How do you capture nature at its most intimate?
Animal courtship in the wild is a time sensitive event – and one that delayed rains and shifting seasons is making even more complicated to track lately. Add a COVID-19 pandemic in the mix and The Mating Game series producer Jeff Wilson and episode producers like Joe Loncraine had a logistical mountain to scale.
The Mating Game teams (composed of over 271 crew members) filmed over 80 distinct species in 22 countries over 6 continents, with 1,194 days spent filming on location. The crews eventually captured 83 different mating strategies and 88 incidents in which deception was used to subvert the process as well as 367 nuptial flights. There were also thousands of hours filmed of other interesting events such as courtship displays, and a whole lot of failed attempts! And when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted production, it meant cancelling 18 shoots and spending a total of 127 days in quarantine.
In the end, the answer that brought it all together was simple: Open the game. The Mating Game’s production team reached out to some friends.
The Mating Game is available as a Boxset on Catch Up for DStv Premium subscribers until Sunday, 27 February.
South African friends
“It's probably transformed the way that we're going to work in the future, in that we're going to be a lot more collaborative, and a lot more international with our filming partners,” says Jeff. “We couldn't get our teams into South Africa, but we've got lots of great friends, like a fantastic camera person called Hardus Vermaak, and another camera person called Russell MacLaughlin, both of whom are based just outside of Johannesburg.”
“Joe had a sequence in his film on African bullfrogs (episode 4), which is very time dependent. They only come out to do their courtship rituals when it's just rained, and there's a small window of time when the pool of water that they need to compete within is able to support the number of frogs that we were after,” adds Jeff. In the end, it took Russell from November 2020 to February 2021 to capture his footage!
Joe adds, “We traditionally probably would have looked at funding those projects by sending some people that we know and work with here, out there. And, by working with South African crews, we could be so much more responsive. We could work over much longer timeframes, because it enabled them to be working on something else and then say, ‘Right, let’s go this weekend!’”
Footage on the fly
Going local really paid off with the termite mating flight sequence in episode 1, which was filmed at the Wits Rural Facility in Limpopo Province. “Termites was a fantastic sequence for us,” says Jeff. “That only happens for half an hour within a year, so you really need to be on the ground at the right time. This termite Queen uses her chemical signals within the termite mound to develop certain eggs that she has laid into alates, which are the winged termites. They flood the air with millions of termites in 1 event, a male and a female meet, mate, and then they bury underground and start a new colony. There are 8 or 9 story beats there, you must plan those out very carefully to be in the right place at the right time. And science doesn't know exactly why they emerge when they emerge.”
“For Hardus, it was about trying to map out where the rains were falling in the lowveld. His job was to walk around various locations and keep an eye on termite mounds and just see if there was development going on. You can tell sometimes when there's wet patches on the outside of a termite mound, that the worker termites are preparing the mound for the alates to emerge,” explains Jeff. “He had to map that out whilst keeping an eye on the rains and the weather conditions and then try to be there at dawn or dusk when they emerge. So it's a game of chance and he's rolling his dice every time.”
Happily, Hardus’s own courtship of nature was successful, and a bouncing baby nature shot was delivered on time, on screen!
Watch the Mating Game Season 1 Sundays at 16:10 on BBC Earth (DStv channel 184)