Bristol

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.

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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?

 

Interviews and Garden News

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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!

    

Spring 2014 Update: A New Idea for a New Year

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I know it’s been a while since I posted anything on here, and that’s partly due to me not having anything worthwhile to post and partly due to my own laziness. But, I have decided to make a conscious effort to change my ways and become a much more regular blogger so be ready for much more frequent updates (I’m planning to at least do one every week from now on) on what I’m doing in order to begin a career in natural history film-making.

Since my last post from China, the one thing worth mentioning that I did do to contribute to my career is that I did sort of try and make a film. I say “sort of”, because I didn’t actually get around to filming, but that wasn’t really my fault. I’ll explain. While I was training Kung Fu, I came to learn that a lot of the different moves, particularly in the more traditional styles, have names that are more often than not related to specific animal behaviours. While performing “chicken stands on one leg” and “the tiger flicks its tail” I thought about the specific animal styles of Kung Fu that are fairly well known in contemporary Western culture, having been popularised by films such as Kung Fu Panda. What was it that the old masters created the styles from? Was it observation of genuine agressive behaviours in animals that inspired these styles? Or did they create styles based on symbolism and personification of the animals?

And so I set about researching some of the animal styles and comparing them to the way the real animals fight, which is the premise for my idea. I discovered that some of the styles – for example Praying Mantis – copied the body mechanics of their natural counterparts, whereas others appear more to capture the “spirit” of the animal, for example the fierceness of the Tiger. I decided that my film should be presenter-led, and should include interviews with masters about their styles, performances of those styles, as well as footage of the animals themselves fighting – perhaps even showing some if this footage to the masters and asking them to talk about which elements of what they see are reflected in the Kung Fu.

While researching which animals were available to me I was told that Praying Mantis come out around September in Fujian province. Having just started to learn some Praying Mantis style myself, I thought this would be the perfect place to start – I would have access to the expert as well as the animal, so filming should be relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, due to some unforeseen circumstances, both of my current teachers at the school left in early September before I had seen any real Praying Mantises. And if that wasn’t enough, I had some visa troubles which meant that I couldn’t stay in China long after anyway. I took it as a sign, so after months of hard training I decided I had earnt a holiday and went to volunteer with the Giant Pandas in Bifengxia, near Chengdu, Sichuan province (see Photos page).

Anyway, although I had to leave the idea is still there, so hopefully one day I’ll go back to China and see the idea through. In the meantime, I have something else to focus on: on 25th April I have an interview for a place at UWE to study for a Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking, which if I manage to secure a place would be an incredible opportunity. Run in partnership with the BBC NHU in Bristol, the degree should not only equip me with the skills I need to make my own film, but also provide me with a few networking opportunities and allow me to slip a few CVs on a few people’s desks! Right, I’m off to do some more preparation for my interview. Heres a short video from UWE about the course and the wildlife filmmaking industry…