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Doug Allan - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 21st July 2016

Doug Allan, Emmy and BAFTA award-winning cameraman, talks Blue Planet, changing technology and the changing planet. 

All images courtesy of Doug Allan are (c) Doug Allan

Doug Allan

Doug Allan spent seven years in Antarctica as a research diver, scientist and photographer for the British Antarctic Survey, before changing direction to full time filming in 1983.

Since then he has become one of the world’s best known and respected cameramen. He specialises in natural history, expeditions and science documentaries in some of the wildest and most remote places on our planet, particularly the polar zones working for the BBC, Discovery, National Geographic and many others, filming for series like The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Human Planet, Frozen Planet, Ocean Giants and Operation Iceberg.

His photographic awards include seven Emmy’s and five BAFTA’s. He has twice won the underwater category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and has three Honorary Doctorates in recognition of his camerawork, as well as two Polar Medals.

In 2012 he published his book Freeze Frame – a wildlife cameraman’s adventures on ice.

www.dougallan.com

Transcript

Wildscreen, 20th–23rd October 2014

Earth in Vision Project

My name’s Doug Allen and I’m a wildlife filmmaker.

How I got started

That interest kind of came last, my first passion was for diving, I got into that when I was really at school, in fact 10 or 11 years old, snorkelling, that led to scuba, that led to an interest in marine biology, which took me to a degree. That then took me to some travelling with diving and then I went to the Antarctic, and I think it was in the Antarctic that I really became aware of the real wonders of the natural world, because it was just so spectacular, so on our doorstep, so special and we were working with it, we were involved with it, we worked with the penguins underwater and all the rest, so I would say it was late in coming, I’m not someone who was interested in natural history and wildlife all the way from the start.

What are the best things about being a wildlife cameraman?

Seeing new behaviour and filming it, that’s the holy grail, that’s what every programme wants is as much new material as we possibly can, and the fact is that as filmmaking has gone on, there are fewer and fewer things to be seen for the first time. They’re either rarer, they just don’t happen very often or they involve rare animals, or they’re just difficult technically to film. That was one of the things funnily enough when I got to the Antarctic, when I started my film career really in mid-eighties, knowing, as I did, the Antarctic, and then being asked to go to Arctic, it was like having Africa to myself, because nobody had been there and spent long periods of time and known what you could promise, but at the same time known how to handle the extremes of the environment. And there were all these sequences which were fairly straightforward, but which were just ready to pluck and ping out. And I have to say that from Life in the Freezer in 1993 all the way through to Planet Earth, 2005, we were really just picking off the plums and they were getting harder and harder, which meant that the Frozen Planet sequence that I did with Doug Anderson, where the killer whales came out of the water then made a wave to push… I mean you don’t get many new ones as big as that; one of the most charismatic animals in the ocean doing something that had never been properly filmed before, that was a big one.

And there is nothing to beat it; you can feel the adrenaline coming, but if you’re on the ball, man it just flows so smoothly, you can just feel yourself picking up the close-ups and the wides and all the rest of it and you just know where to move with the camera and it all just comes to a head … beautifully in your head. And if you’re working for a good production you know that that material is going to go to the best editors, the best producers, they are going to make it shine and sing even more. And it may be that you get something which will be the only footage of it around ever, ever because it may be a long time before anyone gets as lucky or has as much money to go for it as you did, or has the same tools, or maybe they just aren’t simply as good as you are? I don’t know, but it’s a great buzz to put that stuff there. And bowheads feeding, a bowhead is a big, baleen feeding whale, it lives in the Arctic, and I think I’m the only person to have got a shot of it feeding, because I shot it for Life on the Edge, a Geographic special in 1994, and it came up in a film for Terra Mater that was done 18 months ago. They were talking about bowheads and I said to myself, ‘You know something, I bet they get that shot out of Geographic,’ and there it was <laughs> gliding underneath. So it does give you a buzz when you know that you have stuff that’s going to last a long time.

The impact of Blue Planet

I think the biggest project that I was involved with which definitely hit the public was Blue Planet. Blue Planet rewrote the rules of a lot of things; it came along at a bit of dangerous time for wildlife. The previous 10 years from, say, 1993 to about 2000, the public had almost been OD’d on wildlife, there was a huge explosion of channels and satellite and things in the early nineties and all these new broadcasters went into wildlife with a vengeance and we ended up with a lot of fairly boring, mundane stuff and it all fell off a cliff just as Blue Planet was commissioned, so when Blue Planet came along, finally transmitted in 2001, it just came as a bolt from the blue, but it was a very, very special, fantastic series. It was the first time that the whole oceans had been covered in one series using new technology, new discoveries; everything was ripe for Blue Planet to make a big effect, and it did, it just took the public’s imagination and ran with it like nowhere else. And when you talk to universities there was a Blue Planet blip: all their applications for marine biology courses all kicked up for two or three years after Blue Planet, because of the impact that that series made on the public.

