If you are going to be a wildlife filmmaker, you are going to have to make sacrifices. "Dereck and I never had children. We made a conscious decision not to so we could dedicate our lives to this," says Beverly Joubert, who, along with her husband Dereck, has spent the last 30 years chronicling the lives of Africa’s big cats and working to conserve their habitat.
"In the beginning, we didn’t necessarily realize this was going to be our cause," Beverly reflects. "It was more of a great adventure and fun at the start, but very soon into it, we realized that we had to be the voice of the animals and that what we were seeing had to get out to the rest of the world."
The Jouberts have more than 20 films to their credit, including the cult classic Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas and The Last Lions. Their latest film, Game of Lions, premieres on Nat Geo Wild December 1 as part of the network’s fourth annual Big Cat Week and trails a young male lion from his birth through his exile from his pride and his struggle to survive. Dereck points out that there are only 20,000 lions left on Earth at this point, and a mere 3,500 of those are young males.
Here, the Jouberts, who are National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, talk about the techniques they use to capture these majestic creatures on film.
The first thing the filmmakers must do at the start of any project is find the animals, of course. The Jouberts could send helicopters or planes out to locate their subjects, but they stay on the ground and track them. "We don’t take the easy route because in many ways the journey of finding the animal is as important as actually finding it," says Dereck, who is the official tracker of the pair.
"There is a real art to tracking," he continues. "It goes beyond physically looking down on the ground and looking at tracks. When you’re on the ground, you’re in their space, and you sort of get in their head as well. You become a lion. You become a leopard. And you become very, very close to them spiritually and otherwise by knowing the way they walk."
Dereck can even identify specific animals via their tracks: One particular lion might flick one foot out with every step he takes, for example, or there might be a leopard who drags one of his feet or jumps into a tree a certain way.
The Jouberts never place tracking devices on the animals, which is a common practice in wildlife filmmaking these days. "We hate all those tracking devices—collars and tags and all that sort of thing. That’s just lazy science," Dereck says, "and, certainly, from a filmmaking perspective, it’s unethical."
On average, the Jouberts spend two years shooting a film, shooting between 280 and 300 days a year.
The schedule is grueling. Most days out in the field stretch to 16 hours, and then the couple goes back to their base camp tent to prepare for the next day's outing.
The Jouberts, who don't get much sleep, like to catch up with the cats early in the day. "We go out to find our subjects before the sun rises because, obviously, we want to catch them in the gorgeous light, and that’s really only allowed for a very short moment, and then, of course, it’s a hot stinking day for the rest of it," Beverly says. "And then the time with the most exquisite sunlight is at sunset."
Watching films like Game of Lions, it appears as though the Jouberts are up close to the action, but they stay at least 30 yards away from the animals they are filming. And while some other filmmakers—or perhaps it is best to call them wildlife personalities—engage with the animals, whether they are trying to manipulate them via physical posturing or even wrestling with them, the Jouberts don’t interact with the cats. "We don’t try and create that aggressive lunge or charge just for the camera," Beverly stresses. "We’re just waiting for that natural behavior to happen."
There are times when the animals approach them, though. The Jouberts travel about the bush in a Toyota Land Cruiser when they shoot their films, and the cats are sometimes curious about this big vehicle. In fact, a young leopard that they had been following since she was young once jumped into the Land Cruiser and began sniffing around.
It was delightful and heartwarming to see she trusted them, but the Jouberts didn’t want to let her continue this behavior for fear that she could be hurt or killed if she approached the wrong people, so Dereck attempted to simulate a growl by turning on the Land Cruiser’s heater fan.
The trickery worked.
It’s natural for lions and other cats to hunt, but it is intense and disturbing to watch a lion take down a terrified buffalo or zebra. Recalling the first kill she ever saw many years ago, Beverly says, "I had tears rolling down my face."
It hasn't gotten any easier to witness kills. In fact, there are days when one or both of the Jouberts is emotionally exhausted after shooting a particularly gruesome kill or discovering an animal that is starving to death. "It’s very hard, but I think it’s very important for us to go on this emotional roller-coaster ride while we’re out there because then we can bring our audience on that same ride, and that’s the only way we’re going to get people to care at the end of the day," Beverly says. "If you can’t move anybody, nobody’s going to care."
