When Verity White sent me an email asking me if I had time in my schedule to film a sequence about an African Rock Python I jumped at the chance! Jumping however seemed to be a reoccurring action whilst filming this magnificent scaly beast. I have never admitted to being scared by an animal before and I have filmed all-sorts of dangerous creatures, but Snakes, they really put the willies up me.
So I was sent out to Uganda Snake sanctuary and in nine days I was to return with a 5 minute sequence for the landmark series "Africa".
Factored into those nine days was also time to make a set. The set was to resemble a Pythons nest of which her eggs would hatch from, so it had to look natural. At this stage in my career I had a small amount of experience making sets as I have had the pleasure of working with the amazing Kevin Flay but nothing to this extent. I was feeling the pressure and so was my local fixer Johnson, where were we going to find any type of structure that would resemble a Pythons lair. We had already tried the local zoo to see what they use in their Snake enclosure but the log looked like Leatherface had gone at it with his chainsaw. It was looking more and more likely that I was going to have to get hold of some polyester and paint a log for the set which was not my favourite solution and Johnson was not really sure where he could even find a piece that large in the time we had.
On the way to Kampala to get our filming permit I was keeping and eye out for any old trees or logs that had fallen over or just lying by the side of the road. When suddenly out the corner of my eye I saw this sculpture shop and in the middle of its display stood proudly an beautifully preserve old hollowed out log. During wildlife filmmaking sometimes it is up to the Gods to help you either by changing the weather just when you need it or being in the right place at the right time to see an amazing piece of behaviour, this time it was the something made me look in the right direction. Now it was down to a bit of sweet talking and a flash of the wallet to hire this sequence saving log. Deal done and the log would be at the Snake sanctuary in one day. It was already day 2 into our schedule and we still had no set built and Matthew Wright the producer would be with me in one day. So it was time to get all DIY SOS at the sanctuary.
The snake sanctuary was built by Yasin Kazibwe also known as "Snake Man" a gentle guy that just wants to educate the local community about some of the most misunderstood and endangered species in Uganda. The sanctuary was founded in 2002, Snake Man invested every last cent he earned in to building cages, toilets facilities parking areas etc and dedicated a lot of time to catch snakes from the local villages and surrounding areas, stopping people from killing them. Whilst filming sequences like this you get to meet people with amazing dedication and passion to save what they believe in and if it was not for Snake man the reptile population from around this area would be far less. At the sanctuary there was a wooden framed area with a corrugated roof that I decided to use and transform into our studio, all we needed was some skilled hands. I hired a local carpenter to make me a solid table as the set was going to be heavy and 3 guys to help make the studio.
Most studios are pitch black inside so you can control all aspects of lighting yourself with out the interference of ever changing natural light. So we wrapped black bags around it to keep the light out, put the table in and log on table. Then all we needed to do was dress the log so it looked like it was rotten, old and had been laying in the jungle for years.
Matthew had now arrived so we could finally start filming. I'd say lighting the set was one of the most important tasks we had (apart from wrangling a 5 meter snake) getting the lighting to look as though the python was in a dark hole but not too dark for you to see anything was difficult. Also to keep the sequence interesting, I wanted to keep most shots on the move but as we had such a small space this too was going to be tricky.
We used a Cine slider as a track and a small camera made by Bradley Engineering called the Bradley cam. The camera has the ability to focus really close which used in conjunction with a wide angle adapter can create some really stylised shots. I put the slider on a tripod head so we could add another moving axis and attached the camera to a Magic arm (which every cameraman should always have a couple of in their kit) and we had ourselves our very own mini jib and track.
It's now time to for the talent to make it's entrance! One of the noticeable shots I wanted to make was when the python first enters the (set) lair from the outside. But to make this shot happen the snake's head had to be close to the camera, the down side to this is that Python's have a heat seeking sixth senses and the bradley cam gets pretty hot, so this is where my week of flinching at this reptile began.
So when my hand goes towards the camera to alter the angle and the python's neck is starting to form a "S" bend the inevitable is about to happen which is that I will be seeing the inside of the Python's mouth. All of this is making the animal a bit stressed so it was all about taking advice from Snake Man and giving the Python as much rest as is needed.
We also used the local botanical gardens to film the bits of the sequence that were outside. Following the Python around with a tripod and camera would be impossible so we adapted the Bradley cam on the end of a light stand so we could be mobile and get close enough to the ground. Although this made me look pretty silly it did make for some nice images. Also the cine slider came in to play for the tracking shots.
Finishing the sequence was the hatching of the eggs and this required a lot of luck and patience. We had the Panasonic 2700 with some B4 mounted macro lenses to get the super close ups and the cine slider and bradley cam to add the magic with the movement. After 5 days of filming the python I started to get a bit more confident and I even helped wrangle the snake much to the amusement of Matthew who had lots of experience handling snakes as he spent many years working with Nigel Marvin.
Making a successful sequence much depends on the people that you work with and on this occasion we had a great team, thank you to everyone that was involved.
My final thought is that when filming wildlife it is always important to have a healthy amount of respect and to never get complacent, even when trying to take a photo!
Please watch the python sequence below
Here is also an interview I did about the sequence