With the DVD and Blu-ray release of ‘The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos’ just around the corner, we caught up with Writer/Producer Melanie Finn, to talk about working on the documentary, and filming at Lake Natron (a place that had not only never been filmed before, but never even researched), as well as what the future holds for her.
Good Film Guide: Why did you choose to film flamingos over every other possible kind of animal?
Melanie: It didn’t actually start with the flamingos, it started with the lake [Lake Natron], because my husband [Director/Producer, Matthew Aeberhard] had lived in the Serengeti since ’93 and Natron was only 70 miles from there, and nobody knows anything about it. Then we find the flamingos, and learn that Natron is their only breeding ground, it’s something that’s never been studied before, the mystery of the flamingos, why they all come to breed at this lake.
“This footage is a scientific first”
Good Film Guide: At the end of the film there’s quite a serious message about pollution and development threatening the lake, did that influence your decision to film there now rather than later?
Melanie: Well, there have been rumours on and off for sometime about a soda ash mine being built on the site, and after we started filming an Indian chemical company got very serious about building a factory there. A possible $300 million development. They conducted a very limited environmental study on the lake and the wildlife, and found that it would do no harm to the flamingos. But no real research has ever been done on the lake, so what can they base that finding on?
Good Film Guide: How long were you over there for?
Melanie: Pre-production took 13 months, and we first started at Natron in September 2007, but after the filming finished my husband and I stayed on for another year as personal time. Matt wanted to try and save the lake from the mining, and I started a health project to try and help the communities on the eastern shore of the lake.
Good Film Guide: So did you get very involved with the local communities while you were filming?
Melanie: Yes! There’s no way to avoid it. We started off as a form of entertainment for the locals, who were very curious about us, then they realised that we had medicine, water and a telephone, and they were there all the time, sharing endless cups of tea with us. Having a telephone, medicine, and a means of evacuation, we could be of great help to the locals, and became a focus of the community; because they’re used to sitting in fields looking at cows all day, then suddenly there’s all these crazy white people running around on hovercrafts, naturally they’d be curious.
“suddenly there’s all these crazy white people running around on hovercrafts”
Good Film Guide: We know that a lot of the filming took place from inside small shelters designed to blend into the environment. How much time did you have to spend in them?
Melanie: Well it was Matt that did the filming from the hides, and would have to spend all day in there because he’d enter the hide at about 4am, film all day, and then leave after dark. The hides could only be moved after dark otherwise it would disturb the birds, as he was filming from only about 25 yards away.
Good Film Guide: Being in there that long, what did he do about food, and going to the toilet?
Melanie: He was in this 4X4 hide for about 15 hours a day, in 45 degree heat, but he had water with him, and would eat noodles during the day. As far as going to the toilet, he peed out the back, out of the way, but he’s used to that. All wildlife filmmakers are slightly mad and physically heroic, it’d be no worse than someone filming polar bears.
Good Film Guide: There are some fairly scientific bits to the film, such as talking about the gasses in one of the nearby volcanoes. Was all of that prepared for you ahead of time?
Melanie: No. It’s mad, just next door is the Serengeti; one of the most researched places on the planet; but there’s been hardly any research done on that area [Natron] before, we had very little to go by. After we wrapped we had people asking us to explain things, wanting to know more about it, but nobody has studied there before. This footage is a scientific first; this film is it, a Tabula Rasa for anyone who comes there to study in the future.
Good Film Guide: And what does the future hold for you?
Melanie: Well I’ve just had twin girls, so it’s all nappies and bottles at the minute, and things like that take a long time; it’s been four and a half years for The Crimson Wing; because you have to make sure you get it right. And you have to try and get the money together for it.
“All wildlife filmmakers are slightly mad”
Good Film Guide: So what was the hardest thing about filming?
Melanie: The physicality of it. The heat and the remoteness. We had to walk a long way every day and carry all of the camera equipment, the cameras themselves and the film, which is all very heavy, up waterfall creeks and across mudflats in temperatures where 40 degree heat was the norm. It was tough, but me and Matt are both very adventurous outdoors people, so that helped, and even though we worked really hard I think it paid off; when I look back in years to come for times that I lived my life to the fullest, this will be right up near the top.
“We might not have had David Duchovny on this one, but we still had some pretty great looking stars.”
Good Film Guide: Finally, we know that you previously worked as a writer and producer for the Red Shoe Diaries (an erotic drama series that aired on Showtime from 1992 until 1997), and were wondering just how exactly do you go from something like that to making nature documentaries?
Melanie: *Laughs* Yes I did work on that, and it is a bit of a leap to move from one to the other, but a writer’s career is never a set, straight, linear path. I guess I just got sidelined with life, I ended up in L.A. after working a journalist out in Africa and just rode that wave for a while, eventually drifting from L.A. to Tanzania, but as a writer you have to have a certain skillset and be able to tell a story from beginning, middle, and through to the end; be that an episode of Red Shoe, or the life of a flamingo. We might not have had David Duchovny on this one, but we still had some pretty great looking stars.
The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, is out on Monday (March 15th) on Disneynature Blu-ray and DVD, and features some truly stunning images of one of nature’s great mysteries, and a never before explored area of Africa.