazing how quickly the individual traits of the key family members became apparent, and within a few days of filming starting we were able to concentrate on our ‘star’ family members allowing us to produce very character based storylines.

We filmed most of the series on a Sony DSR570 camera using J11 & J17 lenses. The DVCam format proved perfect for the job; we didn’t have to worry too much about the cost of stock (and with 13 half hour programmes to make we had to shoot a huge amount) and the ability to lay sync sound onto the tape was a huge bonus.

Meerkats are very vocal animals and their emotional state is often expressed by the type and quality of their calls. We used a Sennheiser 416 as an off-camera mic sending the signal back to the camera via a wireless system. The DSR570 performed very well in the conditions – the dust was as fine as talcum powder and the temperature ranged from just above freezing to more than 40°C in the shade – it barely missed a beat.

We did some fine tuning in the camera’s menu system to achieve a nice look; taking out some of the detail, changing the gamma curve slightly and adding to the saturation. We left the colour temperature set at 63K to warm up the picture and improve the continuity when inter-cutting between different sequences. The films were field merged after the online was complete to further enhance the look. We also used several small, B&W infra-red cameras with built in LED light sources for underground sequences, which gave remarkably good results, and a Sony MiniDV handycam on the end of a microphone pole for low-angle travelling shots which produced some great images for the fight sequences. I used a Nikon D2H digital stills camera for timelapses. The MiniDV handycam and the Sony V10P clamshell which we recorded the underground sequences onto both suffered with the dust and had to be sent home for repair – they both produced the same, dust induced, error code and locked up and we didn’t fancy our chances of repairing them in the field.

It was a constant struggle to try to get a low enough camera position to keep at the meerkat’s eye level – they are much smaller than people think, no more than 30cm high when on their tip-toes – and even with the smallest of baby tripod legs we had to be careful where to position the camera to achieve a good filming angle. The positive side to their tiny size is that even with a very simple jib we could get fantastic crane shots – floating the camera through the group with the meerkats barely reacting to the camera passing within inches of them. The days would start early, and we’d be out in the field by 5.30am, we’d wait for the group to emerge from the sleeping burrow we’d left them at the previous evening then stay with them until late morning when they would start to crash out in the shade. We’d then come back to our base and log all the previous afternoon’s and that morning’s rushes. The log we produced categorised each batch of shots according to behaviour, individual, time of day, location etc and allowed for the editing team back in the UK to quickly make sense of the huge amount of rushes they had to work with. It was very time consuming in the field – sometimes we had to log each individual shot, timecode by timecode – but the editors could refer to the log and quickly scan through 170hrs of rushes to find examples of a particular individual doing a particular behaviour. After the logging was finished we would head back out to the group and film until they went to bed which was usually 30 minutes or so after sunset.

It was a pretty relentless schedule and by the end of a 5 week shoot we’d be pretty shattered. Many days wouldn’t yield any new developments to the storylines and we would slog the kit across the desert for 8 hours with no real return. But the sheer unpredictability of the group meant that you couldn’t miss a session of filming as you just never knew what they would get up to – this was definite confirmation that days in the field pay off in terms of getting unique and remarkable behaviours on film. The filming was a great experience. The Kalhari Desert is a beautiful environment to work in and the meerkats themselves were great subjects; occasionally exasperating, often rather bewildering but always fantastic and charming.

The 13 half hour Meerkat Manor films have been broadcast on Animal Planet and are due to be shown on BBC2 in 2006. A 50 minute Natural World film called Ella, A Meerkat’s Tale based on the story of one of the members of the group we filmed was shown on BBC2 in December 2005. A second series of Meerkat Manor is currently in production. Crew Camera: John Brown & Robin Smith Sound: Matthew Drake & Laura Harvey On TV Meerkat Manor: 13x half hours for Animal Planet Ella – A Meerkat’s Tale: 50min Natural World for BBC

Author: John Brown