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Dominic Weston - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 28th July 2016

Dominic Weston, a seasoned series producer of natural history programming, discusses the place of storytelling in natural history filmmaking, whether environmental messages can be packaged as entertaining television, and the future of wildlife television.

Dominic Weston

Dominic is a television producer, director and writer who delights in programmes with strong narratives and ambitious scope - from real life to wildlife. He started his career at the legendary and eccentric Partridge Films and his projects have taken him from Arabia to Zambia, making shows for broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a key member of the team that produces the global hit show River Monsters, creating memorable feature length episodes.

Not convinced that wildlife television works as hard as it could to engage a contemporary audience he is currently series producing Savage Kingdom with Icon Films and NHFU Botswana for National Geographic Wild - a ground-breaking six-parter about the dangerously interconnected lives of competing clan predators in a kingdom far, far away.

 

Transcript

Earth in Vision Project

My name is Dominic Weston, I’m a Series Producer and Director working mainly in wildlife but also in what are called outdoors programmes, so adventure programmes – the most notable of those being a series called River Monsters, which has probably had the most global appeal of anything I’ve been working on.

What got me interested

I’ve always been interested in the natural world and it does go back to childhood and I can remember the usual thing of being… hankering after a stickleback from a stream, that kind of stuff. But the seminal event like so many people, was Life On Earth. I watched the series, I had the book, I did… when we had to talks at school about animals I researched things out of Life on Earth and present stuff from that. And then I got involved in birdwatching, a member of the YOC… so the Young Ornithologists Club and then also the XYZ Club, which was Exceptional Young Zoologists, which was an offshoot from the Zoological Society of London, because I lived in Greater London, so I’d get free tickets to go to Whipsnade and London Zoo. So always fascinated from that point of view but not necessarily from career, it’s just I ended up being in Bristol and the Bristol television scene is dominated by wildlife, so the two combined that way.

Studying drama, filming natural history

With regard to education, I actually went to university and studied drama, and that wasn’t acting school or directing school, it was much more the exploration of the dramatic process, storytelling, kind of voice and body work and that kind of thing, so I learnt a lot about storytelling, presenting ideas, presenting performances and that’s where I came from, that’s what I was most fascinated by and then when I came to Bristol after that, I studied in the West Country, it was clear that Bristol meant television rather than theatre or film that was… they had that sector and it very strong. And then from that, that dovetailed into the wildlife, so it was television, an interest in the natural world, then that kind of drama side, which I do draw on a lot now because my approach, I’m much more interested in the storytelling than say the wildlife in itself as a subject or a science, because I think in a way everything we see on television is entertainment and a story and you look at the science behind stuff and it’s rigorous, it’s there, but it’s not massively advanced, because it can’t be, because they’re not scientific programmes, they’re not meant to educate graduates; they’re there to appeal to everyone.

Storytelling and natural history

I think predominantly if you’re going for… I’d say it is television and mainstream television, I mean it’s slightly different with the web now because you can find a niche for almost anything but if you’re going for broad appeal I think it is stories and I think people just respond to story. Now it’s not something that’s necessarily headline or faked or made up to force an idea into a story; it’s just how we talk to each other, it’s how we tell each other things. We do start with a beginning, middle, end, we try and get a hook for people or surprise them in a conversation. And the same is true with television, we don’t just present audio visual essays; if we did I think we’d find that people… the audience is much smaller and at the end of the day television is a commercial operation and people pay to make it, people pay one way or another to watch it, and that does affect what you can show and how you can show it. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but it just means that story element, I think, is very strong, even from news. Our news stories, from factual all the way through drama, all the way through wildlife, that storytelling element is there.

Can you tell strong environmental stories on television?

I think you can, but it’s all about context and it’s all about, I suppose, looking at a pyramid, and in that pyramid there can be some very sharp matters at the top but they’re going to be few and far between and probably going to have to be in a very singular way that grabs attention, but you can’t look at the baseline, broad line of the pyramid and expect to fill every programme with strong environmental messages unless they’re wound up in stories, and I think that’s very hard, because you’re in danger of maybe diluting it, the subject, or maybe just over-exposing it. So I think that it is harder to do that, I think it is possible but it’s also whether we should be considering other media, whether social media, through the web, through other things, even podcasts, are better ways to get certain stories where people are maybe already subscribed or on board to a certain channel, like a YouTube channel, to a podcast, where they want to hear this, and so they’re already investing and will take more of that message than maybe they are if they just turn on the television one night midweek and want to watch something. And I think that’s much harder to get that audience regularly with a hard message about the environment.

