German filmmaker Reinhard Radke has spent the last few years documenting the wilds of Africa. As part of Nat Geo WILD’s Big Cat Week, his new two part film Pride introduces us to the lions of the Masai Mara through state of the art thermal photography. We were lucky enough to chat with Reinhard about his adventures in the field, as well as his lifetime love of warthogs…
How do you feel the production went for Pride?
We started filming this particular sequence in late 2013, but of course we already had quite a bit on lions in the archives. When you’re making a wildlife film you should always have a reasonable amount in the archives, so we already had clips. I was mainly doing the camera work, trying to get the shots we needed to tell the story of these particular lions in the Masai Mara. We had just two shooting periods in the Mara, in 2013 and 2014, and we tried to capture both the time of plenty, when the wildebeest and the hart are there, and the rough time when, funnily enough, there is a lot of grass, but not much prey to hunt. So for the lions sometimes the hardest time is when the country looks at its most beautiful, lush and green with all this high grass; then it is often very hard to hunt for the lions.
What do you think was the most difficult aspect of this shoot?
The most exciting and difficult thing for me in this production was that we were working with a thermal image camera for the first time, which meant that we had to be out late in the night without using any spotlights to follow the lions when they were trying to hunt. That was of course most fascinating. We had a great time, and it was a wonderful opportunity to see that. But it meant that we had to go cross-country without any light, and my assistant and I, we really had to be very careful to give each other the information we needed to get around without breaking the car or our necks! Going cross-country there, it’s a bit tricky! We were filming and my eyes adapted quickly to the screen of the thermal camera, so I was effectively blind in the darkness except for this little screen. It was up to me to guide him at the steering wheel using this screen to avoid the lions. I was whispering which way to maneuver, not only around the lions, but also water holes and other obstacles, so it was quite a challenge! It was great fun, but also quite hard work!
Why did you choose these particular lions for the film?
Everybody has seen dozens, if not hundreds of lion films, but nevertheless there is always something new to tell about them. In this case particularly, we had a group of lions in the Mara who have been there since 2008 at least. In 2008 they were young, good lads, strong enough to challenge other males, and they were so powerful as a group of four that they had eradicated quite a number of other males from their territory and had taken over an incredible part of the Masai Mara reserve. It was quite different from the normal lion social system because the area they took over was so big, with so many different groups of females each with their own territory that they had sort of lost control of their grounds. They were not in the position anymore to really look out for all of their young. As you may know, male lions have to ensure that no other male lions come into their territory and kill their offspring. These powerful young males couldn’t do that anymore with such a huge territory. It was such a strange situation that I found it very interesting and very challenging to bring into a TV film and I think that’s really why we started off on this project!
How did you first become so passionate about wildlife documentary making?
It’s just the way of life for me! I began my career as an electrical engineer, but I had always really dreamed of being a biologist. So when I was already fairly advanced in my career, I decided to drop electricity and study biology. I got the chance I had always longed for to study wildlife in Africa and as a student I spent some time working in Kenya. Since that time I’ve been lured to that place; it’s where I wanted to be and where I wanted to work.
Looking through your previous work, most of your films have taken place in Africa. Would you ever consider shooting somewhere completely different?
I have filmed in both Peru and Ecuador, and of course I’ve done a bit in Germany, but there’s not so much wildlife in Germany! In Peru there is quite a lot, especially in the Amazon, and Ecuador and the Galapagos there is plenty. Those were some of the locations I investigated in regards to the Hotspot Theory; that there are biological hotspots in the world which have very high biodiversity and are therefore very important to protect. Most of the time though I like to be in Africa; it’s my real passion. I like the place, I like the Serengeti, I like Kenya… I have to admit that with all the tourist developments there now, it’s not as beautiful as it was perhaps thirty years ago though.
If you could choose any animal to follow next, what would it be?
I’m always joking that one of my favourites is the warthog, because I myself studied the warthog, so I’m one of the few specialists in warthog biology in the world! I made a film on the warthog that was picked up by the BBC and they liked it very much! I have to admit though that right now I’m not planning any further films. I’m concentrating a little more on photography now, doing tours and workshops around East Africa. I’ve been travelling the world recently, to Australia and Madagascar, giving people the opportunity to hopefully learn a little from my experiences!
What advice would you give to aspiring documentary makers?
You need a lot of knowledge on the topics that you want to film. It’s not so much the art of photography or the art of filming. It’s the knowledge of the behavior of the animals, or the ecology of their environment. Also you need a certain kind of willingness to take the hardship of being out in some very uncomfortable situations. If you really want to get into documentary making, you should try and get an apprenticeship with an experienced filmmaker. That’s how basically all good wildlife filmmakers started their careers, working with the big guys. Getting the shots requires a certain element of luck; that’s why you need that reasonable amount of archive footage. You may come into a certain situation and see something beautiful, but you have no idea how you can use it for the film that you’re working on. But you film it, put it aside and see what you can do with it maybe in a year, or who knows how long? In Pride we have shots that I took in other projects and have been in our bank for maybe five years. That’s something you always need to keep in mind; you can’t go out planning to make a great film in three months. That would be impossible. Or just a very poor film! You learn it by doing. There is no course where you can learn how to make wildlife films. You either have the passion and are ready to learn it the hard way, or you will end up leaving the business very quickly because it’s not your way of living. Making wildlife films is a certain way of life and you can’t do it alongside a regular job!
Big Cat Week starts Monday 1st February at 8pm on Nat Geo WILD.