The making of Dragonfly

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andy-blackdarterWhen it came to thinking about a new film project after working with Kingfishers for several years, the idea for making a life-cycle piece about dragonflies was already at the back of my mind. I’d made a couple of 90 second shorts the previous year featuring dragonflies, and my wife and I had enjoyed studying and photographing these fascinating creatures for a number of years.

Adult dragonflies usually start emerging around May, with different species emerging at different times throughout the spring and summer months, and so it was in May 2013 that filming for the dragonfly project got underway.

The first footage shot was for the Chaser mating sequence, with male Broad-bodied Chasers dueling for the right to mate above a small pond at a local nature reserve.

Ensuring that you’re in the right place at the right time is probably the most important consideration for natural history film making. Many key behaviours happen over a brief period of time at a specific time of the year, and the consequences of missing one of these windows of opportunity may be that you have to wait twelve months for another.

emergence-set-upOf all of the key behaviours that I needed to film for the project to work, probably the most crucial was the emergence sequence. My plan was to film one of the Southern Hawker dragonflies that live in our garden pond emerging, the logic behind this being that using my own garden would overcome logistical problems, including the need to power cameras and lights during a 12 hour overnight filming stint.

In the end the emergence sequence filming worked out even better than I’d hoped. Most Hawker dragonflies emerge from the water during the night, so the sequence of events from larvae to dragonfly is usually shrouded by darkness. I had taken this into account and rigged up lights to enable me to film the sequence through the night. However, as luck would have it, two dragonfly nymphs decided to begin their emergence process just before dawn. With coffee on tap to keep me awake (I’d been up all night at this point) I filmed the complete emergence sequence seen in the film during daylight, on what turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. While the originally planned night-time shots would have worked in the film, the footage shot in daylight looks far more appealing and enables the viewer to really appreciate the delicate beauty of an emerging dragonfly.

Another aspect of the dragonfly’s life-cycle that I wanted to highlight was the aquatic phase. To get the footage, my wife and I ended up with 5 small aquariums in our conservatory, dressed to replicate a pond environment as closely as possible, using sediment and vegetation from our own pond. We then went pond dipping and ended up with nymphs representing several species that we introduced to the tanks. Many hours were spent observing the tanks with cameras at the ready, and the results are what you see in the film.

on-locationOnce all of the footage had been collated, the process of developing the narrative for the film got underway. I had a pretty good idea how the final film would be constructed, although in the course of development many changes were made, including the omission of some cherished footage that just didn’t support the narrative of the film.

Another piece of good fortune came about when I was looking for a suitable soundtrack for the film. I came across a website where a large selection of copyright free classical music was available. While looking through the catalogue of music on the site I noticed that some of Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’ suite was available from a performance by the US Air Force Military Band. As soon as I listened to Venus from ‘The Planets’, I knew it would be perfect as the main theme for the film.

The editing of the film was done using Sony Vegas Pro and took about 3 weeks, working 2-3 hours most evenings. The narration was added first, and once again the process of developing the narration was iterative, as some of the script that seemed to read well, just didn’t sound right when paired with the visual elements. I tried to develop and maintain a flow within the film, using the music to emphasize the action. The whole process was fairly organic, with many scenes being reshaped several times before I was happy with them.

In the end, I can say that I am really very happy with the final result. The response to the film has been really positive, I was amazed to win Best Documentary at the BIAFF 2014 Film Festival, and a further award at the International UNICA Film Festival in Slovakia. Even more surprising was the nomination for a Panda Award at the Wildscreen Festival, where my self produced film is in competition with professional wildlife film makers.

Dragonfly is available to view online in full HD here https://vimeo.com/76976406

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