Should the environmental programme accompanying Blue Planet have been shown on a different channel?

Blue Planet came out as eight blue chip, straight natural history programmes and there was a ninth programme which was called Making Waves, which was looking at issues around the oceans, and that went out on BBC2 as opposed to BBC1. It certainly was a different feel, that programme was a more serious programme, it was more a BBC2-type programme. On the other hand I think that broadcasters should be clever enough to make an important programme to appeal across a wide range of audience, to handle both BBC1 and BBC2 for example. These decisions about these extra programmes are made utterly coldly, commercially. If we mixed the environmental issue in with the main, blue-chip wildlife, that programme would have a shelf life of two years before it had to be completely recut and all the conservation stuff taken out, because the story’s changed, things develop etc., but by making those programmes separate, the pure blue-chip wildlife thing can live forever.

Also the other one, the issues-led programme, there’s a lot more talking heads in that, people being interviewed. That doesn’t travel well, it has to be either dubbed or has to be sub-text and often the international audience has different conservation issues in a way, sometimes. So the BBC plays it very commercially; they make the two and they sell them, perhaps as a package, but I think in many cases, for example with Frozen Planet, Discovery didn’t want to show the programme that concentrated on human issues in the Antarctic, conservation things, politics, because they just didn’t think it had a place in the series generally. Eventually they did take it, because they came under a bit of pressure for basically ignoring all this stuff, but it’s always been there in the back of producers’ and the BBC’s mind, it’s always in the back to make sure the thing works commercially and if it’s a blue chip series, pure wildlife that you’re selling, keep your issues-led programme off to one side.

Can you address environmental issues in natural history television?

That’s the challenge of filmmaking, you shouldn’t shy away from a subject because you’re not good enough to make it interesting. You should take on that challenge and think of all the ways you can do it. You can make a story with a central character who’s directly impacted by climate change, you can look at it and you can just take the subject in a different way. I had an idea for climate change in the Arctic, for example, where if you look at it slightly simplistically, as things gets warmer it actually gets better for polar bears. If you want to create a good habitat for bears to hunt seals through the winter, then stick an oilrig in the road, because down current of that oilrig, the ice is all broken and there’s more seals hanging around there in the broken ice through the winter than there would be if the ice was solid. Why is the ice broken? Because of the oilrig, and because there’s more seals, there’s more polar bears there, they like it. So let’s improve the number of polar bears, give them a better chance through the winter, by putting lots of oilrigs in there. It doesn’t quite work out that way, but you can set that kind of thing up and then turn it around, but because you do it that way people are more likely to think about the programme when you’ve finished.

Did you see yourself as a witness to a changing planet?

You could go back to some of the archive scenics that we shot for Life in the Freezer on South Georgia, and put yourself in the same place now, shoot a shot that matched where you’d been, and you could see how much the glaciers had gone back. Stills photographers do this all the time, we can go back to Shackleton, Ponting, all these people and go back to where they were in the Antarctic, look at it now and see how it’s changed. And the same thing occurs with photographic records, as long as people have been taking photographs of natural things, there have been bits of them that you can see. I may have only been going to the Arctic for 25, 26 years, but I know things have changed, I can sense it in the sense that the weather is much more all over the place than it used to be, the ice is breaking up sooner. I can talk to my Inuit friends and they’ll tell me other changes. I can go to places in the Antarctic as I say, when I worked there for Bass, I stood on the edge of a glacier and when I go back there now, the glacier is 20 metres further up the shore, that sort of thing. So I can go to a colony of penguins, which in Life in the Freezer time was 7,000 or 8,000 Adélies, now it’s down to 1,000 Adélies and a couple of thousand Gentoos. Those Adélies have moved on because of climate change, because of the changing climate on the Antarctic Peninsula, and maybe their food has moved offshore, but it maybe that they’re being out-competed by the more sub-Antarctic Gentoos, which seem to come in and now compete with them for nesting sites. So there are lots of places where you can see that sort of thing and the Poles in particular, the most rapidly warming place on the planet is the West Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Summer temperatures are up almost 4 degrees centigrade on what they were 50 years ago.

Do you think natural history television has helped protect wildlife habitats?

