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.
In the Masai Mara in 2017, the so called ‘short rains’ turned out to be an almost daily deluge, usually just after sunset when the lions werewaking up to go hunting. The rain was so heavy at times that small dry ditches would become rivers 20 metres wide in a matter of minutes. – rivers that no four wheel drive vehicle should attempt to cross. But we did, and on several occasions became stuck in a rising flood.
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.
Interested in learning more?
Check out our website and watch Age of Big Cats, now streaming in Ultra HD 4K, only on CuriosityStream.
The Great Pyramid at Giza has fascinated scientists and treasure seekers alike for more than 4,000 years. Now on CuriosityStream, we are thrilled to bring you our 55-minute HD and exclusive, extended 90-minute 4K films that give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Scan Pyramids mission. Over the three-year experiment, scientists use cosmic rays to virtually “x-ray” Pharaoh Khufu’s 45-story pyramid to unlock the secrets inside.
Produced in collaboration with Bonne Pioche Productions, THIRTEEN Productions for WNET, Japan’s NHK and France 5, CuriosityStream’s Scanning the Pyramids captures the researchers’ possible discovery of secret voids. As one can imagine, filming on, in and around the pyramids alone is a formidable task—coordinating the international team of researchers and filmmakers adds a massive layer of complexity. Under the direction of seasoned documentary filmmaker Florence Tran, the result is a stunning, exhilarating look at groundbreaking research as it happens.
We asked Flo about some of the challenges her team faced, and some of the fascinating experiences along the way.
CS: What were some of the challenges in gathering and working with this large international team?
FT: The scientific mission itself was challenging and took a long time to coordinate, especially with an international team of scientists who sometimes don’t understand each other’s language, methods of analysis or results. But they always found a way to work it out, stronger as a team because of their commitment to the project.
On the film side, we had French, Egyptian and Japanese cameramen in the field covering the operations. Fortunately, I had lived and worked for several years in Egypt and had previously made a film about Egyptian filmmakers and the country’s teeming cinema industry. So, I already had a network of great professionals who I knew could trust.
The Japanese tend to film in different ways than we do, but on the first shoot, the Egyptian and Japanese crews broke the ice over a few glasses of sake and Egyptian Stella beers. We discussed our different habits and needs…and we never had any coordination problems. We shared everything we filmed.
CS: We know it was quite a process to get the project approved, working through the Egyptian Antiquities Council, etc. What kind of hoops did you have to jump through?
FT: The first difficulty was finding key people who would embark on this long and complicated adventure and accessing the official organization in Egypt. It took Mehdi Tayoubi (of the French Dassault Systèmes software team) several years to find Dr. Hany Helal, now a professor at the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, who was once the minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Egypt. He knew the ins-and-outs of the Ministry of Antiquities. With his understanding of Egyptology and advanced experimental research like particle physics, he was critical to the mission.
Once we found him, I happened to be living in Egypt working on other films, so I met with Dr. Helal on Medhi’s behalf in September 2013. Just a week prior to our meeting, the Faculty of Engineering building had been burned and partly destroyed by Muslim Brotherhood partisans. Dr. Helal was in a temporary office, tending to urgent matters, and here I was talking about scanning the pyramids with infrared thermography cameras and unknown techniques using cosmic particle detectors. It seemed utterly unconceivable, almost absurd, at that time. The whole country was in shock, on the verge of civil war for some people, so I was not very optimistic. But to my surprise, he took the time to listen, said it would be great for Egypt to participate in such a great international mission and he agreed to meet Mehdi and his team in France not long after. It took another 2 years to really coordinate and launch the mission, and by 2015, Egypt’s political situation had settled down. The Minister of Antiquities strongly supported the Scan Pyramids mission.
During that time of global international terrorists, it was a nightmare for the logistics team in charge of moving chemicals and bizarre instruments through customs in all of these countries. In comparison, getting our filming equipment through was a piece of cake. We couldn’t complain.
CS: The weather was a challenge, right? Tell us about that, and how did you overcome it?
FT: During summer, temperatures can be really hot, but again, it was more difficult for the scientists than for us. We are used to being in the field and have proper filming equipment for this. But that’s not the case for state-of-the-art particle physics prototype devices which are usually kept in a completely controlled and safe environment. For example, the French scientists who had to set up their equipment outside, had to face warm winds, sandstorms and extreme temperatures. They had anticipated some of these problems but not all of them. But despite these trials, they managed to make their equipment work properly.
CS: What was it like to be inside the pyramids? To climb on them? It must have been surreal.
