Tigers in the Mist

We are driving in a small convoy of vans from Calcutta airport heading to the Sunderbunds where our story takes place.

The drive itself is full-out edge-of-seat scary with screeching and honking and careening along the gnarly two-lane roads.  However, every turn reveals something more amazing to look at.  Someone in the back yells out, “Wow! Look at that!”

Women in colorful dresses sway gracefully carrying all sorts of things on their heads while noble looking buffalo haul carts filled to the top with grass and wood.  Wow: we just got passed by a family of four crammed onto a small motorcycle, its horn permanently yapping away.  Rich, my close friend/assistant of many adventures turns to me and says, “This is going to be one of those shoots where we’ll never stop saying ‘Wow! Look at that!’

A few weeks later, I’m in a Land Rover driving slowly thru a tiger reserve looking for, well, tigers.  They’d managed to avoid our cameras when we were in the Sundarbans.  Riding along with me is the driver who is also a park guide, the aforementioned camera assistant who keeps saying “Wow!” as predicted, and a producer from National Geographic.  We’d gotten up with the sun for the third day in a row, hoping to see and, importantly, film a tiger.  But by late afternoon we hadn’t seen a thing except for a few pug marks (aka footprints) from the previous day.  This slow pace would be nothing odd at all if this were a typical natural history documentary, but for the kinds of people-oriented films that I usually work on – as is this project – three days is already way more time than we typically devote to pure natural history.

But then, this is a film about tigers.  So, we have to try to get something.  We’ve already consumed the coffee and sandwiches prepared for us from the morning departure and we are all getting munchy and more than a little bit anxious, worried that we might not see anything to film at all.

“Don’t worry a bit,” our overly enthusiastic driver tells us with a wonderfully strong Indian accent.  A line he keeps repeating regularly every twenty minutes or so.  “Surely I will find you something today!”  His over-the-top energy inspired little confidence.  He seemed to be taking it personally as if he were the one delivering us the tiger himself.  I imagine there must be something of a competition between these guide/drivers on some level: the one who has the most sightings rules the roost?

Non-fiction films are supposed to be truthful.  Supposed to be about things that actually happen in the real world.  But, truth – not unlike those elusive tigers – can be a difficult thing to capture on film.  The process requires first figuring out just what it is that is the truth and then managing to film it somehow.  Even if you manage to work yourself far enough into the process wherein you find yourself face to face with some deep “truth,” and even if you manage to shoot some scenes accordingly, it can easily happen later when you play it back to watch it, that the moment on film has a pesky way of missing the mark and not look quite “right.”  Once discovered – often in an editing room far from the location where the “truth” was supposedly captured on film – one must begin all sorts of creative efforts to fix what’s not there and to try to represent the moment so that it feels “real” on screen.

Naturally, when and if we ever get the chance to see and film this theoretical tiger, the viewers of this film will never be let in on the fact that finding it was such a difficult and time-consuming effort.

Let’s say we give up and get shots of a tiger in a zoo.  We’d, of course, disguise the fact that it’s a captured beast behind high walls and bars because, well, that just wouldn’t look good, would it.  There’s a built-in expectation to the filmmaking process here.  So, what if we do find a captured tiger to film that we manage to shoot in a way that it appears to look wild?  While pleasing and maybe fooling the audience, we are committing a no-no for most documentary filmmakers.  It’s a white lie I guess, a sin of omission.  But natural history filmmakers seem to consistently lower the bar for truthfulness all the time these days.  Wolves, for example, famous for their skittishness,  have been raised by humans from birth for the sole purpose of getting them comfortable to being around humans so that they can be filmed as if caught in their natural habitat.

The majority of this particular tiger project has been shot, as explained, in the eastern part of India in the Sunderbunds where we were trying to document an interesting local story about man-eating tigers.   Because of the thick shrubbery and fast moving winding rivers in that part of India, tigers had an easy way of attacking and killing the village wood gatherers and fishermen from this area.  Some villages were called ‘widow’ villages because the majority of the men had been killed off by these tigers.