The argument was, ‘If we don’t show people how lovely the world is and get them to feel for it, they won’t protect it.’ I think that’s worked for a wee while, but you can’t say that now. What happens now is, ‘Let’s show the people how wonderful the world is and how beautiful it is,’ and then half the world wants to go there. And they want to go there using all the unfortunately non-green means at their disposal. They want to fly there. When they arrive there they want to live in conditions that are not natural, they’re as comfortable, as westernised as they could possibly make it; they want air conditioning; they want showers every night; they want westernised food, etc. So all these things come together and it makes it very hard, and I do think that… If we have, if we pride ourselves in having… and this goes for people in the States, whatever country, if the broadcasters pride themselves on having the best, most imaginative producers working for them, then there must be a way of these people doing imaginative, creative new ways to get across the problems as well as just the pretties. And I think that there has been an imbalance. I think the public has been and is ready to take more honest, balanced views about some of the big issues, and they don’t have to be sugar-coated or not dealt with at all.

What would I like to work on now?

I would love to make a film about some of the burning issues, over-fishing, climate change, acidification of the oceans, things like that. I think that in the right hands with a clever story, with interweaving stories and things, you could make a very powerful documentary, it wouldn’t have to be preachy, but it would be an attempt to make a difference and to get the balance tipped back towards the planet healing, something healing being done for the planet, put it that way. I do think we can’t carry on as we are, we absolutely cannot, we’ve been saying for so long, ‘We’ve got 10 years, we’ve got 15 years, we’ve got so and so,’ we ain’t got much time. And I am very much in agreement with Naomi Klein and her book has just come out, which basically says ‘look, for 20 years we’ve been trying to nudge green issues and saying we can make green issues work economically. We can’t, not within the system that we’ve got, we need a big, radical change in how we do things and it won’t be easy’. I don’t even know if it can be achieved, but if we don’t achieve it, we’re going over the cliff, I think.

How has changing technology affected the way you film? 

Well, I started on film which was so utterly different, we would go out with so many cans, we’d be in the field for a month, we’d come back, we hadn’t seen a single frame, no feedback, it was all kind of, ‘I think I got that shot, I seem to remember it. Was it in focus? Well, I’ll have to hope so!’ Along comes electronic and you can play it back to yourself, you can look at it and the costs of running the camera have come down, tiny. It used to cost about £20 a minute to buy the film and get it to the stage where you could even look at it, £20 a minute! Now it’s nothing, you can load up hard drive after hard drive. But at the same time, shooting on film gives you a discipline where you did remember what you’d shot... you didn’t go over the top, you didn’t produce shot after shot after shot, and I think that can be important. There is such a thing as bringing back so much material that it’s physically impossible for the poor editor to look at it, there’s just too much of it, he hasn’t got time to go through 27 takes or 27 variations of something just to pick out the best shot.

So it’s gone on that way. On the other hand, certainly for underwater, the arrival of electronic media was a huge advantage over film. Film you had a 10 minute load; 10 minutes you had, then it was time to come out, split the camera, pull it apart and generally the underwater, murky conditions, film just made it look murkier and muddier. Electronic came along, suddenly hour-long tapes, big, bright viewfinders, the ability to pierce through the murk and give you a nice, sharp image that looked colourful, etc. So it was all on a roll and I would say it went on a roll until 4K arrived. Now 4K has arrived, big, high resolution formats have arrived in the last four or five years. They do make things harder again, mostly because you’re dealing with big sensors and therefore longer, bigger lenses, but smaller depths of field basically, focus utterly critical, and there’s a big concern at the moment that the viewfinders on cameras are just not up to the task of actually getting things as sharp as they should be. We do our best, but when we then take that picture and put it on a screen that big, it’s just not quite there and then there is no forgiveness for that. Underwater, again, a few years ago we could go underwater with a zoom lens that took us all the way from this wide-angled shot all the way down to a close-up of your eyes. You can’t do that, there’s no 4K lens that has that range of zoom, so we’re then faced with, OK, we’ll do wide angles on one lens, then we’re going to have leave our subject, come out, rocky, rock boat, fiddle around, fiddling with lenses, change the bulb, go back into the water and hope we can find the same thing in order to get the close-ups.

