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Exclusive clip: Fox, Plimsoll execs on the broadcaster’s “great first step” into wildlife

01/04/21

Fox marks its entry into the premium wildlife space this Sunday (April 4) with Plimsoll Productions’ Malika The Lion Queen.

“This is a space we at Fox have been looking to enter; but we wanted to be strategic about it and the premise had to be something big and broad that would appeal to all viewers. When Grant [Mansfield] and Tom [Hugh-Jones] pitched Malika, I knew straight away it was right for us,” Rob Wade (pictured left), president of alternative entertainment and specials at Fox Entertainment, tells Realscreen.

The series — executive produced by Plimsoll’s Tom Hugh-Jones, Martha Holmes and Grant Mansfield – travels to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the home of lioness Malika.

Narrated by Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett, the special takes viewers into the life of the lioness, exploring the role the animals play in the lion kingdom.

Plimsoll, with offices in Bristol, Cardiff and Los Angeles, has produced for such clients as Netflix, Apple, Disney, National Geographic, CNN, Fox, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The company’s natural history slate includes such titles as Tiny World, Night on Earth and Hostile Planet.

“Tom and Grant are talented storytellers who know this space so well,” Wade says. “We knew our first foray into wildlife had to be something that captured the emotion and wonder of nature, all centered on a charismatic character – in this case Malika. And by layering in Angela Bassett as narrator, the Plimsoll team have delivered an incredible special.”

“Malika is a great first step for Fox into the wildlife/nature area and we’ll continue to look deeper into the genre to tell more stories and take viewers away on journeys they’ve never imagined.”

Malika The Lion Queen premieres April 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT and will be available to stream on Fox’s Tubi beginning April 18.

Realscreen caught up with Hugh-Jones (pictured below, left), creative director of natural history for Plimsoll Productions, and Mansfield (right), Plimsoll CEO, to talk about the special, producing through the pandemic and expanding into the U.S.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Could you talk about the origin of the film — How long has this project been in the works? And when did Fox and Angela Bassett get on board?

Tom Hugh-Jones: The idea of making a film about lionesses came to me whilst watching the Lion King with my kids about two years ago. It struck me that it was quite male-centric, so I started thinking about a more empowering take that celebrated the role females play within a pride and mirrored the struggles many girls face as they too grow up strong in our own male-dominated society. It seemed such a simple, catchy and current angle, and I was surprised to see it hadn’t been done before. I knew that an emotional narrative would be key to making the film relatable, so I always imagined this being told first person rather than in a more traditional “voice of God” style of delivery.

When Fox commissioned the piece, I was really pleased to hear they had a similar vision for the narrator, and we started focusing in on a prominent woman who could bring personality as well as strength and charm to the read. Angela was a perfect fit, and we were thrilled that she agreed to do it.

How does the documentary fit into the company’s efforts to expand its client base in the U.S.? Could you share any details about those plans?

Grant Mansfield: More than three quarters of our work is already produced for the U.S. and the recent appointment to the Plimsoll board of former WME partner Mark Itkin reflects our belief that the company’s stateside expansion will continue. Although we are big providers of natural history content across many U.S. networks and platforms, we are thrilled and honored to have Fox as our first broadcast partner.

What were some of the main challenges in producing this documentary through the pandemic?

THJ: This film was completed during peak pandemic and that brought enormous challenges throughout. Finding a location where we could safely film was the first hurdle; every time we thought we had found a suitable option it got shut down. By the time we settled on South Africa, we were well behind schedule and we still had to direct the film remotely. Luckily, we found an excellent local team to work in the field and eventually managed to get our kit shipped out to them. Then, there were all the creative challenges of post-production whilst working from home. I still can’t quite believe we managed to pull off such an ambitious project during lockdown. It is a testament to what can be achieved with a little determination and a huge team effort.

Could you speak to some of the technologies and storytelling devices used to bring the film to life?

THJ: We deployed the array of cameras you might expect on a high-end wildlife show — shooting in UHD, mounting stabilized gimbals on vehicles, flying drones, and using thermal imaging and low light cameras for night filming.  What I love about the film, though, is that it doesn’t rely on imagery and trick shots to engage — the technology is only there to better capture the story we wanted to tell. In my mind the real innovation is in the first-person narrative and the character development. We only had a short filming window and we couldn’t rely on endless explosive behaviors to fill the 90-minute special, so instead we really worked on how to make the most of the quieter moments to bring more character and emotion to the piece.

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