Sep 24

The small but mighty film ‘Hedgehog Close’ has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Impact (small budget) and Children’s Award. This 2-minute film is an engaging stop motion animation which shines a spotlight on the plight of the hedgehog in the UK.

We spoke to Film Director Tom Hooker, from Zest Productions, about making this film and the recognition it has received.

Hedgehog close is a really fun little film. What made you decide to get involved with this project?

I wanted to make something fun and different, but with a strong conservation message. After brainstorming a few ideas, I settled on Hedgehogs. They are declining rapidly but this downwards trend could still be reversed by very simple actions. There is an urgency to this and I felt that it could be addressed powerfully through video. Working with a small budget meant scaling everything down and the idea of building models to depict an ‘ideal’ hedgehog habitat appealed to me. This fitted the original vision to create something warm and charming and also seemed like a useful device to tell the story.

Being nominated for the Children’s Award means the film was a hit with our toughest judges: a group of 8-12 year olds! Was the aim at the outset to create a film for a younger audience?

It’s fantastic the film has been so well received by young audiences. This was definitely a priority from the outset and influenced every aspect of production. The most challenging part was writing a script that clearly communicated the key points without sounding too preachy……or dull! Beyond that, the models needed to look appealing and paying attention to small details helped make it more visually exciting. Lots of inspiration was drawn from the brilliant work of Aardman Animations who excel at captivating both young and adult audiences. The film is still being shown in schools around the country and many parents and teachers have got in touch to request copies and pass on positive feedback which has been brilliant.

The aptly named ‘hedgehog at fence obstacle’ shot | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

What does it take for a film to successfully engage with the intended audience?

I think it’s vital to weigh every decision and element against the intended audience. Whoever they are, and whatever age group, people have short attention spans and plenty of other distractions. It’s important to give people a reason to keep watching at every stage. In the case of Hedgehog Close which was distributed on social media, it needed to be short and to the point. There were other models and scenes which never made it into the film as it was a priority to keep it under two minutes. In the end, every shot, and almost every word, had a purpose! As far as the creative stuff goes, the visual style is important and music obviously plays a huge part too, as does the tone and delivery of the voiceover. I think it helped being mindful of all these elements from the outset.

We also created a dedicated twitter account for the film where we tried to push it out far and wide. It was important to me to get the film seen outside a traditional wildlife audience to avoid preaching to the converted. The language used around its promotion was also important so as not to turn people off.

How important was the presence of Gordon Buchanan as the narrator? What did he bring to the production?

Gordon’s voice was the icing on the cake and provided the perfect tone and feel. A warm, friendly voice that simply flows with the pictures without being over bearing or too ‘instructional’. For me, it was important to have a recognisable voice that was trustworthy and genuine. I always imagined it being read softly as a bedtime story before functioning as a powerful conservation film and I feel Gordon’s tone makes it work on both levels.

The film is made by stop motion animation, what is it about this style of filmmaking that lends itself to this particular film?

There are several reasons why stop motion felt like the right choice. For starters, we could make the hedgehogs move wherever we wanted and show this from any angle. I wasn’t too concerned about smooth motion and perfect technique as much of the film’s character lies in its rustic, home-made style. The model hedgehogs fit into the environment better than a computer generated version would have done and, crucially, it was also a lot cheaper! Stop motion also lends itself to a more nostalgic, family friendly feel that I wanted to capture. As a lighting cameraman, I enjoy lighting real objects in three dimensions whilst thinking about textures, shadows and how they interact. Consequently, I think it produces images that are more eye catching and engaging than a 2D animation would have been.

The main point in the film is about connectivity, illustrating the purpose of joining neighbouring gardens and allowing hedgehogs to roam. By using stop motion we were able to show this happening. With 30cm high houses, it was possible to film aerial shots and move between fence-lines without needing a huge crane, big lights and obliging residents! The resultant look hopefully has more charm and visual appeal too.

The whole set with camera on motorised slider | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

There is an incredible amount of attention to detail in the film, how did you go about creating all the scenes? And how long did the entire filmmaking process take?!

Adding the detail was definitely a lot of fun! The basic script just required a living room, shed and a series of gardens. It was only at the time of building them that they began to take on more character and interest……And absorb more time! The basic structures were made from cardboard and balsa wood although many other obscure items were also used, ranging from lolly sticks for roof tiles to coffee granules and tea bag contents for soil. Most of the wallpapers and brickwork patterns were created in photoshop and then glued onto card.

