Behind the Scenes: Lion Ark, a Remarkable Animal Rescue Documentary

Published on in Miscellaneous

Lion Ark is a vivid behind-the-scenes account of one of the most ambitious animal rescues ever seen.

It all starts off with a shocking undercover investigation leading to a ban on animal circuses in Bolivia. But the circuses defy the law. The team behind the investigation return, track down the illegal circuses and save every animal. Follow the confrontations, heartache and risks the team face, before an emotional finale sees 25 lions airlifted 5,000 miles to freedom in Colorado.

Get a firsthand look at what it took to produce a film such as this, and how it all came together for the greater good. 

Q: Tell us the story behind the production and how it came into fruition. 

Tim & Jan:  Animal Defenders International (ADI) undercover investigators worked in South American circuses for two years. Our findings shocked the whole continent - the public was horrified at the cruelty and abuse of animals. Bolivia was the first to ban animal circuses. One circus gave up their animals, the rest defied the law. So a year after the ban came into force, the ADI team returned to Bolivia and assisted the Bolivian wildlife department to seize all the circus animals. The Bolivian authorities wanted the African lions removed from the country, so we seized them, built a temporary lion mash unit in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and then moved them to the USA. We moved 29 in total and we took a professional crew with us. 

The movie is based on all live action and the words and faces of the people who were there.


Q: What obstacles did you face during the production and how did you overcome? (Any location or animal handling / logistics issues?) 

Tim and Jan: Seizing animals from unwilling circus owners including lions, primates, a coati mundi, horses and others.

It was tough hoisting the animals in their cages onto the backs of trucks and transporting them across Bolivia. Some journeys were 24 hours, in a country the size of Texas and California put together, with a population of just 9 million, no roads, no infrastructure. Rainforest and few roads.

Building cages for the lions to live in the temporary lion compound (our mash unit) and feeding them and giving veterinary treatment to bring them back to health was another challenge we faced, along with building tailor-made transport crates to international airline regulations in order to take them from Bolivia, 5,000 miles to the United States.


A few other obstacles we came across were:

- Hiring various aircraft, hiring the main aircraft to the US, crating up the animals and preparing them for their journey.

- Extreme heat and humidity.

- Rainy season, rained for days.

- Angry owners, threats and battles.

- White-knuckle rides with cages of lions through treacherous mountain passes through the day and night.

- Jan caught a form of Dengue fever because there was an outbreak of cholera and Dengue fever in the village where our temporary compound was located.

All in all:

Domestic animals were re-homed in Bolivia. A baboon and 29 African lions were removed from the country. 

It was probably the most dramatic and spectacular animal rescue the world has ever seen a whole country, emptied of all its circus animals. We flew, drove and trucked thousands of miles.


Q: What did you shoot on, and was there any special equipment or software used in production?

Tim and Jan: We knew that this operation could be historic because no one had attempted anything on this scale before – clear an entire country of animals in circuses in one go.  So we decided the top priority was to document this.

We shot primarily on Red with Cannon 5d digital SLR as back up, and made the location filming our biggest commitment.  We had Mark Whatmore as Director of Photography and Tony Pattinson filming for over five weeks in Bolivia, so we have an incredibly rich visual record of these events.  In Colorado when the Lion Ark landed we had even more cameras. On top of the filming were additional audio sources, radio mics, surround sound mics etc., so we built up a huge audio record of the operation.

It was this commitment to getting the raw materials that makes Lion Ark such a vivid document and as the operation unfolded we realized that we had something really, really special.

This then enabled us to build Lion Ark entirely from live action with commentary and reaction from the participants as events actually unfold.  We wanted everything taking place as the story unfolded, have any interviews and personal commentary in the context of the story.

So when Jan is talking about the confinement these animals endure and the resulting problems, she is looking into the eyes of the lioness she is describing.

It was then a real labor of love piecing this together in the form of conversations at the time and live action.

Shooting on Red really paid off because this is areally beautiful film in amazing landscapes with these awesome animals at the centre of the story.  The Digital SLR proved a good back up, was smaller and faster, so that proved a good combination.

We edited in Final Cut Pro and then color corrected in Da Vinci.

Q: Describe the hiring process: how did you solicit a team and crew your project? And what do you typically look for when building your team?

Tim and Jan:  Our first task was the film crew.  We had worked with Tony Pattinson on many operations and so we had someone who really knew the ropes, what to see.  We then drafted in Mark Whatmore at DP.  He likes filming in Red in the most difficult circumstances, brought a fresh eye to the project and was ready to really get stuck into the action.

Once we realized that we could tell the story in live action that is how we would make it, that determined a lot of our next choices, because we were editing far more in the style of a drama than in a traditional documentary.

Tim directed and Tony edited at Marvellous Pictures in Bristol.  A big challenge was that we were using multiple audio sources recorded in very difficult, frontline situations.  Obviously we were compressing an hours action into a few minutes so it was a complex narrative edit and we wanted smooth flowing, quick conversations.

We therefore wanted a sound editor with drama experience and a studio with that kind of background we didn’t want this to sound like a traditional documentary.  We went to Wildfire in Los Angeles, who’d just completed Olympus has fallen and have an incredible track record in action movies.  Javier Bennassar whose credits include Austin Powers, Dexter, Desperate Housewives, and American History X did the mix.  It was also important to have a Spanish speaker on the mix.

Although we have various featured tracks from the likes of Joan Jett, we wanted a big movie score. We were recocomended Karel Havlicek, based in Prague in the Czech Republic, who had scored films, TV shows for HBO, theatre and numerous adverts. Advertising giants scored by Karel include Orange, Coca Cola, T-Mobile, Hyundai, Range Rover, and Nike.   He produced the original score for Lion Ark.

The final piece of the puzzle was to find someone who could truly bring out the beauty of the film, the lions running free of course, but also the scenes travelling through the Bolivian mountains or the dusty metal work shops in Santa Cruz where the cages were built.  We had greatfootage and we didn’t want it to be effects driven, we wanted to capture even the beauty of lions when they were in terrible circumstances.  We chose Prehistoric Digital in Santa Monica for the digital intermediate with Chris Hall as the colorist – we liked the fact that they were former cinematographers and would understand what we wanted from our footage.

We’ve now done the first pass color work and are heading towards the finish line.

Q: Were you involved in the marketing of the film as well? Either way, would you like to update us on the results of the film thus far?

Tim and Jan: We are finalizing the film now, entering film festivals; we have had two private screenings and got a hugely positive reaction. People are very excited. We have launched a Facebook page and a website.


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images courtesy of: Lion Ark

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