The Shark and the Albatross

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

Emperor Chick © John Aitchison
Emperor Chick © John Aitchison
5 MAY 2016

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 1 Gehan and John discuss the literary aspects of bringing out a book and the skill required to produce a great wildlife documentary.

Being one of the top wildlife cameramen in the world is an accomplishment in itself. Very few will also have the skills to write as well as you have done. It’s a skill to write a story with a sense of place and bring in the natural history and conservation without losing pace of a good story. Tell me about the writing process. Is this something that came naturally or did you over time hone your writing skills by writing shorter articles for publication? Was there a conscious move to cut your teeth toward writing a book?

I have always loved writing and I find the process of telling a story quite similar, whether it is told in words or in pictures. There are choices to make between more and less dramatic ways to reveal what's going on, times when it's best to spell things out clearly and others when you can hint at what's to come. I sometimes produce films too and that involves quite a lot of writing with proposals then shooting and narration scripts. Many of the stories in the book started as BBC radio programmes, in three series of A View Through a Lens (you can hear the last five of these on the series' website. The discipline involved in telling a compelling story in fifteen minutes was useful when it came to adapting these stories for the book. The chapters are about three times longer than the radio scripts so I needed to add quite a lot of material to each one. Writing for radio was useful in another way because it taught me to read the stories aloud while I am editing them. I find this simplifies the language and makes it more intimate. My kind of filming often involves long waits in hides, which gives me time to think. I use that time to write notes about what I can see and how the filming is going. These are invaluable when it comes to writing stories later on. I often make sound recordings too and these are great when it comes to writing because sound is very evocative. Listening to the recordings makes it easier to catch the mood of other times and places.

With all of these stories, it would be easy to get drawn into the detail and make them several times longer in page length. Did the editorial discipline come from a professional editor or did your film making experience become a transferable skill to self edit the page length when you were writing?

Editing is vital part of film-making and it seems to come naturally to cut down words too - less is often more. It is easy to become to blind to very obvious flaws or improvements though, and there are times when you really need a second pair of eyes to read what you've written. My editor at Profile, John Davey, and the Managing Editor Penny Daniel were both excellent at this. I worked with BBC radio producer Sarah Blunt. Sarah is an excellent editor with a great sense of pace and story-telling and she helped me write much tighter stories.

You book is a fantastic mix of adventures from being at risk when filming Polar Bears in the Antarctic, tracking a wolf hunt to following the awe inspiring migration of Snow Geese to Tigers in India. Was there any one chapter which you particularly enjoyed writing?

There are two that started the process and led to the radio programmes - I wrote one of them ('The Shark and The Albatross' - the story that gives the book its name) on a boat while I was on location in Hawaii. The sharks were only active in the morning so I had a few hours free in the afternoon to distil the experience of filming the young albatrosses preparing to fly while the tiger sharks were trying to catch them. I think it made the writing more immediate. That piece and the one about the cranes in China (also written on location, during bad weather) were the first I showed to anyone and they both became programmes in the first radio series.

Once you had set your mind to write a book, how many years did it take you to find the time to write it down and edit and re-edit until you were satisfied with it. How did you then go about finding a publisher?

It was a slow process, in part because I wasn't intending to write a book. Sarah and I made the three radio series over three years and it was only when John Davey heard a repeat of one of the programmes a couple of years later (it was about shearwaters in Alaska) that he asked me to write the book. It took me a few months to put the book together but longer than that to proof-read it several times and longer still for it to be published.

In your talk you mentioned that the writing of the script for the narrator is a skill as it requires an economic use of words, keeping sentences as short as possible. The narrations also has to use simple words which can be understood by a wide age group and spread across different countries. Do you ever feel that it would be good if some of the footage could be hived off into mini documentaries on internet platforms such as youtube so that more scientific mileage could be obtained by providing a more technical narration?

Narration scripts are amazingly short when you see them written down but writing them is much the same process as turning a novel into a film - most of the work in a film is done (or should be) by the pictures and sound track. The narration should only give you information it's impossible to convey in pictures and sound. That might be clarification about which animal is your main character or about time and place. It's usually how the underlying principles or biological significance are explained; information that is not otherwise apparent. Given that it's extremely easy to have different sound tracks for a video (think of all the language versions on DVDs) it does seem a shame that we don't make different versions of our films, not least to make them available in the countries where we filmed, as a way to return something to the communities that have helped us with the filming and to boost conservation efforts there. Scientific narration versions are a good idea (the Open University uses sequences from BBC wildlife series in its biology courses) and some people tell me they would prefer versions without music. One friend even said he'd like just the natural sounds, with no narration or music, as he watches the films as an escape from normal life and he isn't very interested in the biological facts.

Related to the above question is what happens to the footage which never makes it onto screen but may be of value of scientific researchers. Will there ever be a possibly for the hundreds of hours of unseen raw footage from British wildlife crews to be made available for viewing by researchers in a central archive following an embargo period?

There have been various plans like this over the years. A successful one is the Arkive project, set up in connection with the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol. It makes stills and video footage of animals available on the net but it has a broad scope rather than an in depth approach. Cornell University's Ornithology Lab has a huge audio archive and is now incorporating video too. Collaboration between organisations like this and TV production could be very fruitful. As far as I know researchers do sometimes have access to rushes, perhaps as a condition of providing help, but these would be ad hoc arrangements, made on a case by case basis.

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.

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

The Part Two will be online on the 2nd of July.