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The making of Dragonfly

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At BIAFF 2014 Andy Holt won  a Diamond award and Best Documentary for Dragonfly .

Still from 'Dragonfly'.

For me, natural history film making has been a natural progression from wildlife photography. I started photographing wildlife in 2004 at the dawn of the digital photography revolution and when Canon introduced video capabilities to their DSLR range I was immediately curious about what could be achieved with this new technology suddenly at my disposal.

I started out making films in 2011, with very short films to fit the 90 second run time limit that was in place on the photo sharing site Flickr at the time. The 90 second limit was something of a godsend, as it forced me to focus on creating compact narratives that would hopefully entertain and inform my audience. Over a period of 18 months I produced over 20 of these natural history shorts until I finally felt ready to try my hand at something longer. My first longer film was 15 minutes about Kingfishers, made to accompany an exhibition of my Kingfisher photography. This was compiled from footage I'd accumulated during 2012 and represented in excess of 200 hours spent sitting in a hide on location during one of the wettest spring and summer on record.

When it came to thinking about my next film project, the idea for making a lifecycle 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.

Still from 'Dragonfly'.
On location
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 duelling 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.

Of 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 dragonfies 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. Still from 'Dragonfly'.
Emergence set-up

Another aspect of the dragonfly's lifecycle 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.

Once 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. I tried to develop and maintain a flow within the film, using the music to emphasise the action. The whole process was fairly organic, with many scenes being reshaped several times before I was happy with them.

The narration was added last, and once again the process was iterative as some of the script that seemed to read well, just didn't sound right when paired with the visual element.

Still from 'Dragonfly'.
Andy with Black Darter dragonfly
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 and I was even approached by the British Dragonfly Society for permission to use the film to educate the public about these fascinating creatures.

Equipment used:
DSLR - Canon 1D MK IV; Canon 60D; Canon 100mm f2.8 macro; Canon 300mm f2.8 + 2x converter
Camcorder - Sony HDR-CX720; Raynox macro Conversion lenses DCR250 & MSN202

Andy Holt
March 2014

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