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FLATMAN, DAVID: AUSTRALIA LAND BEYOND TIME

HOW WILD AUSTRALIA SURVIVES 
Dueling wildlife in Australia’s outback, the secrets of survival in the driest continent on earth, all captured up close for the giant IMAX screen by Australian filmmaker David Flatman; the hardest thing he’s ever done, he confesses to Andrew L. Urban, but helped by amazing luck. Or was it luck?


As you watch the giant IMAX images of new water rushing over the cracked earth of a dry riverbed, or a deadly king brown snake in a duel with Australia’s largest lizard, a perentie; or a close up of two large male kangaroos in a boxing match; or a million pelicans gathered at Lake Eyre … you may forget to ask yourself how were these rare and amazing images captured. Filmmaker David Flatman had to work it out himself over the 18 months it took to make Australia: Land Before Time. 

"You need luck, but you have to be there in the first place"

“You just have to be there,” he says. “You need to know what you’re looking for and plan ahead. You need luck, but you have to be there in the first place.” Luck did indeed come to his aid several times – as he reveals later.

We’re sitting inside the offices of the IMAX cinema at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, as the first sessions of the film play above us on the giant screen. (The film is in release in Australia from March 6, 2003). A hitch in schedule has delayed the arrival of the two seater plane (used to carry the giant IMAX camera) which was to have been assembled outside the cinema.

After 20 years of dreaming about it, documentarian Flatman is happy that finally he has managed to tell the story about this island content’s extraordinary survival systems, on the giant screen. “I wanted to tell the story ever since I made my first trip up the Birdsville Track, about 1965. Then when I saw large format films in the American Natural History Museum in 1981, while I was making Towards 2000 with the ABC, I realised the two were made for each other. The story and the format.”

On that first visit to the Birdsville Track, he saw rain come after a long dry stretch; the ground was cracked. “I saw the water coming down the creeks and saw fish jumping out of the cracks in the desert. Where did they come from? Why are they already there, waiting? I was amazed. And then, I was driving back down the Birdsville Track and I came round a corner; it was 55 degrees in the shade and there was a flock of pelicans on the ground. Hang on, I thought, they’re supposed to be on the coast. Why are they here? So when I started to understand what all that was about, I realised this is a story that we all need to know.”

"so you can see what happens"

But if you load up the caravan and drive into the middle of Australia, you may not be there when these things are happening so you won’t see any of this. “So we monitored this over 18 months and we followed the whole process and put it all together in a 40 minute film so you can see what happens and understand that cycle.”

But first, they had to build a plane…. Flatman has been flying since he was 19 and has seen a lot of the outback from the air, working for the Big Country program for ABC TV. “I realised that the best way to get the shots you want in the outback is to have a plane you can keep with you all the time and fly at any time.”

Helicopters are too schedule-bound, not to mention being too expensive and too noisy and dusty for the job. Flatman found a kit plane developed by National Geographic in tandem with a Florida based aircraft company. It was developed for filming in the jungles of Africa. The twin engined version was brought here and assembled, with the IMAX camera harnessed into the nose. “So you can sit in the front with the camera, hands on…no need for remote control.”

But Flatman himself flew a second plane and left the camera work to the specialist cinematographer Malcolm Ludgate, and the flying to a specialist agricultural pilot. 

Back to that luck thing: Flatman had a vision for the film, which included Lake Eyre filled with water. It was in the script (rather optimistically). This happens only two or three times a century. “Two weeks after the film was funded we were camped in the middle of Lake Eyre as it was filling with water.” But he was doubly lucky: a year earlier, Flatman was just about to start shooting when taxation red tape halted finance. “We had over $4 million raised and lost the lot…” But had this glitch not held up filming, he would have missed Lake Eyre with water and the million pelicans that gather there. 

"if you want to tell that story you have to be able to show what happens"

That was critical to the whole concept of the film, showing what happens when water comes. “What we tried to do with the film is answer the question: what are the strategies that allow life to survive in this continent, which is the driest vegetated continent on earth and has things on it that don’t exist anywhere else. How come? So if you want to tell that story you have to be able to show what happens when water comes because that’s what rejuvenates the whole system.”

Lake Eyre was not the only example of luck being manufactured: with the noisy and cumbersome IMAX camera, it isn’t possible to use ‘hides’ to film animals in the wild. There’s no such thing as a zoom lens. And yet you have to get up close. So Flatman and his crew would park a dummy camera at a chosen location and leave it for days. (The real thing costs $3,000 a day to hire.) Solar powered cells would intermittently stop and start a noisy motor to approximate the sound of the camera, to get the animals used to it. Weeks later, the real thing would be wheeled in and the footage is what we see. Close ups in which you can smell the roo poo.

Other tricks of the trade were used to soothe the nerves of the wildlife, but that still wouldn’t have been enough. Local Aborigines were helpful with tips, too. How do you get a giant perentie lizard into shot – close up? Set up some shade on a very hot day. Works like a charm. This time, there was a major bonus, as the perentie was on the scent of a king brown snake, Australia’s deadliest. The confrontation is spectacularly captured – and the duel is an honourable draw, saving us the trauma of a kill.

The last day of shooting brought yet another major bonus. For months Flatman and crew had been trying to film large male kangaroos during one of their rarely witnessed boxing matches. How do you maneuver a noisy IMAX camera close enough to catch the action. With the help of locals, they did in fact get to the right spot on three occasions, each weeks apart. Each time, as the camera was turned on, the film snapped – with a sound like a rifle shot, sending the roos running. (A weakness of the camera…)

On the last day, they were at it again at the right location, with no result. They arrived back at base at 1 am. Flatman took a deep breath. It was the last moment before returning the camera. Fully expecting a rejection, he asked the weary crew if they’d give it one last go. It meant a 5am start. Everyone nodded. And they got their fight in the can.

"I’ve learnt more than I’ve ever learnt"

“This film has been the hardest thing I’ve ever made,” he says. “But also, I’ve learnt more than I’ve ever learnt on any other shoot.”

Published March 20, 2003

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