Ahead of its broadcast tonight, here’s a Q&A with the makers of Natural World documentary Africa’s Fishing Leopards.

David Attenborough narrates the story of a leopard mother and her two cubs, who must survive in the wilds of Botswana alongside some less-than-friendly neighbours: lions, wild dogs and hyenas. The competition for food is tough, and if they are going to make it they must learn a new skill – they must learn to fish.

Local cameraman Brad Bestelink filmed their story over 18-month, offering a rare glimpse into an otherwise hidden world. The show was executive produced by Harry Marshall and Laura Marshall of Icon Films.

What is the background to the commission?

Harry Marshall: We met Brad Bestelink while we were filming an episode of River Monsters and he told us about this extraordinary behaviour he had witnessed, while filming in the ephemeral wetlands of Savute, Botswana. Together we worked it into a pitch for the perfect  1 x 60 minute special.

How did you get it green lit / financed?

HM: We took the story to BBC’s The Natural World, who knew and admired Brad’s filmmaking talents and understood the unique quality of the story.  They were looking for a single species behaviour show for the next run of TNW. We needed a US production partner and Janet Vissering at NG Wild was looking for a Special for their Big Cat Week.  Once she had seen the tease we had cut it was a no brainer and we had our commission.

Who was on the production team with you for this and why?

HM: Brad Bestelink and Richard Uren were behind the camera in Botswana, both of whom know Savute intimately. Rupert Troskie, award winning wildlife editor crafted the images,  William Goodchild, the composer, gave the score the kind of twist that natural history music needs to take it beyond the cliché, and Steve Gooder collaborated with Brad in shaping the story and writing the script

Why did you go down the 4K route?  

Brad Bestelink: Natural history content will always increase in value, the only thing that would limit this would be the format it is shot on. Realising this, just over three years ago we switched out completely and went not only to 4K and 5K, we went in shooting at compression rates that equal cinema release deliverables to ensure that the material has legs into the future. We went 4K solely to future proof our content and programs.

What kind of kit did you use to shoot the film? 
BB: We exclusively use RED Epics and Dragons, on drones and for IR. For us, if it’s not between 4K and 6K with high compression rates, it is of little value to us. I prefer the old cinema styled lenses for that more natural feel (especially when you have so much resolution, they stops it looking electronic). The most important piece of kit me on this film was having an infrared converted Epic.

What were the key challenges you encountered during the shoot?

Finding the leopards, keeping up with the leopards and then getting them to trust us rather than try to lose us.

How did you manage to film the cat fishing sequences? 

BB: Many long evenings sneaking around, using infrared, when we were literally in the dark with it.

How did the film develop in post?  

BB: Assemblies started on location, then at Films 59. Developing the relationship in the film between crew and the leopards was one of the hardest aspects of the post process. As we went on, we pulled as far back on the human element as we could to keep it a blue chip natural history about leopards. This human element of the story was solely about gaining insight into an aspect of their emotional / private lives, and the writing and interpretation of this by Steve Gooder was superb. Subtleties were key… Less was really more and he really justified making it an integral part of the film.

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started filming? 

BB: I would like to have known more about infrared prior to the fishing actually starting. We stumbled around in the dark with infrared lights and cameras and feel that if we had known all better how to use the gear we could have got more out of it rather than just the fishing component. It was only once the night fishing had started that we made the decision to get infrared, so it was a little like figuring it out as we went along.

What advice would you give to the many people who want to be wildlife film-makers like yourself?
Let behaviour drive all stories. See it – don’t say it. If you cannot say with pictures first, don’t say it at all

Africa’s Fishing Leopards; Natural World
TX: Feb 24th 2015, 8pm on BBC Two
Produced by Icon Films in association with Natural History Unit Botswana for BBC and National Geographic WILD US
Narrated by David Attenborough
Produced and directed by Brad Bestelink and Steve Gooder
Photography Brad Bestelink and Richard Uren
Editing  Rupert Troskie
Music composed by William Goodchild and Dan Brown
Executive producers for Icon Films Harry Marshall and Laura Marshall

Tim Dams

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