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Bringing Up Baby While Filming in the Australian Bush

Television: Couple contributes a fascinating installment to PBS' 'The Living Edens' series while their toddler observes the wilderness for two years.

July 14, 1999|CHRISTOPHER NOXON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For wildlife photographer Rory McGuinness and his partner Rebecca Scott, the scariest thing about making the PBS documentary "Kakadu: Australia's Ancient Wilderness" wasn't the saltwater crocodiles or the tropical diseases or the epic floods or the seasonal wildfires. It was the child care.

The filmmakers decided early on that they could not bear to leave behind their daughter, Bella, who was 2 when production began. So when it came time to start shooting, McGuinness and Scott bundled up their baby and headed into the bush, bringing along a six-person crew, $150,000 in camera equipment and a nanny prepared to swaddle and coddle in one of the most beautiful and punishing environments on earth.

The family spent two years living in mining camps and Aboriginal villages, dipping in and out of deep wilderness in the 8,000-square-mile national park. The hourlong film they created, which airs as part of "The Living Edens" series tonight at 8 is a stunning look at how everything from 2-ton crocodiles to fluffy magpie geese survive and multiply in a place of biblical extremes. In January and February, torrential rains drown the landscape, turning lowlands into churning swamps. Six months later, the same territory is swept by dust storms and wildfires ignited by violent electrical storms.

McGuinness, who has previously photographed tigers in India and polar bears in the Russian Arctic, says this assignment was particularly challenging because of a certain member of the crew. "Bella was a doll, but she never really understood about being quiet when we were filming," he says from his home in Victoria, Australia. "There'd be times when she'd climb up on my back when I was filming a crocodile and crawl all over me right in the middle of a shot."

Mostly, the restless toddler stayed at camp with the nanny while McGuinness and Scott went tracking animals. Conditions could be harsh, with temperatures creeping up to 104 degrees during the summer months and flash floods sweeping the landscape during the season the Aborigines call simply the Big Wet.

Along the way, McGuinness and a camera operator were stricken by a mosquito-borne virus called Ross River Fever and the crew watched $70,000 worth of camera equipment sink into a billabong. But by the end of their stay, the crew had collected exquisite footage of rarely photographed animals, including a gang of boxing kangaroos, a flock of flying foxes and a swarm of green ants.

*

Scott, whose duties included recording sound and hauling gear, says she was so concerned with getting good footage that the more immediate dangers seemed trivial.

"You can spend a week in one place and get maybe 60 seconds of usable footage," she says. "So getting eaten by a crocodile doesn't worry you. You're worried about getting material in the can."

At no point during the production, Scott says, did she think her daughter was ever in any serious danger. And McGuinness says he never regretted the decision to bring Bella along. "It could be a bit of a circus, but ultimately it worked out quite well," he says. "She was exposed to wonderful things--a big, broad, blue sky and incredible animals. It was definitely preferable to just myself and a couple of guys heading out and missing years of my daughter's life."

Producers say the filmmakers--child and all--managed to create one of the most dramatic episodes in a distinguished series. Executive producer Alex Gregory says the program is successful because it captures the magic of an extraordinary place without the sermonizing common in so many wildlife documentaries.

"The idea is to celebrate what's left rather than decry what's been destroyed," says Gregory. "Instead of making people feel helpless and guilty, this celebrates what's still out there."

The success is at least partly due to the film's cinematic scope. The film opens with a sweeping aerial view of an enormous waterfall known as the Arnhemland Escarpment and goes on to include time-lapse sequences of roiling storm systems, underwater photography of exotic fish and crane shots of nesting birds. It's the kind of cinematography usually seen in feature films shot on Hollywood sound stages, not nature documentaries shown on PBS.

In one sequence, cameras catch a crocodile nudging its hatchlings from a riverbank nest, delicately picking up their squirming bodies with their enormous jaws. To get the shot, McGuinness lit the nest for three months before moving in with cameras.

Since saltwater crocodiles are not known for their showmanship, McGuinness is particularly proud of that shot. "That was quite an achievement," he says. "A crocodile tends to come to the party and not perform."

McGuinness and Scott are now looking forward to their next film, which may take them back to the tropics. But this time, their daughter will probably not come along for the ride. Bella is 4 years old now and becoming fascinated with a more immediate wilderness.

"She loves her friends and school," says Scott. "Compared to that, crocodiles tend to lose their appeal."

* "Kakadu: Australia's Ancient Wilderness" airs tonight at 8 on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV.

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