Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Rare lions killed
Rare lions killed
Rescued big cats 'coming home'
African lions 'under threat'
Cape Town - According to legend, white lions are the messengers of the gods borne to earth on ships of white light.
However, in the lion's world their rare white skins make them outcasts. Their uniqueness causes them to be cast from the safety of their tawny cousins' prides and leaves them vulnerable to every danger, including the ultimate enemy, Man.
A South African film crew is about to complete the filming of a unique adventure film about the survival of one such lion, called Letsatsi.
It follows the young cub as he is cast from his pride and struggles to survive. Close to starvation, Letsatsi befriends himself with an older tawny lion, Nkulu, who teaches him to hunt. But when Nkulu is killed by a farmer, Letsatsi has to fend for himself again. Letsatsi grows into a formidable adult, but before he can take over a pride of his own, he must face his greatest foe - the trophy hunter.
'Material never captured before'
"White Lion - Home is a Journey is an adventure story cast in the same mould as the great Disney animated epics of old," movie director Michael Swan told News24 from a film location near the Hartbeespoort Dam, in Gauteng.
"However, instead of animating the animal action, we have told the story of the life and adventures of a white lion entirely with real lions shot in a real African bush environment," Swan said.
"That has proved to be the greatest challenge of this production. Complex scenes of interaction between lions, between lions and animals of other species and between our lion cast and our human cast has resulted in material never captured before."
"The audience can expect a unique dramatic experience," Swan added. "The theme of this film is ultimately the journey that we all take to find our place in the world."
Filming took place at the Rhenosterspruit Nature Reserve near Hartbeespoort Dam, as well as the Cradle of Humankind's Lion Park, near Johannesburg. Interestingly, most of the animals used in the film come from the Lion Park.
According to the film producer and leading lion behaviour expert Kevin Richardson, this coming-of-age story was the dream of the film's executive producer, Rodney Fuhr, who is also the owner of the Lion Park.
"The project actually started back in the early 80s when Rodney was trying to make a feature wildlife documentary about a male lion cub born to a tawny pride," he told News24.
"It was to show the trials and tribulations of young lion cubs. The audience was to follow the little fellow to adulthood where he would eventually, hopefully take on a pride of his own."
However, this would prove problematic as the mortality of lion cubs in the wild is as high as 80%.
"The likelihood of your subject dying before your filming was finished was extremely likely. Also, just following lions around in the wild was difficult enough, but to film them as well was a thankless task," Richardson explained.
After many contributing factors and "piles of cash" spent, the project was put on hold indefinitely.
But, the dream always stayed in the back of Fuhr's mind, like unfinished business.
"Things changed in the 1990s when Rodney bought the Lion Park. Over the next few years all the ingredients started coming together at the park, including me."
Richardson works at the park as zoologist and animal behaviourist where his daily routine involves working intimately with the lions.
"I had formed the bonds and relationships with the lions and other predators, making it far easier, (at least we thought) to film the animals," Richardson said.
"Finally we were ready on the location, camera gear and animal front. All we needed was for the idea that was in Rodney's head to be put to paper - a very difficult task indeed."
According to Richardson, Janet van Eerden was the first to put the very rough story to paper. "Many drafts have been written subsequently based on the original idea, but the story has evolved tremendously and is turning out to have the potential to be another classic like Jean Jacques Annaud's The Bear."
Filming finally started in November 2005. It was a slow process not without its challenges. The crew shot their scenes during the summer months (when everything was beautiful and green) and edited the footage during the winter months.
All was going according to plan until disaster struck in April 2007 when 31 master tapes were lost in Johannesburg.
Carine Stander, the movie's line producer recalled the incident: "Our production assistant took the tapes to our storage facility in Randburg. He parked his car and went into the building quickly to get the keys for the room. When he came out after a couple of minutes, he saw someone driving away with his car and the tapes."
A R10 000 reward had been offered for the tapes, but they were never returned.
"The tapes contained up to two weeks of work," Stander said. "There were very expensive shots which we did like aerial shots from a helicopter which cost a lot of money and effort."
According to Stander the crew reshot the scenes earlier this year. "It was difficult to recreate these shots, there are some moments that you can only capture once, but we are fairly happy with our new results."
Filming wild animals, has its own challenges. "The problem with animals is that you an never predict what they will do next," Stander explained to News24.
"Some days you put them in front of the camera and they do exactly what you need them to do. Other days you can not get anything out of them. So it can be frustrating at times and obviously it is not a quick process.
"We normally shoot early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the animals are more active," she added.
Richardson pointed out some of the spectacular scenes to News24: "Look out for the teenage white lion crossing the river with crocodiles in hot pursuit, the adult white lion catching and taking down a wildebeest at night, the lions raiding the farmers chicken coop and the climax of the adult white lion fighting a tawny adult male for his pride.
"Bearing in mind that The Animal Anti Cruelty League was there for all these scenes and no animal was harmed; these scenes made use of VFX and puppetry to a level that we haven't seen with live animals before.
Richardson is especially proud of the river crossing scene. "Without giving too much away, the white lion was actually trained to swim across a big river. There's something you don't see everyday!"
The film crew has one more phase to shoot in May and then should be finished with the principal photography. "We are aiming to finish the film by the end of the year. We're hoping to get an overseas distributor on board to help us with a worldwide release," said Stander.
"The public can expect wholesome feel good, family entertainment," says Richardson. "The kind of film that attracted people to the cinemas in the first place, may years ago. It's almost guaranteed that you'll relate to the hero white lion Letsatsi somewhere in his life's journey to find a home of his own.
"There are many important messages that will come from this movie, but there are two that are especially important," said Richardson.
"The first being, that against all the odds with the right mental attitude and a will to succeed, you will be successful, despite what others might say.
"The second is a conservation message touching on how difficult it is for lions out there on their own. Farmers encroaching on their territories and hunters shooting them for trophies, make their lives all the more difficult.
"It is my hope that once the audience has seen on the big screen how magnificent these creatures are, the awareness created will help in conserving their territories and result in responsible farming and hunting."