Mike Braniger, Rigger/Key Grip
Mike put the camera in gravity-defying places and operated the camera cranes, dolleys and other camera support equipment.
What was the most stirring or surprising experience for you in each place?
Greenland: It's amazing to think that the icebergs, which are 7 or 8 stories high from the water's surface to the tip, are actually 90 percent underwater. You're literally only seeing the tip of the iceberg! They're a fascinating deep, blue color, and the water there is crystal-clear.
Madagascar: Northern Madagascar was a surprise. It's very lush and tropical with incredibly blue water--beautiful, compared to the rest of the country, which is desolate and desert-like. The southern tip actually isdesert.
Chang Tang Plateau: We saw several impressive 12th and 13th century monasteries, but the highlight of Tibet for me was Mount Everest. We were up around 17,000 feet. It looks just like its pictures always do, towering at about twice the height of any other peak in the Himalayas.
Iguazu Falls: I was surprised by just how spectacularly big the falls are. You can ferry over to an island that's entirely surrounded by the falls: It's a violent experience, with water crashing all around you.
Amazon River: There were pink dolphins in the river! Some are around 6 feet long, and they're as pink as can be. You can't see them until they surface because the water is so dark. I didn't know they existed before, and we saw about 20 of them on our trip.
Namib Desert: The sand dunes were tremendous. They're easily 300-feet-high, and they stretch on for miles. We watched them change shape when the wind blew.
Okavango Delta: Four or five elephants walked right through our camp the first day we were there. They were on their way to the river, and we were evidently in their way.
Which location was the most difficult for you?
Definitely Tibet. The roads there are mostly dirt and mud, our truck had four-wheel drive, but we were constantly getting stuck in the mud. Every day the back of the equipment truck would be covered in dirt: We had to keep cleaning it off to try to keep the dirt and crud out of our camera gear. And on the Chang Tang Plateau, the weather literally changed every 20 minutes. It'd go from sunshine to rain to hail to snow to wind and back to sunshine, all in the course of an hour! We'd pick out a shot, set it up in the rain and the snow, and then wait 40 minutes for the sun to come out. This made filming a bit of a challenge--and rather tedious.
What are your favorite anecdotes from your experiences in these places?
In the Amazon, I'd put the camera out on the bow of the boat, about twenty feet over the water's surface. To get the shot perfect, Mal, the director of the film, kept telling our captain to move the boat further over to the river's edge, into an area with lots of overgrown trees. I got the shot, but then there was a loud crashing noise and lots of breaking glass--the camera had caught a tree limb, which landed in another boat we were towing. It wasn't any big deal: We threw the branch overboard and kept going. However, a few days later, we hopped into that other boat and made it all of 30 seconds before we discovered there were roughly 10,000 ants climbing up our feet! They had lived in that tree branch that had fallen into the boat. We had to turn around and go back.
There was another funny incident with a boat in Madagascar, when we were filming one of the northern islands. All the fishermen had already gone to sea for the day, so we were able to load our gear into the boat easily, right from the dock. By the time we came back that night, though, everyone had returned! Whoever gets to the docks first ties up there, and then the next boat ties up to the first one, and so on. We had to tie up to the very last boat and carry our gear over 20 or so bobbing boats before we finally reached the dock!
What types of foods did you eat?
In the Amazon, we mostly lived off the land--lots of rice, fish, and chicken. Once I asked the cook what we were eating, and he pointed to a cute little furry thing that looked like a giant gopher...I stopped asking after that! I hated the food in Madagascar: The only meat there was zebu, a kind of cattle that is unbelievably tough, like eating a shoe! Meals in Tibet were difficult, too. We ate lots of yak, but it's good meat--much better than zebu. There were deep-fried chicken feet in Tibet, but I never dared try them. Once we left Lhasa for the plateau, the food all started to taste like gasoline because it's cooked over a gas stove. The restaurants were awful: We'd cross an open sewer to get to the door, pass 5 or 6 animal carcasses on the ground--the restaurant's meat supply--and then walk over a filthy floor to get to the table. I was afraid to touch anything because it was all so grimy. We came to dread mealtime. Everyone lost 10 or 12 pounds there.
Which locations would you recommend people attempt to visit?
The Okavango Delta, because there's so much to see. A good guide can get you within a few feet of the wildlife, as long as you stay in the vehicle and drive very slowly. Always be careful, though: Remember you're in the middle of a huge wilderness area. And watch out for crocodiles! They're usually by the water, but you can run into one in a field as it moves from one lake to another. We found crocodile drag marks not far from our camp one morning.
Did you become sick during the shoot?
It seemed like I was sick everywhere but the airport! Actually, Africa, Iguazu Falls and Greenland were okay, but I was sick all the time in Tibet. You really have to keep your personal hygiene way up because nobody else does, and the sanitary conditions were pretty poor once we left our camp. Everyone was desperately ill in the Amazon, too: We may have gotten something bad in our food or water.
What was the scariest moment you experienced?
We were in the Okavango Delta heading for camp after filming a den of wild dogs. The sun had gone down and it was a long way back to camp. Our truck didn't have power steering, and the right front wheel hit a stump in the road as we came around a curve, stopping us dead in our tracks. Everyone in the back of the truck slammed into the back of the cab, and the steering wheel spun so hard it broke our driver's hand. Nobody else was hurt, but it was a pretty scary experience. The truck wasn't damaged, so after taking a few minutes to recover, we just drove off for camp.
How did these places affect you physically?
In the Amazon, everyone was sick all the time. That plus the intense humidity, really wore us down. It was boring, too, being on the boat for so long: There's no land, no place to go. And, in Tibet, the high altitude made the whole trip an adventure! Immediately after landing in Lhasa, I could feel how thin the air was. I was short of breath all the time and had to really pace myself: I'd hold my breath during a shot the way I usually do to keep the camera and jib arm steady, and then I'd realize that I was completely out of breath and would have to stand around huffing and puffing for a while.
Did any place engage your senses more than the others?
On the second half of our trip through the Amazon, I loved listening to the jungle at night. You can hear the insects and everything begin to move. It creeps you out pretty quickly, but it's an amazing sound! I liked listening through Vince's, the sound recordist's, recording equipment there, because it's very sensitive and can pick up more sounds than the unaided human ear can. Greenland was noisy too: When the ice calves off the icebergs, there is a huge explosion that sounds like a bomb.
Did anything strike you about how the native people of each place interact with their geography?
Yes. It's impressive how the Tibetan nomads manage to live on the plateau, using the few resources they have. Almost everything they have comes from the yak. They drink its milk and eat its meat. Its fur is used to make clothing and tents, and its vertebrae are used to hold their tents up: The vertebrae are stuck on a pole, and the projections off the bones are used to tie off ropes that attach to the ground. A yak hide will be stretched over the whole contraption to make a tent. They live there year-round, and it's brutal in the winter. Everyone we saw had a frostbitten face.
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