By Ashley Coates. Published: 14/05/2013
“You could get a shot like having an elephant in the desert and you would pull back and pull back and pull back and you would just see this animal, this enormous animal, the world’s largest vegetarian, in a world without a single blade of grass.”
The producer behind some of the most visually impressive and commercially successful natural history films ever made produced his first natural history film, On the Okavango, while he was still a student at university.
The film looked at the experiences of Alastair and his fellow students in an area around the Okavango Delta in Botswana and although it “wasn’t a terribly good film”, it gave Alastair the idea to pursue natural history filmmaking as a career.
He made a number of short films of his own before he joined the BBC’s world-renowned Natural History Unit as a researcher in 1983 working on The Really Wild Show. He then went on to work on the major Attenborough series Wildlife on One and The Trials of Life and then produced Life in the Freezer.
Alastair accepted the role of Head of the Natural History Unit while he was still in his thirties and though he initially found it difficult to not be directly involved in programme-making, the opportunity to oversee the output of such a successful arm of BBC factual production proved immensely rewarding.
Anyone that has ever wondered how the images from these series were captured will find that it is just as difficult as it looks. Each of Alastair’s three major series took several years to produce and some of the more challenging sequences, such as filming snow leopards, took up many months of man hours before any usable footage was actually recorded. In total, Planet Earth’s 71 camera operators spent roughly 2000 days in the field, covering 204 locations in 62 countries.
It was the most expensive documentary the BBC had commissioned to date but paid back its budget through DVD and foreign rights sales, becoming the highest selling factual DVD ever made. Alastair left the Natural History Unit in 2012 to pursue his own projects. Chimpanzee, a feature-length documentary directed by Alastair and produced by Disney Nature was released in cinemas in April 2013.
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Your first film, On the Okavango, was produced while your were studying at Durham, what was this film about and how useful was it to you in getting to the next stage in your career?
At the time the BBC was running a competition that was named after a cameraman called Mick Birk who had died on the south face of Everest. It was a bi-annual competition where the BBC would choose six expeditions, often university students but not always, and we went off with cameras and sound equipment and then judges came in and chose the winner.
The Okavango is a place in Botswana, it’s a beautiful area about the size of Wales, and we didn’t see another white person for the whole period. We made a film about our adventure and to be honest it wasn’t a terribly good film, but it was very good for me. I knew from a very small age that I wanted to work with animals, I chose to study Zoology, and I thought I might have been a research biologist but it was while making this film that I realised it was a wonderful way to get to work with animals.
I went on to make a couple of films and when I came to apply for a job at the Natural History Unit in Bristol, the fact that I had that experience on my CV was great as there weren’t many graduates in those days that had that sort of experience.
You made quite a few films while you were still a student.
Yes I then did some work for BBC Look North, I had a camera I borrowed off a friend and I made a film about wild goats in the Lake District. I also made a film about the university, a newsreel film which was shown in the Students’ Union.
In those days before DVDs the Students’ Union would show a film every Saturday night and we decided we would do a newsreel, just like they did during the war, which would be shown alongside the feature film they were showing. We shot that locally and we paid for that with advertising from local shops that we shot. It all inspired me to do more work in film.
Having joined the Natural History Unit in 1992 you then worked your way up the production hierarchy, eventually becoming Head of the Unit. What was your route to this role?
My very first job was actually on the BBC Wildlife magazine as a researcher, that brought me to Bristol and then I moved into the Really Wild Show. I did children’s programmes for five years before working on Wildlife on One and then I joined David Attenborough as a producer on The Trials of Life which was his third big series. I then managed to persuade them to let me do the first series of my own which was Life in the Freezer and literally half way through that job I was offered the role of Head of the Natural History Unit.
To be honest at the time, aged 32, I wanted to be out in the field but a lot of my colleagues encouraged me to do it so I did it. So I took it and that afternoon I flew into the Falklands and sailed to South Georgia and I remember sailing on yacht around the Falklands and thinking, “what on Earth am I doing, why have I given up all this?” but actually it was really challenging to be head of the department at that age.
The Natural History Unit is a really special place. Almost all the people who work there have a real passion for their work and it was a real privilege to manage these very passionate people.
Something that made Planet Earth and Frozen Planet really special was the utilisation of new technologies and techniques that helped tell the stories in a refreshingly cinematic style, could you outline some of the technologies you employed to give Planet Earth that really cinematic feel?
People often talk about technology and I can understand why because they are crucial and natural history is about revelation, it’s about showing things that people haven’t seen before. To a certain extent technology is very important, for example in The Private Life of Plants it was very essential that new technology such as the time-lapse was there because plants do a lot but they do it very slowly.
So technology makes plants come alive and reveals that behaviour through time-lapse. The other major technology we employed was something called Cine-Flex which was a camera on a gyroscope on a helicopter.
We could stabilise a very powerful camera in an airborne position and that meant we could get animals in good quality on the ground from a height. We could shoot the whole sequence from the air and get all the action and not disturb the animals. But actually the reason why all that worked well for Planet Earth is that it worked editorially very well for Planet Earth.
You could get a shot like having an elephant in the desert and you would pull back and pull back and pull back and you would just see this animal, this enormous animal, the world’s largest vegetarian, in a world without a single blade of grass.
I think the success of The Blue Planet and Planet Earth is, yes to a certain extent, it is cinematic and certainly the vision was to do that but that isn’t just technology. What makes it cinematic is the whole style, the editing, the pace of the programme, the whole approach. One of the things about Planet Earth is it had half the number of cuts of the average 50-minute film at that time.
