A new television series, The Hunt, will hit UK screens on Sunday November 1st on BBC One. This visual feast of one of nature’s most compelling stories, the interaction between predator and prey, is told with incredible ingenuity. It’s an old rivalry showcased in new ways or never filmed before. In many sequences it’s the first time the animals have ever been captured hunting in the wild.
Emotionally we want the audience to engage with both sides – sometimes it will be the prey and sometimes it will be the predator
Over the past three years, the production team has scoured the Earth to reveal incredible TV firsts.
From polar bears using meltwater pools to stalk their seal prey to orca hunting humpback whale calves in tropical waters.
From the amazing walking abdopus octopus in Australia to the tiny female Darwin’s bark spider in Madagascar, able to spray a silk strand 25m (82 feet) to build its 7.6m (25 feet) web – the largest web of any orb weaving spider – to catch its dragonfly prey.
The stories of hunting behaviour from across the globe are stunning; both in the range of animals and in how they have been shot.
“Emotionally we want the audience to engage with both sides – sometimes it will be the prey and sometimes it will be the predator,” says Alastair Fothergill, executive producer at Silverback Films, the company that made the new BBC / BBC Worldwide / BBC America / CCTV9 / NDR Naturfilm co-production series, and produced in partnership with The Open University (OU).
“What’s really interesting is if you look back at the number of shows that have been made on predators and their prey, almost all of them are red in tooth and claw. ‘The bloody predator’, you know, these are the villains of the piece and the shows sort of play that card.
“And actually, it’s biologically inaccurate. Predators usually fail and they are the hardest animals working in nature. That excites me because I thought: ‘Nobody’s actually made the predators the heroes; nobody’s explained why they are the hardest working animals in nature’.
“But it’s very, very, very much not a bloody show. And what I’m really pleased with is that everybody that’s seen it now says: ‘No, it’s great. There’s not a moment where I feel it’s a bit bloody’,” says Fothergill.
“And what’s exciting about this sort of behaviour, and also I hope about the way that we’ve shot it, is nothing is certain; you never know what’s going to happen.”
The tiger hunt is completely extraordinary and it’s a total first in that we mounted the cineflex on an elephant for the opening sequence in the forest film
One of the first things that you’ll notice about the series is just how immersive it is. From small ‘hotrod’ ants on the scorching 70C Namibian sand dunes to blue whales, the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth, feeding in a spectacular seven minute sequence, the cinematography drops you right into the action; eye to eye with the animals being filmed.
“We very much wanted to put the audience in the footsteps of the predator because you don’t want to talk about the challenge really – television is a visual medium – you want the audience to experience the challenge,” says Fothergill.
The production team achieved this by creating a number of different rigs for the “cineflex” – a stabilised camera mount commonly used on helicopters to film aerials that keeps the images very still from a great distance – to go on a multitude of new filming platforms. From jeeps racing at 45mph to keep up with an African wild dog hunt to a special rig used on an elephant to film a tiger hunt in the forest, the team evolved new ways of putting the audience in the front seat of the action.
“The tiger hunt is completely extraordinary and it’s a total first in that we mounted the cineflex on an elephant for the opening sequence in the forest film,” says Fothergill.
“In this opening sequence, which lasts eight minutes, you’re actually in the forest with the tiger. And what’s so amazing about it is, for the very first time, you understand why tigers have stripes because you see a shot where the tiger is moving and you can see her as clear as day, and she walks behind some vegetation and she just disappears. I mean, you know she’s there because you’ve just seen the shot, but it’s amazing! You just have to see it, it’s so atmospheric.”
Eye to eye with the UK’s peregrines
The team travelled to over 30 countries, filming an amazing array of species. But capturing some of the most breath-taking behavioural sequences of predation in the natural world didn’t mean the team always had to travel far. The Hunt reveals the challenges of the world’s fastest predator, the peregrine falcon – a bird of prey found in our own back yard here in the UK.
“There’s a sequence about peregrines hunting wading birds and the problems that they have,” says Fothergill.
