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.
As I walked up the stairs in Jackson Lake Lodge to the lobby for the first time, my breath was taken away by the incredible view of the Teton mountain range through the 60-foot windows before me. And as if that wasn’t already enough, the murmurs from hotel guests about a grizzly bear outside eating an elk carcass confirmed to me that this was a place well suited to hosting America’s best known wildlife film festival.
This year’s festival was preceded by a conservation summit discussing elephant conservation, which featured awe-inspiring talks from speakers such as Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole and Iain Douglas-Hamilton on their experiences with elephants, and their respective projects working to protect them. The “UWE 5” (Alice Marlow, Ida May Jones, Ben Morris-French, Nick Poole, Tom Richards) were tasked mostly with filming these keynote speeches, and so we were lucky enough to listen as these giants of the conservation world warned us of what needs to be done, not just in conservation but in filmmaking as well.
As the week progressed it was hard to distinguish between conservation summit and film festival, not least because so many of the big films had a conservation message. Racing Extinction was one in particular that I was excited about, and it didn’t disappoint – I don’t think there was anyone in the screening who wasn’t visibly moved by the film, and it deservedly won the Best Theatrical award at the Teton Awards Gala. The winner of the coveted Grand Teton was former Silverback Films producer James Reed with his film about the life of a Bajau hunter, and it didn’t disappoint: a compelling tale of a man’s relationship with the ocean with stunning underwater cinematography, Jago: A Life Underwater is truly an enchanting film.
After a week of filming, driving, setting things up, taking them down, meeting people and watching great films, the “UWE 5” were suitably shattered. But after being in such an inspirational place among so many passionate filmmakers, we’ll all go back to work with much renewed vigour and aspirations to make films like the ones we’ve seen in Jackson.
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.
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!
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?
It’s been nearly 2 weeks since I returned from Lagos, and I have been pretty busy. I’ve had 2 interviews – one for the RSPB and one for my MA Wildlife Filmmaking course – and while the preparation for them hasn’t been too difficult, it has been rather time consuming, involving watching a lot of wildlife documentaries to familiarise myself with some of the finer details of my favourite programmes. I’d totally forgotten how awesome some of the really early Attenborough stuff is – the first episode of Zoo Quest for a Dragon where a young David brings home Charlie the Orangutan is incredibly heart-warming, and if you haven’t seen it before I suggest you go watch it here.
Anyway, so the first interview was last Friday morning, and it was the more important one – the one for my Masters. It was a lot shorter than I expected being only about 25 minutes long (I thought it would be an hour at least), so I didn’t have enough time to talk about all of the things I wanted to, but it was interesting and I really enjoyed it. I was interviewed by 2 BBC employees, and they started by explaining that we didn’t have very long and that the interview would last about 20 minutes followed by a short writing task, so that set the pace. We briefly talked about what interested me about the industry, why I wanted to do the course etc (all the obvious questions), and then went on to the more challenging part which was more of a judge of my creativity and teamwork. They asked me about what I liked most about my favourite programmes, and then asked me about what other mediums I thought I could use to connect with an audience: I talked about sound (I realise now that was probably meant to be more of a question about multiple platforms, but you can’t win them all…), and how most people don’t really think about sound in wildlife documentaries but that its crucial in creating atmosphere (the foley sound in Hidden Kingdoms, for example, made it more likeable for younger viewers). That seemed to get a good response and they mentioned that they’d read in my application that I like to DJ, so I talked about different layers of sounds and how mixing music could be similar to producing the sound for a wildlife documentary – having the right blend of atmospheric sound with the sounds of the main characters of the sequence coming through. Then came my favourite part of the interview, where they created a production scenario to see what I would do…
“Imagine you’ve completed your masters, it’s 5 years down the line and you’re directing some filming in South Africa. You’re on a boat off the coast filming sharks, and there’s only 2 days left available to film. A storm is coming, and you aren’t getting on with the guy driving the boat. What do you do?”
I mean, that’s a pretty awesome question to have in an interview! Although I didn’t really have any idea what to say, as it’s not the sort of thing I’ve ever come across before. I said a few things about asking people’s advice and different options (is there another team somewhere that can get footage? Is it the sort of thing there might be stock footage of?), and then we moved on to looking at some of my photos and the written task, which was a short synopsis of a chapter in a book about a man hunting with his dog. It’s always difficult to gauge how well you do in an interview, especially when it’s so short, but I think it went OK and I guess we’ll see before the end of this week…
The second interview, which I had on Monday, was for a job selling membership to the RSPB. Again, it was actually pretty enjoyable – mostly just talking about wildlife and a few different scenarios testing how friendly and persistent I might be with people while out in the field. I had to give a short presentation about a project the RSPB are currently running, so I chose the “Birds Without Borders” campaign, which is all about protecting our migrant species internationally across their migration routes. It’s supported by Chris Packham who has been in Malta trying to raise awareness about the “Spring hunting” (read: indiscriminate shooting of anything with wings, including many of our protected migrant species), something which he is now being held by the Maltese police for filming. If you haven’t already been following his Youtube series, Malta – Massacre on Migration, you should definitely check it out.
Anyway, with the results of my RSPB interview back I’m excited to say I have a new job, which I start training for next Tuesday. In the mean time, I’ve set up my new Bushnell trail cam that my mother bought me for my birthday, which I’m hoping will give me a bit more of an insight into some of the nocturnal goings on in my garden. It’s mating season for the foxes at the moment, something which is hard to miss as the distinctly unromantic, scream-like cries they make cause our dogs to go mental; so I thought why not see if I can get some good photos or even footage? So far I’ve experimented with a couple of different places looking into neighbours’ gardens (the presence of our dogs means foxes don’t come into our gardens as much), and while I haven’t got anything mindblowing yet, I did get the below shot of a fox so at least I’m looking in the right place! This weekend I’m taking the trail cam down to Cornwall to put out and see what we can find around her farm, so check back in next week and I’ll put up any good photos we get!