Inspiration and High Standards from Last Year’s MA Wildlife Filmmakers

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After a year of honing their wildlife filmmaking skills, on Thursday the day finally came for last year’s students to show their films at the BBC Natural History Unit. Eager to see how high the bar would be set, this year’s students sat among employees from both the BBC and the independent sector as they came to consider the standard of the next generation of filmmakers.

Introductions from BBC Executive Producer Julian Hector, and UWE’s Susan McMillan and Peter Venn set the stage, and attendees were provided with some extra reading: profiles and CVs of each student, as well as a collection of press releases written on the talks they were given and the many extracurricular projects they were involved in throughout the last year. The booklets listed impressive sets of skills and experiences gained throughout the duration of the course, which made for some exciting reading for my colleagues and I – an exciting snapshot of what the rest of our year might bring.

The films were diverse in both species and location, ranging from a studio-based film about mice to one featuring snow leopards shot in the Himalayas; a number of them were very impressive considering that the films were made on a shoestring budget. The three films chosen to be screened first were Walking with Wolves, Wildlife, Who Cares? and Wild Dreams, and between them they showcased abilities to tell a range of different stories from the conservation-based, to the goings on of a wildlife rescue centre, to being able to put together a story when the original plan becomes impossible. Looking at the quality of films that we saw I couldn’t help but feel inspired, but also daunted at the prospect of making films that live up to the same standard. The bar has been set for the year to come, better get back to work.

#MyAutumn Film for BBC Autumnwatch

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Been busy the last couple of weeks with Wildscreen festival and editing a video for BBC Autumnwatch as part of #MyAutumn on Facebook. The video was just posted, so go ahead and view it in it’s proper format on the Autumnwatch Facebook page here. It’s about invisible migration of blackbirds into the UK over the autumn months, enjoy!


Alastair Fothergill on The Making of Planet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet

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Since I’ve been too busy on my course lately to write anything that I’m, not going to get credit for (sorry!), here’s a press release I wrote for a talk my coursemates and I went to…

Alastair Fothergill has produced some of the best natural history films to come out of the BBC, and in the last decade has emerged one of the genre’s most prominent pioneers. On Thursday, he gave a talk about some of his finest films in aid of the Starfish Pool Appeal, a campaign to raise money for a hydrotherapy pool for children with disabilities at Claremont Secondary School. A presentation of both footage and the stories behind the making of the biggest landmark series’ produced by Fothergill, the evening was entertaining for everyone in attendance, from families to filmmakers.

Introduced as a “true legend in Natural History film making”, Fothergill began the evening by sharing some of his early career aspirations, explaining that he wanted to make natural history films to paint a portrait of our planet, and the complex animals, plants, and landscapes that make it so beautiful. Before Blue Planet, there hadn’t been many films made about the oceans, and with footage such as that of the deep ocean viewers were shown new landscapes and behaviours they’d never seen before. Five years later, Planet Earth was a series of portraits of different habitats, and viewers were blown away by sequences such as that of the snow leopard; the first time the animal had been caught on camera. Equally as enthralling is the story behind the camera – sharing the area of the Karakorum mountain range with US soldiers looking for Osama Bin Laden, the cameramen had to wait a year for the area to be cleared.

Fothergill admitted that he owes much of the success of Planet Earth to the technology: new gadgets like the gimbal-stabilised helicopter rig allowed for complete sequences to be filmed from the air for the first time. New camera technology that allowed cameras to work in extreme cold conditions meant that filming for Frozen Planet could continue throughout the year, allowing the story of the seasons at the poles to be told. Despite this however someone still had to be there to operate those cameras, and Fothergill told stories of cameramen floating away on ice sheets, and even recording messages for their wives in case they didn’t survive one particularly bad blizzard.

The end of the talk brought a range of questions from the audience, and we learned that Fothergill’s favourite animal is a chimpanzee, and his favourite place is South Georgia, despite the cold. He also told of his frustration that such big spectacles that he sees when on location are often not done justice being shown on small screens, something which has recently caused him to move into feature films for Disneynature. His desire to reach a large audience however has brought him back to television, as he believes it is important to inspire the younger generation to connect with and respect the natural world. And if he keeps making films like he showed on Thursday, I do believe he will continue to do so.

First Week on a New Course

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So the day I’d been waiting for all summer finally arrived, and I have now begun the MA Wildlife Filmmaking course at UWE. It’s only been 10 days and it’s already pretty exciting!

