Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
You started off in academia before moving into media. Can you talk us through the beginnings of that journey and what made you make the move into filmmaking?
I started my career as a wildlife biologist, and my passion was to teach biology, I’d always loved the natural world. And growing up, I thought that becoming a biology teacher was the best way to share that love of nature. So even from the age of 10, I imagined myself standing in front of a biology class talking to them about how amazing the natural world was.
I was doing a PHD on monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands, living that Dian Fossey ‘Gorillas In The Mist’ type dream, and realized after years of research up there trying to get these academic qualifications, that very little of what I was studying was doing anything to actually help the gelada monkeys. And it was around that time that I had the chance to go on Ethiopian television and speak a little bit of Amharic, the local language.
Now, at the time the monkeys I was studying were having a major conflict with farmers. And what I was able to do on that local television channel was speak about my passion for the monkeys, to talk to Ethiopians about why their wildlife was so special. And what blew me away was the response to that 30 minute television interview, was far greater than three years of academic research.
And so for me, that was the seed that made me realize the power of media, and if I really wanted to reach people, and change people, and move people, that different formats like television especially, were incredibly powerful. So, that was the start of my slow drift away from academic biology and into filmmaking.
And is there a line between that kind of filmmaking that has a serious message, and what we then see as entertainment? That must be quite a difficult line to tread sometimes.
Yeah, I’ve made different types of wildlife film. At the moment the big blockbusters that I’ve worked on recently, the Planet Earths, and Frozen Planets, those series are very much a genre that is pure entertainment. I mean not pure entertainment, they do have messages in them. But they are commissioned by BBC bosses to be big blockbusters, like Sunday night primetime television. And I’ll be the first to admit that they don’t always do the heavy lifting of conservation, and the message that we might want to get out to people.
But I think what we have to accept, is that there’s a whole spectrum of types of television, and types of wildlife messaging. And at one end of the spectrum is these these really glossy, big, beautiful, blue chip Attenborough series and they are there to inspire people, to make people feel awe, to make people feel emotional. But they can’t be seen in isolation. At other ends of the spectrum, you might have a gritty, conservation biology piece. Or you might have shows that are digging deeper into the deep conservation issues.
But the challenge for us as filmmakers is, if we dished out raw conservation films every night of the week, a lot of people would just switch off. You can’t exactly expect them to watch rainforests being chainsawed down, or the oceans being overfished, every single night of the week. So, the challenge for us in media, is finding that balance, finding how we entertain people, and try and sneak those messages in.
And how much of that do you pre-plan before you’ve got the plan ready for a show, and how much depends on what footage you get, and how much you can get across in the edit?
Well it’s a really good question. To air some dirty laundry about the way television filmmaking works is, when we go to the commissioners about a certain idea or a wildlife series concept, often the producers like myself, who might have wildlife biology backgrounds, we’re often plugging for a more serious message, a more earnest message trying to weave conservation into the big blockbuster series.
Now a TV commissioner’s job, to be fair to them, isn’t just to promote the agendas of one group of people, no matter how worthy we might think conservation is. Their job is to give viewers a broad palette of different types of TV shows, and so often at the start of say, the next big Attenborough series, there’ll be a debate amongst the production team about how much conservation we can weave in to that particular series, have the viewers had a lot of it that year, is it about time we stepped up to the plate and put more in, and I think over the last few years we have seen more and more of it weaving its way into the major Attenborough shows.
We still get criticism for not doing enough, but I think you’ve got to put it into context. If you look back at Planet Earth the original series, 12 years ago, it didn’t have one single line about conservation in the entire series, which is remarkable. And at that time, no one batted an eyelid. That wasn’t even an issue, whereas these days through Planet Earth II we hinted at it a bit more, Blue Planet II really took it to the next level with the plastics in the ocean side story. And so I think it’s step by step, but what you’re what you’re seeing is it being woven into the fabric of the shows more and more each year.