FT: Climbing the pyramid was exhilarating. From up there, you really admire the work of ancient Egyptians even more… and wonder how they did. It is truly vertiginous. We thought at the beginning we wouldn’t need professional climbers to ascend but moving so many people up there in such a short time, it was really not an option to do without. Going down is actually more dangerous than going up. You can slip easily, and any fall can certainly be fatal. When climbing was still allowed for the public, there were many accidents, which is why the Ministry of Antiquities rightfully forbids tourists to climb up there today.
CS: Setting up equipment to film while being respectful of the structures must have been quite difficult. How did you deal with that?
FT: The most difficult part of making this film was actually being really patient, to follow all the scientific steps, day after day, without disturbing the scientists. We couldn’t re-enact anything or bother them with fancy, sexy filming ideas. We had many, many shoots (more than 70 days) in Egypt, Japan and France over 2 years. Sometimes I was alone with my camera late at night because we couldn’t pay for a crew. So, in the end we ended up with lots of repetitive footage. So, that meant the second biggest difficulty was to edit all this material. It took us several months to get a clear and functioning narration. And, because we had to wait for the “end” of the story… the action was developing at the same time we were filming and editing.
CS: Dr. Hawass, an influential official whose support was required for the project, was at first skeptical of the technology. That must have been harrowing and disheartening. Can you tell me about that?
FT: In 2016 [well into the process of the experiment and filmmaking], Dr. Zahi Hawass was named the head of a special committee of Egyptologists who are officially in charge of examining and interpreting Scan Pyramids results. As you see in the film, the first meeting between Dr. Hawass and the scientists was a bit of a shock—he was very skeptical of their work and techniques and expressed it vividly. The scientists didn’t know him and were surprised to discover his famously strong temper.
After this, the team feared their work could be stopped at any time, so they changed strategy. Initially, the detector of the KEK was eventually supposed to be installed in Khafre’s pyramid, as were the CEA’s detectors. It was the mission’s first assignment to scan the 4 biggest Egyptian pyramids: the Bent, the Red, Khafre’s and Khufu’s.
But, when Dr. Morishima detected this huge anomaly for the first time in the Khufu pyramid, Dr. Helal and Mehdi decided to focus all efforts on this pyramid. All 3 muographic teams then pointed to the same location. The idea was to have complete counter-expertise within the mission itself, to be irreproachable and unattackable, scientifically speaking. So, the pressure and demanding attitude from Dr. Hawass was—in the end—a blessing.
CS: The moment when all three teams gathered to compare results…what can you tell me about the energy in that room? It must have been thrilling to have triplicate confirmation of the void.
FT: First, I have to tell you that we waited months for this moment to happen. Particle physicists are especially rigorous and anal when it comes to analyzing and checking their results. Their reputation was at stake and they would never publish anything they are not 300% sure of. All these extra precautions sometimes seemed superfluous to us and made us (the filmmakers, producers and broadcasters) all exasperated and impatient. But, you cannot dance faster than the music and respecting the scientific process was mandatory. When the scientists all gathered in Paris, they spent hours arguing on highly technical points. Only they understood what they were talking about, which was a bit frustrating, especially for Mehdi and me. But their perspective is different from us neophytes—for them, details are of a great importance and we were just waiting for the main conclusions. So, in a way, we seemed to be more relieved and happy than they were.
Despite this “victory” moment, everyone remained very cautious of what would happen next. There was no moment of exhilarating or overwhelming joy. It’s not time yet! Though it took 2 years of hard work to get there (not to mention the long preparation) the real exploration is just beginning. Everybody now wants to know what is inside this big cavity!
Watch the Scanning the Pyramids trailer here:
Both the original and extended versions of Scanning the Pyramids are available now on CuriosityStream in Ultra HD 4K.
Today is an exciting day for CuriosityStream, with the release of the second episode of our Emmy® Award-winning Original Series, Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places (SHFP). This series has not only been a huge success and one of our highest rated programs, but it continues to enthrall our viewers (and our own team!) by sparking curiosity about our Universe. Working with the award-winning theoretical physicist and bestselling author Stephen Hawking as our tour guide, we couldn’t be in better hands. We sat down with Ben Bowie of Bigger Bang Productions, executive producer of the series, to learn about what differentiates the sequel from episode one, as well as what the future of the series has in store for viewers.
CuriosityStream (CS): I think it’s fair to say that episode two is even bigger and better that episode one. Talk about the decision to turn the focus toward the biggest question there is: “the theory of everything.” When Hawking takes us in search of the secret of the Universe, isn’t he really enacting and dramatizing his life’s work?
Ben Bowie (BB): Professor Hawking decided very early in his career to concentrate on the biggest mysteries he could find because, due to his illness, he didn’t know how much time he would have. Why the Universe is as it is, is indeed the biggest mystery one can contemplate. We decided this quest would be the subject of SHFP 2 and its follow up, SHFP 3, because only that question encompasses his life’s work. All the rest follows from that one decision. So, indeed, it is an attempt to make that journey accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
CS: The “S.S. Hawking” reveals some extraordinary new capabilities in this episode. What were some of the most exciting and fun sequences for you to create?