What I am most proud of

There’s one programme that I’m… if you say proud of a programme, ‘cause it’s… programmes are sum of so many different parts, but one that I particularly felt we did the right thing was actually a River Monsters story, it was about the effect of fish in the river and how they might be affected by the environment, but it was a personal story, it was a tragedy. It was a boat that went down in the Amazon, it was a boat that didn’t have safety measures and a lot of people died and very unfortunately a lot of people’s bodies were cleared up by fish, which made it quite gruesome when they recovered the boat. But in the telling of that story, when we were out with those people, we found more and more information about how the river had been affected by fish processing plants, how certain fish started gathering in areas of eddies, so the reality of the situation became clear to us of how manmade influences, both in passenger safety but also in the treatment of the river and the fish living in the river and the processing of fish as waste and a commodity, created this perfect storm where a lot of people died and were cleared up by fish. But I thought the way we unpicked that story, how we told it, and also how we were very sensitive about the people who were affected by it, that, at the end of it I felt we had done a very good job and we’d uncovered a very interesting story.

Are we obligated to feature environmental issues in natural history television?

I think there can be a sense that there is an obligation to reflect the environment and what’s happening to the environment in any story you tell, but I just think you always have the means. I don’t think you can… I suppose I don’t want to sound like I’m copping out but I think there are maybe ways that if you are involved in the inception of a story and the creation of it from the ground up and you want to build in environmental factors, perhaps there is no excuse why you cannot, but often you’re brought into a story that already has a mould, already has an audience and already has a remit and an expectation for it. And I don’t think necessarily you can just jam it in, it’s like… do you look at the political situation about the country, regardless of environment? There are all sorts of things you could put it, you might need to put in as a decent human being, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got the right to do it. And as I say, that’s not sounding like a cop out. I think if you want to factor it from the ground up, that’s great and you probably have to ask those questions more seriously of yourself if you’re not doing it, but with certain programmes that just is not the expectation, so if you have got a means to do it and you can do it as part of what that programme is, great; but I think once you start trying to twist a programme and force it to hit or to press certain buttons for other means and other aims, I think it just ends up being uncomfortable and ends feeling phoney and you may even cause more damage or alienate your audience, which is the last thing anyone wants.

Is delivering an environmental message compatible with entertaining television?

I can’t say recently I have seen any specifically made films or programmes that have a strong environmental message that get to a big audience. It may be I’m not the target audience, I actually don’t like watching a lot of wildlife programmes, let alone environmental programmes, because I find the storytelling in a lot of them lacking and the behaviour quite… it’s often about the technical aspects of behaviour, about how long an animal’s been watched, how expensive the camera is, how remote the crew are, and for me that’s not enough story; it’s spectacular but it’s not enough story. And so actually I don’t watch a lot of wildlife because I don’t enjoy it, so I’m probably not the best person to ask if I’ve seen one that really hits those buttons of telling an environmental story in a great way, because it’s not my favourite genre to watch.

Can you cover environmental issues with a magazine format like ‘The One Show’?

I think with a magazine programme like The One Show which is sort of current affairs, people interest and has lots of short VTs, it’s actually a much easier way to get to an audience, because four-and-a-half minutes might seem like what can you cover, but actually you can cover something very well and in that time people will give you the four-and-a-half minutes to be persuaded, which they may not give you with a fifty-minute programme that they want to sit down and enjoy in a more relaxing way or as a kind of spectator of the Great African Savannah. But actually those kind of programmes I think you can hit your target very well and people will accept it. I think that wrapper for ideas is one where it’s kind of like people say, ‘OK, well surprise me,’ and they’re much more open than they are with long form shows.

World wildlife has decline dramatically: How well has natural history television reflected this?

I think it’s quite shocking to actually hear the statistic that the actual quantity of wildlife on the planet has dropped by 50% since the 1970s. I mean that’s actually quite staggering and I don’t think you would know from watching television that that has taken place. My gut reaction is it should be reflected, it has to be reflected, but where it’s reflected I don’t know. In the same way that the feature film industry reflects some aspects of modern life but it doesn’t reflect everything in modern life; yet we have maybe Oscar or BAFTA-winning one-off documentaries that will look at something, will look at a housing crisis or how Detroit is bankrupt and show that, but every other blockbuster isn’t necessarily going to touch on that. But it is a horrendous crisis and so to be overlooked for so long, it’s galling, but I don’t know personally how you can change what we’re seeing to reflect it in every programme to say, ‘It’s going, it’s going, you’ve lost it, it’s going, half of this is gone, it’s dead,’ without just losing the audience. And I hope we can find a way, but I think the danger or the problem is, is that what people… It sounds banal, is that what people want to watch? People on one level do want to watch animals ‘cause they look nice and they’re not like humans and it’s a pristine world out there and that gives them hope. Whether that hope is misplaced, it sounds like it is to a massive degree, but maybe that’s the dream they want to hold.

