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Wildlife Telly Over the Christmas Period

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Christmas. A time for some of the worst television of the year – endless nostalgia programmes, repeats of Christmas specials and a whole channel dedicated to watching Jamie Oliver cook Christmas dinner for his family. A time when the potential to broadcast to a large viewing audience is at it’s peak, and yet for some reason commissioners decide that what everyone really wants to see is what was on last Christmas, and the Christmas before that, oh and then let’s just listen to the Queen answer the world’s problems with a Christmas tree anecdote and a quote from the bible. And so, like last year, we sit through our yearly dose of Christmas specials and a particularly ridiculous episode of Eastenders.

While there probably wasn’t anything in the natural history genre this year to rival the Queen’s speech or Eastenders for viewing figures, if you did manage to sort through the usual festive rubbish there was actually some good wildlife TV to choose from. The most obvious attempt from the genre to bring in a large Christmas audience was Snow Chick, the latest from John Downer Productions in filming a species’ most intimate moments. The camera work was fantastic as can be expected from JDP, and there were some touching scenes like the one where a chick finds its way into a huddle for the first time and is embraced by the huddle of other chicks rotating to keep warm. The show had a good balance of humour and “aw” factor, and while it was a bit mushy for me (made worse by Kate Winslet’s narration), it was entertaining and well suited to a BBC One Christmas audience.

The rest of the natural history output throughout the festive period however, seemed to be dominated by something new for Christmas television: conservation. I had heard some big words about more conservation on the BBC from commissioning editor Lucinda Axelsson at Jackson Hole in October, but while I was pleased to hear the BBC talking the talk I didn’t expect to see them walking the walk so soon. The conservation/climate change episode at the end of The Hunt was much more than the usually quite weak message buried under stunning BBC blue chip images; this time an entire epsiode was focused on discussing the issues and showing the people working to conserve our natural world. And that was just the beginning – the successful Gordon Buchanan “Family & Me” format continued this year with Gorilla Family & Me, and the second of this 2-part series was about the different ways that the rangers and other staff at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park are conserving Grauer’s gorillas and their forest home. Gorilla Family for me was a landmark for the BBC in it’s balance between an emotional story, investigative science, and a proper discussion on conservation. The viewer is introduced to the gorillas through Buchanan in the first episode, and by the end of the hour is drawn into the incredible experience it must have been to meet Chimanuka and his family. Thermal imaging cameras bring the scientific element – we haven’t seen gorillas at night before – and then by the second episode the audience is primed for a discussion on the conservation of these magnificent beasts. Buchanan talks to the rangers about the dangerous work they do fighting poachers, and we hear about their hope for ecotourism in the future – something Buchanan even gets involved in directly as he helps them to habituate a new gorilla family to a white face. The engaging plot and structure of the series are clever but also work to prove that there are stories in conservation that translate well onto the screen; hopefully this will be something that we now see more of. Continuing on the subject of gorillas was ITV’s John Bishop’s Gorilla Adventure, where the comedian went to meet the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda who provide veterinary help to wild gorillas. Interesting that even ITV is showing a conservation story, and the programme managed to  not only highlight the plight of mountain gorillas but also discuss the region’s change from being one of volatility to one of peace and stability, with a strong sense of community. Quite heavy stuff for ITV, but an important story and again hopefully a sign of more like this to come for broadcast television.

It may be that it’s the 30th anniversary of the death of gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey that we’re suddenly seeing gorillas on TV this Christmas, or it could even be just that gorillas are on trend this year after Virunga. But hopefully, for whatever reason, conservation on TV is here to stay. I imagine Dian Fossey would have particularly enjoyed the new TV trend this Christmas. Let’s hope it’s one that continues into the new year.

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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.

Made in Bristol, Wildlife Film’s Tinseltown

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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?