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The Wildebeest Stampede: the ‘Real’ Story.

Chris Boyce 22nd December 1996

________This never actually happened, but one wonders sometimes if things might have been different...

________It was a special day as he wandered agitatedly through the departure hall. His flight left in around twenty minutes and he was using the time wisely, or so he thought, in arranging a press conference for the morning of what he was sure would be his triumphant return from location filming. The organisation had taken months and this was to be his crowning moment when he announced to the world just how much effort had gone into the planning and execution of this one scene. The concept was simple, get more than 1000 Brindled Gnu, driven by twenty mounted wranglers, over a cliff into a gorge and to film the whole thing. The characters would be added in later, a real stampede at the centre of the greatest wildlife film ever: 'King of the Savannah'. The problems had started almost immediately, where to get a suitable gorge? No problem, after all he was starting on his way there in just 17 minutes. Where to find 1100 Brindled Gnu, sorry Wildebeest? That had been more difficult as there were none to be had within 700 miles of the gorge location. Ok, so hire two C-130 transport planes, six veterinary teams: two rounding up the Gnu, one on each of the planes and two at the gorge. The gathering had taken two weeks of non-stop darting, examination, loading, flying, unloading, examination, corralling and general upkeep of a lot of hungry antelope.
________They were now all in place and ready for the shoot. But, of course, that wasn't enough, it had to be filmed, that required a large location crew, nine cameras, four remote controlled, four manned and one wire-cam which when suspended from the four strong computer controlled, electrically winched, cables could be made to 'fly' practically anywhere. It had all been planned meticulously, the remote cameras were placed in specially dug pits, which required diggers to be flown in over fifty miles by helicopter. One was at the foot of the slope, two more a third of the way down the gorge and a fourth by the remains of a specially constructed 'dead tree'. The wire-cam was also brought in by helicopter along with it's four winch pylons which had by now been erected at the gorge edge high above the floor. This camera would get the dramatic in-flight bird's eye views called for by the script. The remaining four camera's were to be placed on the plateau and on platforms constructed along the gorge walls. A total of close on a hundred riggers and construction personnel had been needed to live, eat, work and sleep in the middle of nowhere for three weeks to create this ultimate cinematic illusion, a real stampede in a real gorge at midday. All these had to be fed and housed. A small village sprang up on the plain with all the amenities expected by skilled film technicians. All the equipment had to be flown and trucked in and out again after just a few days shooting with less that an hours film in total from the cameras to show for it.
________There could only be two or three takes, each one taking a day as it would take six hours to round up all the wildebeest at the end of each shoot. Then the vets would get to work and make sure none were injured and that all were fit for the next day's shoot. Later the massive airlift operation would have to swing into action to take the animals back to their home. The director, now comfortably aboard the first class cabin of the 747, merely had to fly in, catch the helicopter which was waiting for him, get out, direct the take and fly out again to leave the crew to finish off and get the site back to something like the state in which it had started...
________His arrival on site coincided with that of the wildlife consultant, a particularly irritating man who went on and on about how this wasn't right and that wasn't right, he had even said that the whole scene was wrong as Wildebeest did not stampede! "Oh yes they would, if they were driven by mounted wranglers." came the reply and "Hey, who asked you about the script? Are you the writer of this screenplay?" He had made all sorts of objections, particularly to the difficult 'love scene' in which two lions were supposed to look into each others eyes longingly: "It would never happen, she'd just crouch down and he'd simply..." "Yeah," thought the director, "I bet that would get us a G rating". He thought the lion costumes were particularly effective as they were modelled precisely on their live lion counterparts, no one would ever notice the difference, they didn't with gorillas so why not lions? Anyway the 'love' scene had already been rewritten a dozen times just to get it past the censor: "No way, too suggestive.", "But lions don't mate in the missionary position.", "Yes, but we do.", "Oh really?". The consultant rushed up agitatedly. "Hey, that slope is too...", "Get out of here, this shoots going ahead whether you like it or not.". The director rushed away, making a strong mental note to have the consultant excluded from the location. The time was a little after ten, and the first shoot was planned for eleven thirty, twelve at the latest to get the sun at just the right angle for the most dramatic effect in the steep gorge, even with direct and baking sunlight there had been over twenty arc lights set up behind strategically placed rocks and trees to lighten the deeper shadows, the generators throbbed insistantly, eating up the precious dollars which they burnt for fuel.
________The herd of imported wildebeest grazed nonchalantly as far as the eye could see over the green grass plain above the gorge head. The camera crew reported in by radio one by one, the remote cameras were all set, the wire-cam moves, so carefully planned on paper and in virtual reality were rehearsed once more in real reality, the computer working the winches in perfect co-ordination so that the camera flew, panned, tilted exactly as planned from just above the gorge floor to over 90m above the dust. Everything was ready and as eleven thirty approached the location fell silent as the countdown to the shoot began. The only voice was that of the director as he spoke the time honoured words: lights, camera... action! This was totally redundant on this location, everything was automatic as it had to be for such a massive shoot. Just press one button and everything rolled, right on cue. The whooping and hollering began as the drive started. The massive herd closed up and began, slowly at first and then faster, to flow and surge to the gorge head, the first few stopped dead at the edge of the slope but the inexorable pressure of their herd partners behind forced them on and over the edge and into the void of the rocky slope. The script called for a river-like flow of Gnu, what actually happened was a waterfall, the Wildebeest lost their footing within ten metres of the edge and fell the rest of the 150m to the floor of the gorge to a hideous and painful death. Then more and more, oblivious to the carnage below, pressed on and down to lie moaning and dying on their fallen comrades. The scene was so terrifying that the camera crews who witnessed it had recurring nightmares for months afterwards and most burned the clothes they had worn as they couldn't remove the smell of death.
________The return airlift was not required after all, the few wildebeest who had survived barely filled the two planes. The insurance company was to have a busy few weeks. The press conference went ahead however. The director did not show up, instead it was announced that the film was to be animated throughout and would use computer technology for the special and very dramatic stampede scene, two years it would take and it would cost the earth and moon, but be cheap at double the price. Luckily the location was remote and rarely visited by the media....

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