Editor’s Note
November 2012
Fast Forward and Replay

I first saw the explosion of speed on the Serengeti Plain 24 years ago. With astonishing swiftness, the cheetah closed the gap between predator and prey, then lay beside the struggling Thomson’s gazelle with her jaws around his throat. I wanted a slow-motion replay to document that speed.

Cincinnati Zoo cheetah Tommy T—a young male—takes a nighttime run down the track.
Photo: Ken Geiger,
NGM Staff

Thirteen years later I tried for one on a grassy flat in Namibia. Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund had raised a cheetah she’d named Chewbaaka. To keep him fit, she’d trained him to chase a lure. Photo engineer Kenji Yamaguchi and I set up a dozen cameras programmed to fire eight frames a second in sequence. For more than a week Chewbaaka chased the lure. The results were disappointing. The cat did his job, but we didn’t have the technology to do ours. This summer, with the help of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative and Darlene and Jeff Anderson, we tried again. The Cincinnati Zoo offered its cheetahs, and cheetah guru Cathryn Hilker offered her expertise. A crew of Hollywood’s best set up a 400-foot-long track with a remote-control sled to keep pace with each cat. On the sled were a high-def digital cinema camera firing off 1,200 frames a second and three cameras shooting 42 frames a second in sequence. A 150,000-watt light illuminated the course. For three days the cheetahs did their job, but the results fell short of expectations. Finally, the last night, everything clicked. In this month’s issue and on our app, you’ll see these images of the fastest sprinter on Earth, inspired by a Serengeti cheetah 24 years ago.

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