Perilous Passes, Biting Insects, Monsoon Conditions and 25 Starving Lions

Guest blog: The making of my documentary, "Lion's Ark" — one of the most ambitious animal rescues ever

My first documentary feature, "Lion Ark," chronicles one of the most ambitious animal rescues ever and hits the festival circuit in fall 2013. It's told in the style of a live action drama, through conversations, events and interviews as the story is actually unfolding.

Once under way, it stays resolutely with story, not straying to talking heads, news clips, retrospective commentary or reconstructions. The key was an early decision to film everything.

Bolivia banned animals in circuses following public outcry when Animal Defenders International — the organization I co-founded with my wife, Jan Creamer — released footage from an undercover investigation of the South American circus industry. The problem was that only one circus complied — and the rest simply defied the law.

So in late 2011, the ADI team returned to track down the circuses and, with the Bolivian authorities, seize the animals. It was called Operation Lion Ark because there were 25 lions, and the authorities wanted them relocated outside Bolivia. This was another huge logistical issue: collecting lions from all over the country and rehabilitating them in a temporary encampment near Santa Cruz before a huge airlift to Colorado.

We knew that Operation Lion Ark could be historic – no one had attempted anything on this scale before: clear an entire country of animals in circuses, then fly 25 lions 5,000 miles to safety in the U.S.

We went with no agenda, no television rescue format to squeeze this into, no celebrity presenter to try and work around, just a determination to capture events as they happened — to document a piece of history.

The circuses to be raided were spread all over this beautiful, remote country — about the size of Texas and California combined but with a fraction of the population.

We decided to film on Red. There would be no retakes, so we wanted it the best quality possible. However, cinematographers Mark Whatmore and Tony Pattinson had to travel as light as possible as the ADI rescue team chased across Bolivia in light aircraft and trucks,working in the searing heat of the Bolivian summer and being soaked during the rainy season. 

We wanted to capture interviews and personal commentary in the moment as events actually unfolded. So when Jan is talking about the disturbed behavior seen in seriously confined animals, she is eye-to-eye with a frantically pacing lioness that she is rescuing. Inevitably, this has a different feel to something recorded after the event.

Those reactions to events as they occur also give a real insight into the protagonists in the film – an additional passion, immediacy, even intimacy.

We were entering hostile environments to seize animals, so our filming had to be as unobtrusive and mobile as possible — so even though we kept adding sound sources, pulling together a coherent live narrative later would still be challenge.

As the sun went down it would be hot, sweaty, and despite gallons of insect repellent, there were swarms of insects around everyone, while the government issued alerts for malaria, cholera and dengue fever in the area.

Mark recalls holding a dramatic shot in the Lion Ark Compound while seeing out of the corner of his eye, yet another mosquito land on his arm and feed. He gritted his teeth and kept filming.

Angry lions almost escaping cages as they collapsed due to rust in our hands was one thing, but the bit that felt the most dangerous was teetering along the mountain roads inches from a sheer drop to oblivion.

Then rainy season threatened the entire rescue, and the slow-motion shots of raindrops in Lion Ark, while mesmerizingly beautiful, illustrate the difficult filming conditions. A shot of a 4×4 coming down a flooded track, producing a wave of water, obliterating the picture, wasn’t an effect. Whatmore trudged back with his Red covered in mud and spent the night stripping it down and cleaning it ready for the next day.

Digital technology means you can keep the cameras relatively unobtrusive and undertake guerrilla filming on the go but retain high production values. And you can stay filming longer. Lion Ark doesn’t look like it was filmed in a couple of weeks, or with the filming sampling odd days over the course of the project, because it wasn’t — the location filming lasted weeks.

With this rich record of events, we set about editing this more in the style of a drama than a conventional documentary, even though it presented a huge editorial challenge constructing the narrative from conversations and actions rather than retrospective interviews.

Obviously, it would have been easier to put this together with a standard narration, but that could never have captured the visceral experience of this rescue operation, nor taken the viewer to the very heart of this adventure. It was a painstaking, but worthwhile, process.

"Lion Ark" has visual depth from the spectacular Bolivian countryside, to the sweaty, dusty, city metal workshops, to the spectacular stars — the 25 lions. We shift between the beauty of a wildlife documentary or travelogue to the punch of a news crew on the frontline. We also captured the highs, lows and intensity of trying to rescue animals in incredibly difficult circumstances and the camaraderie and emotions of that.

True, it has some rough edges. It is a documentary, and much of the action was fast moving. But in an age when nightly the news is peppered with ragged cell phone clips, you know that it is the actual events people hunger to see.

As we headed to Bolivia to start filming "Lion Ark," I wondered if it would come off. Would we be stuck in court getting confiscation orders for months? Would the authorities back down from their bold decision to dramatically enforce the law with ADI? But things moved quickly, and it was spectacular!

Luckily the cameras were rolling from the start.