We began on a Thursday morning with the standard sort of university induction you get at the beginning of any higher education course (where the library is, how to catch a bus, who to talk to if you have a mental breakdown etc). After about half an hour of sitting with the other BBC collaborative courses wondering when we would get to the interesting stuff, we finally moved to another room to talk about Wildlife Filmmaking. It became apparent that we’re all going to be pretty busy for the next year, with hectic and unpredictable timetables that will be filled (often last minute) with talks from whichever BBC employees are free to impart some of their invaluable knowledge to us, and the expectation is that we will spend most of our free time developing our own skills or reading (watching) things to help us develop our understanding of the industry. We are expected to act professionally and as if we are BBC employees, and should think of ourselves as a production team, which feels much more exciting than just being on a masters course! The rest of that day was spent absorbing information from BBC employees, as we sat wide eyed at the back of a BBC Natural History Unit meeting seeing what the NHU is currently working on. I think its going to be a fun year…

Since then we’ve mostly been spending our time learning the fundamentals of filmmaking and getting to grips with the kit we’ll be using to make our films. We’ve had workshops on the Sony FS700, sound recording, and today we learned a bit about telephoto and macro lenses – filming some creepy crawlies in a set we’d built in a studio. Now that we’ve learnt the basics of our kit, we’re allowed to take it out on our own to do some filming, so watch this space to see some footage of wildlife shot by yours truly, very soon!

An Albanian Orthopteran

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When deciding on possible holiday destinations, the Mediterranean offers a plethora of options: whether one prefers to relax on a beach, eat delicious food, soak up some culture or engage in some more adventurous activity, holidaymakers are spoilt for choice. One country that might not come up in the average conversation of where to go however, is Albania – which is where my girlfriend, Louise, and I decided to visit earlier this month. When I told my friends that’s where we were going, I did get some strange looks (one because they had confused Albania with Algeria), but I’d done a bit of research and the “Albanian Riviera” sounded like a great place to go. I wasn’t wrong – set between a beach and a dramatic mountain backdrop, Dhërmi is a lazy town where the main activities consist of eating, drinking, sunbathing and swimming. Other than ticking all the boxes for a relaxing beach holiday it was relatively quiet, with the vast majority of other tourists appearing to be Albanians, and in fact the noisiest thing was the cicadas in the olive groves around our bungalow.

While I didn’t manage to get a photo of a cicada, I did get some photos of this stunning little insect who hung out in our porch for a couple of days. At first I thought it was a cricket, but while I was trying to identify it I came across this helpful page from the University of Florida, which made me think it might be a katydid – it looks in the photo below that there are 3 segments to the tarsi (at the end of the leg, what one might call a “foot”), which according to the Orthoptera order tree on the linked page defines it as a katydid. After progressing with the key offered on this page and my photos as reference, my best guess is that it is from the subfamily Tettigoniinae (shield-backed katydids), although I haven’t yet found any way to identify the species online. If anyone reading this knows of the species or could suggest a way I might be able to identify it, please comment or leave a message on my Contact page. Alternatively, if you’d rather go and find one for yourself, you can book to stay at Altea Beach Lodges here.

Stunning Damselfly!

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Saw this stunning damselfly while walking in Nonsuch park the other day. It looks like the head has been mostly bitten off by a predator, which is unfortunate (for me as well as the damselfly) as I’d love to have seen it flying with those beautiful, iridescent wings. From looking at a few common species of damselfly I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a male beautiful demoiselle, which is a little puzzling seeing as their habitat (according to the British Dragonfly Society website) is usually the bankside vegetation of rivers and streams, and the place where I found it was fair from either. Given its state of “post decapitation”, I wonder if a bird could have predated it elsewhere and brought it back to the park, discarding it after eating the nutritious head. Nevertheless, I’ll keep an eye out for one that hasn’t shuffled off it’s mortal coil, as it were.

Wildscreen 2014 Nominees

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It’s just over 4 months until Wildscreen Festival 2014 and my excitement levels are beginning to rise! Tickets are on sale, speed pitching applications have opened, and the list of nominees has been released, filling my TV-watching schedule from now until the festival. There’s a few immediately recognisable titles on the list – David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive, Animal Odd Couples, Dolphin: Spy in the Pod, Chimpanzee to name a few – and many more that I’m sure contain a plethora of magic moments I am yet to discover.

There’s a couple in particular that I’m really excited to see in the list of nominees. The first, nominated for the People & Nature Award, is The Bat Man Of Mexico, one of the current Natural World series that I’m really enjoying. The programme follows Rodrigo Medellin, a conservationist who has dedicated his life to saving bats in his home country, Mexico, where the majority of the population regard bats as dirty, vermin of the skies. He tells fascinating stories about his life in the service of his favourite animals (including having to feed vampire bats from his own blood) and embarks upon a journey tracking the lesser long-nosed bat as it migrates across the country. An important pollinator of the agave plant, join Rodrigo as he works to save not only the animal he loves, but also his favourite drink, tequila. Watch it on iPlayer here, but you better hurry – there’s only 3 days left!

The second nominee that I’m particularly excited about is for the Newcomer Award, and it’s a film called We Are Rhino. The film is by Spencer Austin, who was a student on the Wildlife Filmmaking course that I’m about to start (the film was made for assessment on the course), and it looks at 3 different approaches to rhino conservation in South Africa. Follow a rhino farmer, sanctuary owner and anti-poaching soldier – all with very different views – as they all dedicate their lives to putting into practice what they feel is the solution for saving the rhino from exctinction. It’s a great film, and it’s really exciting for me to think that I might finish my course with the necessary skills to make something so powerful. Watch it below and if, like me, you feel like your excitement bubbling up inside you… Why not buy a ticket to Wildscreen Festival? Early bird tickets are on sale until August.