Are environmental films bad box-office?

Environmental films, I think, have a kind of a cyclical relationship with the audience. I think at certain times they peak and they get an interest and they hit the point exactly right, they may be linked to a topic or a disaster or maybe a celebrity and they chime with the viewers, and it can be a massive affect they have. But then they suddenly seem to wane and I don’t know if it’s a saturation thing? Again the idea like the top of a pyramid, that you can’t have everything jammed in the top of the pyramid, very sharp, strong points that affect people deeply. I don’t think you can fill the cinemas with that or the televisions with that. I think they still can have the affect but it is this frustrating scenario with all television of constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.

People get used to things, they get saturated by things, whether it’s forms of drama, whether it’s types of presenter, whether it’s genres of programmes or programme making. It’s not exclusive to environmental television, to wildlife television; it’s just harder with those deeper issues to keep reinventing those, but I think there still is capacity to engage an audience and to surprise an audience; you’ve just go to work a lot, lot harder on it.

What if the BBC opened up its archive for public use?

I think the idea of opening up an archive or a treasury, like everything the BBC and all the other great producers globally have created over the last 20, 30, 40 years, is an astonishing idea. It sounds like this great treasure chest. But it’s like any great resource, how do you open it up, how do people get access to it, how do they understand what they have? So, it could be fantastic, it could give people a window into the world, in to see treasures they hadn’t realised or to see the changes, maybe massive changes between what was around 50 years ago when Zoo Quest was first made and what’s around now, but all that doesn’t just happen. That has to be managed, worked at and is almost just like programme making all over again but in just a looser way that it’s discovered. There are websites already and resources that look at cataloguing selected clips of wildlife and selected images to make that available, and I think already they find it hard to reach an audience. So I think there is huge potential but that also would require, in my mind, huge investment of time, energy, money, endless resources really to make that work, to roll it out, to engage it for decades to come. So yes, I suppose it’s almost like saying could you open up the Earth’s crust and take minerals out and use them, yes, you could <laughs>, but the process of that would go on for centuries, but you’d have great benefits, pollute the planet, create civil wars, whatever, I don’t know. It’s not that extreme but it’s not just a case of opening the doors, here you go, here’s the treasure. I just don’t think it’s that simple.

New media: Is there a future for wildlife television?

I think the potential of wildlife programming is still huge and I think there was a fear that television as such would die and there’d be so much competition from other media and from websites and on people’s smart phones, but I think the evidence, perhaps, is that people don’t want to exclude one thing. The fear of the older generation that the younger are running off with something else and leaving this great industry behind, or this great body of work, is not necessarily true; I think people just want many ways of finding it, more than one way, and they want choices. So I don’t see that it’s necessarily dying and I think sometimes a family might come together and watch something in one room, sometimes the kids will be up late catching up themselves in their own time. But I think people still want to feel connected by it and I think they still like finding something special, finding something exciting and finding it soon and then communicating it. And I think maybe the big error is that we have overlooked for too long the need to communicate that excitement between different groups, and that’s actually an integral part of what they want; it’s not just watching it once and saying thank you, or being happy sat on your sofa; they actually want to get it, to receive it and then bounce if off their friends, bounce it off their social groups and keep talking about it and looking at clips and looking at the funny things or the exciting things and the great things. So I think if anything it’s just like kind of an explosion through a prism and I suppose the danger is trying to… or the risk is how do you juggle all those things, how do you satisfy all those audiences and keep them all engaged? But I don’t think television is dying out because also I think television still somehow is at the root of all that and television is generating the material for that, so it’s an integral part but it is not the only part.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?        

When I look at the state… I use the word state which doesn’t sound great, of the natural world… I am a born optimist and so I feel optimistic about everything, but then you hear figures like since 1970 half of the wildlife has gone and I can’t ignore that. But also, and I think I share this with a lot of viewers and a lot of people who receive mailings through the post or email petitions, I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what I can do. I will give money to charities, I will sign petitions, but it seems that everything goes on unchecked. And so I suppose I feel a sense of helplessness, of frustration, and what keeps me going is I’m an optimist, which is probably a bit like being an ostrich with my head in the sand, to be honest, but it’s the way I cope.

<End of Interview>

 

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