'Tales from the Bush': An Interview with Brad Bestelink, DOP of Surviving Paradise
How long did you film Surviving Paradise for/how many camera days did you have in the field?
The material for ‘Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale’ was captured between June 2019 and July 2021. With an average of 3 camera-operators in the field at all times, that’s jointly over 1500 days behind the camera! Amassing some 500 TB of data.
On what camera kit?
Much of ‘Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale’ was filmed using RED Cameras with a variety of long lenses. Our Canon 50-1000 mm lenses really allowed us to capture those powerful close-ups of our characters without invading their privacy or altering their natural behaviour. G1 and F1 Shotover Gimbals added a cinematic quality and took the audience on a journey with the characters, while a Phantom Flex camera was used for ultra-slow-motion shots to really emphasise a particular behaviour.
How do you get such amazing close-ups?
Our crews spent countless hours in the field with the protagonists of Surviving Paradise. During this time, a level of mutual respect is formed between a camera-operator and their subject. This means that the camera-operator is able to capture the most intimate of scenes, without influencing the natural behaviours exhibited by their subjects.
How do you get around?
We use custom-built film trucks to get around, which the crew film and live from for weeks at a time. The Okavango is locally known as ‘the swamps’ and so it’s important that these are up to the task of navigating everything from thick sand to deep water! The film trucks allow us to always stay on top of the action and keeps our carbon footprint to a minimum as we’re not wasting fuel chasing lions every morning. When the waters get too high we have to switch to using boats to navigate between the islands, where we leave the film-trucks parked. The aerials were captured using our F1 Shotover mounted on the side of a helicopter provided by local company, Helicopter Horizons.
Is it ever dangerous?
The general rule is that if you give wild animals the space and respect that they deserve, no harm will come to you. That being said, we film in the wildest of bush for years at a time and it is impossible to avoid all risks. However, our crews are all experts in the field and know how to minimise danger, while having the experience to know how to handle any potentially unsafe situations.
How do you find the lion characters you want to film?
Our crews head out before sunrise to listen for the tell-tale signs of a predator on the move. During this time, our ears are our greatest asset. Lions use the thick air of the early mornings and evenings to carry their calls, which can be heard up to 5-miles away. Once they stop, however, you have to rely on other creatures to alert you to their presence, listening out for the bark of a primate, the snort of a herbivore, the high-pitched chirrup of a squirrel, or the ever-irritating screech of a francolin in response to a sign of danger. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the lions during the early hours of the day and stick with them throughout or, if you’re too late, you’ll have to rely on spotting them lounging in the shade of a termite mound.
Tell us about the lioness character?
The lioness whose story we followed in ‘Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale’ is a classic example of surviving paradise. Raising four-cubs in the bountiful Eden of the Okavango, it was the dynamics of a fractured pride that led to the tragic death of one cub. We first spotted her with the four tiny cubs close to our base camp and suspected she might be part of a constantly changing pride in the area (after the established pride crumbled during the tumultuous period of 2019’s drought). Our suspicions were confirmed when we saw her with the ever-unpredictable ‘Rogue Boys’ – a coalition of young males who have somehow come to dominate over this lucrative area. It was heartbreaking to watch her give everything to fight for the life of her cub, but it’s been heart-warming to see her develop into a fantastic mother and raise three offspring to adulthood since.
Tell us about the Alpha painted wolf?
Painted wolves are incredible creatures with fascinating social dynamics. Only the alpha male and female are permitted to breed, while the rest of the pack must help raise the pups to adulthood, some of which they’re not even related to. However, this strict hierarchy starts to crumble if this model fails to produce good results (lions are major predators of pups, killing them to avoid any competition for prey down the line). During filming for ‘Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale’, we watched the alpha female’s heartbreak as the pack split and she lost some of her best hunters and most trusted allies. You’ll have to watch the film to see what happens next!
How did you film those elephants under the palm trees?
Botswana is home to more elephants than anywhere else on our planet. During the dry season when food is most scarce, mokolwane (palm) nuts provide a delicious and nutritious food source. We were fortunate to see, on several occasions, elephants shaking the palm trees for their bounty. This allowed us to really capture the behaviour from the air as well as the ground, especially with the addition of our ultra-slow-motion Phantom Flex camera. For the close-ups, we filmed a free-roaming elephant in the wild, that had been previously habituated to humans and confident enough around people to show us the technique - giving the great POV of shaking the palms from just underneath its tusks - a daunting place to be!
Give us an idea of your background - where you're from, how you got into this line of work?
I was born in Botswana and raised in the Okavango Delta as my parents were pioneers in the photographic safari industry. At 16 I became the youngest Professional Bush Guide in Botswana and realised my passion was for the wild things and not people. After finishing school, all I wanted was to be back in the Delta with wildlife, and turned from safaris to filming. I decided to forego a ‘standard’ education, return to the delta, and rather experience the tutelage of the iconic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Under their expert guidance, I worked as a camera operator for 5 years, then spent another 6 years shooting for them before I decided to start my own company to showcase the place that I call home, and, in doing so, play my part to protect it.
What's your favourite thing about working in the Delta?
I was born into the Okavango Delta and it has always felt like a home to me. In my line of work, I am lucky enough to be completely immersed in my natural surroundings and wake up to the sound of lions calling more mornings than not. It is my privilege to live and work here, in one of the last truly wild places left on earth, and it is my greatest pride that my films play a role in protecting it, both for future generations and for its increasingly endangered inhabitants. The fate of the Okavango lies in the hands of those that live and work on its shores. Our films inspire its audience to come and see the action for themselves and, by traveling here, these tourists empower and employ the local population, and ensure that there is a justification to preserve the Okavango Delta for centuries to come.
It is clear that very creature seems to have a role to play - and that together they make the Delta more resilient to change. Are you worried about conditions becoming more extreme with climate change?
Every creature has a role to play in the Okavango Delta. Top predators like lions and painted wolves keep herbivore populations in check, who would happily turn the Delta to desert if left to their own devices. Elephants open up dense woodlands and create savannas, and hippos forge channels that funnel water to new areas. Even the smallest of creatures, the termite, has an immense role to play, being single-handedly responsible for the creation of the majority of the Okavango’s countless islands. These creatures have existed here together for thousands of years and in that time built a model that is resilient to change and adversity.
Today, however, we are changing the planet faster than ever before. Top predators and elephants are subjected to ruthless poaching and, on top of that, conditions are becoming increasingly extreme with climate change. In the Okavango, an oasis in the otherwise harsh Kalahari desert, biological cycles are synchronized with its unique weather patterns, including an annual flood and rainy season, and climate change threatens to throw this balance out of sync. Where before we could leave the Delta to its own devices, today the preservation of this paradise, one of the last truly wild places left on our planet, needs the help of each and every one of us, from condemning and reporting on the illegal wildlife trade, to taking action, no matter how big or small, to reduce our carbon footprints.
Blog shared with permission from Netflix.