Exclusive! Change of seasons at the Serengeti: Behind the cameras with John Downer
John Downer, Executive Producer of the sprawling new Sony BBC Earth mega-series Serengeti tells us how the behaviour of animals and the heart of what they do has so many parallels to human lives.
'One place, one shared story’ screams the poster for the new show, Serengeti, which makes a journey into the most unspoilt corners of Africa, to explore the hidden mysteries of the most iconic Savannah animals in the world.
A pioneering series in every sense, Serengeti follows the interconnected stories of a cast of Savannah animals over one year.
With unique access to a pristine, unspoilt corner of the Serengeti, deep in the heart of Africa, the show captures the drama of the animals’ daily lives and the emotional moments they face.
Join a lonely lioness, exiled from her pride, a passionate baboon desperately trying to win back his lost love and a cheeky, fun-loving mongoose family on the lookout for a free lunch.
Packed with humour, heartbreak and nail-biting tension, Serengeti presents a world of real-life drama in breath-taking detail.
Read on for an intimate experience of the wild...
What is your new approach in Serengeti? What is the difference from your other natural history projects?
I’ve been making wildlife films of every kind for over 30 years, but this is different from all of them.
I’ve always explored innovative ways of taking an audience into the animals’ world, but Serengeti was a chance to push the techniques and visual style even further and tell a story from the animal’s perspective in a location that I’ve always found very special.
The series takes place over a year, so we see how the seasons impact on our characters, and we share in their triumphs and their trials.
Everything that’s shown is real footage and real behaviour, but we have used the kind of narrative techniques and characterisations that you would find in a drama serial to allow us to tell a dramatised story, weaving multiple storylines together to give audiences a new experience.
I’ve become increasingly interested in what drives the behaviour of animals and how the heart of what they do has so many parallels to our own lives; Serengeti is a chance to bring this connection to the fore.
The storytelling also takes a unique approach; although we based the original outline on what we expected to happen and the known impact of the seasons over a year, we very much wanted this to be the animal’s story, so we were always ready for the unexpected.
Events that happened that we could never have foreseen became key moments in the story, and the drama was constantly evolving as new scenes were captured. Equally innovative approaches to editing, music and narration helped deliver our character’s personal stories in a fresh and exciting way.
To complement these innovations, the filmic style allowed us to immerse the audience into the animal world, so we could be always on the move travelling with our characters, experiencing their world as they live and breathe it.
How did you manage to film the animals so intimately? How were your production conditions, with how many camera teams, where did you film, and for how long?
We developed many innovative techniques specially for the production, so that we could film on the move and in the animal world. These involved many different stabilised camera systems that could track with animals, if necessary, even at speeds of 40 miles an hour.
‘Bouldercams’ and remote ‘spy’ cameras that could fearlessly enter the world of predators were also used and drones to provide a vulture’s viewpoint and gain an epic overview were also deployed.
The main aim of the camera systems was to be as much as possible in the animal world. Often, we were filming with moving cameras just inches from the ground and inches from the animals.
Around 15 different camera systems were used, each with a different role and giving a different perspective. The cameras also captured the viewpoints of our subjects too, allowing viewers to see life as our subjects do.
Filming lasted nearly two years and the three-camera teams spent so much time with our subjects that they became used to their presence — allowing them to film animals without disturbing their behaviour even if just a whisker away.
Each team operated with multiple cameras which gave different perspectives on each event, the audience at the heart of the drama and immersing them in the action.
Equally important was the fact that many of the cameras could film animal events from the very first moments they were seen. Often the best wildlife action happens before the cameras are set up and running, but our camera systems were designed to never miss a single defining moment.
This allowed far more moments of extraordinary drama to be captured than I could ever have dreamt of, with sophisticated remote camera systems continuing to capture unique behaviour even when the crew were elsewhere.
What were the challenges of filming?
We set up our production centre near the heart of the reserve, surrounded by the animals we had come to film. Each night, the half-mile trip to our dining area was an adventure, as we never knew who we might meet.
Lions were regularly seen hunting around us, and several times the crew had to run away when an elephant crashed out of the surrounding bushes.
For me, the most memorable moment was walking the path alone and suddenly hearing thundering hooves coming straight for me; before I knew it, a herd of wildebeest parted in front of me, with a hyena in hot pursuit on their heels.
As with a lot of natural history filmmaking in the wild, the animals became acclimatised to the presence of a small camera crew, enough to ignore us, allowing us to get many of the intimate shots you see in the film.
When in the filming vehicle, it wasn’t unusual for a lioness to stalk right past so near you
could hear every breath, or have wild dogs running beside us.
One occupational hazard was retrieving the remote cameras left while we were filming other things. Hyenas would often walk off with them leaving little clue where they could be found.
Eventually, we put trackers on the remotes, but the hyenas’ favourite pastime was dropping them in pools of water so often it didn’t help. But every camera had to be found — you never knew what precious shots could be on them.
I could never have predicted that we would film a hyena stealing the kill from two angry leopards, or a zebra foal using a crocodile’s back as a stepping stone, or a baboon caught in the coils of a python.
Day after day, once in a lifetime events were happening that ultimately formed the basis of the drama.
The death of any animal that you have become attached to is always difficult, but when a male lion killed the cub of Kali, our main lioness character, the feeling was heart-breaking. But tense situations can sometimes have happy endings.
When Kali brought her cubs to the male lion who had been stalking her for days, we were convinced we would be witnessing yet more deaths, made worse by the fact we had the event covered on many different cameras right among them.
Fortunately, it turned out very differently than we were expecting, and it became another pivotal moment in the film.
What drew you to the Serengeti — why film there? Anything audiences should look out for?
Serengeti is a conservation success story and the National Park was established nearly 70 years ago. The whole Serengeti ecosystem encompasses an area of 12,000 square miles and it preserves one of the richest and precious wildlife areas on earth.
Over the years, I been on trips to the region and observed, and helped capture, remarkable behaviour often never seen before, so I knew that there was an incredible story to tell.
I was continually surprised at what we managed to capture, and gained insights into the lives of the animals that I had never expected and with an intensity that I had never experienced before.
I’m hoping that people will be moved by what they see and realise that in this world there are no goodies or baddies, all the animals are trying to do is help their families survive.
The parallels to our own lives are there to be found. This is the natural world as it once was, and it can give us insights into how the world could be if we gave nature the space and protection it needs.
Tell us more about the format?
Using the techniques of drama, it is possible to create a uniquely enriching experience for the audience and explore an ecosystem in a way that has never been done before.
We can see how lives intersect and impact on each other.
The storytelling can be true to life but crafted in a far more emotionally engaging and personal way that speaks for the animals that live there and invites audiences to witness a more intimate side to natural wildlife they may not have considered before.
Departing from the classic documentary format allows the stories to be interwoven effectively and paced with all the emotional beats of a real drama whilst still remaining true to biology, with storylines using real events and behaviour.
What do you hope audiences will get from the series?
On one level, Serengeti shows us what can happen when a natural ecosystem is protected, and I don’t think you can watch Serengeti without seeing parallels with our own lives.
It’s our world in a microcosm, one where all life is connected, and everyone depends in everyone else.
Through the characters we meet, you see how their individual needs and care for their families’ survival underpins everything they do.
You empathise and care about them because on so many levels they are just like us.
I hope that when audiences see the series, they will understand we are all part of the same world, we share a deep connection with other life on the planet and that will make us treasure it even more.
Serengeti premieres on September 9, Monday to Friday 9 pm on Sony BBC Earth.
— Team Indulge