How they filmed incredible scenes of painted wolves in Dynasties

Dynasties, a new series narrated by David Attenborough, reveals the power struggles within animal groups. Last night, the fourth episode of the series followed the painted wolves in the Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe, and we spoke to the episode’s producer, Nick Lyon, about how 18 months of sleepless nights, undocumented behaviours and Shakespearean drama became an unforgettable 60 minutes of TV.

What’s the painted wolves episode about?

We were looking at a big family that would go through a change of leadership during filming. Tait is our central character. She’s the old matriarch and mother to two neighbouring alphas, Black-Tip and Janet. Black-Tip’s pack had grown very big, and there wasn’t really enough space, so her only option was to turn on her mother and take her throne.

It’s a Shakespearian tale of a mother defending herself against her daughter. We were pretty certain that Tait would not survive the film, but we did not know how things were going to pan out, and what happened was unexpected.

How did you capture all of that?

We did 11 trips out to Zimbabwe, filming for 585 days in total in Mana Pools National Park. Usually on these filming shoots you have quite a steep learning curve, so you find your rate of acquisition of useful shots peaks towards the end, and then you go to a different location and a new story and you have to start that learning curve again. The brilliant thing about this is that we could build on that learning curve every time we came back, so we weren’t always starting from square one.

Were you always confident you’d get the footage you needed?

There were times when we thought we weren’t going to pull this off. My second shoot on Dynasties was incredibly tough. It was one-month long, we had 16-hour days every day, and we spent a total of two hours with our subjects.

Over the course of the whole month?!

Yeah. It’s funny, because it’s tiring when you’re filming, but when you find the animals, it’s enough to keep you going. You can live off adrenaline and fumes for a while, even if you’re kind of empty in the tank.

But when you don’t find them, you’re getting up at 3am knowing that you’re going to be driving all day looking for tracks. So you have to pretend to yourself that you’ll find them, even though you know you didn’t see them yesterday or the day before. That’s when it can get gruelling.

We pushed through that, but the third shoot was by no means a certainty. Tait was unusual in that she denned in the same three dens in the same order, so we thought we could find her. But we hadn’t counted on Black-Tip coming in and booting her off her territory.

So we didn’t know where Tait was, and we issued park-wide searches.

I think our trackers walked every corner of the park for three or four weeks solid to find Tait’s den. I think it was two days before the shoot that we finally got the call that they’d found the dens. Otherwise, we would have had to pull the cord and that might have been the show abandoned.

Were the painted wolves comfortable around you?

Our guide, Nick Murray, has known Tait her whole life. She’s incredibly trusting of him. The fact that it was Nick who introduced us to Tait transferred her trust for Nick to us.

Over time the animals just got to trust us more and more, and we were able to introduce new bits of kit that we didn’t think we’d be able to use. If we’d just been there for three weeks, I wouldn’t have put a drone up, but by the ninth shoot, they were so used to anything we did that we showed them the drone, put it in the air, and they were super chilled. They didn’t even look at it.

How long did that take?

They relaxed with us quickly, but there was a marked shift on that third shoot when Tait had had her puppies, and they were happy with us filming next to the den. Every morning and evening they’d go out hunting, and they’d always leave a babysitter by the den, and one morning Tait joined the hunt, and I was thinking, “Oh, I wonder who’s she’s left to babysit?” I was looking around and I couldn’t see anyone, but I thought they were just hidden back in the bushes.

I was fiddling with a remote camera while the adults were away, and the puppies popped out of the den, so I looked up to see where the babysitter was, because their job is to put them back to bed. But no one was there, and it dawned on me that Tait had left us as the babysitters! That seemed like a big shift, and after that there was no looking back.

The relationship just got better and better, it got to the point where I could sit in the water, filming and photographing, with them racing around me on all sides. It’s those sort of experiences that you can only get by spending long periods of time with individual animals.

Did you see any behaviour you didn’t expect?

Yes, lots of things. Black-Tip’s pack started to hunt baboons about six months into filming, which is highly unusual behaviour. Even leopards, who people often associate as being baboon hunters, actively avoid hunting baboons statistically. They will occasionally get them, but they much prefer impala.

Black-Tip’s pack did a total shift in behaviour where about 50 per cent of their diet moved to baboons in the dry season, and we were there to capture it on camera. We got so many records of it that we’re able to assist in publishing a new scientific paper on baboon hunting in painted wolves.

Why did they make that change?

Well, this is my guess. Mana Pools has many elephants and lots of low, wet areas. There are these really massive tracks of elephant footprints, like craters, and once it gets dry, those soft footprints in the mud become baked hard. We’ve clocked the painted wolves at 70 kilometres per hour chasing impala, so when they hit those patches of elephant footprints, we’ve seen legs being broken, frequent strains, there’s always at least one animal limping in the pack. So while baboons are dangerous in themselves, the risk of picking up an injury from hunting impala in the dry season seemed to be higher than taking on these big baboons.

Black-Tip’s pack was much bigger than normal – up to 30 animals. Today it’s rare to see packs of that size, and it allows them to hunt differently. I think when you’ve got so many animals, it’s easier to distract big, male baboons.

How did you film the packs hunting?

We had plenty of fancy kit for this, but most of the time, we’re filming off a tripod, which isn’t moving. You have to really be able to get into the heads of the animals, because if you just follow them round, you end up shooting film of their bums. So, we’re constantly having to predict which way they’re going to go. It got to the point where we could drive five kilometres away, and sure enough, 15 minutes later we’d have them barrelling straight down the lens, and often they’d run either side of us.

It’s a lot of gambling, but you have to take that high-risk approach to get those better shots. We needed faces and camera action.

What do you think the painted wolves thought you were doing?

I really couldn’t say. I think they must have thought it was weird that we kept following them and not taking their food. Hyenas are always nabbing their food, whereas we were just following.

Do you think your presence ever changed their behaviour?

We need to film natural behaviour, so the last thing we want is to interfere with what they’re trying to do. When you’ve got mortal danger, you don’t want an animal looking at the camera crew and going, “What are those people doing?” We built the level of trust up so much that when things did get hairy, they would never worry about where we were, because we didn’t want to interfere with their ability to defend themselves or the puppies.

We were also careful that we weren’t habituating them to people. They habituated to us as individuals, and we could get as close as we liked, but we never wanted the tourists in Mana Pools to see what we were doing and think it would be acceptable for them to try and do it, so we’d back off the animals massively if we saw tourists about.

Were you using any new filming technology on the shoot?

I wouldn’t say it’s radically new, but we had a new camera sensor that was a lot more sensitive, so I would say without it, 80 per cent of our footage would have been unachievable because of the animal’s patterns of behaviour. They often didn’t even get up until sunset, and our normal cameras really struggle with light as soon as it gets to that time.

There’s an interaction with honey badgers that looks like daylight, but it actually happened after sunset. With our previous cameras, we would have missed that whole encounter. These cameras were delivering such good images that there was a period of time of about half an hour after sunset where the cameras were actually seeing better than our eyes. This made all the difference, particularly for this species.

Are painted wolves under pressure from humans?

Yeah, there were only about 6,600 wolves when we were filming, and actually I’d be surprised if there are that many now. The biggest problem for all of them is space. Painted wolves are probably the first thing to disappear when land starts to get encroached upon, and they need big home ranges. I think the subtext of this series is animals are running out of space in this world, and we need to be thinking about that seriously.

We wanted to give people a fresh look at this species, and hope that we did our little part to help them have a future, because they are disappearing fast. –