Archive Researchers

Featuring: Tamsyn van Gelderen, Johannesburg

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You have degrees in journalism and animal management. How did you combine your passions for these subjects with your career of media production and archival research?

I got into journalism purely because I liked writing, was good at it and because I didn’t make the grades required for vet school (becoming a vet was a dream from the age of four). I decided to go for my Animal Science degree in a fit of pique (and terror as I had just turned 40!) when I broke up with a boyfriend. While I was busy with that, I decided I wanted to work for National Geographic and combine my writing skills with my passion for animals. Fortunately, I found work with a film company (Aquavision TV Productions) in South Africa that allowed me to do just that.

You have a knack for finding surprising facts and never-before-seen footage of animals. Can you share with us one of your most marvelous discoveries?

The best was during the filming of a documentary called Predator Battleground: Our cameraman, Nathan Pilcher, filmed a hyena hunting a Kudu doe in the rising waters (we also filmed the first footage, every 25 years or so, of this natural phenomenon) of the Savuti Channel in Botswana. The hyena chased the Kudu through the water and finally brought her down. While this was happening, Nathan noticed two wild dogs watching from the bank and filmed them. The dogs rushed into the water and ‘assisted’ the hyena and her prey back to the bank. There all three of them began feeding on the doe – no fuss and no aggression – this despite the well-documented competition for food and territory between these two species.

We found no research anywhere that said this was common behavior, and no information saying that it wasn’t but we thought it most unusual. I contacted a carnivore research group (EWT: Endangered Wildlife Trust) and showed them the footage. Turned out to be unique – none of them had ever seen such behavior before and it has never appeared on film before or since as far as I know! Sometimes you just get lucky! It was so exciting to see the scientists watch the footage in dead silence and then start talking over each other trying to tell me how amazing it was. We were very proud of Nathan.

Would you be willing to share a bit about the sources and process of obtaining footage for your projects?

As I mostly do wildlife, we use/buy other wildlife filmmakers’ footage and trawl the stock footage agencies worldwide to find what we need. With wildlife, it is often extra footage and cutaways that are needed to bulk up what has been shot already or what couldn’t be shot because of bad weather or lighting, no kills or chases, or simply animals not doing what the cameramen and the script want them to do.

Unlike reality or shows with people in them, you rarely get that second take if you miss the first one. The trick is to make sure you know all the details the editor and producer need to fit the archive footage to the new stuff. Is it day or night? Dusk, midday or dawn? Dry or green or a mix of both? What format and speed the footage is filmed on – archive and real time? It is important to find matching footage with the action that perhaps the cameramen missed and it has to fit as seamlessly into the new footage as possible. It helps the editor’s job to no end.

Regarding harming of wildlife or using animals for documentaries on a set, it is up to the producer and director to make sure its ethical. Personally, if I am not happy with the methods of filming used or care of the animals on set, for whatever reason, I will stand up and call it and then follow up….best way to lose a job though and makes you unpopular but I don’t care about that. My dissertation related to animal welfare and it is something I feel very strongly about.

How have technological advancements affected your research in terms of the places and types of footage available to you?

I haven’t had to find drone and camera trap footage for a documentary yet. I have worked with cameramen who use both, but the footage was captured for the documentary we were working on. Filming wildlife often requires both, and also new technology for filming at night without lights to capture hidden behavior. Fascinating what can be done now. In the past, filming kills at night often didn’t give you the true story. Behavior changes when the animals are disturbed or aware of being watched. My current job involves the use of drones and macro footage but my research for them is quite often trying to ID the animals they are capturing with these techniques (unique and rare creatures). So I am using scientists and people who know these animals. My producers/cameramen are both editors as well so they film everything they think they will need. I do use social networks like Facebook to join spider, entomology, or botanical groups to get access to experts and scientists who specialize in the areas where I need assistance with identification or little known information.

Africa is a continent known for its rich biodiversity. Do you ever dream of researching and producing a documentary on another specific place, or particular animal?

Oh yes. Polar bears (any kind of bear actually) is an absolute passion of mine. And I would like to spend a year in Costa Rica or the Pantanal region in South America just watching and recording the wildlife there.

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