Often it’s coincidence that leads to a film project. DoP Nino Leitner knew Phantom Flex operator Nic Divischek, who had lived for a while in the Shamwari Game Reserve South Africa. The Phantom Flex is a high-speed camera that can take up to 3,000 pictures a second. Slowing down movements to such an extent really appealed to Nino. Rhinoceroses’ horns are often illegally obtained and traded for up to 60,000 dollars per kilo. And given this tragedy of the rhinos in the reserve, the opportunity to accompany a ranger, a veterinarian and an anti-poaching unit during their daily work meant Nino’s interest in this subject area could become a sensible project. Because Nino is himself not a wildlife filmmaker, he took a different approach: “I wanted to tell the story of the rhinoceroses through the people who deal with them.” The result was the documentary, called “Through the Thick – Preserving the Rhino in South Africa”.
For this shoot, the equipment Nino used included (among others) the Sony FS7, two Sony Alpha 7S, a RED Dragon, various gimbals and the Phantom Flex. The lenses he took included the ZEISS Lightweight Zoom LWZ.3 21-100mm/T2.9-3.9 T* and various lenses from the ZEISS Milvus family. So Nino had a comprehensive range of resources at his disposal – in stark contrast to wildlife filmmakers of the past.
“It’s hard to imagine that in the past, for wildlife documentaries you could only film ten minutes at a time before the roll had to be changed. The chances of not capturing that decisive moment were very high.”
On the other hand, today five seconds of high-speed shots by the Phantom Flex require produce some 64 gigabytes of data, which has to be processed before you can continue shooting. The images Nico shot with the Phantom Flex are truly spectacular, whether it was lion or zebra couples flirting with each other, elephant herds bathing, or simply driving by a group of rhinos.
In order to make the most of these situations, Nino had to be ready at all times. “I always had the camera pretty well in the stop in order to be able to react quickly.” For over 80 percent of the time, he had a zoom lens attached to the camera, which turned out to be a big advantage: “During a scene, the LWZ.3 gave me the opportunity to target both the driver of our car and get close to animals we met during our drive.” The most impressive part was getting close to a herd of elephants that crossed the road and then peacefully started bathing — more peacefully than even experienced ranger Andrew had seen in the last 15 years. You notice that in the images that capture this unique moment.
Equally impressive are the images showing the horn of an aggressive rhino being sawn off (because the animal had become a danger to other rhinos). Without its horn, a rhino is also no longer attractive to poachers. So sawing off its horn is a life-extending measure in two ways.
The equipment must not only be relatively light, but also robust enough to withstand the tough local conditions.
However, the wild animals themselves were not the greatest danger for the crew during the shoot. More challenging were the conditions in South Africa. Sand; heat; the constant shaking due to the poor condition of the roads, when indeed there were roads at all — it all required a resilient team. And robust technology. Anyone who shoots in such a harsh environment relies on the good workmanship of the equipment, as it can’t be exchanged just like that. Nino knew he could always rely on the LWZ.3, which proved incredibly robust and reliable.
Many of the images succeeded purely because Nino was able to act spontaneously. And a prerequisite is trusting the sharpness of your zoom lenses. “I could rely on the fact that the ZEISS zooms would be consistently sharp at all focal lengths, so I wouldn’t have to make manual adjustments.”
Nino also appreciates the precise, big-screen look of the images taken with the LWZ.3, which is a general feature of all ZEISS lenses: “For me ZEISS always stands for the search for perfection in imaging. It means I always get a clean look and maximum sharpness as a starting point, which I then work with in ways that make sense for the film. As a result, it’s also no problem to use different lenses, which can be easily matched.”
For this reason, Nino could also use lenses from the Milvus family. For example, the Milvus 2.8/21, which due to its light weight turned out to be the perfect set-up when mounted with an adapter to a Sony Alpha 7S and used on a MøVi M5-Gimbal to capture movements. Weighing in at less than 2 kg, the LWZ.3 was also used on a larger ARRI Maxima Gimbal, for example when taking shots of a group of giraffes.
For Nino, using ZEISS zoom lenses means having a unique freedom. “With the wrong lens at the wrong time, you’re ruined. Especially when doing documentaries where you must plan a lot, but in the end also have to be very flexible. Variable focal lengths that offer maximum quality are a big help in that respect.”
Another big plus is the fact that the mount of the new LWZ.3 is interchangeable. “DoPs don’t shoot anymore with just one camera. With a ZEISS lens you can be certain that you will still be able to use it once the cameras that are currently in use are long gone.”
“Through the Thick – Preserving the Rhino in South Africa” has already won two prizes: “best documentary” at the California International Shorts Festival and an “award of excellence” at the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards. The film has also been invited to show at almost 20 film festivals. In order to help ensure there is a future for the rhinos of the Shamwari Game Reserve, Nino is also planning more shoots to make a long version of the current 15-minute film.
More impressions from the filming of “Through the Thick”
About Nino Leitner
Nino Leitner, AAC, is a filmmaker, DP and film producer. Though based in Vienna, Austria, he works around the globe. He focuses mainly on commercial & corporate work, as well as documentaries and an increasing number of fictional projects. Nino is a ZEISS Camera Lens Ambassador.