BB: Well, believe it or not, it was a difficult decision to allow the SS Hawking to be able to do ‘anything’ – even break the laws of physics! We weren’t sure if taking the series in that direction was the best thing to do or not. But, in the end, being a product of Stephen’s imagination, the ship is not bound by the law of physics because it is like the human mind: able to imagine anything it can. That’s our great superpower, and Stephen has it to a greater extent than most. Once we had crossed that threshold, we delighted in many of the things we could imagine such a ship doing. Diving into the Sun, visiting a ruined alien civilization, and getting trapped in a situation that not even the ship could escape were all wonderful scenarios that we had great fun working through. Getting Stephen to engage in these fantastical episodes, imagining himself in them, was truly a highlight of my career.
CS: There is a sequence where Hawking dives into Venus that is not only visually stunning, but the sequence sends a pretty strong message to climate change deniers. Whose idea was that?
BB: One thing about Stephen is that he is very passionate about the environment and mankind’s influence on it. The way that sequence came to be is because during production, the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. That decision spurred Stephen to make Venus the first stop on his new journey in this episode. Planet-wide, catastrophic climate change is not a theory. Venus – the nearest planet to ours – has undergone such a process, and if we can’t learn from that example, we are simply deluding ourselves. The challenge was how to make that sequence exciting rather than tub-thumping, and if we succeeded it was thanks to some dazzling extravehicular activity from Commander Hawking himself.
CS: What do you hope people take away from this series? Having worked with Professor Hawking so many times over the years, what makes this series special?
BB: This series is the closest to the very first idea I had for a show with Stephen, yet was never able to make until the folks at CuriosityStream allowed us at Bigger Bang the creative freedom to try it. For the first time, we see the world’s most famous scientist engaging with the Universe up close. That is an incredible rarity! We also tried very hard to show the scale of things and to reveal how Stephen’s life story has driven his research. So, I hope this is a new way of communicating science to people of all ages; an exciting adventure but with real (and possibly troubling) science at its heart. By the end, I hope people will stop arguing about trivial stuff because we should focus on preserving the most amazing thing we know that exists in the Universe – the human race.
CS: SHFP 2 ends with a cliffhanger, but fortunately for viewers, it’s not the last episode in the series! Without revealing too much, can you give us a hint of what to expect from SHFP 3?
BB: Ah ha! Yes, difficult not to give too much away. Let’s just say that SHFP 3 takes things to a whole new level, both with what the ship can do and what Hawking can do with it…
June 8, 2017 marks the premiere of our latest original film, First Man, created in partnership with Nilaya Productions. First Man is an epic special that takes viewers on an exceptional journey back through 25 million years of human evolution.
Part of what makes First Man so special is that it has something to please every viewer, spanning history, science, drama and even special effects. Not only are the storyline and scenic backdrops jaw-dropping, but the special effects make-up takes center stage, as our team worked diligently to accurately portray four species of early hominids. Curious about the process of turning modern-day actors into species dating back millions of years? Read on to learn more about the fascinating process.
Our biggest challenge was the actual look of the characters. With the influence of movies like Planet of The Apes, aesthetic standards have indeed dramatically changed, while the expectations of the audience have increased. With the arrival of new technology in make-up and prosthetics, after a few tests, we decided to work with the Academy Award-nominated Adrien Morot FX Studio in Canada. Renowned for their incredible masks and make-up, they had just wrapped work on The Revenant.
Our protagonists were initially drawn by character designers. Based on scientific assumptions of what they could look like, we decided to give each species an identity: noses, eyes, mouth, foreheads, fur and hair.
Casting the right actors for this film was a particularly extensive process. In order to find the actors who could perform difficult primate movements (walking on all fours, jumping, climbing trees, etc.), the process was much more involved than usual, but we ended up with a stellar group of actors who would help embody the traits and behaviors of extinct hominids. Once our cast was in place, it was off to Canada, where they would be entirely moulded – face and body.
Once the actors arrived in Canada, Adrien Morot FX studio created the facial masks and the costumes inspired by the character designs, custom adapted to each individual character. Those masks and costumes were accompanied by special eye lenses to accurately portray how the size of the iris changed throughout time.
In the end, we received the masks and costumes in South Africa for the shoot. We were shocked by how heavy everything was – weighing in at a few tons of equipment because, in order to keep the costumes fresh, each actor would wear a replicate of the same costume every day they were on set! Each day would mean five hours of preparation and two hours of getting rid of make up at the end of the day for an actor. Furthermore, it takes an army! Each actor had three make-up and costume artists assigned to them.