It had around 250 cuts in a 50-minute show. Many shows have 700 plus and I remember people saying, “do you think it’s going to be too slow for BBC1?” and I thought if every shot is a Rembrandt and you have real, real confidence in your images then it will work and that is why it felt epic but it’s not just the technology. The technology tail should not wag the dog.
It’s the narrative that’s driving it…
It’s the editorial and the narrative and it’s the emotions you want to engender in the audience that are important. If you can achieve that by various techniques and technologies then fine, I actually think in certain areas of natural history, the technology often gets between you and the viewer.
Continuing with the way the story unfolds, the three projects that you are best known for, Planet Earth, The Blue Planet and Frozen Planet each took several years to complete and required multiple camera teams in locations all over the globe, how do you maintain a consistent narrative, or sense of story, when you are working over such huge timescales and with such disparate teams?
We work very hard on that. In the first year we usually don’t do very much filming, we do a lot of research and a lot of discussion of the scripts. The series I made were designed for BBC1 and I always say to my teams that if you can’t tell why the series is special in one line then it’s not going to work, it’s “Planet Earth: as you have never seen it before”, that was the strap-line, “The Blue Planet: so far we have only scratched the surface”, “Frozen Planet: a world behind imagination”.
Then you make sure that there is a logic to the order of the programme, Frozen Planet had a seasonal story line because that is the big story in the polar part of the world and then in terms of ordering, I consider whether, if there is no narration, would the images themselves tell a story?
You need a very simple storyline that builds through the programme and finally we talk about what we call the jigsaw story line, and that is, when all the bits of the jigsaw come together, do you see the whole picture? I think if you make these series of really broad appeal they have to have entry points for different types of people, there are some people who just look at the pictures and go, “wow”.
There are others who want more, they want to learn something, they want to get more out of the programme and that is what we mean by the jigsaw storyline. We just review it the whole time, we write the programme at the beginning and every month I would sit down with the producers and review how they are doing, how they are spending their money, constantly questioning the sequences we are doing and whether an episode is going to run long enough.
How controlled can you make it? A lot of the footage can’t be anticipated such as that moment in The Blue Planet where you were filming the bait ball and suddenly a Sei Whale comes out of nowhere and appears to swallow the whole thing. That sort of event seems to happen a lot.
I would say it’s about risk management, you know you have a certain amount of money, you know you have 50 minutes of air time. As The Blue Planet and Planet Earth have sold very well internationally, I have been able to turn around to BBC Worldwide, who provide almost a third of the budget, and say, “I need a very big budget” and they always say “why do you need so much money?” and I say “well you need the money to fail”.
A perfect example would be the snow leopard we filmed in Planet Earth, it had never been filmed before and we had two eight-week shoots where we didn’t film a single frame. For the average Natural World shoot, if they did an eight-week shoot and shot nothing, the budget would have been blown.
So the way I analysed it with the producers is you should make sure for any one show you have got at least half of the sequences which are pretty predictable. Then at the same time people want to see new things, so there are a number of sequences which are Holy Grail type sequences and are very risky.
Staying on the funding structure, the three major Planet series were each co-funded by the BBC and Discovery Channel, could you explain how the funding and distribution rights worked for these programmes?
This is approximate but about a third of the budget comes from the BBC and about a third of the funding comes from co-production in the US. Up until now that has always been Discovery because the BBC has an output deal with Discovery.
Another third comes from BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, they basically sell the rights to the rest of the world. Planet Earth made a lot of money for the BBC because their contribution was easily paid for by the television sales and it sold five million DVDs in America. It is the highest-selling factual DVD in history. What’s great is that is all reinvested, it doesn’t go to shareholders as it would were it a private company, it gets reinvested into other programmes that might not be so commercial.
You joined the Natural History Unit in 1983 and you have been able to see many different parts of the world change since, to what extent have you got a sense of the natural world being in decline?
I have rarely been back to the same place. The only place I have been back to a number of times are the polar regions and those are very interesting areas because they are wildernesses, particularly in the Antarctic, man’s direct influence has been very small. There is no rainforest to cut down, there is no pollution, there are no overpopulation issues but there is absolutely no doubt that you can see global warming.
Global warming is something that is very difficult to see usually but you can definitely see it in the Antarctic. In South Georgia there was an explorer who worked with Shackleton called Hurley who took some beautiful black-and-white photographs at the beginning of the last century of the glacier in South Georgia. In the early nineties when I went back with David Attenborough we got David to walk in front of exactly the same glacier.
For Frozen Planet again we lined up the cameras exactly how the original photographs were framed and when you mix those images together you can see the glaciers retreating up the mountain. The other thing that is interesting are different types of penguin are adapted to different amounts of cold. The deep south penguin, that’s the penguin that likes the pack ice and does well in the cold, it’s called the Adele penguin, it’s colonies along the Antarctic peninsula have decreased and they have been replaced increasingly with penguins from further north. That is clear evidence of change.
I think the other location where there is clear evidence of change is in the rainforest. I haven’t been back to Borneo since the nineties but David has and you can really see how the rainforest has been cut down to provide palm oil. Another place you can really see huge change is underwater. Many of the sequences we filmed for Blue Planet would be very difficult to do today just because there aren’t as many of these habitats anymore. So I am in absolutely no doubt that these changes are happening.