It’s amazing footage of peregrines chasing redshanks, and the redshanks keep on bailing into the water
“They try and go for knot, but knot form these swirling flocks of black and white to confuse them. So then the peregrines try and go for individual waders like redshank or oystercatchers.
“Now what’s really interesting is that the redshanks have learnt that if they get into the water, the peregrines can’t get them because peregrines can’t get wet – they don’t have very good oils like wading birds.
“It’s amazing footage of peregrines chasing redshanks, and the redshanks keep on bailing into the water, but finally a male managed to get below one redshank. The redshank then flies up and basically there’s this dogfight,” Fothergill says.
You need the audience to emotionally engage with the challenge of the predator
“Now, all of that was filmed in the wild...on the UK coastline, and we spent weeks and weeks and weeks doing that. But you are on the edge of a mudflat, you can’t go out there, the birds are a long way away, you know; they’re wide shots.
“So in order to make it cut [the sequence work], we took a falconry bird to exactly the same place and the cameraman shot a handful of very specific little close-ups. There are probably six or seven close-ups in the whole sequence.”
“It’s completely natural behaviour, but so the audience could enjoy it and actually see the eye of the bird – I didn’t want it to be distant to them – you need the audience to emotionally engage with the challenge of the predator.”
Close call with a hungry polar bear
Eight of the nine main sequences featured in the Arctic programme are television firsts, according to Huw Cordey, the show’s series producer. In this episode, hungry polar bears are seen in ultra-high definition negotiating precarious 300m high cliff faces in search of food and Arctic foxes are revealed hunting auks in flight – the first time this behaviour has been documented. One of the most memorable ‘behind the scenes’ moments for Cordey was when the crew had a rather intimate encounter with a polar bear.
“There’s this great piece where the Norwegian scientist is opening up the cool box which is empty and he’s describing all the things that have been eaten out of it. He doesn’t say “the bear”, he just says: ‘He had this, he had that… He had the steak…’ and then he says: ‘He took everything!’
“And then suddenly you cut to him firing a flare gun and you see the door of the cabin, which literally looks as though someone has taken a sledgehammer to it and knocked it off its hinges, and there, next to the cabin, is this sleeping polar bear,” says Cordey.
“The team chase it away and then you see Sophie, the assistant producer, who is in the cabin cleaning up and while doing so, she has a nice analogy: ‘It’s like a teenage house party, the only difference with a teenage house party is that the bear left all the alcohol… and the Marmite!’ she says.”
Rewilding a honey badger
Working with scientists and organisations the world over was critical to making the series a success, Cordey explains. When the team discovered an orphaned honey badger in the process of being re-wilded, it offered a unique chance to document this fascinating animal.
“For me, this was an opportunity to get a really exciting sequence of an animal that few people see,” says Cordey, adding that honey badgers are “rarely filmed” in the wild.
“It was a very young animal when it was found, and a young honey badger spends about 18 months with its mother learning how to survive in the wild. This animal didn’t have that opportunity so the people that were caring for it had two choices: keep it in an enclosure in a zoo for the rest of its life, or teach it how to survive in the wild by walking with it and encouraging it to look under rocks for food and how to climb trees, so its instinct could sort of kick in,” Cordey says.
It’s a lovely success story because the alternatives for that animal were to be sent to a zoo or put down
“And this is what they did. These scientific minders walked with the honey badger every day just to help it learn the art of being a honey badger and when we filmed there, it was more or less at the end of that process.
“We were effectively filming an animal that was on the verge of being fully wild. And what was really lovely about it was that the whole rewilding process actually worked because two or three months after us filming, it disappeared completely in the wild.
“It had a radio chip because they wanted to keep an eye on where it dispersed to and they were following it for a bit without any physical observation and it seemed to be very successful and it was living out in the wild doing the things a honey badger would do without any human help. So we just captured that sequence in that small window of time when it was still approachable,” explains Cordey.
“It’s a lovely success story because the alternatives for that animal were to be sent to a zoo or put down, because if you’d just dropped that animal back in the wild and said ‘Good luck!’ at the age it was, it would have died within a number of days.”
