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Roar: Lions of the Kalahari Interview: Director Tim Liversedge


Photo credit: June Liversedge

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: September 30, 2004

BMZ talks with Director/Cinematographer/Producer Tim Liversedge about his dramatic film ROAR: LIONS OF THE KALAHARI and his experiences in wildlife filmmaking.


Category: Interviews

Renowned filmmaker Tim Liversedge enters into the Large Format genre with his film ROAR: LIONS OF THE KALAHARI. Shot entirely in the wild, the film makes use of Liversedge's 40 years of knowledge and experience of Botswana's Kalahari Desert. A veteran of wildlife filmmaking, Liversedge has captured the drama of the life-and-death struggle between dueling lions delivered in this insightful and passionate film.

Big Movie Zone: You’ve spent years documenting wildlife, and lions in particular, in Africa, but this is your first LF film. Briefly describe how you got your start in TV, and how the LF project came about.

Tim Liversedge: I have been intensely interested in nature from a very early age. The first 20 years of my working life were spent studying it, painting it, sculpting it, photographing it, and showing it to others. It was not until 1985, that I could afford a 16mm camera that I started filming it. After shooting a few sequences for an early Attenborough BBC Nature Series I started my own production company. I was fortunate that my first films were well received and were given several key awards. I was also lucky to be living in a country like Botswana which has spectacular wilderness areas, like the Okavango, Kalahari, Makgadikgadi, and Chobe. It was this combination of a great location and my years of experience in the wild that enabled me to capture great moments. With this good start I rapidly progressed to using larger and larger formats, particularly because I realized how important it was to have the best record of a rapidly changing environment. After a few years I realized that the only way I would be able to get my stories into a theatre was to make films for giant screens, Hollywood just did not seem to be interested in wild life documentaries.

BMZ: Did you have an idea of a story you wanted to capture when you began filming for Roar -- or did you hope that one would develop/emerge as time went on? Describe how the story unfolded.

TL: I knew that to make a large format film that would stand out from the rest, I would have to be able to capture action and tell a detailed story. When I first saw the lioness' that are featured in Roar stalking a water hole in broad daylight with no cover I realized that this was potentially a perfect location given the restrictions that large cameras impose. It was possible to follow action relatively easily and the light was bright enabling me to get great depth of field with even some of the longer lenses- and I could track the animals for a long while before they became obscured.

BMZ: How physically close to the lions did you and the rest of the crew get? Was there ever any real danger while in their presence?

TL: Because large cameras make a lot of noise and one has to have completely natural behavior it was necessary to habituate the lions to our presence. One advantage is that there was no shade, except cast by the Land Rover and soon the two lionesses were lying in it or even under the car to escape the searing heat. I eventually realized they were totally focused on their prey and not me.  I was able to film away from the protection of the open Land Rover and had some thrilling moments when a lioness would use me to hide behind as she was sneaking up on prey beyond me at the water hole. I took comfort from a small pocket fire extinguisher, we never carried a gun which I believe often gives people a false sense of security -- even creates more of a problem sometimes.  There was never a moment when I felt in real danger.  Mostly, when one is concentrating so hard on getting the shot that there is no time to think about it.  On one occasion, while in the open behind my camera and tripod, I separated a lioness from her prey.  She was charging full speed straight towards me, only inches behind a spring bok.  At the last minute, she skidded past brushing my left leg, while the spring bok, narrowly missed me on the right.

BMZ: You got some amazing footage -- much of it seemingly hard to come by. How many months/years did it take to gather it all?

TL: Most of the action was filmed over a period of 8 months, this was followed by getting pick up shots, scenics and aerials over another 8-9 months.

BMZ: Was there ever a problem using the cameras on location in the Kalahari? How hot was it, and how did that affect filming?

TL: Filming conditions are just about as difficult as you can find anywhere. Really high temperatures made keeping the film cool a real logistical problem at over 100 degrees during the day. Storing it was one thing, but at least we had small portable freezers that worked to some extent even in that heat. But waiting with a full magazine on the camera, sometimes for hours in the middle of the day presented a problem. However, the atmosphere was very dry which created a good cooling effect. I would place wet bath towels over the magazine and somehow never lost any footage.  A large part of the film was shot at very windy and dusty times, and this was not ordinary dust -- it was the mixture of extremely corrosive dust and salt. I used tape to cover all the joints I could find on the camera and magazines.

BMZ: Roar mixed 35mm and digital with 70mm film. What made you decide to mix formats rather than go exclusively with 70mm, and are you 100% satisfied with the results? Do you think audiences will notice the difference?

TL: I used three different cameras to make Roar. I realized early on that I would never be able to make this type of film entirely using a 15/70 camera. Apart from anything it would have been too nerve racking to roll film on spec when it cost over a thousand dollars a minute. I knew that for slow-motion and real action I had to be able to take chances with a less expensive medium. I was greatly influenced by Chris Reyna of Imagica USA who showed me some tests he had been conducting with 35mm and 8/70 film which was up-converted to 15/70 by going through a digital intermediate phase which enabled the three formats to be seamlessly integrated. While I will acknowledge that the quality would have been higher had it been possible to shoot entirely in 15/70 I really do not believe any audience notices the difference, especially as I was able to tell a really engaging story using the smaller more mobile cameras as well as the big one. I have never had anyone mention the quality of the image as being a problem.  Like all uncontrolled live action films there are some shots that are softer than others and it is sometimes the largest format ones that are. Surprisingly, some of the sharpest images are actually close-ups shot in 35mm.

BMZ: This film was the first large format to have its post-production done completely in digital. Who influenced you to go that way, and what were the ramifications (positive and/or negative)?

TL: It was my early conversations and meetings with Chris Reyna in LA on my occasional visits from Botswana that inspired me. At that time digital "fixes" were in 4K and just starting to be used in large format film post production. We discussed how possibly in the future entire films could be made using a digital intermediary. This excited me particularly because for the previous 10 years I had been using 35mm for my wildlife films and realized the possibilities for theatrical production. My decision to go completely digital for the giant screen was also influenced by the fact that I would be able to get part of the production phase of the film done for relatively low cost and then if the material was good enough find the money for the expensive part which was to come later. This is what happened and fortunately, I was able to sign a post production deal with National Geographic who loaned the funding to complete the film. The negative was that this turned out to be a very time consuming exercise.

BMZ: Have you always been interested in African wildlife, lions in particular? Why do lions have a special appeal to you, and to the public at large?

TL: I have not previously made a specific lion film in all my previous TV productions. However, I believe they are the perfect subject for the giant screen, especially if you can film them in action during the daytime.  Lions are perhaps the most charismatic of all wild animals and have appealed to everyone through the ages. Whenever one is in really wild places, one is always conscious of lions, mainly by hearing their roars at night.  They don't necessarily present a danger when you understand them, but of course everyone else thinks they do. Everyone thinks that wild animals especially lions are unpredictable.  In actual fact, when you know them well they are very predictable. But like with everything, there can be accidents and when in their presence you always remain alert.

BMZ: How did LF compare to TV as a medium?

TL: During post production, a lot of time was spent viewing filmed out frames often just a few seconds at a time in a large format theatre.  In isolation, these were impressive but none of this prepared me for the first time I saw the completed film with it’s sound track on the large screen.  I was completely overwhelmed. During post production it was impossible to get a complete impression of how the film would turn out. I must say the end result has really thrilled me and I can’t wait to begin post on my next large format film which is now mostly in the can.  Details will soon be available. Television of course has it’s place but nothing can replicate wildlife and wilderness as realistically as a Giant Screen Theatre.

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