Slow motion filming

Filmmaking and what is real and what is deception in a way, you can’t… it would be a pretty boring film if you didn’t at least change your timeline. Lions take all afternoon to hunt and then miss an antelope and we show them, three, four minutes at the most, so we’re always playing with the timelines and things. Slow motion is another example. I think most people…. Slow motions always remind me, if you see a real-life recording of an explosion, it just goes bumph! And it’s done. And likewise animals jump out of the sea or take off from their nest, they just go like that, they don’t just slowly beat their wings and take off, but a lot of people think that they do. And the reason we do slow motion often is to make the animal look bigger, make it look more dramatic, it lets you put bigger sound effects on it, things like that. There was a well-known producer who’s now no longer with us, be he absolutely would only go to slow motion if it meant you could see what was happening more clearly. If there was no reason for it, then don’t do it, but it has become a standard part of the game and not just normal slow motion, three or four times, but super slow motion. And now you see it not just in wildlife films, but Wimbledon or the football. I mean how anyone in a football pitch expects to get away with a foul, I do not know, because they can show it <laughs> 100 times slowed down, faster than the referee can see it! And I think sometimes it’s really useful, but I think like anything if you use it too often in a film, so that it just becomes a cliché or becomes meaningless, then you’ve defeated the whole purpose in doing it. I don’t think we should stop and explain every time it goes super slow motion, but I think if you do it too much the audience will get bored. And you have a fad for it comes in again and ultra-slow motion which was very difficult until a few years ago, ultra-slow motion has now come back in to some extent. We used to say, ‘If I see another raindrop coming off a frog’s back <yawns> I’ll just go like that.’ And it was big through the seventies and eighties and then it faded away for a while and then it came back and now it’s back again even more slow motion and it will be gone in five years’ time. So we’ll just live and let live, but it seems to be that there is a certain voluptuousness to the image, isn’t there, that we have now with high definition, ultra-high definition, where the slow motion to see all the ripples across an animal’s fur or all the splashes that comes off and things like that, they are very impressive shots, but if you use them too much you’ll ruin the mood and you’ll turn the viewer off, so it’s all about where appropriate.

How does the availability of new media and extra screens affect the way you work? (20:50)

The multiplatform approach doesn’t particularly affect how you shoot the wildlife. Technology on the other hand has moved and improved and that will change how you cover the wildlife, you’ll cover it from more angles perhaps, and ultra-slow motion and what have you, but the multi-platform approach does mean that there’s a lot more shot behind the scenes, so to speak, so therefore we’re often being asked to talk to another camera while we’re filming what we’re supposed to be doing or tell us how you feel or keep a video diary of how you think you’re getting on on this shoot. All that sort of stuff is becoming increasingly important and the BBC try and do it a lot. You can notice even from one major series to the next, because this idea of building up an audience for the final programme while you’re actually making the programme, that has taken on a lot of importance and they now have to be careful about who… About tweets, for example, going out while you’re filming, because within any big series there will be two or three really good stories that they want to keep back, so that the press have got new stories to talk about when they launch the programme, and the last thing they want is a picture or a tweet going out at the time, which then undermines the impact that the final press push will have at the time, so it’s almost like a feature film. When you’ve got a feature film set, they say, ‘Right, no mobile phones, we’ll take your phones away from you, nobody can take any pictures on set, nothing like that’. It almost can be like that at times with the big series. They are very aware of the power of the social media in determining… When a series gets transmitted for the first time on the channels, they monitor all the tweets and they can then tell where the areas are that suddenly produce all the interest. And that all gets fed into the audience review and has an impact on how you structure the series the next time round.

As a cameraman, how do you feel about broadcasters owning the copyright to your images?

The normal deal when you’re working as a camera person is that, with the BBC and the other big broadcasters, is that they’re paying you to be in the field to do a job, they therefore have full copyright in all the material. It used to be we weren’t copyrighting all the moving images, now it’s almost becoming that we want copyright in anything you take, stills, movie, what have you. I’ve always fought hard to retain copy of my stills, I’m happy to see them used for publicity for the actual film, but I’ve always fought hard to keep that copyright to myself, because I then want to be able to use those pictures in books, presentations or sell them through libraries.

… and what about releasing your images for public use?

The big thing with digital is that you can have any number of completely perfect copies, so therefore they’ve become very valuable, those images that you have, whether stills or moving, I’m quite happy to see my material, and I do own some moving stuff of my own, I’m quite happy to see that used for educational purposes or publicity purposes for certain organisations that I deem worthy. That’s a very subjective thing, but at least, because I own the copyright I can decide who uses it and at what rate. I think you have to be very careful about how you let it out there, at what resolution you send it, because once it goes out into the web to someone else, you can easily pluck it out of a website, put it into your own and if you have a high resolution picture there, then someone can use it in another way, so there’s a lot of complexities about it. I think it would be a shame if the broadcasters were to lock up all our stuff and it’s only useable to people who can pay for it, because there are causes where it’s important to let the stuff out.

How are the new camera formats affecting archive?

