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Tuesday, 30 July 2013 20:02

Lion Ark: Inside the Great Animal Rescue

Written by  Dyana Carmella
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LionArkPhoto 4 SMAll over the world, animal rescue groups are well aware that unpredictable situations often come with the ultimate goal of protecting the lives living creatures. Animal Defenders International (ADI) gave the term “animal rescue” a whole new meaning in the new documentary Lion Ark. Produced by ADI Films and directed by ADI VP Tim Phillips, the film documents the group’s infiltration of the South American circus industry to rescue 25 lions from circuses traveling across Bolivia. 

The people behind Lion Ark included Philanthropist/TV Host Bob Barker, “CSI” Actress Jorja Fox and members of U.S. and Bolivian congresses, and everyone involved understood that, if successful, this rescue mission would be monumental and historic. Phillips and ADI President/Co-Founder Jan Creamer both spearheaded the extraction in Bolivia and they were in the trenches right beside the lions as their minimal crew was able to capture one of the greatest animal rescues of all time. The film project was structured more like a drama than a documentary, as the filmmakers also wanted to capture the beauty of Bolivia and focus on the film’s biggest stars: the lions. 

Since this film was made for the public, Phillips asserts that it was important for it to showcase the issue at hand while also showing individuals and governments coming together to fight for the same cause. “Often when you make films about issues, they can be a bit punishing,” says Phillips. “They are usually for the government departments to see. We wanted to show the richness and beauty of the Bolivian countryside as well as the realness of the lions in their gritty, rusty cages- they were in terrible conditions but unbowed and magnificent. There are scenes where Cinematographer Mark Whatmore really captures the beauty of the lions, and you see their eyes are really alive and sparkling, even in these most terrible circumstances. I feel pleased that we caught many of those things.”

LionArk Photo 1 SMPhillips decided to shoot the project with a RED camera. “We took a RED camera crew with us,” he recalls. “We had to film very stripped back, because you are constantly going into hostile situations where people are waving knives at you, shouting at you and wanting to kill you. We had two cameramen and myself. I was involved in working the seizure operations with Jan as well. We were flying in a tiny aircraft, which would only take four to five people across the country, so we couldn’t have a separated sound man. We had to have our cameramen absolutely self-sufficient. We made a huge commitment to ensuring we had a really detailed record of events because we knew there would be no going back to do it again.” Most documentaries are filled with archive footage, and the productions can only film on location for a few weeks due to tight budgets. The filmmakers behind Lion Ark stripped down their crew and equipment to the barest essentials in order to remain on location to get unbelievable footage. The production stayed in Bolivia for seven weeks before moving on to shoot for two weeks in Denver, Colorado, where the animals would arrive for rehabilitation. 

LionArkPhoto 6 SMUtilizing a massive cargo plane to travel to Denver, the production crew had to be further minimized. “The authorities really limit the number of people traveling on cargo flights, so there was us looking after the animals and Mark with his camera to record things,” says Phillips. “I think that is a testament to the new digital technology and the way people want to see news. It’s reflective in Lion Ark. People want to see the real thing. They would rather see a shabby mobile phone picture on the news at 10 rather than a glossy shot of the front of some building or something after the event, which is how we used to have our news delivered to us 20 years ago. What we did was try to cover both bases – give people the real thing but at a cinematic quality. We used [the RED camera], which is very high quality, and combined that technology with being on the move.”

During the length of the production, the support the project received far exceeded the filmmakers’ expectations. “I feel like Lion Ark taps into a way in which the world is changing at the moment,” notes Phillips. “I’ve been involved in animal protection for over 30 years now, and I’ve never seen an issue where country after country is fighting for the same thing. It’s a whole attitude change. Since we’ve secured the ban in Bolivia, we’ve secured bans in Paraguay, Columbia, Peru and Ecuador. Five countries now on one continent have banned the use of performing animals. There were many people in Bolivia that were behind the project. I remember there was one scene where I picked up a lion in Teresa and people from the local town are out cheering and waving as he left. I think there was an enormous goodwill even before this project. This was something people really got behind and believed in that their countries are now following.”

LionArkPhoto 3 SMFor postproduction, the majority of the editing was done in the United Kingdom, where Phillips and long term collaborator, editor Tony Pattinsonturned Lion Ark into documentary with live-action drama, while sound mixing took place at Wildfire Studios’ post facilitiesin Los Angeles, Calif. “We were attracted to [Wildfire] because they weren’t a conventional documentary firm,” says Phillips. “They work on huge blockbusters, like Olympus Has Fallen. We worked with Sound Mixer/Editor Javier Bennassar (“Dexter”), Phillips aimed for dramatic sound so film audiences could feel the rescue and not just see a documentary critique of the operation. “We jigsawed together this very complex tapestry of different audio sources– conversations, action and interviews that actually took place at the time,” reports Phillips. “We were very pleased with how everything came out. It has imperfections, but I believe people want that; they want the real thing.  This is not an analysis of a huge rescue operation, it is what it is actually like.” All the color correction for the documentary was done at Prehistoric Digital in Santa Monica. 

Lion Ark is gearing to make a big impact on the festival circuit this fall. Phillips wants audiences to be joyous about the movie because it showcases how the unthinkable was accomplished. The film is a touching testament that will leave theatergoers feeling truly inspired about humanity.  

To learn more about the film please visit:

Photo captions in order of appearance on the page: 

ADI President Jan Creamer being interviewed during the shooting of Lion Ark
Jan Creamer and ADI Vice President and Lion Ark Director Tim Phillips carrying a rescued Lion cub
Lion Ark Director of Photography Mark Whatmore  giving a vivid illustration of the hazards of filming during Bolivia's rainy season
Cinematographer Mark Whatmore filming from a light aircraft in Bolivia

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