The Making of “Age of Big Cats”
Martin Dohrn, Writer & Series Producer
Twenty years ago, a project like Age of Big cats would have been impossible to make. Much of the technology that has made this series achievable today, had yet to be invented. But more importantly, our knowledge of big cats was relatively limited, and some species were still so elusive and shy that sightings were extremely rare. Filming them in the wild was for the most part unachievable without years in the field and extreme luck.
But things are very different now. New ultra sensitive color and infra-red cameras have given us a clearer view of the nocturnal habits of some more familiar cats than ever before. High resolution 4K (8 mega-pixel) and 8K (32 megapixel) movie cameras allow us to film behavioral sequences in unprecedented detail. High resolution camera traps provide us with intimate images of their secretive lives from just metres away.
But the cats themselves have become more amenable to human observation. Filming cats that would rather not be seen at all is difficult and rarely delivers natural behavior. Some cats like the jaguar, snow leopard and puma have now become easy to see in a few places, when as recently as a decade ago, they were still on the “almost impossible to film” list. In fact, for the making of this series, we were able to film pumas, jaguars and leopards on foot at close range, without the cats showing aggression or fear. They were mostly unfazed by our presence.
However, some individuals did take a curious interest and in Chile this was almost a problem. There was a puma we named Friendly, as she would often approach us and sniff the bags at our feet before moving on. Matthew Kingdon, one of our camera operators, got a real surprise when she wandered up to him, then watched as he slowly walked backwards away from her (the correct response with any big cat). The other pumas were less inquisitive, but equally relaxed to the point that they just carried on with their lives when we were there, treating us more like furniture.
Filming on foot in the dark brings its own problems. At night in Costa Rica, we watched with the infra red camera as Jack Hynes walked down the path to the beach, towards a jaguar that was on the look out for a turtle. We were able to warn Jack by radio and he waited as she wandered onto the beach. She carried on past our hide and into the forest. Jack never saw her despite the fact she was just metres from him. But later that night Jack did meet her.
We knew there was a dead turtle at the edge of the forest and that the jaguar was further down the beach, so Jack crept closer to the turtle and hid behind a small log. He didn’t know that the jaguar had now made its way back to the turtle. When he turned on the camera, the jaguar was staring at him from just a few metres away.
At first, she didn’t know what Jack was, so started creeping towards him – at which point his sudden movement surprised the jaguar who now realized he was a person and moved off.
For leopards, lions and cheetahs, most of the filming was from a vehicle, which most cats regard as something different from a person, so behave naturally. Cars have the advantage of being able to move lots of camera equipment around … day cameras, night cameras, infra red cameras, camera traps and thermal cameras, all at once. They also have the advantage of being able to protect cameras and people from the weather.
Despite the weather setbacks, we succeeded in capturing extraordinary natural behavior of cats, and although I have spent my lifetime filming them in the wild, what we were able to film this time, surpassed all my hopes. Combined with new science on cats and their origins we’ve been able to create a compelling story that shows big cats in a new light.