It must be quite difficult in a sense to promote say, one charity, or or really give a call to action in that sense?
It’s particularly difficult for the BBC. We are obviously expected to be impartial, and we can’t be seen to advocate. So, we’re not an advocacy broadcaster.
It’s crazy that it would stretch to that.
Yeah it’s very difficult, but you can imagine a scenario, where say we got to the end the Blue Planet II and said, ‘Oh if you’d like to help then help this particular whale charity’. Every other whale charity out there would say, ‘Oh hang on a sec, you should give us a plug too, and why and why you treating them better than us’. And so the BBC is in a fairly unique position where it’s tricky for us to really plug one cause over another.
Now sometimes the NGO or the conservation group are woven into the story and we can treat it like a news story. Other times we’re actually using more and more social media campaigns – you’d see along the side of Blue Planet II, we had an immense social media campaign, and certain hashtags about plastic in the ocean. And what we did was we tried to enable other conservation groups to leapfrog off the Blue Planet II effect.
I like to think that Blue Planet II was the wave, and all these little NGOs and conservation groups were the surfboards. And so in that sense you hope that you’re creating a bigger impact and a kind of a zeitgeist moment that a lot of others can capitalize on.
So when you were in Ethiopia, that was quite a tangible change that you made with just that one interview. Is it different working across things that have a much bigger global impact, but that are much more difficult to measure tangibly?
It’s very difficult on the big global series to know what kind of effect you want to have, and how you’re going to target it. I mean I keep going back to Blue Planet II again. I remember a debate amongst that team early on about which issues to tackle, and arguably overfishing is one of the most important issues facing the oceans. But there was very very little mention of it in the series. And actually it was David Attenborough himself, who basically came back to the team and said, ‘You know what, I think we should target something that people can feel is tangible, something that people can really get their hands on’. And plastics in the ocean became quite a phenomenal campaign that people really grabbed. Overnight, you had thousands of beach clean organizations, you had school recycling programs, you had people for once feel like they could do something.
I mean, we tried to tackle a little bit of climate change in Frozen Planet. And again that’s very hard. I mean we didn’t want David Attenborough at the end of the series saying, ‘Okay well everybody stop driving and turn your light bulbs off’.
And so, it is hard with these big global issues that get a lot of people down, to find ways that people can feel motivated, and feel like they can do something tangible. But you have to keep trying. I mean that’s the point of these exercises, is there’s always a younger generation, and the younger generation have more energy, and they will pick up the baton. So, we have to try every iteration of these shows.
Certainly from what I’ve seen, it feels like that the younger generation have really grasped this and are running with it and saying, what can we do?
Yes absolutely. I mean I think it’s been one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in recent times has been the youth response to climate change. The marches that we just saw the other day for climate justice were absolutely phenomenal. I was sat here in my BBC edit room making another Attenborough show and I could hear this chanting out the window. I put my head out, and just here in Bristol there were hundreds of students marching up the street demanding climate justice. And it was really heartwarming.
I think the younger generation are often criticised for being apathetic and maybe it was ever thus, but I think this was a moment where you thought, ‘Wow, this is the generation that are going to say, okay you stuffed it up but we’re not going to take this’. So, that was a really inspiring moment. And we get a lot of young people saying that they really take inspiration from the nature shows they’re seeing on television.
That’s that’s nice on the one hand, but on the global stage, we’ve got a lot of quite vocal critics of global warming. Is there a role media can play in highlighting that and getting that across a bit more, or does it feel like a drum that’s been pretty well hammered at this point?
Well, it’s a tricky one. I think you have to be very careful about how you beat that drum. It’s something that people who believe in conservation and the seriousness of climate change and get frustrated with broadcasters for not doing enough, I think it’s a slightly simplistic way of looking at it, because you have to be very careful about using a popular medium like television, for instance that people turn to for escapism, and trying to use that medium to really drive home a serious message that isn’t always that fun.
