A Life On Our Planet: Alastair Fothergill

By Will Entwistle

Profile Editor, Will Entwistle, speaks to Alastair Fothergill, Executive Producer of David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet.

Documenting the natural world presents to many phenomena usually seen by few. Our ability to be astonished by nature is proof enough of its power; the images often speak for themselves.

Alastair Fothergill is responsible for capturing the natural world’s power. He is a wildlife filmmaker, known best for his role as series producer of The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, then later as the executive producer of The Hunt, Our Planet and, most recently the film David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet.

A Life On Our Planet differs from Fothergill’s previous work. In particular, it is a personalised account of the natural world’s vulnerability seen against the backdrop of Sir David Attenborough’s life—as Attenborough describes it, in his accompanying book, ‘the most extraordinary life. It is only now that I appreciate how extraordinary.’ The film mirrors Attenborough’s description; it is retrospective but also profoundly contemporary, and rightly so. “We sat down with David [Attenborough] and said, ‘Look, this is your film’”, Fothergill says, adding, “He describes it as his witness statement.”

BEGINNINGS

Fothergill is a life-long devotee of the natural world; his enthusiasm for wildlife began in childhood. He harks back fondly to birdwatching on the north Norfolk coast: “an amazing place for birds”, he says.

Fascination is often nurtured by education. Fothergill personifies this sentiment, recalling “an amazing teacher at school who was very inspirational”, adding, “he used to take us around the country bird-watching.” Later, Fothergill read Zoology at Durham, where his filmmaking began. “I always knew that I wanted to be a Zoologist…and while I was there, the BBC ran a competition called the Mick Burke Award.” The award commemorated Mick Burke, the mountaineer and cameraman who never returned from the British expedition of Everest’s southwest face in 1975. The BBC chose six university expeditions—one of which included Fothergill—and equipped each with cameras. He went to the Okavango swamps in Botswana, later completing his inaugural film, On the Okavango. “I made a rather bad film, to be honest”, he confesses. Fothergill was not deterred; his experience reaffirmed his love for the natural world. “I then thought, ‘Hang on—this is an amazing way to be with animals and friends!’”

Though Fothergill was educated a scientist, his filmmaking is that of an artist. He reflects on this curious fusion of science and art, acknowledging, “that’s how I started on the journey.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF WILDLIFE FILM

The idea of a community of interconnected organisms—an ecosystem—may seem obvious now, but it was not before wildlife films. In A Life On Our Planet, Attenborough mentions Bernhard Grzimek recording wildebeest in his film, Serengeti Shall Not Die, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1959. Grzimek’s film, as Attenborough puts it, ‘was a tale of inter-dependence characteristic of the discoveries then being made by the emerging science of ecology.’ Film captured the natural world, and then explained it.

Fothergill’s career is mostly in blue-chip natural history, renowned for its emphasis on natural spectacles and explanatory narration.  “I did the original Blue Planet and Frozen Planet and those series were principally celebratory”, he says. “When we did Frozen Planet—from about 2007 to 2011—climate change was at its most intense in the polar regions.” He adds, “we said to the BBC, ‘look, you have to allow us to make a primetime show in a BBC One slot dealing with climate change in the poles.’” The BBC obliged, commissioning a series finale exploring the consequences of climate change in the poles, entitled ‘On Thin Ice’. The episode was controversial, albeit popular, notably with Nigel Lawson—former Chancellor of the Exchequer and ex-chair of Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation accused of promoting climate change denial—claiming that ‘Sir David’s alarmism [about global warming] is sheer speculation’.  

COMMUNICATING THE ISSUES

Fothergill is, perhaps indirectly, in a position of immense power; he can present the state of the natural world to millions of viewers. “The joy of natural history is that it travels the world—everybody loves it”, he says, “so you do have the power to move the dial if you get it right.”

“When I left the BBC in 2011”, says Fothergill, “I realised that the time had come for a mass audience, bums-on-seats, globally successful series that tries to deal with the challenges faced by our natural world.” Our Planet was the manifestation of that aim.  

