Into The Dragon’s Lair documentary
Filming Into The Dragon’s Lair
Craig and Damon Foster’s Into the Dragon’s Lair is currently screening at The Labia Theatre on Orange Street in Cape Town. Shot over three years, the documentary thriller tells the story of two underwater cameramen – Frenchman Didier Noirot and South African Roger Horrocks – who dive with crocodiles in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
The NHU Africa co-production with Animal Planet US and Animal Planet International is up for The Sound Award and The International People & Animals Award at The Wildscreen Film Festival in October 2010. It was the first runner up for the Best Camera Award at The International NaturVision Film Festival and winner of the Excellence in Underwater Cinematography Award at The BLUE Ocean Film Festival.
Didier is one of the world’s best underwater cinematographers. He helped Greg Gray shoot BMW Free Diver; worked with Jacques Cousteau on over 5 000 dives; and helped film Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s gorgeous feature film, Oceans, which is currently screening at local cinemas.
When Roger met Didier, he knew he had found what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “Didier was a legend, one of the very best underwater cinematographers in the world,” Roger says. “I knew I had found my mentor, but what I didn’t know was that he had a plan that would test me to my very limits.”
Didier’s dream was to dive with a dragon, a giant Nile crocodile, the last predator on earth that views humans as viable prey. Didier says, “This is an unknown animal and I wanted to make something nice with this dinosaur because no one likes crocodiles.”
When Didier first tried diving with crocodiles, Roger says the encounters were very fleeting as the crocodiles kept disappearing underneath the papyrus. “As we discussed the challenge of filming these crocodiles, the terrible reality dawned on us that we would need to go deep into their lair. We had heard stories of how the crocodiles dragged their prey into the deep underwater cave systems and we knew this was where we would have to go.”
This was a mission most would consider a deathtrap. In many ways, the film is as much about bravado as it is about crocodiles. Didier’s philosophy, expressed in the film, was, “We know they eat humans; what we don’t know is if they eat cameramen.”
The crocodiles weren’t the only danger. The perfectly round caves beneath the papyrus island were mostly created by hippos; if Roger and Didier had met one in the underwater tunnels, the film would have had a premature ending. Their encounter with a hippo in open water was scary enough.
It’s a terrifying documentary, with the cameramen frequently within biting distance; often in total darkness due to the sediment kicked up from the Delta’s floor; and occasionally lost.
Both Foster brothers were in the water with Roger and Didier, although Craig says the two underwater specialists were “definitely in the frontline.”
The filmmakers mitigated their risk by trying to avoid crocodiles near the surface, which is their attack zone; by engaging the crocodiles first rather than allowing the crocodiles to initiate; by allowing the crocodiles an exit to leave the situations; and by shooting in winter, when the crocodiles don’t feed as much. But as Roger admits, they were in uncharted territory, so there was no real risk analysis they could do.
The highlight of the film is when they encounter a 14-foot crocodile, which accepts their presence and allows them intimate footage within its lair. Whereas most of the encounters lasted about a minute in real time, this was nearly two hours and took them about 200m into its underwater cave.
Craig says, “What’s emblazoned on my memory is swimming through the absolute pitch darkness in the end. You can’t see anything from the sediment. Suddenly the water clears and you’re in this huge cavern with two tiny divers and this gigantic golden dragon. Your mind can hardly compute what you’re seeing; it looks like something from another planet.”
Damon credits the suspense in the film to Barry Donnelly, who recreated every single piece of sound heard underwater, and Kevin Smuts, who composed the music. “Emotion is often something you hear,” Damon says. “Watching the film, Roger says he was often more afraid than he was in the water, which is a tribute to Barry and Kevin.”
In addition to his duties as a lead actor and camera-person, Roger narrates the film. Looking like an older Graeme Smith, Roger’s a natural actor and could well become our next wildlife celebrity. Damon says, “His ability to express what he was feeling is part of what makes the film so special.”
Sophie Vartan, CEO of NHU Africa, says, “This is one of NHU Africa’s finest films. The footage of these crocs is so unique. Even while on location, we could hardly believe what we were witnessing. This film brings into question everything we thought we knew about crocodiles.”
Damon in turn heaped praise on NHU. He said, “Their support of films in South Africa means that for the first time the ownership and editorial control remains with us and is not necessarily exported overseas. We appreciate and acknowledge the support of our Animal Planet co-producers, but what Sophie and her team have achieved is a turning point in our industry.”
The success of Into the Dragon’s Lair has had a couple of positive spinoffs. NHU poached Animal Planet’s co-executive producer on the project, Vyv Simpon, who has now relocated to Cape Town. They also commissioned Roger and the Foster brothers to make another two crocodile films: one in 3D and another, Touching the Dragon, about an unlikely human/crocodile friendship in Costa Rica – the advance footage of a man and crocodiles wrestling playfully has to be seen to be believed.
Originally published in The Callsheet, 2010