Now I’m not saying it doesn’t make us responsible and we shouldn’t try. But I think it’s trying to come up with ever more creative ways of getting those messages across. Whether it’s new types of campaigning, whether it’s using different mediums like animation, or I guess short-form social media clips. But it really is about using creative creative messaging, and trying to include hope. There’s a there’s a lot of quite despairing stories from all corners of the globe at the moment about what we’re doing to the environment.
But to keep people mobilized and to reach the masses, I think if you work at media, you’ve always got to be looking for more sophisticated ways to get the message across. Sometimes some of the big wildlife organizations or conservation organizations are working with very high end advertising agencies. Sometimes you see a campaign done by someone like World Wildlife Fund.
I saw the elephant one that was marching across Piccadilly not long ago. You could sponsor an elephant.
Yeah incredibly sophisticated, and sometimes you’re using the tricks that say, mainstream advertising agencies would use. But it is about trying to find find creative ways to catch people’s attention, that isn’t just, ‘Look we’re gonna start with a miserable story’.
Are there any technologies that are either developing or are available now that get you excited for getting that message across in a different way, or even in filming?
There was a film recently, I think it was named Racing Extinction, which did a really clever thing where they took incredibly high-powered projectors and projected images of critically endangered animals across New York skyscrapers. And then they went out on the streets and they filmed people reacting to the images, and that generated a news story in its own right, and then you had news agencies coming out to film the people watching the images on the side of these skyscrapers, and of course the news agencies had to get images of the skyscrapers as well. And it was quite a…I guess you’d call a public… almost like a flashmob-type way of making a statement and creating a buzz. And you actually got other people to come and spread that message. That was quite a clever way, going into public spaces and creating events is something that will make a splash and and get noticed.
I think in terms of just sheer filmmaking, remote cameras and especially drones have really revolutionized wildlife filmmaking recently. For years and years we’ve been playing around with drone technology, and crashing them, and there’d be the scared little animals, or they haven’t lasted very long, or they’ve been incredibly noisy. And just recently, technology has brought them to a level where they’re much much safer, much more reliable. And we can fly them for hundreds of metres away and watch a little monitor, and get kind of intimate views into wild animals lives, without getting that close that we disturb them.
In the new Attenborough series coming out later in the year, One Planet Seven Worlds, you’ll see a lot more of this style of photography where we really feel like we’re immersive and flying through that animal’s world.
How closely does Attenborough work with you on the narrative and storytelling?
Well David’s an incredible storyteller, and of course the story and the words mean so much to him. Of course he’s 93 now and doesn’t get into the field anywhere near as much as he used to.
Yeah. When we get to those final stages with the script, it’s very very important to him, because of course his hallmark is carrying those words and saying them in a way that feels utterly believable. I think why so many people are drawn to his voice and his style of storytelling, because he takes those sentences and makes them his own. Every word sounds like it’s coming from his heart.
Now, it is interesting when you write a script for him… I was writing about caribou crossing the tundra, and I said ‘Wherever they go, they encounter predators’. And then I show a picture of a wolf and I say, ‘Arctic Wolves’. And of course David took the script, and he read that, ‘Wherever caribou go, there are predators in wait…And here they are…Arctic Wolves’. And of course that little phrase, ‘And here they are,’ was something that I would never have written, I would never have thought of writing, but it was such a classic David-ism, and he flows into the script to really really make it his own, which is a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a real privilege to be able to work with him on polishing those final words.
And when you’re filming, I know we’ve seen things over the years, I can remember the turtles going to the beach and getting stuck in the drains, is one of the ones that I can remember a lot of people talking about. Are you ever tempted as a crew to intervene when you see animals struggling? Is there a protocol?
Yeah we do see obviously some very emotional and harrowing things while we’re filming wildlife. My general rule as a wildlife biologist is, even it’s a natural situation, then I just wouldn’t get involved. It’s absolutely horrible to see an animal die, but it is called natural selection, and where I draw the line is if it’s human influenced.