And wildlife filmmaking has its lovely moments, too, Beverly points out, noting that the Jouberts have had the pleasure of being privy to cats giving birth and seeing little ones grow into adults.
Beverly and Dereck are exposed when they go out into the wild. The Toyota Land Cruiser they travel in has been cut apart and rebuilt so that it is open to the elements—it has no doors, no roof, no side panels. So if the lions want to get to them they can, but Dereck says the cats are afraid of humans, who have hunted them for thousands of years. "Every now and then, we’re out of the vehicle and walking around, and we realize the lions are there, but the lions are scared, and they run away from us," Dereck says.
And, except for that curious young leopard, they really aren’t interested in entering the vehicle, which smells of rubber and gas and makes mechanical sounds, because it isn’t anything they would be remotely interested in eating. That said, cats have been known to lounge in the shade provided by the Land Cruiser.
The Jouberts eat mainly vegetarian in the field not because they are so concerned about the big cats going after their food but because meat spoils easily, and the last thing they want is food poisoning.
There are other animals, though, that wouldn’t mind sampling their lunches, including baboons, squirrels and porcupines, but it is the hyenas the Jouberts really have to watch out for. "They’ve taken a lot from us and once even eaten their way into a freezer chest," Beverly says, "and taken film cans that were inside—they were films we had already shot."
After a mad search, the Jouberts were able to find their film cans not far from their vehicle, and, thankfully, they were not irretrievably damaged. "We do remember receiving a note from the lab saying, ‘My gosh, what do you do with your film?'" Beverly adds. "‘Do you feed it to the lions?’"
Filmmaking technology has greatly changed since the Jouberts first began making films three decades ago. Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas was shot on film, and Dereck, who functions as cinematographer while Beverly captures still images, would inevitably run out of film as the action started to heat up.
He misses the action less frequently nowadays shooting on HD. Actually, he is getting a lot more footage than ever before, and the quality is stunning. "I look at some of the images we shot in the 1980s on film, and I can’t believe we got away with it," Dereck says, "because today—and you see it in Game of Lions, for instance—the images are just beautiful. It looks like you are there with the lions."
Dereck is shooting with a whole range of cameras these days, using the RED and Phantom on Game of Lions as well as what he describes as cheaper consumer cameras. "The look is interesting, and it intercuts, and it all looks great, whereas in the past, I had one single camera," he says.
It’s important to the Jouberts that their films are scientifically accurate, so they take part in the editing of their films. While an editor might mistake the meaning of a head movement or the flick of a tail, the Jouberts have studied the body language of big cats long enough to read these non-verbal cues. "It’s quite funny for us to watch other films that have maybe been cobbled together, and you look at the lion behavior, and you go, ‘Well that’s ridiculous. This lion is running away from somebody. His ears are down, and his tail is down, and yet he is being cut into a scene that looks like a hunt,’" Dereck says.
Sound editing is another area the Jouberts keep watch over. "Lion roars often have multiple syllables, and it’s a bit like listening to somebody’s sentence. But sometimes, editors cut them up, and they use just the first part of a roar and the last part, and then the third part and the fifth part, and that just makes nonsense out of it," Dereck says, noting, "We hear this quite often on television. It’s like taking somebody’s sentence and chopping it up."
Beverly does all of the sound recording on location. "You can get really exciting, beautifully filmed action, but if you strip off the sound, it dies," Dereck says. "The sound is what really brings it to life and makes it immediate."
Beverly and Dereck are inseparable, spending an inordinate amount of time cramped together in their Land Cruiser, but they wouldn’t have it any other way because they could have never achieved on their own what they have achieved together in wildlife filmmaking, according to Dereck.
And the success of their partnership offers benefits beyond having someone to share filmmaking duties with. They also provide each other with invaluable emotional support. "Many other people who go out into the field on their own always have that hankering to be back with somebody they love. We don’t have that. We are a unit no matter where we are, whether we’re giving a talk in Berlin, or whether we’re out in the middle of the field somewhere, or editing in Los Angeles. It’s Beverly and I together," Dereck says, "and we don’t need anything else beyond that."