Each film must entice an audience to effect sustainable change. “The way you engage with the issues is through the power of the natural world, the beauty of the images”, says Fothergill. He recognises, however, that viewing film is ordinarily a passive process; as he puts it, “People come home from work and don’t watch television to be told what to do—they watch it to relax!” He offers an example to explain the difficulty of inspiring action: “Most of the world’s population is urban, so it’s very difficult for someone living in the middle of Singapore to care about an animal in Africa that they may never see.” How, then, does Fothergill intend to inspire action among viewers?

To understand what needs to be done, the film must communicate the extent of the damage inflicted upon the natural world. “The film has a very hard message”, Fothergill admits, then suggests that it is delivered responsibly because it is contextualised. He suggests, “We’ve got to be careful…we must make sure there is not too much bad news.” A Life On Our Planet invites us to consider our current unsustainability by delivering Attenborough’s testimony, afterwards encouraging us to adapt. This encouragement is mostly optimistic; it demonstrates that we can effect sustainable change, instead of overlooking the damage already inflicted. “A show of 50 minutes with 45 minutes of beauty and five minutes of saying, ‘by the way, it’s all going’, is just dishonest”, Fothergill summarises.

Wildlife films can only inspire action if distributed widely. Fothergill’s production company—Silverback Films, established with Keith Scholey in 2012—partnered with Netflix to stream Our Planet. “It was early days with Netflix, we did the deal in 2014 when it had just 50 million subscribers”, he remembers. “Now, they nearly have 200 million.”  It was an auspicious partnership as Netflix maximised the series’ reach and longevity. Fothergill agrees: “Netflix was the perfect partner because last year, Our Planet went out in 190 countries and, importantly, it stays on Netflix for some time—it’s still there!”

“I’ve been working with David for 40 years and I’ve always thought of his amazing story; the timing of his life is extraordinary”

Supplementary content was deployed to enrich the episodes. Fothergill mentions that Netflix facilitated this: “one of the reasons we wanted to work with Netflix, and not the BBC, was that we wanted to work with the World Wildlife Fund UK to make an enormous amount of online content around the series.” The content surrounding Our Planet—called the ‘halo’—helps reach an audience beyond the Netflix subscribership, while also serving as an educational resource without being didactic. “We’ve had 700 million downloads of that content; we wanted to show there are bigger stories to tell…but very importantly, it gave people solutions.”

A Life On Our Planet offers solutions to our sustainability crisis, especially during its latter stages. “It is very, very important that you show people what they can do in their own lives to turn things around”, emphasises Fothergill. He recognises that attitudes towards sustainability differ between older and younger demographics, afterwards admitting that the younger may treat it with greater urgency. He suggests, “people of your generation realise they’ve inherited a damaged planet and that they really care about it”, adding, “but if you don’t give people solutions, they stick their head in the sand, and will say ‘I can do nothing about this, it may terrify me, but I can’t do anything.’” These solutions, then, endow viewers with one ingredient for change; another being unity, which is forged through a collective appreciation of the facts.

A DIFFERENT DAVID

“David was criticised for not being as environmentally outspoken”, Fothergill remembers. Then, he recalls that “[Attenborough] used to say that he wasn’t an environmentalist and that people need to know about animals to care about them.” A Life On Our Planet, in this sense, appears incongruous with Attenborough’s blue-chip career, as it can only be the product of an environmentalist. His recent work, on-page and film, is his most blatant appeal for change in a 66-year-long career. Both film and book rely on fact to justify this appeal, belying Lawson’s earlier criticism. We now know a different Attenborough.

