40 Years of Innovation in Wildlife Film-making
25 Jan 2024
To be honest, it’s hard to keep up with the rate of technological change in the film industry today. I am getting long in the tooth and I’ve been at it for over 40 years. Today I am very selective about what technology I invest in in both money and the time it takes to learn how to use it.
It wasn’t always like this. Cameras, lenses and grip lasted for half a career. In 1990 I built my first standard 16mm time-lapse camera. It was based on and even older Cine Kodak Special and I modified it with a bunch of bits and pieces sourced from various electrical stores. To make it track either forwards or sideways I used a kit of plastic cogs. Incredibly crude but it did the job and I filmed some grass growing over 2 weeks for a BBC Natural History Unit documentary about the power of the sun. Uninspiring today but back then this was the peak of time-lapse cinematography and the sequence impressed enough to land me a 2 year contract to work on the David Attenborough series, ‘The Private Life of Plants’
At that time, wildlife filmmaking was a pretty niche branch of the television industry. By necessity it was outside the unionised mainstream because it depended on a small group of dedicated biologists with a bit of creative flare and an eye for a good composition and beautiful lighting. The long lens specialists lived with their off-grid families in remote places capturing what they witnessed with their Canon 150-600 lenses while the tiny macro club concentrated on ways to get intimate with the world of insects and other small creatures. Oxford Scientific Films set the bar.
There was little money to hire in fancy equipment and whatever we did use had to be portable. We used our own equipment or custom built something from scratch. The programme budgets were spent on time in the field, watching and recording animal behaviour much of which had never been seen before. Any innovations to help us achieve that came from within. We built our own periscopes and straight scopes or Heath Robinson-ish aerial imaging systems, anything to give the viewer a more intimate encounter with the featured creatures.
From time to time there were great strides forwards. For something like ‘The Private Life of Plants’ our first challenge was to figure out how to portray plants behaving the same way as animals do…traveling, finding food, finding a partner, sex and fighting. This basically means speeding up their behaviour by an average of 15,000 times so the sequences made sense to the viewer. With about £60,000 from the budget, the BBC NHU commissioned a technical wizard to come up with a motion controlled time-lapse camera system that we could take anywhere in the world. Martin Shann (ex-Oxford Scientific Films) together with time-lapse genius Tim Shepherd and myself, collaborated to build something in 6 months that not only worked, but was reliable, so reliable in fact that I am still using the same kit today, 30 years after they were built.
The system consisted of a series neat connected computers which not only controlled the camera but also the grow lights and filming lights and the camera movement. In fact, it would control anything you plugged into it like fans, blinds, irrigation systems or even supplementary shutters (these were needed because motion picture cameras leak light and fog the film while it is sitting in the gate waiting patiently for the next frame. We used old clockwork 16mm Bolex and 35mm Cameflex cameras, each with a custom-built stepper motor bolted to the side. The end result after 3 years of patience and perseverance was a tour de force, a series of 6 films showing a world that had never been seen before. In the world of nature films ‘Life on Earth’ was the first true ‘landmark’ series broadcast in the early 80’s. The second was 10 years later with ‘The Private Life of Plants’.
Like camera technology, the way we filmed the natural world was a slow evolution with breakthroughs coming slowly. Low light film, video cameras and infrared
gave us grainy black and white glimpses of things in the dark and more creative fieldwork gave us access to hitherto unseen worlds beneath the ground or under the water. Through all of this we worked and still do work hand in hand with field biologists who are usually happy to share their hard-won research into animal behaviour.
Then digital happened! It feels like the change came overnight. Analogue was out and the rate of technological evolution accelerated and is now taking us to new heights. Anyone who has watched all three series of the BBC’s Planet Earth could not help but notice the results of that evolution. Planet Earth was perhaps the next great landmark after The Private Life of Plants. Pioneering wildlife film maker Alastair Fothergill persuaded the BBC that the way to go was to blow half the budget and film from the air, but not from a helicopter fitted with a Tyler mount which we were all used to doing, but with long lenses fitted to a Cineflex GSS. That way we could record animals hunting in packs from the air or the isolation of a lone polar bear on the sea ice. GSS has been around for a long time but it was expensive and beyond the budget of most wildlife documentaries. But Alistair proved a point. It was worth spending the money on a handful of extremely memorable shots as otherwise we were just reshooting what we had seen before. It worked and the television viewers saw a view of the natural world nobody had seen before.
