The Shark and the Albatross

Travels with a camera to the ends of the Earth. Part Two

2 JULY 2016,
Emperor Penguin (c) John Aitchison
Emperor Penguin (c) John Aitchison

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne attended the lunch time lecture at the Linnean Society in London, ‘Wildlife through the lens’ delivered by John Aitchison. The lunch time lecture was the basis for this Q&A with wildlife cameraman John Aitchison whose book was published in the last quarter of 2015.

The Q&A is run in two parts. In Part 2 Gehan and John discuss the technical aspects of modern day wildlife filming and what it takes to be a great natural history cameraman.

At the Linnean Society lecture you mentioned that in the early days you had your own film camera. With sophisticated digital technology evolving rapidly, professional cameramen like you take out hired equipment which is very expensive. You showed pictures of the gear used nowadays. I have also been at talks given by Alastair Fothergill and Doug Allan where the audience were given an insight into some of the camera gear, the helicopters and rigs that are used in modern film photography and the shift to make natural history filming more cinematic in experience. Do you think that the change in expectations has resulted in serious natural history filming becoming even more specialised and one that will be restricted to a handful of the very best in the world who can get into the big budget documentaries?

There has certainly been a shift towards more complex and expensive equipment since I started filming more than 20 years ago. The first camera my wife and I owned was a 16mm Arriflex film camera. It was 17 years old when we bought it and it served us well for another 10+ years. Today's video cameras are often out-dated after only a few years and even lenses are superseded quite quickly these days. The trend to move the camera in the same way as in movie production introduces a whole new level of cost and complexity but when it works the results are sensational. I must confess that I am glad that some subjects are still best filmed by one person with a camera and a long lens, sitting quietly and getting to know individual animals by carefully watching what they do over a substantial period of time without disturbing them. That said it has never been easier to film high quality video of wildlife subjects because so many stills cameras now record video and long lenses are widely available (albeit quite expensive). The item of kit that's usually overlooked is a good fluid or fluid-effect tripod.

I was recently the scientific consultant for Mike Birkhead Associates for their three part documentary Wild Sri Lanka. Fortunately, I had a book manuscript on the same theme and title for publication by John Beaufoy Publishing. With the publisher’s permission I was able to share the manuscript with them. Nevertheless, it still took between one and two years of desk work with the directors and researchers of the production before the shoot was commissioned . Typically how many months notice would you receive for a blue chip natural history production? Given that you may be in the field with little time for background research, do you have to rely on the ground crew and the office team to have done the homework on your subject?

I usually know what I'm going to be doing about six months ahead. If I am filming for someone else's production I only need to turn up and try to film what I'm asked to. Almost always there is a local expert to help. Without them progress would, at best, be very slow. At worst we'd have no chance of success at all! If I am also producing the programme it's a bit different as I'm my own boss so I need to ensure that the research is good, all the permissions are in place and so on. That can be very time consuming and if it's not done well it can jeopardise the whole shoot. The researchers and assistant producers who do all this work and the production coordinators and production managers who work for months to make each shoot a success are the unsung heroes of natural history television and we'd all be stuck without the local people, the fixers, the researchers and amateur wildlife experts who make it possible to find and understand the animals we're filming.

Reading your book, I can imagine that many young people will be inspired to consider following your footsteps as a cameraman. From the detail you bring into your stories, I sense that one of the tips you would give is that to become a good wildlife cameraman, you need to first become a good naturalist. Do you have any other top tips?

You are absolutely right - that is the first and most important tip. Another is that there is no substitute for spending time watching and the best way to achieve that is to start close to home. Few of us look really carefully at our surroundings: there is splendour in the grass by your own back door and there are almost always birds overhead too. Don't be put off by the complexity of the cameras - that stuff can be learned by nearly anyone. What you need to practice is framing attractive images, following and focusing on moving subjects and, above all, learning to tell stories with edited sequences of pictures. We are surrounded by good examples of this - there are excellent films on TV every day and the internet is full of them - so watch them again and again, turn the sound down after the first time and just study the images until you can see why they were used in that order, how the sequences introduce their characters, the places where the action will happen, how they build up to the main action happening and how they ends afterwards, perhaps with some sort of transition to the next sequence. Work out how do natural sound, the music and narration reinforce the story told by the images. When you have grasped what an editor needs to tell stories in this way you'll be a better cameraperson and a better film-maker. Then, please, make sure you leave the natural world a better place than you found it and use your skills to make conservation happen.

The Shark and the Albatross: Travels with a camera to the ends of the Earth, by John Aitchison, published in 2015 by Profile Books: London.

Read also the Part One

Notes:
The Interviewer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, but this Q&A interview is one done in his personal capacity.