The houses under construction – tiles were individually added to provide texture and some realism | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

The model building process started slowly as it was important to establish the right scale. The models had to be large enough to be workable and allow the desired depth of field, but also not so large that we would have been forced to hire Pinewood Studios! Some sets were built to two different scales to enable certain shots.

Lots of time was spent on the internet browsing houses and gardens which helped inspire some of the designs. I wanted each house and garden to be individual whilst still being in keeping with the overall style. The alleyway was based on a familiar local alley, complete with wheelie bins.

The entire filmmaking process took about six months from start to end. This was from the original idea to the final release of the film during Hedgehog Awareness Week. It was helpful to have a deadline or it could still be going on!

Attention to detail: the hedgehog themed living room (above) and the scattering of moss, lichen and grass | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

In addition to two Panda Award nominations, this production has won multiple awards including People’s Choice at the Charity Film Awards. What has been the wider impact of the film since its release?

It would be great to know how many new hedgehog highways have been created as a result of the film! There’s definitely a few but what has also been rewarding is hearing from people who previously had no idea about the plight of hedgehogs and pledged to make changes following the film. I was conscious from the start that we needed to avoid preaching to the converted so found these moments very reassuring. It was initially shared on Facebook and twitter by BBC Springwatch, The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the RSPB but very quickly spread. It was great to see the film being retweeted and shared by various well known people outside of the ‘conservation circle’ including comedians, presenters and Aardman Animations Producer Peter Lord who praised its charm!

The film is still being distributed by the Hedgehog Society and shown within schools and educational settings which is fantastic. This will hopefully continue until a time when every street is like Hedgehog Close and their population begins to recover.

Many thanks for talking to us Tom, the film is available to watch below.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of Festival speakers and screenings!

Hedgehog Close from Zest Productions on Vimeo.

Sep 11

Lindsey Paretti’s debut film Blood Island has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Emerging Talent and Shorts. This 12-minute film tells the story of chimpanzees in Liberia which were infected with hepatitis and underwent testing in order to ‘unlock the mysteries of human diseases’. The experiments lasted for three decades before ending in 2007, however the remaining chimps – raised in captivity and still infected – were transported to remote islands in the West African country. Blood Island tells the powerful story of the chimpanzees, their captors and the people still fighting to save them.

We spoke to Lindsey about how she found making her first film and the recognition it has received.

Blood Island is your first production as a filmmaker but you have previously worked for almost 10 years as a journalist. What made you decide to put down a pen and pick up a camera?!

I picked up a camera, an iPhone actually, while I was living and reporting in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. There were days when thousands of people were out protesting but state TV channels were broadcasting footage of empty streets. A lot of times you could only find out what was really going on by being physically present at any event, and even then it was chaotic with so many conflicting agendas and narratives. I realised that I had to go back to the basics of a journalist as a witness. Video evidence seemed both the most accessible and least controvertible way to show what was happening. It’s still why I love film; films have the power to reach everyone regardless of language or background.

The story behind the chimps and their banishment to remote islands is shocking, how did you first hear about it and come up with the idea for the film?

Actually it was right here in Bristol. I was looking for an idea for my master’s film when I attended a conservation talk at Bristol Zoo. The topic of the talk had nothing to do with the chimps, but I just heard someone say “blood chimps” and “Liberia” toward the end and it immediately piqued my interest. When I got home and started researching the story I just kept unearthing more and more surprising layers.

Image result for blood island film

We heard you only had 2 and a half days to film in Liberia! How did you find filming in the country and did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs?

I was actually terrified during the entire planning and filming process that it might not come together. Working to tight deadlines as a journalist definitely helped me to get what I needed on location, but the humidity did play with the cameras and mics. The drone stopped working (we ended up just using it handheld for some of the shots). It certainly wasn’t ideal but in other ways I was really lucky, especially with how strong the human and chimp characters turned out to be.

How does it feel to not only have won a BAFTA for your debut film, but also have two nominations for the ‘Green Oscars’ of natural world storytelling?