As an example, we might be in Africa and there might be a baby elephant stuck in the mud hole, and it might be struggling and it might drown, if you can’t get it out that mud hole and its parents can’t get it out. And that is one of the most upsetting things you’ll ever see in your life. Now, if I knew that that mud hole was dug by locals, or was a well or some man-made structure, then I’d instantly be like, ‘Okay guys how are we going to get this baby elephant out?’ So, for me it’s very black and white. If there’s any hint that it’s a human-influenced tragedy, then there might be something we can do to help. But if it’s not, then as a biologist I just don’t mess with nature. And it can get upsetting sometimes.
Yes I can imagine the public is sitting there saying, ‘Why aren’t you helping?’
Well exactly, the turtle hatchlings in Planet Earth II was a very good example. We wanted that sequence to be very harrowing, and wanted people to be emotional about the effect of cities on the hatchlings. And it caused such an outcry. We actually had more response to that hatchling clip on social media than any other part of Planet Earth II, even the snakes and iguanas. We had more response to the struggling turtle hatchlings than we did to the snakes and iguanas.
What we were able to do though, in response to all the social media influx was, the next day we went out with a story talking about the NGO that was picking up the turtle hatchlings that we were filming. Basically, they were rescuing every single one of them and getting them to the ocean. Now, we didn’t show that in the film because we wanted to actually stir people’s emotions, but we realized that our fans needed that kind of answer and reply the next day.
Twitter, at the time was where we first went out, 9a.m. the next morning we were straight back out there saying, ‘Don’t worry the film crew wasn’t letting those hatchlings die. We’re actually filming with the team that was rescuing them all.’ But it caught us off guard. We realized just how much we are stirring people’s emotions, and have to reply to that.
And when people say to you, ‘What can we do about all of this?’ What would you advice be? I know that’s a massive question!
It is a massive question! Well, the one thing that I would encourage people to do, is to try and look to where the power is, and where the big decisions are. For a long time as individuals we’ve being encouraged to act locally, to act as individuals. And for me it’s slightly a con. This kind of, ‘act individually and deal with your guilt that way,’ is slightly a way of disempowering people to some extent.
Now I’m not saying don’t recycle at home, but the amount of time that people spend recycling plastic cups within their own home vs. the time it would take to write one letter to your MP, or one letter to a major corporation and say, ‘I’m unhappy with the plastics you use in your supermarket,’ or, ‘I don’t like where you get your meat products from, I’m thinking of changing suppliers’.
Even better than that, put it on social media. Recently when Iceland the supermarket announced that it was going to try to go plastic free, my first response was instantly to get on Twitter and tag them and say, ‘Wow fantastic well done, I’m in full support’. And so I think it’s really, the big places of influence and change has to be in politics or in corporate behavior. It’s all very well getting together with your local community and cleaning up your local beach, or recycling at home or in the schoolyard. But it doesn’t take that little bit of extra effort to reach out and communicate with the big powers, especially these days in an era of social media. You can tweet any one of these organizations – do it politely, don’t be nasty. But I think it’s communicating to big power is the way that we can really make a difference.
And for you personally, what’s been your proudest achievement that media has enabled you to do?
I think being able to work on these big series, like the Planet Earths and the Frozen Planets…it’s when you get to travel the world and meet people that have seen it. I was a wildlife biologist for many years and I’d have to describe what I was doing, or describe the obscure monkey I was studying in Ethiopia. But what is wonderful about working on these big series, is just knowing the amount of people you reach. Whether that’s in an airport in Japan, or a supermarket in South America, when you bump into people and you mention something like the Planet Earth brand, and have people respond and say how much it meant to them, or that their kids love it, I think that’s where all the hard work and the blood sweat and tears feels rewarding because you really are realizing that you’re reaching people globally.
And especially the younger generation. I think it’s just when you meet kids of all walks of life that say they love the shows, that is an incredibly proud thing to feel.
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