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Q&A with ‘Africa’ Producer Mike Gunton (Part Two)

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Mike Gunton is a British television producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit — the largest team dedicated to wildlife film-making in the world. Gunton first joined the unit back in 1987 to work alongside fellow naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, on Trials of Life. In the decades since, he’s served as executive producer on a number of critically acclaimed series including Life, Hidden Kingdoms, Tiny Giants 3D, Shark, and Africa, which recently aired on BBC America. In November of 2009, Gunton was named the first-ever Creative Director of the Natural History Unit.

BBC America: If I were to visit Africa, what are some lesser-known destinations I should explore?

Mike Gunton: There’s a particularly amazing place in the Kalahari where the landscape is just covered with these little circles. They’re called “fairy rings” and nobody really knows how they’re made, though there are theories such as magnetism, termites, or fungi. There are thousands upon thousands all scattered across the landscape. It looks like the surface of the moon or like something out of The Lord of the Rings. It’s impressive on the ground, but to really see it you need to be up in a helicopter.

BBCA: Most people think of Africa and imagine going on a safari and watching lions. Did you tell any stories with these animals?

Gunton: We had to have lions in a series about Africa, but we also wanted to tell a different kind of story. We discovered a species of lizard that cohabite these ‘kopjes’ (think Pride Rock in The Lion King) with lions. When the wildebeests come into the area, the lions go out and hunt them, and all the sudden they bring back this super abundance of flies. So if you’re a brave lizard, you basically go hunting flies on the back of a lion. We told this story all from the lizard’s perspective, using these little remote cameras to show what it takes to be a ‘Mission: Impossible’ lizard.

BBCA: What was the longest you had to wait to capture something on film?

Gunton: Well, the giraffe fight took three weeks of waiting while we were staking out the dry river valleys that they use as their territories. We knew that there was one giraffe that had dominated his territory for a long time, and we also knew that every year, some youngsters would come try it on. We were lucky that this year, the youngster was actually a bigger male, and so we got a bigger fight.

BBCA: How about species that were particularly hard to film?

Gunton: The shoebill bird nests are very difficult to film because they’re floating mats of reeds, and you can’t put a tripod down. We wanted to get a story from the chicks’ perspective, so we decided to put surveillance cameras around the nest while the mother was away, and run the cables back so we could pan and tilt them. What was fantastic was that the cameras were down at the chicks’ eye level, so you’re really in the nest.

BBCA: What happened once the cameras started rolling?

Gunton: What happened was a Cain and Abel story. When the female lays her eggs, she lays a first egg and then about two weeks later she lays a second. Once they hatch and the first chick makes it to a certain age, the mom ignores the younger chick, who is effectively an insurance policy. We’re pretty confident that the elder chick would deliberately beg for food so that the mother would leave, and as soon as she was gone it would turn on the younger chick and in the end, kill it. It’s called siblicide, and nobody knew that it happened in these birds. It was a very powerful, shocking story.

BBCA: What are your favorite types of stories?

Gunton: I find the political stories, where animals are trying to outwit each other and the social stories, where animals do clever things that you don’t expect, to be the most interesting to film. I think they’re the most relatable.

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