Jazz Tangcay Talks To John Downer About ‘Serengeti‘ Discovery Channel’s New Nature Documentary
Last Sunday, over 2.35 million viewers tuned in to The Discovery Channel’s new nature documentary Serengeti. The lush 6-part series takes us into the Tanzania Serengeti Pride Land. Inspired by a safari and his work with animal charities, Simon Fuller (Pop Idol) came up with the idea of showing animals and their relationships. Fuller partnered with John Downer for the series. Actress Lupita N’yongo was brought in to narrate Serengeti and take us into the lives of these mighty animals. I caught up with Downer to talk Serengeti and working with Fuller.
I just spoke to Simon about the show and how it happened to him. I was telling him how much I just loved the idea of this character narrative.
Simon is such a perfect partner for me on this, and we’ve really bonded over it. We feel the same coming at it from different areas of TV.
How did you two meet?
Simon had just been on safari. It was inspired by that trip. He saw the life of these animals. He got into their stories and their family lives. He had a great guide telling him the back story of these animals, and so he realized, in a way that he hadn’t before, that they live such complex lives, and those lives relate. He saw the relationship between their lives and our own. He came to see me.
I think he heard about me through people we mutually knew. Although I’d never met Simon, so when he came to see me, I thought he might be David Beckham on safari, but he’s such a deep and caring person. He cares about the natural world. He found that experience quite moving.
When he wanted to make this film, the look at the lives of the intertwined animals, and rather than just regard them as just animals, he wanted to go deeper into their emotional lives. This is exactly where I was heading in my filmmaking. I had just finished Spy In The Wild, and that looked at emotions, friendships, and relationships. It was all about the connection between us and other animal life.
We spent so long filming that story, so I knew there was one incredible story to reveal about those African animals. I knew those stories so well because I’ve been making those films for so long. I knew those animals and I knew their stories.
When you start out, it’s about filming spectacle, but I got much more into what’s the motivation behind them? What’s their family life? What are their stakes? It all comes back to doing the best for your family, and that’s something that unites us. This was a chance to explore that more emotional side of life and tell it in a dramatized form.
You can explore areas of natural history that are left behind, and once you see the series as a whole, you get an understanding of how that place works, and it’s a microcosm of how the world should work if we didn’t screw it up.
We both feel if people can understand how similar we are to the other life, because we are animals, and we kind of forget that. It’s always, “The animals” but we are animals. At one point, we walked those plains and we were part of that eco-system. Now most of us live in cities. We wanted to re-ignite that connection. We wanted to use storytelling techniques and make familiar a world that we have become detached from.
I really loved the character storyline narrative. It helps us to be connected more to the story, rather than just have us as the viewer, watching animals in their habitat. This takes it to a deeper level.
For me, it was a story I wanted to tell. It was the same story that Simon wanted to tell. He wondered how we’d do it. I had the tools and the method. He brought a sensibility that came from other areas of TV, and that helped inform the whole process. It was really a meeting of minds. He was an inspiration and support.
Having that fresh pair of eyes has been really helpful in doing this.
How has technology helped shape Serengeti? Now, we’re so close to the animals; it’s not a long lens, that distant feeling of observing. It’s right up there.
I’ve been developing techniques my whole professional life, to get close to the animals. I didn’t like the traditional method of the long lens and that distance and everything is shot in slow motion. It’s beautiful, but it feels distant when you watch it. Those films are great, but I’m more interested in trying to get into it, and I always have been.
I have built up an arsenal of camera technique which is remote cameras, cameras which could travel in and among the animals and become invisible to the animals. I could film inside their world. What was absolutely brilliant about this project, it was at the one point that a whole technique became available based on stabilized camera systems. It meant we could continue that viewpoint when we’re on the move whether we are moving with a vehicle or a buggy. We could get stabilized shots that are traveling with them as they live their lives. It didn’t suddenly stop when the animals started to run away. We had camera systems on the vehicle that could provide stable images at 40 miles per hour, tracking with wild dogs when they’re in the hunt. You’re one of the dogs. We had a month of testing just to know what kit we needed to make the series. After that month, we absolutely knew.
I have never been in a situation where at the beginning of the film, I had everything I needed to make the film. Normally, in the end, you say, “I wish I had what I had now.” This was a chance, and uniquely, where we had exactly what we needed. Then it became about how do we capture the behavior? How do we structure the storyline? It was all based on the behavior unraveling in front of us. We very much wanted it to be the animals telling their story. Although, we went out with a storyline of expectation and a seasonal arc that was going to inform every program, the details of that were sketchy and were immediately rewritten as we began to follow these animal families, and things happened that we would never believe.
What I love is that you’re watching it, but how you create that emotion and that relationship between the viewer and animal is incredible.
We want to feel connected to them. They’re not distant things. Those names help us connect. And the style of filming helps us connect. The storylines help us connect because we really care. I love that third show, it gets better and better because you get more immersed in the storyline because they take you to places we were never expecting to get to.
Serengeti airs tonight on The Discovery Channel.