Indigo Editor Patrick Brennan talks to acclaimed wildlife cameraman, Doug Allan. Best known for his work on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Life, his is the face you never see… until November 4th when he appears at the Gala in Doug Allan: Life Behind the Lens. A must for any nature-lover.
Hi Doug, It’s fantastic to meet you. Would you tell us how you got into the film and camera business?
Well it was actually a chance meeting with David Attenborough…
He bumps into a lot of people. I was working in the Antarctic as a scientist for the British Antarctic Survey at the time, and I got a real feel for how they worked – prior to that I hadn’t even picked up a film camera! I’d written a few articles with the idea of approaching National Geographic, but when I met David it took me off into different directions. As I was going to be in the Antarctic over the winter anyway, I suggested I might do some emperor penguin footage, and that’s where it kicked off. So it was a bit opportunistic really!
What was it like being so cold all the time? How did you cope physically?
You’re not actually cold all the time – a lot of places in the Antarctic in the summer are similar to Scotland in February or March. But, it is bitterly cold in the winter: down to -30oC and below. You learn the capabilities and limits of your own body. You have to walk that narrow boundary between your fingers being okay and the first nips of frostbite. But when you talk about being cold, it’s a little bit like, say, if you and I broke our legs and we were lying in hospital together, who’s to say whose injury is the more painful? It might just come down to how much pain you feel.
A lot of your job must be spent waiting for that right moment what’s it like just having to stay in the same place?
If you’re the kind of person who gets impatient waiting don’t go into wildlife filming!
There is a lot of waiting around where nothing will happen and the animal won’t appear. I once spent several weeks in a hide, waiting for snow leopards to appear and they appeared only once. That was pretty tedious but you have to recognise that it’s part of the job and that wherever you do it, there is invariably a certain degree of discomfort – be it mosquitos eating your sweat beads or your fingers chilling up.
Whales are one of my favourite animals. What species have you been in the water with?
I’ve been in the water with belugas and bowheads, a tiny little bit with narwhals and then humpbacks, minkes, sperm whales and some of the dolphin species. A blue whale, too, briefly.
You were in the sea with a blue whale?!
Yeah. We did some filming in Sri Lanka – we dived down and there was a blue whale right in front of us. I don’t think there are any other shots of a blue whale with a person in them. I have to say that blue whales, they may be the biggest, but they are not the most friendly.
They’re not so much shy as totally disinterested, and they hardly ever swim slowly. You’ll get a swim by or maybe you’ll put yourself in front of them and they’ll dive and you can dive with them. They don’t seem to be as curious as humpbacks or dolphins – they just get on with their business. My favourite whales are probably humpbacks – they can be very friendly; they spend a lot of time near the surface and they take a really big interest in you.
I’ve also had some great times with belugas. Generally, toothed whales are more intelligent than baleen whales and when you get surrounded by a pod of belugas in the water that’s really something else; it’s like diving in the middle of a flock of birds.
One of my favourite of your scenes from The Blue Planet was a pod of belugas in the Arctic with the sea-ice forming over their heads – they had to keep swimming up to a hole to keep it open. It had all of us on the edge of our seats!
Yeah, that was pretty special. We heard about that scenario from some friends we had in the arctic and it was very exciting to watch. There were some polar bears trying to catch them, and in the area around the hole there were about nine dead belugas. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived this event was about four weeks old – when the belugas were first discovered the hole was only a couple of metres long, so the polar bears were finding it really easy to catch the belugas. But the hole was melting by the time we got there. The hole was just too big; the belugas could stay in the middle and the polar bears were finding it hard. We did at least get a jump in by a polar bear. It may have been quite gruesome to watch a beluga getting hauled above the surface and finished off, so maybe that was the best result in the end. But I was certainly hoping it would catch one!
Turning to a completely different topic: you’ve talked before about environmental issues, like plastics in the oceans. Wildlife presenter Chris Packham has given views that we shouldn’t direct funding for wildlife issues towards saving particular species like pandas and tigers, ones that don’t have a huge ecological impact. We should direct that funding towards other conservation efforts. They are the flagship species that the public supports and might end up bringing in more funding than if you didn’t fund them. I just wondered where do you lie on this?
I’ve heard Chris before. He reckons that pandas are the biggest waste of time because they are at an ecological dead end.
They don’t seem to have much drive to continue their own species.
They live very quietly in the bamboo forest and do nothing else. So why are they recognised and loved? They are like cute, cuddly bears. My feelings are that Chris has a point, but if you start out with people caring about individual animals, then you are more likely to have people look at the bigger picture. It’s like when people say ‘why do you make these big glossy films that don’t say a word about the pressures to the environment?’ I think they have a point, too. It used to be that you could say you make them because unless people see how beautiful the world is, they won’t care. Now I’m not so sure that’s true anymore, because I’ve tried that for thirty years and we still have serious degradation of the environment. I think what happens now is that we show people beautiful places and they want to go there!
I think, a little bit like Chris – if glossy wildlife films are the equivalent of the pandas and the tigers – that there’s a crying need for films to address some of the issues around climate change. I think it’s disappointing that the BBC doesn’t have more documentaries about climate change in their schedule for the next four months. I believe climate change is a massive issue facing the planet; it’s getting harder and more expensive to cope with every year. It’s only a matter of time before we reach tipping point and lose control.
Do you think it’s one of those things that people are reluctant to come to terms with because we know that it might not affect our own generation, but a generation or two down the line instead?
Yes, people are very good at hiding their heads in the sand. We need to get new criteria as to what we call successful businesses: we want to reach a steady state rather than keep on wanting more from companies, more from the Earth. We are going to reach a crunch point sooner or later and it’s likely to be sooner if we carry on the way we are.
Would you recommend any advice for budding photographers at university?
I am entirely self-taught. I never had a lesson in my life. However, for those who want to go into the business, you have to be passionate and you have to be good at your craft. I would recommend that you study the kind of photographs and movies you like, take them apart and read about the techniques that allow camera people and producers to produce this piece of art you see. But bear in mind that it’s not an easy way to make a living and there are an awful lot of people trying to get into it!
Doug Allan, thank you.