Director of Photography Mark MacEwen travelled thousands of miles with a set of Cooke miniS4/i lenses to shoot selected sequences that feature in the BBC’s latest landmark wildlife series, Seven Worlds, One Planet. The series, which visits all seven continents to document the unique wildlife to be found in each, began airing in the UK in October 2019.
“The nature of high-end wildlife filming is a mix of collaboration and individual intuition,” said MacEwen. “Because we are filming animals, usually the fewer people present the better; the chance to capture the behaviour takes place individually and is down to the DP’s framing eye. The collaborative part is often in the planning and ongoing story discussions. Things develop and change all the time in nature and often the story you set out to film changes, or you find something better or different. And that’s when the collaborative part really takes shape and is a part of the process I really enjoy. Bouncing ideas and building the story is where a lot of the creativity happens.”
MacEwen, who has over 20 years’ experience in wildlife cinematography, chose the miniS4/i lenses for his sequences to bring the ‘Cooke Look’ in a smaller, more light weight form.
“I’ve used Cooke lenses before and always loved them. The look of the Cooke lenses does it all for me, and the way they separate the subject and background and flare is the way I see the world. I also like the way they work on digital sensors – to me, they just help take some of the digital edge off the camera and help keep it looking more organic and natural,” he said. “The miniS4/i’s were great as the size and weight of them allowed me to use them not only for tripod work, but for hand-held gimbal work with animals where I have to hold the MōVI Pro rig for hours, following the animals waiting for the right moment or bit of behaviour. The build quality is also amazing and works so well with the follow focus gear.”
The travelling set included the 18mm, 25mm, 40mm, 50mm and 135mm focal lengths. “For me the 40mm and 50mm were the lenses I used the most,” MacEwen explained. “They give me enough of a focal length to create separation from the background and cut easier between the long lens and primes. Also, longer focal lengths are more useful for wildlife filming as often the problem is getting close enough to the subjects.”
Lighting conditions were extremely varied – from filming lowland gorillas in the jungles of the Congo to shooting elephant seals in Antarctica – but MacEwen was impressed with how the miniS4/i lenses coped. “Heavy use of backlight is frequent. In jungles there is so much contrast and low light, then very strong shadows with bright sun patches – even the modern camera systems struggle with it, so if the lens can help with the contrast or artistically aid in flare, it makes all the difference,” he said.
The Red Helium was the camera choice for the series, which MacEwen praises for its versatility: “The frame rates, resolution and the size mean we can use it as a long lens camera, put it onto small hand-held gimbals or into larger helicopter systems like the GSS/Shotover/GSS. Also we have the ability to use pre roll and so on, which is a huge advantage when trying to film things that may only ever happen once.”
One particular scene from the series sticks in MacEwen’s memory. “I filmed elephant seals fighting for the Antarctica episode. I wanted to try and make the sequences feel and look different to others I’d seen shot, but they are a challenge to film – huge behemoths up to 18ft long and 8000lbs. Thousands of them turn up in mating season and the males prepare to fight for their right to breed,” he recalled. “I used the miniS4/i’s on a gimbal to try and get among them, capture the feel of the combat and creatively control the visual scene. But it’s no easy job moving around these monsters. I was frequently having to jump out of the way as one animal charged another, while others charge past you to escape. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.”
Not all challenges are brought by large animals, though. “I’ve been charged by lions, elephants, gorillas and elephants seals all on foot to name a few, but there is one creature that for me tops them all: the sweat bee. It’s tiny but found in huge numbers and is attracted to sweat, so it’s largely unavoidable. It has managed to annoy me for large parts of my career, and it can make even the most hardened person have to drop everything and just run away to get a moment’s respite.
“Outside of the flora and fauna, it’s the huge amounts of time we have to invest and of course the extreme demands we place on the kit, due to the environments we subject them to. I am happy to say that the miniS4/i’s performed flawlessly in every situation.”