STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK
PHOTO BY GINA POOLE
When Bob Poole started filming wild elephants a few decades ago, he was planted squarely behind the camera.
Now, in “Cheetah Diaries,” he’s come out in front of the camera, along with Mama Cheetah and her two cubs.
Bob Poole built a crane for an Osmo 4K camera stabilized with a three-axis gimbal to shoot animals from above.
Poole, an Emmy Award-winning Ketchum cinematographer and “lifer” for National Geo WILD, mikes himself upon arising at 4 a.m. each day on the African savannah and doesn’t take that microphone off until he goes to bed at night.
“The camera man’s filming me as I’m filming the cheetah,” Poole said as he described ever better technology that allows him to narrate non-traditionally what he’s seeing in the moment.
Poole spoke to a crowd of filmmakers, script writers and other industry insiders Thursday to kick off the first of three Salon Talks at the 2017 Sun Valley Film Festival.
Warfield Distillery in Ketchum has been transformed into Nat Geo WILD headquarters for the duration of the festival, festooned with transparent rhinos, gorillas and elephants on the doors and windows, zebra stripes gracing the walls of the stairway and National Geographic pillows, stuffed lions and chimps and wildlife portraits placed around the room.
Bob Poole films “Little Giant” for National Geographic.
Locals like Roger Crist, who has spent time with Poole in Africa, were in the audience for Poole’s talk, along with many of the 29 Nat Geo WILD representatives in town for the festival.
Poole grew up in Malawi and Kenya where his father was director of the Peace Corps. But he always had an interest in wildlife, thanks to his father who eventually shifted his focus to conservation. And his interest was only heightened when his parents took himself and his sister, now an elephant researcher, to Kenya’s museum where he became fascinated by hour-long films on subjects like the baobab tree and termite mounds.
He studied agriculture at Montana State University in Bozeman, thinking he might manage a ranch in Africa. But he fell in love with filming when he got a chance to become a camera assistant for National Geographic, loading 16 mm film every 10 minutes for those he was assisting.
“I love adventure and I love to travel. When they gave me 10 rolls of film, I made sure every frame was perfect,” he said, describing how his first film was a coming-of-age film he made about elephants with his sister.
Poole elected to make his home in Ketchum a half-world commute away from his office in the game reserves of Africa after coming here in 1991 to work with Jim Dutcher on a wolf documentary for ABC. He met his wife Gina at the Sawtooth Club and was duly impressed that she was a whitewater kayaker. Now she usually accompanies him to work, helping to spot wildlife, taking still photographs and manning the equipment.
“She’s an amazing still photographer…and she doesn’t complain much. That’s the great thing,” said Poole.
When Poole filmed the wolves, they were on the endangered species list in the United States. Poole calls the pushback that has followed their reintroduction “tragic.” Africans, he said, have a much greater tolerance for wildlife than Americans.
“Having grown up with lions and tigers…and all these other dangerous animals, I don’t get it. I think we will look back one of these days and say, ‘What were we thinking!’” he added.
Poole showed mesmerizing footage from his newest project, currently dubbed “Cheetah Diaries,” during his talk. The work in progress, slated to debut as a 48-minute documentary in February 2018, was conceived at the 2016 Sun Valley Film Festival during a brainstorming session with other Nat Geo staffers.
Poole is filming the cheetahs at a 55,000-acre Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya--an area where he spent a lot of time as a child. The preserve with its rocky terrain is one of the few wild places left in Kenya as the country’s exploding population has tamed a lot of the wild.
The area, which means ‘Coming Together” in Maasai, was protected as a conservancy. The Maasai get paid not to live there but they can still graze their cattle there. And people are allowed to visit it.
Poole is the only filmmaker allowed to drive unaccompanied through the conservancy, which is sandwiched in between three others reserves.
“It’s a heckuva privilege,” he said.
Bob and Gina Poole became familiar with filming cheetahs several years ago when they filmed a Mom and her cub for a National Geographic documentary on predators.
There’s no time for R&R with cheetahs, Poole said. You have to stick with them 24 hours a day seven days a week. If you lose them, you won’t find them again for weeks.
The focus of the current project is finding out what it takes to raise a cheetah. Ninety-five percent of all cheetah cubs die, most of them killed by lions and hyenas. And this area has one of the highest densities of lions in the world.
The Pooles filmed one lion that killed 35 lion cubs during the six weeks the Pooles were filming.
The cheetah that the Pooles chose to film has become used to the Maasai and is relaxed around humans. After six days, she didn’t care about the Pooles’ presence.
“When she’s scanning, she’s looking everywhere but she’s not looking where we are,” Poole said.
The cubs had some close calls while the Pooles were there but survived, thanks to Mom’s ability to troll for food during the day and hide at night.
Wild animals are skittish around drones, Poole built a crane, which he mounted to his vehicle to get shots from above the ground.
Cheetahs can run up to 70 miles per hour, disappearing quickly, so he tries to gauge where they’re headed and do a long end-around, rather than chase behind.
“I use a long lens and I never push it,” he said. “If wildlife comes to me, fine. I never go chasing a shot. I’m not interested in the behavior of animals paying attention to me. I would rather film what they’re concerned about.”