Finding Tigers Where You Can

Those tigers are, indeed, hard to spot.  And while we may have technically gotten close to one a couple of times, we never actually saw one.  They blend in so perfectly with the mangrove swamps that make up their home, you can be staring directly at one from 20 yards away and not see it.  When the viewers of National Geographic watch a show like this they expect to see tigers. The fact that they are hard to see – which is kind of the whole point – is irrelevant.  Hence our trip to the reserve in the north where we were promised we’d see them.

(Suddenly, a note in the middle of the documentary appears on screen:  “Right here in this film we’d be showing you great shots of the tigers who live in the wild in this part of the world but they were too hard to spot.  So, just use your imagination.”)

So here we are, motoring slowly along in our Land Rover, stomachs growling and eyes growing a bit glazed over.  And, if we never see one the whole time? There is already talk between us about the ethics of filming tigers in an enclosed habitat back in the States. “But wouldn’t that be cheating?” It is fairly easy to argue both sides.  Some calls have already gone out.

The natural history crews filming for the BBC Series Planet Earth, famously shot over a period of three years with a huge crew when looking for the extremely elusive Snow Leopards on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Three years!

This morning’s drive follows two thinly visible tire ruts thru some really beautiful, hilly, dense jungle.  Dawn in the jungle is like nowhere else, alive with the sounds of hundreds of extraordinary species of birds and mammals and reptiles all hooting and whistling and snorting away.  Did I mention the insects?  In our zeal for tigers, we drove right past these other animals like tourists at the Louvre in Paris zipping past masterpieces left and right without as much as a glance as they race hell-bent on seeing that really famous painting called The Mona Lisa.

I have the camera by my side in my perch in the back seat of the vehicle, ready at any moment’s notice.  But, alas, we see nothing followed by more nothing.  We decide to head back to our lodge.  We ride back in silence for a while just taking in the sights and sounds and feeling disheartened.  Out of nowhere, I surprise myself proposing something to do – perhaps just to break the silence and engage Amy and Rich during our hour’s return to the lodge.

A Mini Quiz Gets Invented

“Okay, so, how would you shoot the following scene, Amy,”  I say.  “A young couple is riding in a Land Rover, like us, driving thru the jungle, also like us.  Something’s wrong with their vehicle and it sputters and rolls to a stop…hopefully not like us.  The driver hops out and pops the hood of the vehicle to see what might be wrong.  The woman stays in the passenger seat.” I continue, making it up as I go.  “She nervously looks around at the jungle as it seems to be kind of reaching out to her menacingly.  While the guy is busy, focusing on what might be wrong with the engine, a tiger very quietly slips out of the bush, pounces on him, and drags him off, silently into the jungle.”

Amy appears to be thinking.  She looks straight ahead.  We ride on for a bit.  I’m not sure if she’s working on an answer or just ignoring me.  I can feel Rich eager to give us his series of shots…which is exactly why I asked Amy first.

“So, how would you shoot that scene?” I ask her.

“What do you mean?” she asks.  Perhaps stalling.

Now, of course, Amy is the producer of this project.  Technically my boss.  She is also a pretty good friend who does her job really well.  But when it comes to piecing together the way a certain scene might be shot, many producers who are starting out like her leave that part largely up to the cinematographers like me.  Lots of times, it’s because they’ve never had to think out how to shoot a particular scene.  Guys like me just kind of do it.

“Just that.” I say, “How would you shoot it?”

After another pause. “Well, like you said, we see them driving along and the car comes to a stop and the guy gets out and, um, the tiger jumps him.”

“I know. But that’s what literally happens. I’m asking you to describe what the individual shots might be to tell that story.  As if you were the cameraman. Tell me where to put the camera, what’s the lens, does the camera pan or move somehow?  All that.”

Many producers at National Geographic like Amy worked their way up the production ladder with an entry rung doing research.  So the training builds from a content and story point of view, not so much from a nuts and bolts field experience point of view.  They tend to consider it less important to think about how to shoot something as they are typically more focused on what to shoot.  They often let the cinematographers and later the editors sort out the shot building: the visual part of the storytelling.

“Well,” she begina hesitantly, “You see them in the car…”

“Okay…Where’s the camera?”

She hesitates again.  “It’s okay: no pressure: we have  oodles of time before we’re back at camp.”  Our Land Rover bumps up and down. “In the back seat?” she asks, with a glance back at me as if to ask a question as much as make a statement.