Pretty surreal. I was a volunteer at the last Wildscreen when I was just starting my MA in Wildlife Filmmaking in Bristol. I absolutely loved it and it was amazing hearing from the best people in this craft about their work, but I had no idea then I’d be returning as a nominee. It’s wonderful being embraced by BAFTA and the wildlife film industry here in Bristol. I’m just taking it as a sign we should keep pushing for more environmental impact stories on screen.

We are running an environmental film competition with Earthwatch Europe for 14-17 year olds; what advice would you give to a budding wildlife filmmaker just starting out?

Judging by the work of the young natural history photographers I’ve seen I don’t think they need my advice! I guess I’d say everyone has a different path to follow so use your own strengths to pursue your passion. Be generous, share your skills and don’t be afraid to reach out to people for help. I think we could take inspiration from young people – at that age you think you can change the world. We’re all going to need some of that passion and conviction if we hope to make a difference.

You can find out more about this incredible story by watching the entire film below:

Lindsey Parietti will be speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year: join host, Emanuelle Biggi, as he meets Lindsey and other emerging storytellers to discover what drives them to use their work to inspire stewardship of our wild things and wild places.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of speakers!

Sep 4

Rise Of The Warrior Apes is the award-winning wildlife documentary and a Panda Award nominee at this year’s Wildscreen Festival. The film, by James Reed, tells the twenty-year story of the largest and most powerful chimpanzee society ever known. Through the extraordinary lives of four unique chimps we experience an intense political drama and bloody conflict in the African jungle. Using previously unseen footage, and witness testimony from the scientists who have observed and filmed them since 1993, the film reveals a story of unbreakable friendship, fierce rivalry and unparalleled ambition that gave rise to the warrior apes of Ngogo.

John Mitani, a primate behaviourist and university professor, is one of the scientists featured in Rise of the Warrior Apes. John has studied the chimpanzees of Ngogo for over 20 years, after his first visit in 1995, and shares with us some of his experience.

John Mitani, University of Michigan Professor, in the Ugandan forest, home to the Ngogo chimpanzee community

During your years studying primate behaviour, what separates the chimpanzees from the other primates groups you have studied?

I started my career 40 years ago studying the two Asian apes, gibbons and orangutans. Gibbons live in small, socially monogamous groups, and orangutans often roam the forest by themselves. This limits the number and types of social relationships they can form.

Chimpanzees are quite different as they live in relatively large groups, ranging anywhere from 20 to 200 individuals, called “communities.” Male chimpanzees live in their natal communities their entire lives and form strong long-lasting social bonds with each other reinforced through a variety of behaviors, including grooming, helping each other in fights, and sharing scarce and valuable resources such as meat obtained in hunts.

Beyond this chimps also display a suite of unusual behaviors not often found in other primates. These include the previously mentioned hunting vertebrate prey, tool-making and use, and quite shockingly, killing other chimpanzees.

What were you looking for when you first followed the Ngogo community?

I had been conducting fieldwork with chimpanzees at the Mahale Mountains National Park for several years prior to visiting Ngogo in 1995. I was working with one of the pioneers in the study of wild chimpanzees, the late Toshisada Nishida.

I had every intention of continuing to work with Nishida, as he was a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, who taught me the ways of wild chimpanzees. I wanted to come to Ngogo because it was in Kibale National Park, one of the world’s legendary primate field sites, established by another friend, Tom Struhsaker. I just wanted to see the place. But after only a few weeks at Ngogo, I realized that there was something very strange there. There were a lot of chimpanzees, and they were everywhere! As things turn out, there were well over 100 chimpanzees in the Ngogo community. This was an order of magnitude larger than any other chimpanzee community that had been described before.

So the first question to address was how did so many chimpanzees manage to live together? And by doing so, would they reveal secrets of their lives that had not been documented elsewhere?

The initial challenge of studying the Ngogo chimpanzees was that they were not used to human presence. They would run away every time we would encounter them, it took considerable time to habituate them so that we could follow and observe their behavior. In those early days there were times I wondered if habituating them was the best use of my time. In retrospect, though, it was fun, stimulating, and ultimately rewarding.

What is your favourite aspect of your research?
Behavioral research on chimpanzees has been, and always will be, an observational science. So I enjoy spending long periods following chimpanzees and watching what they do. Occasionally, patience pays off with an “aha” moment that leads to a new discovery.

