Chasing Monkeys in Colombia for Nat Geo

Colorado-based DP and Director Danny Schmidt recently traveled to Colombia on behalf of National Geographic to obtain footage of the albino brown spider monkey. Equipped with a slew of video gear from Borrowlenses and a qualified crew, they had 8 days to gather the footage needed to tell the story of this beautiful and endangered species. 

Chasing Monkeys in Colombia for Nat Geo
by Danny Schmidt

The Mission

The world of wildlife filmmaking is full of unknowns. Will I see any animals? Will I capture interesting behavior? Will the weather cooperate? We generally go into the field equipped with the right gear, a lot of research, and a general willingness to suffer to get the shot. But beyond those things, we just hope that we actually see an animal when are cameras are rolling.

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On a recent trip to Colombia in search of albino brown spider monkeys, the odds were definitely not in our favor. There are only two (yes, two) of these albinos known to exist in the wild and we had a short window to find them and tell their story. Brown spider monkeys are critically endangered and their habitat is severely fragmented. This has caused genetic bottlenecking and, as a result, albinism in one of the family groups. These albinos are incredibly beautiful but they bring a pretty sobering message about the fate of a species when populations become isolated.

Our mission was to find the monkeys, tell their story through the voice of the local researcher, and create a portrait of the stunning biodiversity of this threatened area. We had 8 days to do it. Without the help of the researchers and field guides who study these monkeys we would have never accomplished our goal. Their knowledge of the area and the animals was invaluable. A huge thanks goes out to all of them.

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The Gear 

We knew we wanted to shoot the natural history and wildlife in 4K. We also knew we needed a lens that could reach way into the canopy. For this reason our primary setup was a Sony FS7, Tamron 150-600 EF, and a Metabones EF/NEX Smart Adapter. It was great to try out this new offering from Sony. It’s quite an amazing camera for the price. We also shot on a Canon C300 and with a 100-400L as a backup and second camera. Knowing we were going to edit and deliver in 1080 made this a good choice for b-cam. Editing in 1080 also gave us the freedom to punch in on the 4K footage if needed.

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We had a variety of lenses with us as well, most of which seemed to get used at one point or another: Canon 35L, 24L, 100L Macro, 24-105L, Tokina 11-16mm, and a few Rokinon Cine primes. We shot time-lapses on a 5D Mark III and a 6D, aerials on a Phantom 2 with GoPRO 3+, and jib shots on a Kessler Pocket Jib. We also had a new set of Cartoni sticks (the Stabilo with Focus HD head) and they worked incredibly well. It’s a great lightweight setup and handled the weight of the Sony FS7 and long lens quite nicely.

The Experience 

This is was my third trip to Colombia and my second with the purpose of filming monkeys. It is such an exciting place to travel right now. Years of conflict have created many stigmas around the country but it seems that Colombians are putting that behind them in a headlong rush towards the future. The energy and frenetic pace of the country can be a bit overwhelming but when you leave the hustle of Bogota and get into the wilderness you truly realize how unique this place is.

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Many of you already know that the the tropical jungle is a very difficult place to work. The bugs alone are enough to deter even the most masochistic explorer. But just when you think you might actually be going crazy from clouds of mosquitoes and sweltering heat and humidity, something beautiful pops into view and the suffering melts away. We were fortunate to see dozens of animals in their native habitats: sloths, caimans, parrots, primates, and bumble bees the size of golf balls. Most important for us however were the two albino brothers. As luck would have it, we were able to film these incredible ghosts of the forest for several hours. They ate, they wrestled, they stared down at us with big, curious eyes from the top of the canopy. It’s incredible to see these giant, white figures in treetops, flying through the branches with their prehensile tails. But, as beautiful as they are, they are reminders of the tenuous situation in Colombia. They are markers of a genetic problem. Populations of spider monkeys need space to grow and find suitable mates. They need large tracts of unbroken forests so they can find enough fruit to eat. More than anything they need us to value wilderness as much as we value the GDP.

Please view Danny Schmudt’s film on the Colombian ghost monkeys here. Schmidt is a Colorado-based DP and Director.  He is a graduate of the MFA program in science and nature filmmaking at Montana State University and works extensively for National Geographic, PBS, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and many other TV and non-profit entities. He can be followed on Instagram and on Twitter

Scott Roeder is a wedding photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also an avid diver. His specialties include photo booths, videography, and action shooting. Check out his work on his website.

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