Something quick I wrote today about a wildlife videographer, only the wildlife she's filming is a pair of dragons in a crazy-huge forest and she's a sphinx.
Xiahyra is one of those places you believe from books and movies to be a dreamland of pristine giant forests, but when you get there turns quickly into a nightmare world of enormous flesh-eating insects and a hundred different kinds of mold that will kill you if you so much as look at them wrong. Of course, it’s the wildlife that attracts natural history documentarians such as my employer, but he wasn’t the one crouching in a hide 200 feet up a tree.
Not that I’m complaining. Wildlife camerawork is my passion, it’s just that when your wings are cramping after twelve hours being twisted the wrong way in a box built for a human videographer, you start to call your life choices into question. Being a sphinx in this business certainly has its advantages, but it inevitably has its drawbacks as well. The ability to fly up this 200 foot tree wouldn’t be that impressive a feat if I couldn’t get myself down because my primary feathers were folded in half for an entire day.
Still… even after twelve hours in that tiny humid box, my biggest concern was getting the shot. I was waiting for an animal caught on film only two times in history: the glass clingini.
Technically, the glass clingini isn’t all that rare, just incredibly hard to spot, easily startled, and found exclusively in the Xiahyran high canopy. An inconvenient species of dragon, but one my boss, director Geoff Gutored, insisted was absolutely necessary for the documentary. I had no doubt the footage would be groundbreaking… If I could get it.
The hide was situated across a from an empty nest made by the creatures, with a span of open space before it. My telephoto lens had been trained on the unassuming clump of sticks and leaves all day, but my ears were pointed in every other direction, listening carefully for the chime-like jingling that would mark the clinginies’ return.
The thing that goes through my head in these situations, looping over and over like an alarm with a broken button, is the fear that just by being there I had already doomed the shoot. Every wildlife photographer or videographer thinks the same thing when they’re waiting for their subject to show itself, and half the time they’re absolutely right. Animals aren’t always eager to be on camera.
But this time, I was lucky. My heart flipped in my chest when I heard jingling wingbeats approaching, and immediately the camera was rolling. I waited, not daring to move to look for them.
There! Sunlight glinted off transparent wing membranes as they battered the air. I zoomed in slowly. The clingini was hovering in midair a few feet above the nest, and I’d never seen a living creature that looked so intangible. The two foot long dragon looked as fragile as its namesake, translucent white and blue-green; light passed through it like frosted glass, and the beating double-wings were nearly invisible. So ethereal I was sure it would dissolve like a ghost any second.
The clingini was joined by another just behind and below it, and I carefully shifted focus. Beautiful!
The two clinginies flew just a few inches down closer to the nest and out of the sunlight, and were suddenly impossible to see through the viewfinder. I zoomed out a little and kept the camera steady on faith that they were still there, either going down to the nest or still hovering. One set of wingbeats stopped abruptly. I guessed one of them must have landed, so I focused in on the nest. A moment later I saw the dragon carefully making its way to the entrance, creeping on all six of its limbs. It paused to look over its shoulder and whistle at its partner, then slithered inside and disappeared. The wingbeats of the other clingini quickly faded away with distance.
Over the next few hours as evening came, I got occasional shots of the resident poking its spiky little face out of the nest to look around. I began to grow excited that I might get the shot I was here for: the glass clinginies’ fabled nighttime light show.
Few had ever witnessed it, and none had filmed it. My tail feathers quivered for a while, but I calmed down when the sunlight began to fade. I had to switch to my long exposure settings before I lost the light.
People ask me all the time how I operate a camera, which is essentially a box made of tiny buttons and knobs, with cat paws. I am forced to remind them, or sometimes show them, that I don’t have paws, I just have very paw-like hands. Fur and pads and claws, sure, but also fingers. Still, I do rely more heavily on presets than I think my colleagues do, but that might be laziness more than inability to fiddle with buttons.
Anyway, as the sun set, my fingers wandered over to my preset panel under the stiff canvas barney and I found the button I was looking for. The camera switched over to the settings I figured out on the ground the night before. This was going well. I’d completely forgotten the ache in my wings and the bugs in my fur.
This is the story I tell when I want to impress people. I tell them about, or if I have a copy of the movie with me I show them, the most beautiful thing I’d ever filmed: two dragons made of soft, yellow-green light dancing with each other through a pitch-black forest under the stars. I still pinch myself to this day that I was able to get those shots. I was moving the camera around way too much trying to keep the fast little dragons in the frame, but they didn’t seem to mind my rustling noises. Perhaps at that point they were too entranced in their ritual to notice me.
My colleague Kyo Hanson tells me those shots are what made the film Fire Dancers worth watching. The documentary focused on the more unusual or enigmatic mating rituals dragons sometimes display, and Kyo himself supplied more than half of the footage. He was responsible for the film’s ten glorious minutes of male orchid dragons on the island of Otoland, making my three minutes of bioluminescent clinginies seem paltry. Still, the documentary won more than a dozen awards, frequently citing the glass clingini scene. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments.