Rewards of the Jungle: Filmmaking in Tropical Environments

Documenting the critically endangered brown spider monkey is a difficult job for cinematographers but it is even harder on gear. This large, charismatic primate is endemic only to the tropical jungles of Colombia , which are hot, humid, rugged, and full of mosquitoes. Shooting lasted only 2 weeks and our goal was to tell the story of this species and explain the important role it plays in tropical ecology and the overall health of the ecosystem.


Our crew wasn’t without experience. We came to this same field site last year to shoot a piece for National Geographic, so we knew what we were getting ourselves into: a job that is as hard on gear as on the crew – exhausting work. We also knew it would be an incredible experience to witness such rich biodiversity firsthand.


Traveling to Colombia with loads of expensive gear requires planning, patience, and time. We checked 8-9 cases of equipment and carried several more on board. There is no easy way to sneak by customs with 2 loaded-down luggage carts full of Pelican cases. Keep with you a very comprehensive list of gear and document all of your serial numbers. Colombian customs will want to spot check your gear to make sure everything lines up correctly. When going into the country, they will weigh each of your cases and you’ll have to conduct a “temporary importation” of the gear. When you leave, they will weigh all of your cases again and double check a few serial numbers. This is all done to make sure you aren’t bringing pieces in and selling them without paying appropriate taxes. Make sure you pack everything consistently on the way in and out. All of your cases should weigh the same. Most importantly, be prepared to navigate this entire process in Spanish.


Nothing can prepare your body for this level of heat and mosquitoes. Prior to leaving, we soaked our clothes in permethrin (as recommended by the CDC) to help keep away the ‘skeeters. In the field, we donned knee-high rubber boots, long pants, 2 long-sleeved shirts, a Buff, and a hat. You wear all of this even though it is 100ºF with 100% humidity. On top of that, we sprayed ourselves with DEET constantly. This system made it possible to put in the long days it takes to find and film monkeys in the forest.


Jungles are incredibly hard on camera equipment. The combination of heat, humidity, moisture, and debris is a serious consideration when packing anything in for an extended shoot. We took a jug of desiccant beads that we put into all of our Pelican cases. Each night we packed our Digital Imaging Technician’s kit into large zip locks, also full of desiccant. After all these considerations, one of the Macbook Airs still crashed. It was a constant struggle while shooting to prevent moisture from entering cameras. Lens changes were done quickly and thoughtfully and we would still get fogging sensors, viewfinders, and lenses.


Our strategy was to have multiple bodies and lenses so we could keep shooting when the action was good with the wildlife. We had a Sony a7SII, a7RII, and FS7 as our main cameras for video. As backups and for stills, we shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Nikon D800. Having backup bodies and lenses is key in a place like this. If something goes down and is irreparable there is no chance of getting a fix or replacement out in the field.


Shooting proper natural history footage of wild animals requires patience and forethought. What are the sequences you need? Where are the animals at certain times of the day? What is the behavior that is most interesting or necessary for your film? We needed to film the monkeys eating from variety of fruiting trees because we were interested in the role of the monkeys as seed dispersers in the forest. The jungle canopy is thick and you’ll need a super-telephoto zoom lens.


Why not a 400mm prime instead of a zoom? Because when trying to track the monkeys as they dart through the canopy, it is nearly impossible to keep them in frame with a lens that long. We wanted to shoot full sequences – wides, mediums, and closeups – and our lens of choice for this was the Sigma 150-600. We shot in 4K, 60 FPS most of the time with the Sony FS7. If there was a lot of action happening, we would switch to 1080 and overcrank to 90-180 FPS. On the a7RII, we would often shoot in the 4K crop mode to get a little more length out of the long lenses. This is a great feature on this camera!


Being able to pick up your camera and tripod and move quickly through the jungle is key to following the monkeys. I like to use the Zacuto VCT setup so I can pop my camera off the sticks and get to the next vantage point fast. There are so many vines and roots and logs to jump over or snag yourself on, so it makes sense to carry the camera and tripod separately.


We do this work because we are interested in science and nature and we love the adventure of being in the field. It’s not easy and often not pleasant. Sometimes it feels masochistic. Yet just when we felt like the mosquitoes and heat had gotten the best of us, we would see something incredible: two parrots flying slowly overhead, a bright green iguana sunbathing in the river, a curious spider monkey staring down from the canopy. For all of the brutal, unforgiving parts of the jungle, you are equally rewarded with these unique insights about the diversity of life and the beauty of nature when left untrammeled by humans.

Follow along with this project over at Monkeys of Colombia.

Danny Schmidt is a cinematographer with degrees in film and science. His know-how comes from his experiences producing imagery in far-flung places around the globe for National Geographic, PBS, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and many non-profits. He lives in Colorado with his wife and Newfoundland mix.


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