Wildlife film makers have always been trying to emulate the look and feel of high budget feature films but on a tiny fraction of the budget. So, by the time Planet Earth ll came along, the trend was for cinematic moving shots and so true-real-time-go-anywhere 3-axis motion control was born. And why stick a GSS mount only on a helicopter when you could as easily mount it on a short crane bolted to the flatbed of a pickup or the deck of a boat to track with hunting lions at ground level as well as from the air, or follow a group of orcas and not just in wide shots, but dramatic head-filling closeups.
A lot of this technology was well established for feature films but the rules for wildlife filming are very different. Everything has to be manageable for one or two people and we all have to multitask. An added complication is that very little can be directed so every new situation requires reconfiguring before we can even think about shooting. Every failure is a lesson learned, but over days and weeks you acquire a better understanding of what the animal might do next and when the light is at its most dramatic. Filming plants growing takes decades of experience and countless failures to figure out how best to encourage your subjects to grow the way you want them to grow and to match their speed of growth to that of the camera move. Thankfully we have high resolution DSLR’s now instead of film cameras and so film weave and light leaks are things of the past now. On film we were lucky to get a hit rate of 1 in 10. Now, with digital DSLR cameras it's more like 1 in 3!
The question now is, have we peaked with Planet Earth lll. It had all the toys at its disposal, motion control, GSS for aerials, ground level and hand held gyro stabilised heads, DLSR time-lapse above and below the water, megadomes and drones, 1000fps slow motion filming, state of the art post production and last but by no means least, 4K delivery. A lot of the later sequences were shot in 7K . When it takes 4 years to film a series, improvements in technology often outpace the original ambitions of the project.
With a whole raft of new commissions close to being green lit by the BBC, Netflix, Apple and other streamers and broadcasters, what can we expect to see that’s new?
As I mentioned at the start, I find it hard to keep up with new innovations but sometimes something comes along that after 40 years behind the viewfinder, makes me sit up and pay attention. Red cameras have, in my eyes, have finally grown up. Last summer, with the help of a Creative Catalyst grant from Innovate UK I bought a Red V-Raptor 8K VV camera. I won’t go into all of the reasons why I think this is the perfect camera for wildlife filmmakers, but what really sold it to me is its high frame rate capabilities. An 8K camera which can shoot 240fps at 4K and 480fps at 2K. This means that while out there in the middle of nowhere, I can switch from real time to slow motion in seconds and back again without having to de-rig and re-rig with a different camera and it also takes every lens I want it to. Personally, I think it is a bit of a game changer, but then that was just the first part of my 1 year plan.
For the second part I have integrated the Raptor camera with a cinebot. D2 Motion in Australia make the world's only a fully portable, ‘go anywhere in the world’, 6-axis camera robot. The 'Slim' as it is called, packs down small enough to take as excess baggage on a plane and it runs off flight safe batteries. I was the first wildlife DoP to use the Slim for a macro sequence in the rain forests of Ivory Coast last summer and the results blew me away, just as it did with the production team back in Bristol. In fact, I was so impressed with it that I bought one.
Now we can fly with the bees and march with the ants. We can descend through the wet tropical forest to spin around the head of a tiny frog on the forest floor and back up to another laying its eggs in a tiny puddle inside an epiphytic bromeliad. At Motion Picture Robotics we are working with D2 Motion to develop ways to free-fly the robot manually so we can follow less predictable creatures and also a remote system for moving the camera around a wolf den or a displaying bird of paradise. These new innovations should be with us by the Spring.
So when Planet Earth IV or its equivalent hits our screens in 4 years time, stand-by for a whole new perspective on the creatures we share our world with.