Let’s Break The Ice, why are we drinking Irish Coffee?
Irish coffee is the best mix between business and pleasure- the end of the workday but the start of the evening.
Let’s start at the beginning, where did your spirit for adventure come from?
I was lucky enough to grow up in North Queensland, Australia and so I was surrounded by rain forests and the Great Barrier Reef. I had an absolute love of nature as a kid growing up. I wanted to share my love of nature with the rest of the world and through that, the best way to do that would be to be a teacher. I thought I was going to be an academic biologist but when I was doing my Ph.D. ( studying monkeys in Ethiopia), a film crew landed at my field site and made a film about me and my monkey project. The next year Natural Geographic came and did a feature article and then Discovery, etc. By the time we got to the end of studying all those monkeys, I had a foot in the door with all the media channels – I had more fun working with the film crews then I did just doing academics. I also realised that if I wanted to reach more people and share my love of nature with more than just a classroom – the most powerful way to do that was television. That was the slow turning point for me. I went from a career in Biology studies and drifted into a career in television.
How did you develop an eye for wildlife cinematography?
I always had an eye for photography but I enjoyed using a different part of the brain in shaping stories for films and documentaries. I found it more creative than the science I had been doing. One of the wonderful things about wildlife filmmaking as a career is that there isn’t one single way in. All the people in the wildlife industry have a different story but they all have a passion that they want to get there. The nice thing is, it’s more about persistence and dedication if you want to get into wildlife filmmaking. It took me quite a few years to establish myself and then I eventually found myself working on Planet Earth.
What was it like working with David Attenborough?
As a young Biologist, I got to work with my hero. I often say that he is the reason I got into this industry in the first place. He happened to be one of the very early visitors to my field site when I was studying the Galapagos Monkeys. So here he arrives, to camp with me and we share a tent – I was able to talk to him about the Monkeys and the scripts, etc. It was a real pinch myself moment. I was lucky and the experience came out of the blue but it was the trigger that made me decide to work on a big series with a great man like that.
Working on a big series such as Planet Earth, how do you keep the balance between pure entertainment and education?
It’s tricky actually because what we are seeing is the evolution of wildlife filmmaking drift away from a dry scientific documentary (and largely due to David Attenborough’s influence), it became more and more entertaining. Each series evolved into much more of a blockbuster type film – which shifted wildlife filmmaking into a cross over genre. So now when we do the big ones, Blue Planet, Dynasties, we try and compete with your Netflix/HBO box sets- House of Cards, Game of Thrones. We are trying to pull every trick in the book to bring in that drama and excitement and take you, the viewer, on this emotional roller coaster ride. The trick is to make conservation relevant, entertaining and create a story around it.
How do you use technology to capture a slice of nature in its purest form?
Technology is always helping us get better imagery from nature and we are always trying to find the latest gadgets that might help us get images that we have never filmed before. The biggest advance has been smaller more remote cameras- we can put tiny little lipstick cameras into the nest of a wild eagle and not disturb them. We can put 4K cameras on a trail in the Himalayas and have snow leopards walk past and they will trigger a camera beam and the camera will start filming. You can literally hear the snow leopard breathing. We couldn’t ever get cameras that close on Planet Earth original. That’s the direction that technology is headed in wildlife filmmaking.
What has been the most fascinating animal to find and film?
Wow, there’s been quite a few. Probably my favorite animal is an Octopus. They are bizarre animals. They have been separated from our lineage of mammals for so long that they have evolved into this almost alien-like creature and yet they have as many neurons in them as a dog. The neurons are spread throughout their body so it’s almost as if their brain is spread throughout their body. You can chop its tentacle off and it can still make decisions. They have two hearts, green blood and can spread to three meters wide and then go through any hole that is no bigger than their single tooth. They are incredibly intelligent animals.
What has your experience with animals taught you about relationships and life- what lessons have you learned?
You learn to enjoy your own company and perhaps I’ve become more philosophical about the world. I’m also much calmer now and will pause to look at the big picture. When you are out in the beautiful mountains or watching a tiger, it is harder to get stressed about something. A lot of people turn to nature for relaxation, calmness, and therapy. The more we can get into nature, the better for our souls.
Talk to me about the new David Attenborough series, “Seven Worlds One Planet”, what can you tell us about it?
We worked with Sia and Hans Zimmer on the music. We have explored all seven continents- this is the first time we have ever explored every area of land on earth in that way. What’s neat about Seven Worlds/Seven Continents is we can look at what has made the animals or that continent unique. When the continents were joined at one stage- it was called Pangea and then they all started breaking away. That has lead to the diversity of life that we see on earth. We have been able to capture a spirit of each continent which tells us something about the geological features that have shaped the way animals behave. It’s been very rewarding as filmmakers as it has allowed us to take a step back and look at animals from a bigger point of view. We have been working on it for about 3 years. It will be on BBC One, this Autumn.
What do you hope viewers take away from “Seven Worlds, One Planet“?
I hope that people see a conservation message in each episode. We want to stir people’s wonder and stir people’s awe and respect for those wild places. We haven’t shied away from conservation stories, in fact in every single one of the continents, we are talking very much about the here and now. About issues that are affecting animals. We are trying to trick that balance – to do just enough to wake people up and make them care but not paralyze them with dispair. I hope people will fall in love with nature, maybe make some new converts but at the end of the day, it’s about connecting people to the natural world.
How difficult is it to let nature take its course? In terms of not getting emotionally involved?
In our job, we see a lot of upsetting things in nature. We see a lot of animals die- it’s very emotional- it doesn’t matter how many years I’ve seen it happen. If it’s in the hands of another animal, there’s usually a predator that has young to feed and is probably pretty desperate itself – so as a biologist, I can take a step back and realize that it’s a natural process and let things happen. However, if there’s a hint of a man-made influence like a mudhole or penguins are stuck because a boat cracked the ice- then I wouldn’t hesitate at getting in and doing something. But as a biologist, there is a slight line for me and if it is natural then I have to let it take its course.
Animals are not actors, they cannot take direction. How do you get the intended story across when you know that perhaps you might not get the footage you want?
Well, before we go out and attempt any of the stories that we want, we do months and months of research – we talk to scientists and field guides and ask them what behaviors they see the animals do and how often they see them do it. We get a feel for what is realistic and reliable. We often write a storyboard and block it out as we might edit it- we try to have a rough template. But often when you are in the field, animals do crazy things and don’t do what you want them to do. The planning is helpful because it might minimize the risk and helps us come up with a backup story. I like to tell my team that if we are not coming back with some failures; we are not trying hard enough. We need to be going out there to capture things that have never been filmed before.
If you could Break The Ice, with anyone, past or present, who would it be and why?
I’ve always had an amazing admiration for Nelson Mandela. What an amazing man, to have gone through the suffering that he went through, decades of imprisonment and to still carry that hope for an entire nation. And then to come out of that suffering with such grace, nobility and a message of peace – it’s staggering. He was so unique on this planet and I wish we had more of him.
Videography: Cors Media
Photography: Jack Lewis Williams
Talent: Chadden Hunter
Host: Kendal Olivia Barrett
Location: The Zetter Townhouse