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The BBC’s Big Cats tech hacks take inlet docs to a whole new level

“The problem with filming cheetahs is sincerely obvious,” explains Nick Easton, writer executive on a BBC’s latest wildlife blockbuster Big Cats. “They’re a fastest land animals, so we can’t follow them regulating on foot, and they’re utterly slim and nimble so pushing alongside in a lorry is too dangerous. In a end, we hacked some new technology, managed to constraint a cheetah during full widen in delayed suit and saw things nobody has ever filmed before.”

Big Cats – usually like a BBC’s new David Attenborough fantastic Blue Planet II – is laced with rare close-ups and never-before-seen behaviours from some of a healthy world’s many iconic animals. The array covers roughly any vast sport cat – from cheetah to lion to jaguar to a some-more problematic Black-footed cat and a Pallas cat. But to get world-first footage was as most a outcome of a hacker’s art as it was a filmmakers art.

The BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) – a biggest wildlife-documentary builder in a world, producing some 150 hours of radio and radio any year – has had hacking in a DNA given it was one of a initial to put TV cameras in a margin behind in a 1950s. “The bar we set for ourselves is always rising,” Easton says. “No-one wants to see a same shots in a opposite programme. So, any array we make we have to pull tech serve than it’s now configured, mixing technologies for a initial time and always going for shots that no-one’s done before.”

For Big Cats this meant state-of-the-art low-light cameras – a new extent of wildlife filmmaking – for nightly shots; grabbing a high speed remote control trolley, an modernized stabilising complement and laboratory cameras to locate a cheetah; converting damaged drones into margin communications equipment; and deploying a troops spec thermal imaging camera privately designed to be mounted usually on a tank.


Some things were shot a normal approach – despite not indispensably by choice. Hunting a Black-footed cat – a smallest African cat, small bigger than a domestic moggy – a group were faced with a distance problem. The cats are around 35cm long, have subterraneous lairs, are nightly and are disdainful to a Karoo dried – a dried in southern Africa that’s roughly a distance of Germany. Their usually wish was a systematic group that had successfully radio-collared one dim pawed feline, nicknamed Gyra.

“The problem was, a scientist’s lorry was a vast though ethereal square of apparatus and they weren’t penetrating on us regulating or modifying it,” Paul Williams, another writer executive on a array explains. “These cats can ride 20 miles per night, they’re constantly on a go. So, whenever we speckled Gyra we’d delayed a lorry down, reduce a camera and tripod land fast try and get shots. This was a really solemnly pieced together portrait.”

“It’s all solemnly pieced together to be fair,” adds Easton. “Ten weeks was about a shortest fire for one cat. we spent 16 weeks in a margin to get some shots. And while apparatus is removing smaller, it’s not that most smaller. We still have to lift 6-7kg tripods adult a Himalayas.”

The BBC’s best cat pack hacks


Slow-motion shots of cheetahs regulating during full speed prisoner regulating a specially-developed camera cart showed a animals keep their nails out during all times, providing them with built-in peaked regulating shoes

Run like a cheetah

Nick Easton loves sharpened cheetahs. “The final year or so has seen remote buggies spin fast adequate and complicated adequate to lift a camera,” he explains. “For Big Cats, we used a cart grown jointly by a wildlife camera user and remote-control automobile fan called The Mantis, a Newton gimble stabilising complement from Norway and a Phantom Flex high speed camera – that started as apparatus for scientist to record intensely discerning events.”

While filming for Big Cats, Easton collaborated with Professor Alan Wilson, highbrow of locomotor biomechanics during a Royal Veterinary College. Wilson has a paper entrance out in Nature in a open regulating his possess and Easton’s commentary to uncover a cheetah’s speed is indeed a by-product of a manoeuvrability – a predators need to accelerate, stop and spin to keep adult with their plunging chase and it’s a acceleration that gives them a speed.

“We were means to uncover that cheetahs keep their nails out all a time while regulating to act like peaked regulating shoes,” Easton explains. “We were hacking a pack to a extent – there are shots where we can see a gimble lurching from side to side. But we held shots of a army travelling by them as they decelerate that support Alan Wilson’s argument.”

Drones on a stick


To film a Pallas cat, Williams tranquil a remote-vehicle from a kilometre away

The NHU pioneered a use of drones in filming – in 2013 they blending a notice UAV for a initial time and hired an gifted US worker commander to learn a camera teams how to fly. Since then, says Williams, they have spin an essential apparatus in a demeanour and feel of vast wildlife array – nonetheless some countries, like India, still anathema their use.

For worker shots, a Unit deploys little 4k cameras – designed with an trustworthy gimble by worker association DJI. To impersonate a swooping worker shot Williams attempted adhering a camera on a prolonged hang though found his Wi-Fi tie unreliable.

“I fly drones myself and they use Air Bridge – that gives a live vigilance from worker even when kilometres away,” he explains. “We asked some worker hackers – can we take an Air Bridge chip from one of a many drones we’ve broken over a years and use it on a belligerent formed camera? They mutated a chip – that meant we could hang a camera on a finish of a ten-metre hang and expostulate cars or boats along for a worker shot effect.”

To film a elusive, bashful and observant Pallas cat, or manul, Williams connected a mutated Air Bridge Osmo around a gyro stabilised gimble mounted on a remote-control car – that he can control from a kilometre away. With a buggy-and-camera complement built in residence by a BBC’s engineering team, a NHU owns a concept. What did they call it? The CAT-a-pillar.

The camera as vast as a tank

The initial time a NHU used a Leonardo thermal imaging camera – that uses a low light/infrared detector array grown by a UK’s Ministry of Defence – it had no viewfinder and, as a camera was designed to be mounted on a ride plane, was so vast they indispensable a tank to pierce it into a field.

“We used it on a Great British Year to film hares in a margin during night,” explains Williams. “That’s all we could conduct with it. Since then, we’ve worked with a association to assistance them pierce into a wildlife marketplace with smaller, lighter versions.”

The group used Leonardo’s latest – a SLX Merlin – to fire jaguar sport turtles on a Costa Rica beach in a passed of night, something that has never been filmed before. The thermal fortitude was so high that a group could make out a cat’s spots since they were reflecting a somewhat opposite feverishness signature.

“Low light and thermal camera tech is a extent of wildlife filmmaking,” explains Williams. “The jaguar fire in sold – if a jaguar saw a camera a user competence be in genuine danger, so sharpened during night was also a lot safer.”

Low-light, hi-res


Producers silently stalked one radio-collared Black-footed cat, nicknamed Gyra, to square together her portrait

The group knew that a Black-footed cat Gyra had a kitten that usually emerged from her den 30 mins before nightfall for usually half an hour. In a end, Williams crept tighten to a den an hour before sunset, placed a Sony Alpha A7S II mirrorless camera, designed to fire 4k video in really low light, nearby a lair, connected a recorder to it, strike record and went divided until a object had left down.

“Because a A7S annals in 4k and we’re usually delivering programmes in HD we can stand a design in a revise and do moves we didn’t do in a field,” Williams explains. “It’s like those CIA cinema with a design on a wall – enhance, enhance. The fact that 4k offers means we were sharpened on a 1500mm focal lens though gathering gave us a kind of shots a 2000mm lens would provide.”

The initial part of Big Cats is on BBC1 on Jan 11

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