In 1957, the BBC invited a young zoologist by the name of David Attenborough to head a new unit, the Natural History Unit, based in Bristol. Having just settled in London with his family he declined, and it wasn’t until 1973 and Eastwards with Attenborough – a series following an expedition to South East Asia with Attenborough as the presenter – that he joined the NHU. The series that followed was Life on Earth, and 15 million Brits watched as he revealed to everyone how incredible the natural world is, and crucially, that it makes great television. It’s now 57 years since the NHU was established; Sir David is a national hero and Bristol is still the place to be for natural history filmmaking…
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to go to an event ran by Bristol Festival of Nature called “Made in Bristol: The Story of Wildlife Film’s Tinseltown”, celebrating the huge success of the wildlife film industry in Bristol. The evening invited Mike Gunton (executive producer of Africa) and Keith Scholey (director of Disneynature’s African Cats) to talk to Brian Leith (Human Planet, Wild China) about why Bristol is the “Hollywood” of wildlife film, and how you go about making a blockbuster.
The evening began with a brief introduction by Brian Leith about how Bristol has changed since he first started working there. He talked about the fact that without the BBC NHU the wildlife film industry wouldn’t be where it is today, and how Bristol too owes a great deal to the presence of the unit there. He then moved on to talk about some of the groundbreaking series and films that have been made in the city, and how the success of those films has brought the attention of Hollywood, in the form of Disneynature. I was hoping he might talk briefly about the new Disneynature film he’s part of (Born in China), or even about the human/animal interaction focused films that he makes; unfortunately his role for the evening remained as a host, nothing more.
On to the first presentation, by Mike Gunton. As the creative director of the NHU, he had a lot of stories from across the years he’s worked there getting to where he is now. One particular story involved how (in his words) he “nearly killed” David Attenborough by asking him to present a piece to camera underground in the heart of a termite mount (watch it here) in Nigeria for Trials of Life, which apparently he did while being bitten by hundreds of angry termites. He also talked a bit about the trials of making Frozen Planet, and how some of the filming firsts also contributed to science – the brinicle formation sequence (here), for example, has helped scientists understand such a weird phenomenon and see what it looks like without having to hang out in freezing temperatures underwater.
While stories are great, what I really came for was insight into the process of transforming an idea into a great film, and Keith Scholey duly provided for in that respect. He talked a lot about the different stages of making African Cats, from selling the idea to Disney without a script, to how to film a cheetah hunting at speeds all but impossible to follow while filming out of the side of a jeep. Apparently, the way to do it is to film in two parts – first you film the cheetah stalking its prey and approaching the point where it begins to sprint after it, then you have to drive around in a big loop to the rough location where the kill will be made, in time to see it happen. Quite frankly it baffles me how anyone could successfully judge the distance and direction that the cheetah would be likely to run, but knowing your subject and years of practice clearly allowed for Simon King and Sophie Darlington to get the shots that they needed.
One of the highlights of the evening for me came in the questions at the end. Award-winning underwater cameraman Doug Allen asked a question which I always wonder, which is “Why don’t the BBC make more films with key natural world issues such as conservation and climate change as themes, especially given that the majority of the documentaries, particularly blue chip, portray the natural world as being pristine and perfect?”. Most of what was said in response was quite watery, in my opinion: a bit was said about the “issue focused” episodes that increasingly come at the end of blue chip documentaries (Frozen Planet, Africa for example), and Scholey made some comments along the lines of it not being the responsibility of the BBC and that audiences want to be entertained rather than preached to. I think he has a point about entertaining audiences – you only have to look at how many popular sensationalist wildlife programmes there are, in America in particular (there are a lot out there with “killer”, “monster”, or “dangerous” in the title), to see that what often sells is not good education. As far as responsibility goes however, I have to disagree. Leaving aside the fact that the BBC still operates as a public service and has a duty to educate, every filmmaker creating something for the BBC (or any other channel, on TV or through other mediums) that knows they will reach a wide audience has an opportunity to educate its viewers.
In the same way that a musician has a responsibility for how they influence their fans, filmmakers have a responsibility for how they influence their viewers: reaching an audience provides an opportunity to provide people with information. If 7/8 episodes of a series show wildlife thriving and the natural world looking beautifully pristine, then people are likely to assume that that’s mostly how things are.
For me it comes down to the fact that without the natural world, we wouldn’t be able to make films about it. You wouldn’t make a Hollywood blockbuster without paying the actors, so why don’t filmmakers in Bristol give something back to their stars by inspiring viewers to care about the environment or conservation?