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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, November 26, 2007

achieving the unprecedented

Last night Kimmie and I watched another episode and a half of the BBC nature-documentary series Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough. (I see from the Wikipedia article that the American version of the series was narrated by Sigourney Weaver.) Even on our old low-definition TV set, the show is awe-inspiring; it sets the bar for nature cinematography somewhere up in the stratosphere. We both love the show.

The episode on Mountains featured a sequence on the snow leopard of the Himalaya. This rare animal is seldom seen even by locals, but the filmmakers had caught footage not only of the leopard, but, incredibly, of a hunting sequence in which a leopard chases a young goat down a cliff, catches it, loses it again, and has to give it up when the kid plunges into a river below. As I watch these sequences, every once in a while, having made films and even a TV show myself, I think, "that can't have been easy footage to get."

The library discs include short documentaries about the filming of the series. After the Mountains episode they show something of what they went through to get the leopard footage. For a start, a veteran Scottish nature cinematographer went into the Himalaya and, living in a cave, spent weeks sitting in strategic spots with his camera, waiting. He sat in a blind on a slope for seven hours a day, day after day, watching the slopes around him. He finally bagged a couple of telephoto shots.

The producers searched harder. They went to the wild and war-torn border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the winter of, I believe, 2004. Again, it was a matter of weeks of solitary stakeouts in the snowbound peaks of the Hindu Kush before they finally got lucky. As Attenborough observed in the documentary, the chase sequence was not only a first for filmmaking, but was also in all likelihood the first time the event had ever been seen by human eyes.

And there it was in our living-room.

As I saw what the filmmakers had gone through to get their material, my awe of the show deepened. In the little self-interviews the cinematographers gave into cameras while they were awaiting an opportunity, their boredom, frustration, and anxiety were evident. They had suffered a lot--for nothing, up to that point. Anyone accusing them of wasting large amounts of time, effort, and money would have an ironclad case at that moment.

But they stuck with it, and were eventually rewarded with material that must have exceeded their wildest hopes. Their stubborn, perhaps slightly insane, determination paid off.

I admired them. I felt that their example was something that I need to take into my own soul. Their pain and anxiety are the inevitable concomitants of an ambitious and unprecedented task. So I shouldn't feel bad about my pain and anxiety--I should feel good!


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