“Okay. Why?”

“I don’t know, where else will it fit?”

“Makes sense,” I say.  “Do go on.”

“Let’s see.  The two of them are in the front.  Maybe the camera is on the road and films as the car passes them?”

“Now you’re talking.  Keep going.”

Amy is great at finding ways to get close to the main characters in her films.  She is passionate about the stories and this communicates to the people in front of the camera about whom the films are being made.  I don’t think – up to this point after working together on several films — she has ever suggested that I make a specific shot or suggested where to place the camera or what lens to use.  I guess she trusts me.  This is something that I love to do anyway and I enjoy allowing her not to have to worry about that side of the filmmaking process.  She normally has enough on her plate already.  I do enjoy the freedom of this but at the same time, I miss the potential collaboration that would come from just this kind of theoretical conversation that we were having on the drive.

There is a long pause as we drive along in silence again.  I guessed she was out of ideas.

Then I ask the same question to Rich.  He has been with me for several years and has watched what I do like a hawk and has already started shooting on his own and always has lots of ideas.  I think it’s out of respect for me that he doesn’t impose his suggestions very often.

He was all ready to go.

“Well, I’d dig a hole in the ground and bury the camera in there with the lens sticking out and let the Land Rover come sputtering towards it.  Then it would come to a stop right over the camera.  We’d be looking up, seeing the bottom of the vehicle.”

“Interesting.  Then what?”

“We’d cut to a jib shot that starts behind the vehicle and follows the guy as he gets out and goes to the front to raise the hood.”

“Wow!”  Two delightful shots, I thought.

After that, though, his shots weren’t very thought out and I could tell he was just winging it.  But he knew what he was doing.

“A shot over the shoulder of the guy looking at the motor.  A shot back up at him with a mystified expression.  A cutaway of the woman waiting in the car reading her tour guide.”

He was clearly on something of a roll.  He continues to come up with new angles and shots to tell this simple story.

This is turning into a really interesting exercise.  Even if this theoretical scene is dreamed up and even if it goes beyond our normal approach to shooting “real” documentaries about events that supposedly play out in real-time, it is a fun, theoretical thing to do.

We don’t usually tell people in our films what to do and how to act.  We just don’t manipulate the action so precisely.  “Okay now, wait a few minutes while we bury the camera here in the engine so we can get a reverse up towards your face looking down.  We’ll need to reflect some light onto him as well.”  That kind of thing.

Interestingly, between the three of us, we would certainly have shot the scene in quite different ways.  That’s called filmmaking.

As we get closer to home, and as we continue to dream up more shots in this theoretical scenario, it becomes obvious to us just how many options there are for us to shoot any given shot.

Just as the opening shot alone evolved quickly in Amy’s head from the back seat of the Land Rover to a second, different camera angle from the road, likewise she could have come up with a dozen different shots as had Rich.

Is one way better than the other?

I’ve thought about these kinds of things a lot before but have never shared any of them with anyone else.  It is just something I do in my head.  I kind of pre-visualize a given scene in my head as if it were already edited together and then I try to capture the individual shots that would make it come together in the editing room.

It was then that I realized that something was missing.

“One thing neither of you asked or discussed was what the point of the scene is? Without knowing what the point is, you can’t make informed decisions about what kinds of shots to pick.  Especially when there are so many options in a scene like this.”

I elaborated a little. “Is this supposed to be a scary scene?  Or maybe it’s friendly and safe to begin with and then gets scary?  Maybe the shots are languorous at first and then get hand held and cut together faster when the tiger attacks? Is it from the point of view of the driver or maybe of the tiger or the woman passenger?”

We get back to the bungalows and continue the conversation a bit more, adding new shots that seem to get more and more focused on telling a story that we hadn’t yet quite outlined.

I was only back in my room for a few minutes before the phone rings.  It’s Amy.

“What about a wide shot from a high angle like in the trees making the couple appear small and vulnerable in the frame?”  Now she’s thinking.

“Or maybe another shot made as if from the tiger’s point of view; a handheld shot peering thru the foliage to the road as if the still unseen tiger were watching the two people?”

“Why not both of them?”

Why not indeed.

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