National Geographic began airing the three-part documentary special Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist back in December. The program takes an in-depth look at the life and work of Fossey, who spent years in the jungle of Rwanda, studying mountain gorillas.
While there, she helped raise awareness of the poaching that was threatening the species — even in a protected national park. Her advocacy for the gorillas made enemies, and on Christmas of 1985, she was murdered in her cabin in a machete attack. Prior to her murder, Fossey had agreed to be the subject of a film about her work. In 1988, Gorillas in the Mist was released, with Sigourney Weaver starring as Fossey. In the new Nat Geo special, Weaver returns to provide narration, reading passages from Fossey’s journal.
Zara Hayes directed Secrets in the Mist, working once again with editor Fergal McGrath.
“When Secrets in the Mist started to evolve last year, she contacted me to check whether I would be available and interested,” McGrath recalls. “I ended up on the job and it was a fantastic project to be a part of.”
The special is presented in three ‘broadcast hour’ episodes running approximately 40 minutes each.
“It was quite tough,” says McGrath of telling the story, “because when we started doing this there were four parts to an hour, and then they changed the spec to five parts to an hour, and that gets quite restrictive…You have to learn to squeeze it all in in that amount of time and make the hard breaks your friends to move the story along.”
National Geographic was a sponsor of Fossey work, and as such, had a large vault of media that they made available for the project, including 300 hours of Super 16 footage that was transferred to 4K by Technicolor. In addition, there were around 5,000 stills available too.
“I’ve never had a job with so much material for a certain part of somebody’s life and so little for another part of their life,” says the editor, referring to Fossey’s early life and time spent when she initially went to Rwanda.
The production team created reenactments to help fill in storyline gaps by building a set that resembled the Karisoke research facility. The original facility was abandoned and destroyed during unrest in Rwanda in the ‘90s, so the production shot instead in Costa Rica.
The lack of material from Fossey’s early life made it tough to present the program as a traditional biography, notes McGrath.
“It was quite difficult to take a [chapter] approach because of the lack of material, especially from the early part of her life,” he explains. “We tried to interweave two elements: the biography of Dian Fossey, but also the unsolved murder of the same woman. It wasn’t your standard structure at all.”
McGrath spent the first six months assembling an offline edit from his home studio, which is equipped with an Avid Media Composer running on an HP Z440 workstation.
New material was shot in 5.5K using a Red camera. Additional footage included 4K, HD and SD material. Several times a week, the team at Tigress Productions (www.tigressproductions.co.uk) in Bristol, UK, would send a hard drive with the latest rushes, which McGrath would then transfer to his LaCie Thunderbolt drive.
“I was mirroring the drive structure that they had in Britsol onto my system here,” he explains. “The sad thing is that very little audio material survived from that time period, despite that a lot of material was shot. It was just picture that we were able to draw upon, but some of it is quite beautiful.”
McGrath says that viewers get to know Fossey and the gorillas in the first episode. “In the second episode, we come to understand the enemies that she made, the situation that she was in, and the events that led up to her death,” he notes. The third, final episode reflects on the aftermath of her murder, the case itself and the reverberations that it’s had.”
Films at 59 Bristol (www.filmsat59.com) provided post services for the project, including additional edit suites, color grading and online. The final project was delivered in the 1080/23.98fps format.
“It has to be factual, but we approached it like it was a thriller, in turns of murder, and romance, in terms of her life,” says McGrath. “We looked at the elements always as if it was a feature drama we were making with the documentary elements at our disposal.”