Beautiful Freaks – behind the scenes of the biggest little freak show

Set the camera to auto and press the record button?

To take a very expensive state of the art proto-type camera rig to the dustiest, windiest and hottest (and pretty cold) least camera friendly environments on earth – well you wouldn’t do it would you? Well to be honest when I was asked by the producer/director of ‘Beautiful Freaks’ to suggest a good place to film, I wasn’t thinking of the welfare of this exotic collection of mirrors, glass, carbon fibre and computers – I was thinking of my slightly selfish desire to revisit one of the most stunning countries in Africa and to meet some of its many extreme creatures.

Well against all odds and sand storms we succeeded and thanks to the bloody-mindedness of the crew, oodles of determination, team work and just a little bit of canned-air we managed it and the outcome was (even if I say so myself) rather beautiful and surprising.

3D broadcasting is nothing new, but having been brought up in the era of such forgettable movies as Jaws 3D I’m from a generation that saw 3D being exploited first as a gimmick with everything that could detach itself from the screen being flung at a squealing audience wearing ridiculous glasses!
So I was at the beginning of this project a bit of a 3D sceptic, but this was soon to change. Without boring you with the details and the science (probably because I don’t really understand them properly myself) to shoot 3D that is comfortable to view and a little more subtle takes quite a bit of restraint and re-training of the mind, it also takes a mathematical grasp of exactly what creates the effect. Distances between the background, the main subject and the camera all need to be considered very carefully indeed. The outcome for the viewer is however spectacular, by its very essence trying to describe 3D in words doesn’t word very well, suffice to say, it’s just like real life! Textures are the thing that impresses me most, you can almost feel an Adders scales, the fluffiness of a fox or the spines of an Acacia and the way you watch the screen is very different too, 3D makes you want to look around a bit more, stay a little longer and linger.

Because of the need for such control, programmes up until now have had to be, very controllable and static or massive budget. This show ‘Beautiful Freaks’ aimed to attempt the impossible which was to use a camera that although still rather large and ungainly was relatively mobile for a 3D camera and could be applied to the sort of wildlife presenting style that I have become accustomed to. This was to be the first 3D presenter led wildlife show of its kind and to be honest I had no idea if I could pull it off!

So off we headed into the least camera friendly environment on earth, with the most delicate looking camera that had never before been used in the field (it had to be prized out of hands of Gordon from the Bristol production house Films@59 who had built it, caressed it and lovingly pampered it for several months previously – with promises to look after his baby and to trust us that we would put its welfare above our own) to make a show about Namibia’s bizarre and beautiful animals and landscapes. Oh and did I mention that the camera was so new it didn’t yet have an instruction manual?

Palmetto or Namib Web-footed Gecko

Well we did it Beautiful Freaks – a show about Namibia’s best and most bizarre life forms has been completed (and airs on Saturday the 14th January on both Discovery Channel and Sky3D at 9PM) and I have to say although it was a challenge for every single member of the dedicated team and anyone who touched the camera, picked up a flight case or pondered over the resultant footage it was worth every second of effort, angst, worry and doubt. It was truly a team effort and from my point of view I had to re-learn the discipline of being a presenter and relinquish the comfy seat to this highly strung, electrical diva…but it was worth it on many levels.

Not only did it give me plenty of time to play with the narrative and hone my moments but I also developed a pretty impressive bird list, I had time to take in and relish the places we visited (except for a horrible day of fever on the Skeleton coast) and because I was pre-warned by the producer Charlotte that I really would have to be patient and wait for my turn as the team prepared the camera (a task that on a bad day when dust and the circuitry didn’t want as to roll could take many hours) I took my new travel banjo (thanks Andy Banjo for that) and learned myself a few more chords.

The weight of the camera causes some problems. The solution? Stand around and laugh.

Thinking we might not make it out…the vultures watch and wait.

Over the next couple of weeks we bumped and jolted around Namibia in a couple of Land- cruisers with Caesar our safari guide behind the well worn wheel.
The image of a customised land-cruiser bus (which we fondly referred to as the ice cream van) bouncing about in pursuit of a desert Elephant while containing a hot and flustered film crew manning the very latest in camera technology was both amusing and rather incongruous, especially since in order to keep the camera cool, any fabric that could be found, sarongs, bed sheets and shirts were draped in the windows to keep the sun out, giving the whole ensemble, the somewhat dishevelled look or a lost hippy tour bus.

Me getting my freak on with an Armored Cricket

An Armoured Cricket – Tonka but no toy

So leaving technology and putting aside the sweet moment when I finally managed to get all the right fingers on all the right frets for the cord of  ‘D’ on the Banjo. What was my favourite thing about the whole trip? Well it’s a very difficult moment to distil as we really were spoilt to some of the most spectacular animals and moments. From playing hide and seek with a Desert Elephant, the bleak but exquisite beauty of the Skeleton coast, the finding of a perfect sun bleached Chameleon skull to the taste of a well earned Windhoek, and a moment with the only just re-discovered spotted rubber frog – it’s hard to choose, but….
My absolute favourite partly due to the surprise and partly the ease and unplanned nature with which we stumbled upon them were the Armoured Ground Crickets.
The moment was further gilded by the golden light of the rapidly descending sun. These brutish looking bugs have an almost gladiatorial look to them, having exchanged the elegance of the majority of the rest of the crickets and grasshopper family for a robust almost Tonka toy persona – they are chiefly vegetarian and consequently much more gentle than their appearances would belay. The tough look and armour plating for which they are well named are all about standing up against attack, I watched a stand-off between one of these insects and a Hornbill armed with a Scimitar of a beak and a birds intellect but after much lunging and bluffing, the bird thought better of the meal and gave in to go and look for a vulnerable grub or defenceless fruit instead.

Although very common when we were there, I’ve never met them before. This was possibly because of our timing; there had been some good rain prior to our trip and like much of Namibia’s wildlife their life-cycles are designed to cash in on any sudden abundance.

We did also have a magical moment with an animal I would have loved to have filmed for the programme but it just didn’t stick around for long enough and that was a truly beautiful freak; the Aardwolf. While heading back to our nightly refuge at a lodge in Etosha national park one of these rarely seen mammals skipped across the road in front of our vehicle – I managed to raise the camera and get one bad picture of it to prove the moment happened. But even a bad picture of an Aardwolf is worth getting.

Aardwolf -my kind of Mammal. A rare shot of the back end of a rarely seen African mammal.

This beast is ‘Aard’ – not because it is a kind of Hyena that has figured out a way of living in the most extremely arid environments but because this prefix (also found in Aardvark) means earth and refers to this creature’s habit of grubbing around for its staple diet; termites.
The habit of relying on the omnipresent insect life that even in the most arid environment is there, mostly out of site, chewing and chomping its way through any unappetising dead and dry plant material is a familiar one – and a survival tactic for another star of the show the Bat-eared fox (which we did film).

Poser? Moi? They made me do it!

Spotted Rubber Frog – Phrynomantis affinis – possibly the rarest animal I’ve ever seen?

I’m going to leave it here – there is simply no way I can write about all of what we enjoyed and experienced in the making of ‘Beautiful Freaks’ in one single blog – but I will leave you with a few more pictures and of course a reminder that the show airs here in the UK as a simulcast – both on Sky3D and on Discovery Channel at 9PM Saturday the 14th January. For all my Twitter followers (@bugboybaker) in case you want to follow, I will be jumping to another account and taking over @DiscoveryUK for the duration of the show and perhaps a little bit after – so if you have any questions or comments about the show feel free to ping them to me during what will be a live twitter frenzy, remember #beautifulfreaks

More press info and video interviews here and here….