Nat Geo's Big Cat Week typically contains unprecedented footage of nature's fiercest felines. While watching these cats on film, it is easy to forget the men and women who place themselves in harm's way to shoot that amazing footage.
The crew responsible for "Snow Leopard of Afghanistan," this year's kickoff episode, definitely had the experience and attitude needed to survive these kinds of assignments.
Danger from cats and humans
Biologist Boone Smith went into a military hot zone to find the animal he calls his "personal Holy Grail." As a capture specialist, Smith was tasked by the Wildlife Conservation Society to capture and collar the elusive snow leopard. Though accustomed to chasing cougars up trees in order to study them, Smith faced both feline and human dangers during this quest.
Smith admitted to telling Nat Geo at the outset that although he wanted to find the snow leopard, he didn't want to die. The biologist returned home safely, but there were near misses including avalanches and having a loaded machine gun pointed at him.
Though he really wanted to come to Kabul, Afghanistan, producer/director Tony Gerber told the Nat Geo cameras that his family wasn't too happy about him being there for this episode. With a shrinking American military presence, Gerber said that filmmakers sometimes are considered an attractive target.
Gerber also pointed out that his crew couldn't be ambivalent about the project, because the money doesn't outweigh the danger.
Assistant cameraman Daniel Byers even mentioned the necessity of growing a beard to blend in with the people of Kabul. Byers explained the differences of roads traveled by animals and people, and the inherent dangers of traveling what is called a "leopard road." While an animal's acute senses help it avoid dangerous rockslides, Byers admits to being fearful when traveling on that road.
Maintaining the reality
Directors like Tony Gerber are often the unsung heroes of nature films. In background videos for Big Cat Week, Gerber talked about incorporating the Cinema Verite style of total immersion filmmaking into his episode. In Gerber's words, making the camera disappear during filming is the gold standard. He and his crew must be ready and positioned to capture life as it happens.
Director of Photography Marcus Burnett said he rose to the numerous challenges of composing good shots in the mountains, even though the background was primarily gray rock.