Cameraman Simon King filming Disney's African Cats © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Simon King is a man who is infectiously passionate about his work, and the subjects of it. Having captured the lives of all kinds of creatures as a wildlife cameraman and presenter on series including The Blue Planet, Big Cat Diary and Planet Earth, he is best known for his spectacular small screen encounters with the wild.
New Disney documentary African Cats offered him the chance to film those animals on a much larger scale - at least in screen-size. He was able to utilise different techniques to capture his subjects and expansive vistas that would potentially be lost on small screens. “Images you wouldn’t dream of shooting for television, suddenly have a sense of space and poignancy,” he explains to me. “It’s a different sensibility for a cinematographer.” It’s clear he relished the challenge.
Narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, the engaging movie follows power-hungry and family-focused lions in Kenya, plus a single mother cheetah. The Royal Premiere had Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in attendance, and was held in aid of Tusk Trust - a charity Simon urges audiences to support.
He was one of four cinematographers working on the film - brought on, in part, to film the stunning slow-motion sequences that are much needed when filming cheetahs, cats who are, in his words, “supremely able, right on the edge of evolutionary capacity”. As he enthusiastically discusses the film, Simon expresses his distaste for “dry” connotations of the word documentary, describing the film as “a drama, and a soap opera… but it’s also a reality show. In other words, the script was entirely written by the wild creatures.” (Click the image of the cheetahs, right, to watch the trailer of African Cats.)
Before images of lions with laptops come to mind, he explains that following these cats could have resulted in many different storylines, but that he could take an educated guess at certain aspects of what was to come. “It is true to life, and the characters within it are animals that I’ve personally known, and the filmmakers followed, for the duration of the project, which is well over two years. I’ve known them - certainly the dynasties of those cats - since 1987 when I first started working in the Maasai Mara.”
But that didn’t mean they could avoid pitching the project’s “story” ahead of time, no matter that they knew it would change: “Like everything, particularly in the feature film industry, everyone demands a script. They want it long before budgets start to show their ugly head” he revealed. “And that’s fine, you can write a script, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s going to happen, and of course it doesn’t.” The compelling story of the lions in the film was particularly unforeseen, he tells me. “We’re always surprised by some of the things they do, so there’s nothing predictable about it, but we can at least pin our colours, if you like, to certain individuals who show promise as far as a narrative aspect.”
Simon points out that these are likely to be creatures you’ve seen in another documentary under another name. “For certain television projects a cheetah named Sita might be called something else. But as far as the film is concerned, the reason for a name is not to be anthropomorphic, it’s not to give them human emotions, it’s simply to give a conduit for human beings to understand their situation,” he explains. “It’s just rather boring to call it ‘the cheetah’ - the moment it’s got a name it becomes something or someone you identify with, and you inevitably identify with the plight of a single mother cheetah with five cubs to rear against all odds. The same too for a lioness on her last legs, and her young cub. So you’re going to be - one hopes - carried along with the story and the drama of that story, whilst recognising the entire time that it’s true.”
So, what does Simon hope we’ll all glean from African Cats? “You walk into a cinema and here you are exposed to the Savanna. I hope you come out feeling entertained, feeling enlightened, thrilled, but also connected to creatures that before you went in had nothing to do with your life. And now you come out, they do,” he tells me. “If that’s the case, next time you hear a message that the Maasai Mara is threatened, it won’t be a story in the papers that has nothing to do with your world, but it’ll be something you’ve been touched by. If it can invest in any people a degree of love for the subject, then they’ll care about it, and if they care, they’ll do something about it in the future.”
‘African Cats’ is released today, April 27, in cinemas nationwide.