The Wild
Location shooting The Wild at the Go-Tladi ranch near Heidelberg.

Andy Stead

A daily drama is a mammoth task to produce, with a full episode produced at least once a day, and a buffer of several weeks required between shooting and airing, in case something goes wrong. Add to this video and audio post-production, and it’s clear why most soap operas are filmed in the controlled environment of the studio.

Egoli, South Africa’s first soap, was shot in three studios at Sasani Studios in Johannesburg. M-Net ran Egoli ran for many years, and the show amassed a huge audience. After it ended in 2010, M-Net launched a new soap opera, The Wild, in April 2011.

The Wild is a groundbreaking series in South Africa, being the first soap shot entirely on location – not in studio. The shoot format is also high definition (HD). Another difference is that the production is not a traditional Afrikaans M-Net soap like Egoli, but rather designed to cross over in all pay-TV markets and demographics not previously targeted by M-Net.

M-Net's Magic Factory produces the show, with in-contracted expertise. After production began veteran producer and director Bobby Heaney took over the reigns as executive producer together with Bruce Townsend as series producer.

It was in fact Heaney who was tasked by Egoli creator Franz Marx to investigate production practices for South Africa’s first soap. Heaney went to New York and studied the long running soap operas Loving and All My Children, and brought their shooting systems back to South Africa where he adapted them to local conditions.

Egoli was the first production shot in this country to produce an episode a day, which it managed to do from day one. Its shooting structure was then adopted by other South African soaps, spearheading an industry that now boasts half a dozen different long-running productions. Heaney went on to direct over 140 of Egoli, and was called back to direct the soap’s last two episodes in August 2010.

Several changes were made to the schedules of The Wild, with particular reference to the shooting schedules and, from a creative standpoint, more use was made of wide shots that give the viewer a sense of the vastness of the backdrop.

Soaps tend to use a lot of close-ups with lingering shots, which would not work for The Wild, which is set on a safari lodge. Immediately the benefits of shooting on location became apparent. The location is in fact a farm in the Heidelberg district, with a second far recently acquired.

To get a closer look at how The Wild is shot, and the logistics required get over 150 cast and crew to Heidelberg to spend a regular 10 hours shooting, I spoke to Burgert Muller, head of publicity for The Wild, who invited me to visit the set for a day.

The task of showing me the ropes fell to The Wild’s publicity assistant Theo Nel. The day started with a visit to the production offices at Sasani Studios. We met at 10h00, but the first production vehicle had left for the Heidelberg location at 05h30. The vast size of this production became clear when I was told that there are a total of 35 production vehicles, including trailers, bowsers and a honey sucker. Nine of these are Toyota Quantum crew vehicles, and three game drive Land Rovers on location both for use as props and also for access to the location when there have been heavy rains, as the last few kilometres are dirt roads with a river crossing.

Karen Hansen, the line producer, says the schedule calls for a Monday to Friday shoot with the weekend off. “This is an improvement on the situation when The Wild first started, as the original the crew were working on a 39-day cycle. which meant they were not seeing their families and were under a lot of pressure,” she says. “We shoot five episodes a week and, since The Wild is only flighted four days a week, we create a buffer. In fact, right now we are almost a month ahead of broadcast.

“But it is still demanding on the cast and crew. They often leave at 05h30, start shooting at 07h30 and only get back to Sasani at 19h30 – or later if it’s a night shoot. There are some double-ups on the crew: there are four rotating directors and two first ADs. On location there are four chalets and some of the crew stay there if necessary, and use has also been made of rented rooms in a guesthouse nearby.”

All the equipment is owned by M-Net, including lighting, cameras and post production. While the post production is currently done off-site, Karen says it will soon be consolidated at Sasani. Season one has almost ended, and season two begins in March.

We then leave for the location with well known actor Langley Kirkwood, who plays the character of Liam.. Theo says it will be a bit of a quite day, as the only 11 scenes on the call sheet, and the only regular cast in the scenes being Shona Ferguson (who plays Itumeleng Tladi), Clementine Mosiman (Mama Rose) and Connie Ferguson (Marang Lebone).

It takes around an hour to drive the 75 kilometres from the Johannesburg studios to the location base camp. The camp houses cast quarters, wardrobe, make up, a canteen, a spaza shop and several generators, used when power is irregular, or at night.

We transfer to a 4 X 4 vehicle to drive to the lodge, one of four shooting locations. It is a typical upmarket game lodge, with all with all that one would expect from an up-market structure of this nature, and there is little evidence of major changes to accommodate a multi-camera shoot, and lighting is minimal. All the normal external features including a pool, boma and chalets are there, and used for shooting purposes. The view is superb, with mountains forming the backdrop.

We take the opportunity of visiting a duel set, the Van Reenen house and the Lebone house. These two houses are in fact an ingenious double set, built back to back in the same construction. One side is Van Reenen, the other Lebone. Attention to detail is evident with a luxury bush dwelling juxtaposed with a simple farm house. Again concession to shooting is minimal with few lights in evidence, and again the vista is tremendous, with a herd of wildebeest in the distance and a flock of ostriches with their young in the field nearby.

The farm is some 1 200 hectares – 2 000 when the mountains are included – the roads are all dirt with river crossings, and each of the locations is used almost daily. We leave the Lebone/Van Reenen houses for the shooting location for the day – the Go-Tladi ranch.

This location, an adjoining farm, only recently became available to The Wild has an upmarket game lodge on the banks of the Suikerbos River. The complex had been abandoned and was run down when The Wild acquired it, so it is being restored. It is nevertheless a magnificent location, and will form part of the regular backdrop of

The scenes being shot are from episodes 209 through to 213. Today’s director is Krijay Govender, and the DOP is Leon Kriel. There are three cameras on set, all Canon D5s, some tripod mounted and one on a lightweight track and dolly system. The estimated technical wrap time is 20h30 as there is a night shoot, so it is a long day.

The Canon D5, while basically a stills camera, has become the camera of choice of many DOPs requiring high-quality HD imaging with compact size and cost. The D5 records to SD card, and the sound is recorded separately – also onto a digital format. Two rifle mics were being used on panamic booms. The shots we viewed were externals at the entrance to the lodge, and no lights at all were evident. This is another advantage of the Canon D5 - its ability to shoot in extremely low light conditions.

We watched Itumeleng (Shona Ferguson) and Liam (Langley Kirkwood) having a discussion with several takes, and then the reverse camera shot with a camera in the vehicle behind Liam as he drives into the lodge entrance. The versatility of the D5 is evident for shots of this nature. After this scene has wrapped the cast and crew break for lunch. It is now 15h00.

As is often the case on location shoots the catering is excellent – but the time to enjoy it short. Within half an hour the cast and crew are called to move on to the next scene. The pace is fast, but there is no compromise on quality and detail. Theo indicates that a shuttle is about to leave for Sasani and suggests we take it, so reluctantly I leave the stunning location.

The Wild certainly has a lot going for it. Production value is extremely high and the scripting and acting world class. Picture quality from the Canon 5D in HD surpasses any other soap opera on local television. The recent move to the 19h00 time slot will undoubtedly attract a whole new viewership, so the popularity of the series can only increase.

Under the production expertise of Bobby Heaney, and with directors of the calibre of Krijay Govender, M-Net have a winner here. Their decision to shoot a daily drama on location in the bush was a bold one, but from what I saw on set it was the right one.