“It was a very important feature [of the film]”, answers Fothergill, when asked why Attenborough was presented so intimately. “I’ve been working with David for 40 years and I’ve always thought of his amazing story; the timing of his life is extraordinary.” A Life On Our Planet traces Attenborough’s life-long devotion to the natural world alongside markers of human development. Fothergill summarises the significance of Attenborough’s life to the film: “He began travelling when the world was pristine, at the same time international air travel became possible. He’s seen more of the natural world than anyone on the planet.” By contrast, “It took Darwin five years to go to the Galápagos and back”, Fothergill points out. The film represents the relationship between nature and humanity as one of divergence; as Attenborough laments, “We moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature.” A Life On Our Planet is personalised with Attenborough’s experience to resensitise us; in other words, human concerns must include environmental concerns.  

“David is a traditional Englishman”, insists Fothergill, “he doesn’t bare his soul, he’s never been a celebrity.” Fothergill overcame Attenborough’s personal reticence by using a particular lens during filming. He refers to a Mirror Rig, which, he explains, “is a lens with a mirror inserted. So, David looks into the lens and sees the director reflected in it, which means that he feels as if he is talking to you or me—somebody is talking to him. That was important for revealing the personal side of David.” Fothergill’s use of the Mirror Rig captures the person behind the customary voice. During filming, he, amongst others, interviewed Attenborough, who answered each question unscripted. “Some of the responses were the most important moments in the film”, urges Fothergill. To illustrate this, he then mentions Attenborough’s despondence midway through the film, saying, after bowing his head in resignation, “Human beings have overrun the world.”

Fothergill pauses, perhaps reflecting on the environmental damage he has encountered, then says, “David feels very passionate about it because it is a crisis.”

TIME FOR CHANGE

In A Life On Our Planet, Attenborough encapsulates the current environmental crisis, saying, ‘We talk of saving the planet, but the truth is that we must do these things to save ourselves.’ I asked Fothergill if Attenborough’s summary was as true then as it is now. “There was an environmental awareness but it was a different type”, he answers.

Fothergill continues his response by offering a personal analogy: “It was about, ‘Tigers are rare. Mountain gorillas are rare’…We certainly knew, for instance, the Borneo rainforest was being cut down very fast…I had friends at Durham who said, ‘I don’t really care about elephants going extinct’ and that sort of stuff. That used to frustrate me.” We are now in a liminal stage of environmental consciousness, realising that our existence, too, is part of environmental concerns. Our subordination of nature has altered it, shifting us to a different time: the ‘Anthropocene, the time of humans’, writes Attenborough. Though our time remains contingent on nature’s health, indicating that we are, ultimately, part of it. “Now, we’re not just talking about the survival of animals”, suggests Fothergill, “we’re now talking about the survival of humankind.”

Environmental consciousness present at Durham today seems a marked improvement from how it was during Fothergill’s time here, with the inception of student-led groups dedicated to addressing unsustainability across various industries. But this awareness, in Durham and beyond, has developed out of necessity and tragically remains contentious.

Fothergill notes the scepticism and apathy surrounding environmental damage, though nonetheless urges us to understand the facts. “Get real—just don’t be stupid. Your lives are going to be affected by [environmental damage]; it is going to actually threaten the lives of your children”, he warns. Despite this, Fothergill remains optimistic that humanity will respond appropriately: “the fact that the whole world has put support into finding a vaccine shows that…humankind—most of it, anyway—has the ability to cooperate. That, to me, is exciting.”

Our reception of the facts, though, remains central to the planet’s recovery. Fothergill urges us to “take time to understand the facts. If you bother to take the time to understand them, all the rest will follow.” He lauds Greta Thunberg for stressing the value of fact: “I did an interview between David and Greta”, as he recalls her plea: “Get your facts right”. Fothergill then furthers this, concluding, “Once you know the facts…any human being, frankly, will want to change and will demand change from politicians and businesses.”

While change is necessary, Fothergill’s attachment to the natural world remains constant. “I have an absolute passion for the natural world; my life’s passion is sharing it with others”, he says. “It’s not changed at all”, he chuckles, “it’s identical to how it was.”

Image: Silverback Films

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