Night vision — Moonlight cameras, thermal imaging, night-vision goggles, infrared light, and more. Jennifer Ouellette – Feb 25, 2020 7:50 pm UTC Intrepid camera crews braved the elements all over the world to capture wildlife in the dark for Night on Earth.Intrepid camera crews braved harsh nighttime conditions and used all the technical ingenuity at…
Intrepid camera crews braved harsh nighttime conditions and used all the technical ingenuity at their disposal for Night on Earth, a new nature documentary series from Netflix that lets viewers see familiar animals in a startling new light. There’s also a fascinating behind-the-scenes standalone episode, “Shot in the Dark,” that details everything that went into several highlighted shoots.
Per the official synopsis: “When the sun goes down, a new world awakes. New technology reveals wonders of the planet in a completely new light. Across the globe we discover a hidden side to the world’s greatest landscapes and animals.” Creating the series required 60 separate shoots over one year, in 30 different countries, tapping pretty much everyone who works professionally in the wildlife filmmaking community.
“We wanted to show the color and magic of the night,” series producer Bill Markham told Ars. That said, finding stories of things that happen in the wild after dark was quite difficult, because not many scientists stay up all night to observe animal behavior, although there is much they can infer from tracking data, for instance. There was also the technical challenge of modifying various cameras, picking the correct lenses, and finding camera crews willing to brave extreme conditions all over the globe—all in the dark.
Under those conditions, “You can’t see much that isn’t in the viewfinder,” said Markham, not to mention dealing with insects, snakes, bandits, poachers, and other potential disruptions. Markham shot the Zimbabwe segment, filming elephants being hunted by lions and hyenas, the latter targeting a baby elephant. Another crew waded through shallow waters infested with crocodiles to film flamingoes on the Yucatan Peninsula, while a Peru-based crew warded off the sharp bites of vampire bats. One unlucky cameraman was bitten by a macaque in Thailand, prompting a booster rabies shot.
Shot in the dark
Light is obviously a rare commodity when trying to film in the dark. Most nature documentaries feature dramatic closeups of wildlife, and camera operators typically favor slow-motion filming. They also typically use long lenses of up to 1,000 millimeters. But the low-light conditions of night shoots restrict lens length to about 400 millimeters and also require filming at regular speed, because you lose light very quickly when you shoot at high speed and slow it down, according to Markham.
If conditions were just right, crews could use moonlight-sensitive cameras. Crews had to wait for a full moon, however, capturing as much footage as possible in the few hours when the Moon was at its brightest. There was also a large amount of noise, so Markham made sure there was an in-house post-production specialist to reduce noise as much as possible. “There’s a scene with a cheetah running at high speed that was particularly problematic, because if you reduce the noise, you reduce the cheetah as well,” he said. “The software thought that this spotted cat moving at high speed might be noise.”
Moonlight wasn’t sufficient in many environments, however, particularly those with a thick overhead canopy. To photograph owl monkeys in the treetops of Argentina, the cameraman used infrared light to illuminate the foliage. It was invisible to monkeys as well as humans but could be detected by the camera. Another crew member spent several nights on a 10-story camouflaged filming platform in the jungles of Borneo to capture thermal-imaging footage of the wildlife. The crew tasked with filming speedy cheetahs mounted cameras on an AWD vehicle and used night goggles to navigate the terrain, since turning on the headlights would startle any animals.
As always, the crew relied on scientists in the field and local guides for their expertise. But the scientists gleaned new knowledge, too. For instance, it has been known that cheetahs move around at night, but the shoot was the first time it was possible to see what the animals are up to firsthand. Similarly, the show’s footage confirmed scientists’ suspicion that, in Peru, a group of fur seals in the moonlight was being attacked by vampire bats, but it also captured the baby seals being attacked by nearby sea lions. And the cameraman for the “Jungle Nights” episode not only captured dramatic footage of a flying squirrel but also an orangutan indulging in a midnight snack—something orangutans have not been known to do until now.
Even when crews didn’t get the footage they were seeking, there were other surprises in store. They discovered that flood and mosquito season was the wrong time of year to film jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal, for instance, but they also captured the first footage of ocelots hunting in the wild. “I think that unexpected revelation is something you don’t get in many other tales. You normally know what you’re going for,” said Markham. “But because we were going beyond the dark frontier, we were exploring a new world where we didn’t always know what to expect.”
Night on Earth is currently streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by YouTube/Netflix