There is an enormous amount of data floating around and it’s getting more every year. When you shoot on 4K cameras you get something like a terabyte of information every 45 minutes, so that’s enormous amounts, and those images, remember, are almost worthless unless you get someone to go through and look at them and make a note of what is on each file, because the files are meaningless. So could you keep all that amount of data year after year, or should someone go through and make a selection now? Who knows what’s going to be important in 20, 30, 40 years’ time?

Having my own very modest amount of stock both in stills and in movie certainly makes you think about it. I did a book a couple of years’ ago and half of the book comprised of scans from film and some of the pictures that I used in the book, which were perfectly good, were taken 40 years ago. And one of my biggest assets is all those films that I have. I also shoot on digital with stills or a movie and I’ll tell you I’m a lot more worried about the long-term storage of the digital images than I am of the film images. I know that the film images have been there for 40 years, they’re fine, I’ll keep them in a box, dark, fine. The digital stuff, I don’t know, if a hard drive lives for two years and doesn’t turnover, when you go to plug it in, is it going to fire up OK? I don’t know. And you can shoot such a lot of image, because it costs nothing, but you have to at some point look through it.

What are the issues about different organisations using your personal archives and the BBC’s?

With respect to who should get access to it, again that’s a very… with my material I can decide. OK, I’m quite happy for it to get used by a conservation charity, I’ll let them have a certain amount of low res stuff free of charge, so to speak. On the other hand, if a corporation comes along it’s a bit different. I sell some of my material through libraries and those libraries are purely commercial. The library wouldn’t like it if every time I got a request from a charity, I said, ‘Yeah, sure, the library will dig out what you want, fine, go ahead, use it.’ So I think it’s different… different usages would require different clearances and all the rest of it, but if you send stuff out there, making it freely available to anyone, then it will get used for anything. You could have the best will in the world, but pictures can get used pro-climate change, against climate change or, ‘We don’t care about climate change.’ I had one image of an iceberg which was used by an oil company, they just took it and did a nice picture and then underneath the iceberg, reflected was a skyscraper, which happened to be the same shape as the iceberg. Now I got paid a lot of money for that advert <laughs> and some people would say, ‘Yeah, look at this, you’re using your images to promote this oil company,’ and I did think, ‘I wonder if I should?’ And that was a library sale and I didn’t specify, when I gave it to the library, I didn’t say, ‘Look, I don’t want my images to get used for oil companies.’ But it’s a big can of worms, which if you just open the lid and look in a little bit you can see how complicated it is.

I would like to think that images which were certainly basically gained from a large bit of the public purse, i.e. the BBC, I would like to think that they would release some of their archive for worthwhile causes, education worldwide, things like that, but when you release those images into the world these days, you need a pretty good contract to regulate how and when they’re used and you need someone to monitor their use, because once they get out there they can go all over the place and get used. So it is a big issue, both the amount we have and how they get used in the future.

Releasing archive: What dilemmas do the BBC face?

The Beeb is a hard one to talk about, because in many respects they’re such an anomalous organisation, they do one thing and they’re praised and they do exactly the same thing and half of the population damns them, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. I would like to think that they would certainly release some of it, certain amounts out there, for anyone, to get used, that would seem to be a good, worthwhile cause, but at the same time they are a commercial organisation and quite rightly so, and some material they have, no one else has. They have several extinct species in the library, so they have some of the only stuff that exists and I think to some extent you could say the really rare stuff like that ought to be released more, because that’s the kind of stuff that the educationalists, the conservationists, they will want to use. On the other hand, that’s the stuff that’s most valuable to get used. You can monitor it, so I think having said it was difficult, there is software out there that crawls around the internet and when it finds an image it will then… For example, Getty images, a big library, they have software which crawls around the web and when it finds a picture that it recognises as a Getty picture, it goes back and checks the contracts and finds out wherever that picture has appeared, has it been licensed to appear there? And there’s a few people <laughs> who’ve been caught out by some… they get a big bill from Getty for $500 or $600 for use of a photograph which they never thought to clear. Because their web designer has thought, ‘Oh that’s a nice picture, I’ll just use this as a backdrop,’ then they get caught out. So there’s a lot of software out there, but at the same time, there’s a lot of very clever people who will take what they want.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist? 

I would like to be optimistic, I really would, but it does come down to making a big change, we have to, and we’ve been saying long enough, ‘Oh, our children will do it,’ or something like that. Well, we’re running out of time for our children, it’s got to be the people in power right now. If we brought a kind of warlike mentality to vest, which brings an urgency in the funds, if we contributed just a fraction of what we used to bail out the banks 8 years’ ago, we could crack it. It’s ridiculous, how much did we bail out the banks for? Trillions of dollars, for making the biggest screw-up we’ve ever seen. 

 

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