But now, having studied wild chimpanzees for nearly 30 years, I relish some magical, almost spiritual-like moments that are hard to describe. Imagine this: I am out alone with a large party of chimpanzees. There is an abundance of food, and there are perhaps 40, 50, maybe even 60 chimpanzees together. And it’s a glorious, dry, sunlit day. The chimpanzees have settled down to rest and socialize. Everywhere I look, there are chimpanzees on the ground. A few adult males groom. Moms relax and begin to doze off as their kids start to play. Some of the youngsters wrestle, laughing noisily in the process. Others chase each other in small saplings and then drop to the ground with a thud. I have experienced countless times like this, and as I survey the scene, I am overcome with utter joy.

I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world, and I feel that I am the luckiest person on Earth. Moments like these may be the most important reason I continue to study chimpanzees at the ripe old age of 64!

“I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world”

What has been your most surprising observation?
We have been able to document many surprising findings based on our study of the Ngogo chimpanzees, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to decide which observation has been the most astonishing. One obvious candidate is the split that has recently occurred.

 Toward the end of Rise of the Warrior Apes we allude to the fact that the Ngogo chimpanzee community had grown to an astronomical size, with over 200 individuals. Since 2015, and during 2016 while James Reed filmed part of the documentary, males from two subgroups started to fight with each other in the same way members from different communities do. Like many other animals, chimpanzees are territorial. For three years as this was happening, some males would continue to move back and forth between the two subgroups. This stopped earlier this year; males from both sides now show a clear allegiance to one group or the other.

The defining moment that signalled a split in the Ngogo chimpanzee community occurred earlier this year in January 2018 when males from one group killed a young adult male from the other group. Because chimps are territorial, intergroup encounters are hostile, but sometimes hostilities escalate to the point where someone falls victim.

Why did the initial split occur? That’s an issue we are currently grappling with now. It’s complicated as it involves, ecological, demographic, social, and genetic factors. It’s also a story that deserves a follow-up documentary! Stay tuned.

Why is your research important and what are the applications to what you have found?

Chimpanzees fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike, in part due to their evolutionary relationship with us. Along with their sister species, the bonobo, chimpanzees are humankind’s closest living relatives. We shared a common ancestor with them sometime between 6 to 8 million years ago. Because of this evolutionary relationship, we share many features in common with them, anatomically, genetically, and as I’ve alluded to before, even behaviorally. Our research on the Ngogo chimpanzees continues to shed new light on wild chimpanzee behavior, often in surprising ways that reduce the gap between them and us.

Chimpanzees are endangered everywhere they are found across the African continent. Sadly, research on them continues to show, time in and time out, that they are extremely vulnerable and at risk, with populations declining. Happily, the story from Ngogo is different and indicates that when living in specific ecological conditions, chimpanzees can live a very long time, thrive, and actually increase in numbers. We will have to identify areas similar to Ngogo and work hard to protect them and chimpanzees so that our children, our children’s children, and generations into the future continue to share this planet with these fascinating creatures.

“An increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them”

What impact to do you hope Rise of the Warrior Apes has upon the field of primate studies?

Primate field research is a small and esoteric discipline. Not many are lucky to be able to do what I do. If the discipline is to grow and thrive, we must educate the public about what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important. Knowledge is power, and an increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them.

There are multiple ways to engage the person on the street to learn about chimpanzees and other primates. Films like Rise of the Warrior Apes are perhaps the best way to teach the public about these animals because wildlife documentaries attract broad attention from people worldwide. So my first hope is that the film will translate in greater understanding of chimpanzees. This is bound to help the study of primates for the reason mentioned above.

Rise of the Warrior Apes was made by James Reed, a brilliant young filmmaker and master storyteller. All the credit for the film goes to him and to the Ngogo chimps. The film has already received some critical acclaim, and my second hope is that this will provide more opportunities for James to do what he does best, namely make and direct extraordinary wildlife films that educate the public. In doing so, he will be able to contribute to primate and animal behavior studies and conservation in a significant way.

This sounds incredibly exciting, we look forward to seeing what is released next – thank you John for your time!

John Mitani, alongside James Reed, will speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year. You’ll be able to hear more of his work with The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project and James’  experience filming this amazing community.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of speakers!



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