“Expedition Mungo”; DP Rob Taylor On Shooting Master Adventure Cinematographer Mungo
By: Marjorie Galas
Thrill-seeker. Daredevil. Extreme outdoors man. High-octane descriptions define adventure cameramen; that rare breed of shooter who travels into the wilderness to capture our planet’s most compelling and breath-taking shots. Paul Mungeam, more commonly known as Mungo, spent over twenty years as the “go to” camera man for adventure television. After ten years as Bear Grylls preferred DP, shooting in the most precarious places on earth, Mungo agreed to step in front of the camera to host Animal Planet’s “Expedition Mungo.”
With Mungo hosting “Expedition Mungo,” a vast hole was left to fill behind the camera. Enter Rob Taylor. Taylor had been part of Mungo’s camera crews throughout the years, including some Bear Grylls episodes. Taylor considered Mungo a strong leader and a personal friend. He never expected to be Mungo’s DP.
“It’s an unusual situation to be caught in,” said Taylor. “He’s one of the best for adventure TV and he has a series and you get called. It took me completely off guard.”
The situation naturally carried a certain amount of pressure but the two men swiftly adjusted to their new positions. Mungo was eager to embrace the presenter role, allowing Taylor to tackle the visual needs handled by a DP.
“He knew I had done a lot of adventure (work), and he trusted me to get along with it,” said Taylor.
Prior to determining the look of the show, Taylor met with producer Craig Blackhurst. Blackhurst was another Grylls alumni. Taylor had worked with him before, although this marked the first time the two men were connecting in pre-production. Animal Planet bestowed tremendous creative freedom to the “Expedition Mungo” team, allowing Blackhurst and Taylor to establish a visual format. The two men hashed out some concepts based on Taylor’s research on the locations featured in the six episode series. Initially struggling with visual tone, Taylor started to reflect on cues inspired by Mungo’s personality and reactions. He decided to go with what he knew: Mungo as a character study.
Next, Taylor determined the Sony F55 digital camera would best capture his vision. While the Sony 800 is typically used for adventure shooting because of its durability and cost-effectiveness, Taylor noted its chip was smaller than the F55, the sensor was outdated compared to the F55 and it had a shallow depth of field.
“I really pushed for the F55 with a Sony F5 as a backup,” said Taylor. “In adventure shooting we can get a little utilitarian because the equipment is proven. I wanted to take the look to another level.”
Noting the budget would not allow for a camera assistant, Taylor was able to secure a DIT which is very unusual for an adventure show. Having a DIT on the set allowed all data to be wrangled on location. Everything was prepared to go straight to edit, which proved to be extremely cost effective. Mungo filled out the rest of the team with crew he’d previously worked with, specifically two sound recordists.
As with most programming, the crew works behind the scenes, leaving screen time to the host. With “Expedition Mungo” it quickly became evident the crew was an integral part of the footage. Once filming began, Taylor applied the term “the meta the better” to his process. For example, when a crew travels across a river, the equipment is typically sent on one boat, then the crew follows, and the presenter goes last so they can capture his voyage. The ordeal of the crew is not seen. Avoiding the logistical challenge of how to separate the equipment and crew in precarious, one-person boats allowed Taylor to shoot more loosely as well as add drama to the expedition. Capturing the trials of the crew also allowed for more continuous shooting: as Taylor was dealing with logistics (such as securing safe footing), he could pass the camera to Mungo. Mungo filmed Taylor and the crew until they were situated, then the camera was returned to Taylor.
The adventures featured in “Expedition Mungo” made for exceptionally challenging shooting. For instance, in episode one, “Living Dinosaur of Liberia,” Mungo and crew travel to Africa to find a prehistoric-looking crocodile-like monster locals call the “Ghahali.” Before they venture outside civilization, they must maneuver through small towns ravaged by civil war and Ebola. Their quest continued deep into the Kasai River, an area so treacherous few biologist have been able to study it. The uncertain terrain would require a back-up plan for capturing first-person shots of Mungo.
To ensure he’d get shots of the host as he traveled through the murky river and unexplored terrain of the rain forest, Taylor devised a GoPro mount to the back of Mungo’s matte box. Mungo would provide commentary directly to this camera as he journeyed through the precarious terrain. Expanding upon “the meta the better” idea, Taylor devised a plan where Mungo could be shooting portions of the expedition on the F55 simultaneously. The editors then could cut between the POV shots he captured in camera with the GoPro commentary, taking the viewer along on the claustrophobic journey through the dense forest. This device was maintained throughout the series.
In order to capture any shots, the cameras must be meticulously cared for. In humid situations the air never dries out creating extremely damaging conditions for electrical equipment. Working without a camera crew, Taylor broke down the kits and, ritualistically, packaged the cameras in pelican cases with silica gel packs to create a humidity cover. Despite any personal fatigue, Taylor performed the break-down like a “minute by minute drill,” knowing the extra half hour it took to complete the task would result in perfectly functioning cameras for the next day’s shoot.
“In the morning the silica gel has done its job. But it’s so humid it’s hard to keep yourself healthy,” said Taylor. “You put powder on your feet, keep your boots dry. If you don’t do one, it all falls apart.”
The season finale for “Expedition Mungo” airs Sunday, July 2nd at 10:00pm. All previous episodes are available for viewing on Animal Planet’s website. To learn more about “Expedition Mungo” and view past episodes, please visit: https://www.animalplanetgo.com/expedition-mungo/