Published on: 06 November 2015 in Longform
Ellen Husain: whales, camera jibs and 4K aerials - the three year hunt for unique footage
Reading time: 7 minutes and 52 seconds
If you watched The Hunt on BBC1 last Sunday, you’ll have no doubt been astonished by the never-before-seen footage of a pod of killer whales attempting to steal a humpback calf. Director Ellen Husain was part of the team that captured those incredible scenes. Here she writes for us about the years of hard work that went into making seven minutes of captivating television.
“So, why does it all take so long? There’s an easy answer to that: all the simple stuff has been done already”
“You can’t have been shooting the same series for two years?” There was incredulity around the dinner table as I told old friends about the project I was working on. It took nearly three years to make The Hunt, which to many of my TV colleagues – let alone people in general – seems like an unfathomably long time.
So, why does it all take so long? There’s an easy answer to that: all the simple stuff has been done already. Natural history docs have been around so long that most subjects have been covered. If something’s worth filming and hasn’t been covered before, it’s either because it’s really difficult, or it’s only just been discovered. And if it’s only just been discovered, it’s probably really difficult or someone would have discovered it years ago!
Filming killer whales hunting a group of humpbacks for The Hunt was a classic case of the latter. This was the most challenging subject I’ve ever worked on, it took over three years to capture it – but in the end it really delivered.
Image copyright Silverback Films/BBC
It all began in 2011 when a spotter plane off the Ningaloo reef in Western Australia saw orcas hunting humpback whales, trying to take a calf. There was lot of evidence for killer whales attacking humpback whales, in the form of ‘rake marks’ – gouged scars, caused by killer whale teeth on humpback skin – but scientists had never documented it first-hand, and it had never been filmed for TV.
So, research began. The spotter was a hot lead, but conversations with everyone that worked on the water turned up just five chance hunt sightings with known dates, spread over a period of six years: not a lot to go on. Assimilating dates of other killer whale sightings helped, but they too were few and far between. To say the shoot felt risky is an understatement.
Image copyright Ellen Husain
To tell the story of the hunt I wanted to film from the air, underwater, and at the water’s surface. The plan-view from the air would be the master, revealing the geography of the hunt. Crucially it would show the bigger picture of what was actually happening, and reveal the epic scale of the event. But with helicopter-time costing so much, plus the unpredictability of the animals’ behaviour, this was going to be the hardest angle to achieve. The underwater shots were also important; they would bring us into the action and provide intimate detail of what was happening below the surface: the close calls, the whale’s eyes – vitally allowing us to connect with the emotion and energy of the hunt. While the shots from the surface would contribute energy, and prove useful later when cutting the sequence.
“As you can imagine, we didn’t want to end up pitching £0.6 million worth of equipment into the sea”
For cameras we used the Sony F55 with RAW recorder in an underwater housing (able to record at 4K uncompressed RAW, up to 60 frames per second, which was fast enough for this shoot). The Red Epic was in the Gyro-Stabilized Systems (GSS) gimbal-mount, which we used both on the helicopter and on a boat-mounted jib for low-to-water tracking shots of the whales. We also had a second F55 with the HJ21 Canon lens, which we used on the boat for hand-held off-speed wides whilst the hunt was underway. I would have considered a MōVI (or equivalent) but at the time it would have meant taking a hit in camera quality, and we needed 4K for a giant screen version. In the end the F55 delivered some great shots.
Getting the GSS gimbal on the boat took a bit of engineering. It’s a heavy rig – heavier than the Cineflex we’d previously used – and that meant a payload of 120kg on the jib, which is quite a lot of weight for a small boat, with all the pitch and roll. As you can imagine, we didn’t want to end up pitching £0.6 million worth of equipment into the sea; it took some doing, but we got a system that worked in the end.
Image copyright Silverback Films/BBC
The kit was one thing, but in the end it’s not much use without a subject. With so little known, the biggest challenge of the shoot was making sure we found a hunt we could film. Teaming up with the scientists was a fundamental part of achieving this; they would attempt to find and tag killer whales for the first ever study of its kind, while we tried to film them. But nature is unpredictable: having tagged the killer whales, they soon left the area completely, taking off down the coast and covering 200km in a couple of days. Many believed they could be gone for good. Chief scientist Bob Pitman’s professional opinion (“They could go all the way to Antarctica if they wanted”) didn’t provide relief, but our historic sightings suggested there was still hope, so we held fast. It was an expensive and nerve-wracking nine days before they turned around. Finally we began to get our first underwater images, with underwater cameraman Doug Anderson delivering some incredible shots.
Ellen Husain with pilot Dale Webb and cameraman Blair Monk
“Seeing it from above it was striking to think that there are still events of this scale which have not been recorded before”
Underwater filming was one thing, but we still needed to document the hunts from both the boat and the air. Finally on 8 August 2013, after a month on location, we had the most amazing filming day. Aerial cameraman Blair Monk had flown in from Fiji, the spotter plane was up, and we had our underwater filming boat and the science boat on the water. It was a stunning flat-calm day, and the killer whales were, for once, in range. Communication between the two boats, the plane, and the helicopter was essential. It was a huge team effort. The science boat pinpointed the killer whales and kept them in sight throughout the day. We had to plan our moves wisely in the helicopter, as we could only fly for two hours on a tank. It was impossible to know if, or when, the killer whales would hunt, but the last thing we wanted was to have to refuel just as things started to happen. There were key parts of the story we needed to film – humpbacks migrating up the coast, killer whales milling and travelling out at sea in non-hunting mode – but we also needed to be judicious about fuel in case anything kicked off.
In the end the big event happened about 5pm that day. Looking down from the helicopter at three 30-tonne humpback whales fighting it out with a pod of 5-tonne killer whales was incredible, and seen with the help of the GSS system our view was unprecedented. The mother humpback got the calf up on her back, as other whales came to her aid, joining the fray – a boiling mass of whales churning the water white with bubbles. Seeing it from above it was striking to think that there are still events of this scale which have not been recorded before.
Image copyright Ellen Husain
We returned in 2014 to add to the sequence for our Giant Screen product. The project was filmed over two consecutive years, with 9 weeks on location, and story and logistical research spanning over three years. All for about seven minutes of television.
It was worth every second.
The Hunt is a 7-episode series narrated by David Attenborough, broadcast on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday evenings. You can still catch the first episode featuring the killer whale-humpback hunt on BBC iPlayer, or watch the BBC1 narrative repeat on Sunday 8 at 4.50pm. There will be a behind-the-scenes feature about the making of this episode on The Hunt DVD (available to buy December 7).
Ellen is a wildlife documentary producer-director, writer, and photographer, and a SCUBA diver with a Ph.D. in marine biology. Follow Ellen on Twitter.