Continued from the March 2012 issue of Your Cat magazine (page 26)... some extras from the new Disney documentary ‘African Cats’.
Behind the wheel of a Landrover, which bears the scars of a recent run-in with a bull elephant, bumping along a pot-holed track with the radio switching between English and Swahili, director Keith Scholey is on his way to work. And what a commute it is when the sun begins to rise and illuminates the vast Mara plains and all its wildlife.
This morning, as on so many mornings during ‘African Cats’ lengthy shoot, Keith is strictly on the look-out for cheetah and lion who have the leading roles. So when he gets the message over the radio that one of the film’s field assistants has found star cheetah Sita and her cubs a couple of kilometres away he drives off in their direction. A few minutes later he joins camerawoman Sophie Darlington a short distance from a boscia tree around which Sita’s cubs are playing, effortlessly shinning up and down the trunk and mock-fighting over the best positions in its branches. Their mother is standing a short way away, her eyes vigilant as she watches a nearby herd of gazelle. “If she sees a fawn, it will be all over in a few seconds,” Sophie whispers over the radio.
Sita and her brood settle down in some shade. She wakes from one doze and moves all of ten metres to begin another. It makes for a nice photo, but it isn’t exactly the stuff of Hollywood drama. Even if Sita did decide to do something interesting – like hunt – the cameraman might not be in the right position, the light may be wrong, or the long grass might obstruct the view. A hunt is all over in a matter of seconds too: cheetahs are famously the fastest of all land mammals and achieve a rate of acceleration, but they can only maintain their top speed over short distances and need to get surprisingly close to their intended prey – about three metres – if they are to stand a chance of success. “If we get a minute of good footage a week, we’re doing well,” Keith says. Yet on the evidence of the footage Keith screens later in the day back at camp – a huddle of tents overlooking the Talek River – the team’s patience has paid off. There’s a tense sequence of lions crossing the fast-flowing, crocodile-infested Mara River; Sita in a fierce standoff with a male lion who could very easily hurt her cubs, and the same cubs caught in a clattering thunder storm and menaced by a clan of hyenas, their jaws set in what look like malevolent grins. Some of this remarkable footage shows behaviour that apparently hasn’t been filmed before, and using the latest technology the filmmakers have achieved amazing beauty and sharpness. When Sita chases a gazelle, you can see her blinking to keep the dust out of her eyes. “Experience helps, having a good eye helps,” says Owen Newman, principal photographer with a passion for lions, “but the most important quality for doing this kind of work is really intense interest in wildlife.”
Sophie seems as attached to the cheetahs as Owen is to the lions. “Sita is the most beautiful and most courageous cheetah I have ever filmed,” Sophie says, admitting she will find it ‘heartbreaking’ when the shooting comes to an end and she will have to leave Sita behind.
“You can’t spend all this time with these animals and not become personally involved with them,” Keith explains. “They live such dramatic lives and often such hard lives and display such courage. I think it will be hard for all of us when the shoot is over.”
Right now though, the end of the shoot is a while away and Sita and her cubs are rousing themselves from a long nap that has passed most of the afternoon. The cubs begin to play and Sita positions herself on a termite mound and lets out a low, persistent growl. Evening is falling and hot wind is sending white clouds scudding across the sky from the direction of faraway Lake Victoria. “Another day in the office,” Keith laughs as he turns the key in the ignition and begins the drive back through the park towards camp.”
‘African Cats’, narrated by actor Samuel L Jackson, is set to be released in UK cinemas in April (tbc).