"This is not a documentary," says Barry Clark of "Sahara," premiering tonight at 9 on PBS (locally on both KCET and KVCR). "It establishes a sort of alternate reality that you either enter into or else you change the channel."
Strange talk coming from a man who has spent his life producing some of the most prestigious natural history films of the last 30 years, including the Imax 3-D film "Galapagos," currently running at the California Science Center. Executive producer and director Clark spent the better part of three years working on "Sahara."
"Hundreds of pages [of research] were consolidated into the script, to see what was really emotionally gripping and meaningful; which characters out of hundreds of animals could we build the story around."
Strange talk indeed about a film whose real-life subject is the most famous, forbidding and mysterious desert in the world.
"We think of it as a feature for television, or sometimes we think of it as a docudrama. What we don't think of it as is a documentary or a natural history film," says Clark, choosing his words carefully. "It is a fable about the Sahara Desert: the Sahara Desert standing in for deserts in general, or in general the desert of the human psyche. So it is intended to play on a metaphorical level on its deepest story level."
Clark is co-founding partner of Mandalay Media Arts, with Mandalay Chairman Peter Guber and legendary underwater cinematographer Al Giddings. Their objective is nothing less than to bring the mystery and spectacle of the real world to television in pristine high-definition resolution. But Clark has another agenda as well. He wants to bring to the screen the natural world that humans don't get to see driving around, whether it's the Serengeti or Yellowstone parks.
"The way natural history programs have been done is they do not delve into the emotions of the characters. It's just a tiger--one tiger is like every other tiger. It's just an elephant, it's just a beetle," he says. "But what we try to do is capture that intimacy of the worlds of these animals, which helps to establish that commonality between them and ourselves."
To achieve these goals, the Mandalay team needed control of the elements that are more associated with mainstream movie making. Ninety percent of "Sahara" was shot on sets in Morocco and California from a script and storyboards.
"We were less interested in people who had a lot of experience working with animals than we were with people who would look at composition and lighting and all that from a features standpoint," says Clark. "Many shots use cranes and dollies. We used wind machines, rain machines. We were going to use a snow machine, but fortunately it snowed. But we were ready to do anything to get the effect we wanted."
They brought leaf blowers from Los Angeles to Morocco for some of the wind effects, but to replicate those huge dust storms the desert is famous for, they borrowed an airplane engine used for the same effect by the film crew of "The Mummy." (In return for the favor, Clark convinced the mayor of the nearby town of Jorf to let the Italian "Mummy" crew play soccer on the local field.)
In the enclosed acre set, the crew filmed animals in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. "We were careful that all the behavior was based upon observed behavior of animals," says Clark. "The gazelles in our show migrate from the desert floor to the Atlas Mountains. They have been documented to do that. The striped hyena preys on dead dorcas gazelles, they do that. Nothing that any of the characters do is out of character. The fennec fox captures moths in midair. Our fennec did that. We saw them do that, so we created a sequence with moths, of the fennec capturing one in midair."
Despite the intensive planning, only so much can be controlled. "Those animals comprise a set of characters, like the characters in 'Seinfeld,' " says Clark. "They interact, they have their good days and bad days."
Consider one of the film's more reluctant stars: the barbary leopard of the Atlas Mountains. These camera-shy felines are rarely seen in the wild, let alone filmed. A similar Zagros leopard from the mountains of Iran was acquired by the Mandalay team, and the pampered star was flown in to the local San Bernardino Mountains, where the dry pine and oak forest matches that of the Atlas in Morocco. Scenes of the pursuing leopard were carefully shot to storyboard in California, to be intercut with the goat-like mouflon being chased in Morocco.
Lest the audience lose its bearings in the hallucinatory desert world, "Sahara" is backed by a rich score. "It's basically a two-hour tone poem that required constant music," says Clark. One hundred sixty tracks of North African music and sound effects (32 tracks of wind alone) were mixed to six tracks of Dolby Digital surround sound to create the lush, layered soundscape.
"We would hope that anyone who has watched the film will certainly think of the Sahara in a different way," says Clark, "and realize that it is filled with life, even though it's hard to find. So that people who are driving to Las Vegas from L.A. with the air-conditioner cranked and the windows rolled up, and they're thinking about how fast they can get to the casinos, might from time to time look out the window and see that there's a desert out there, and remember something they saw on television, and think, 'I wonder if there are things living out there. Things going on that I don't see. And if I was to stop, I might actually see some of these little dramas.' "
* "Sahara" can be seen at 9 tonight on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).