Hunting up close with a wild dog pack
Cordey describes his favourite sequence, an African wild dog hunt, as the best he’s ever been part of.
I’m really proud of this sequence because you really empathise with the challenge the dogs face
“Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to big it up but I do think it’s an amazing sequence. You’ve got the entire aerial component, where you can understand the context of animal and habitat, but then you’ve got the drama of understanding the detail of the hunt by being amongst the pack on the ground running at 40mph.
“On the ground you can really see how the dogs work as a team. When one tires there’s another one to take over. Wild dogs can only take down a wildebeest on the run. The minute the wildebeest stands its ground, they’ve had it. We used to joke: ‘If only the wildebeest had the courage to stop, they wouldn’t get taken by wild dogs’. The wild dogs have to get them to run, that’s basically their technique,” explains Cordey.
“Yes there was a bit of luck but also there was a lot of thought that went into this; Jamie McPherson, the cameraman, managed to devise a way getting the cineflex set up on a vehicle. I’m really proud of this sequence because you really empathise with the challenge the dogs face.”
Challenges of filming the deep sea
The Hunt spent two years on a multi-part expedition to capture extraordinary aerial and underwater footage of rarely seen orca (killer whale) behaviour – the hunting of humpback whale calves in tropical waters.
The series also highlights some of the deep sea’s oddball animals, which required some very special planning to achieve.
Even the scientists are observing these animals at sea level because they can’t watch them at the depths that these animals naturally live
“If you take the deep sea animals we feature, for example, they’re living several hundred metres below sea level – you could not put a scuba diver down there – it would be absolutely impossible,” says Cordey.
“With the deep sea animals, we teamed up with scientists who were collecting these specimens anyway for their research. Even the scientists are observing these animals at sea level because they can’t watch them at the depths that these animals naturally live,” Cordey says.
“If we want to bring the wonders of the deep to an audience, we have to use practical methods like filming them in specialised tanks at the surface.”
Tanks were also used to film a few specific close-up shots of other sea creatures in the series, such as the abdopus octopus and the sargassum fish – sequences which Cordey says “wouldn’t have been possible” without filming certain elements in controlled conditions.
The dangling Darwin’s bark spider
The Hunt, as well as focusing on some of the bigger more well-known predators, also filmed many of nature’s spectacular smaller hunters. One of Fothergill’s favourite sequences in the series is of the Darwin’s bark spider.
“It’s the most extraordinary spider I’ve ever come across. The female is the size of your thumbnail, lives on the sides of rivers, and creates a web of 25 meters across the river because the dragonflies it wants to catch fly down the middle of the river.
“So what she does is she creates masses and masses of beautifully light but very strong silk – it’s the strongest natural fibre yet discovered – and lets it catch the wind and the silk blows across the river; that gives her a guide line. Once that’s in place, she goes and drops a line down to a rock or twig in the river and then she’s got her three guide lines and she then makes the largest orb web of any spider.”
“Alastair MacEwen shot this amazing spider sequence. It’s one of those sequences of a spider that any filmmaker would say: “That’s been filmed in a set” – and not a shot of it was,” explains Fothergill, adding: “It’s unbelievable – completely breath-taking!”
A fair fight
I think you can feel emotionally attached to the prey in some of the sequences, but totally celebrate the endeavour of the predator
Both Cordey and Fothergill are hopeful that they have managed to illustrate the truth of exactly how the natural world works for both the hunters and the hunted in this series.
“If the predator is always successful, there’s no prey. And if there’s no prey, there are no predators. It’s pretty simple,” says Cordey.
“As long as you elicit some kind of emotion – for me the important thing is that somebody feels an emotional connection to the sequence – whether it’s the prey or the predator, I don’t think it really matters. Because I think you can feel emotionally attached to the prey in some of the sequences, but totally celebrate the endeavour of the predator.”
Make sure you tune in to watch 'The Hunt', which begins in the UK on BBC One, Sunday 1st November at 21:00 GMT.