You’ve Seen the YouTube Video; Now Try the Documentary
There is a moment of foreshadowing at the end of “Battle at Kruger,” the eight-minute African safari video that has drawn more than 30 million views on YouTube.
David Budzinski, a tourist from Texas, has just recorded a stunning scene straight out of a wildlife documentary. A small pride of lions and a crocodile have pinned down a cape buffalo calf, prompting an angry herd of buffalo to fight off the predators and save the babe. A fellow traveler remarks, “You could sell that video!”
After returning home, Mr. Budzinski tried, but National Geographic and Animal Planet were not interested. Only after the battle — alternately terrifying and heart-warming — became one of the most popular videos in YouTube’s history did the buyers come calling. Last summer the National Geographic Channel purchased the television rights to the video, and on Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern time, it will devote an hour to a documentary deconstructing the drama.
“We look at YouTube too, just like everybody else,” said Michael Cascio, the senior vice president for special programming at the National Geographic Channel.
Several television series — including ABC’s summer show “i-Caught,” CW’s short-lived “Online Nation” and CNN Headline News’s “News to Me” — have tried to translate the Internet’s user-generated content to television. In fact, “i-Caught” featured a report on the Kruger video.
But “Caught on Safari: Battle at Kruger” is believed to be the first hourlong documentary to be inspired by a YouTube clip.
The quality of Mr. Budzinski’s video contradicts the increasingly outdated dog-on-a-skateboard stereotype of YouTube. The site, which had more than 3.4 billion video views in February, now serves up seemingly every type of video in existence. Still, the wildlife tug of war stands out. National Geographic screens nature videos every day, “and this is an incredible sequence by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Cascio said.
Indeed, the producers found that it was rather easy to fill an hour talking about the short video. The documentary dissects the primal behavior of the animals and answers a question that aspiring videographers have asked: how did he get that shot?
The “battle” happened in September 2004, during Mr. Budzinski’s first visit to Africa, at the Kruger National Park in the northeastern corner of South Africa. Mr. Budzinski, who works as a supply manager for Chevron in Houston, was riding in the back of a sport utility vehicle with his wife, two other tourists and a tour guide. The guide, spotting lions sunning themselves by a watering hole near where a herd of buffalo was walking by, decided to see what would happen. Before long the lions attacked the herd, singling out a buffalo calf and overwhelming it by the water’s edge. By the time a crocodile had entered the fierce fight, Mr. Budzinski said, he was thinking about turning the camera off.
“I didn’t want to see a bloody mess,” he said in an interview.
But then the story shifted. On the video the hissing of crocodiles and the snarling of lions subsides. The herd of buffalo returns in force to surround the lions and protect the offspring. Adhering to the short-form spirit of YouTube, the complete tale concludes in slightly more than eight minutes.
“It’s a feel-good story,” Mr. Budzinski said. “It’s like watching a Disney story.”
Frank Watts, the safari guide, compared the experience to a meteorite’s hitting Earth. “They probably hit Earth quite regularly, but nobody sees them, and no one photographs it,” he says in the documentary. “I don’t know of anybody who’s ever seen anything like this before.”
Sensing they had just witnessed something special, Jason Schlosberg, another member of the safari group, asked Mr. Budzinski for a copy of the video. Mr. Budzinski tried unsuccessfully to sell it to television networks. “They all told us the same thing — they don’t accept any footage from amateurs,” he said.
For almost three years the film essentially sat on the shelf. But a year ago, when Mr. Schlosberg used YouTube to share the video with a friend — it was easier than making a DVD copy and mailing it, he said — “Battle at Kruger” started spreading virally on the Internet. Before long, National Geographic contacted Mr. Schlosberg, who in turn called Mr. Budzinski. That tourist turned online star had never heard of YouTube.
The two men struck a deal to share in the profits. Mr. Schlosberg, a photographer, now sells prints of the video clip and runs battleatkruger.com, listing merchandising and licensing opportunities.
The National Geographic Channel producers took Mr. Budzinski back to Kruger National Park to film the scenes needed for the television version: the group riding in the S.U.V., the tour guide pointing toward the watering hole, the cameraman zooming in. But the documentary ends with the real action: the original YouTube video.
Enhanced by professionals, the television video is clearly superior to the blurry and heavily compressed version viewed online. Then again, television viewers can’t immediately comment on the video, share it with friends or produce a video response.
Mr. Cascio called the documentary “complementary” to the online video. “We were able to add depth and context,” he said. Wildlife experts analyze the methodology of the lions’ attack, discuss the herd behavior of buffalo and predict whether the buffalo calf will survive the attack. (In the original video it is seen walking shakily back into the herd.)
While some YouTube viewers were fascinated by the behavior of the animals, others marveled at Mr. Budzinski’s ability to train his wife’s Canon ZR50MC camera steadily on the action. He was equally surprised: he had little experience with the camera and says he was very lucky that day.
In the documentary Richard Goss, a wildlife filmmaker for National Geographic, admits he would have loved to have been there with a high-definition camera. But, he says, “any film sequence that is revealing and as spectacular as that, I just admire, whoever it’s shot by.”