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Jack Perks - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 28th July 2016

Jack Perks, underwater cameraman and fish aficionado, describes what it is like starting out as a young natural history filmmaker, exploring wildlife in Britain, and the role of social media in connecting with new audiences.

Jack Perks

Jack is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker specialising in freshwater fish, but with a passion for all things natural history. After studying a BA (Hons.) in Marine & Natural History Photography at Falmouth, he went on to work for many conservation groups like the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF supplying images and footage of fish. Based in Nottingham, he now works all over the country particularly the Peak District and Urban Rivers.  



Earth in Vision Project

My name is Jack Perks and I’m an underwater and wildlife cameraman and photographer.

How I got interested in the natural world

Well it’s kind of stereotypical to say it but I’ve done it since I can remember, since I was a child catching sticklebacks and tadpoles in a jam jar, that kind of Huckleberry Finn sort of thing. And then a few years later cameras came into it, so photography, stills photographer and then that spiralled out of control and I got into the filmmaking side of it and then from there I wanted to really pursue that and then I went to study it down in Cornwall.

How I got started as an independent filmmaker

Well I studied first. I did a degree in marine natural history first, down in Falmouth, in Cornwall. So that really helped me, certainly, focus my attentions for three years, if nothing else (as well as learning basic camera techniques). But then after that, I was kind of being let loose into the wild, so to speak. It’s kind of funny, my original plan was just to do retail, save some money up, and buy a camera. But it turned out, that where I’d planned to go they didn’t want me <laughs>. So I had to go early and do it. Looking back on it, I’m glad I did because obviously it gave me more drive to do camera-work. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely do-able and I have kind of pushed away at it and my marketing myself, and trying to find niches in things not so much done by other people. It’s helped me make some sort of impact.

What I’m doing now…

Now I primarily work as a professional photographer and cameraman and that is a varied amount of work, both underwater and above, whether it’s teaching people, whether it’s filming for productions or charities, a mixed bag really; one minute I can be doing something quite mundane, the next time I can be doing something quite exciting.

How I create a profile within the industry

Well I suppose we are in a digital age now and one of the main ways that I get myself across is social media. I’m of that generation I suppose that has grew up with it anyway so it comes quite natural to me, but things like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, you name it, Instagram, that kind of way and just building up a following of people who, for whatever reason, are interested in what I do <chuckles>.

What film project I’m most proud of…

One of the things that got me recognised with a lot of people was a Kickstarter campaign I did. Kickstarter’s a platform where people can donate money for you to do an arts project, so in this case I was trying to do a film and rather than go to one production company and say, ‘I want X amount of money’ I went to lots of people and said, ‘Can you all contribute a small amount of money’ and then they get either a copy of the film or some sort of reward in return. The project was to try and film every freshwater fish in the UK, while also doing a separate film for more conservation issues like the plight of eels and some of the rarer species that we have. And I didn’t really expect it to work <chuckles> but sure enough we did get the money to fund it and it kind of funded me for a 6-9 month project going around the country and doing all that, so it was fantastic to do that.

The name of the film was Beneath the Waterline so the idea was to film as many species of freshwater fish in the UK as possible. As well as that though, I wanted to do a conservation film. So, we got all these species and underwater shots.  But then we did the plight of eels, rare species, how anglers and fish connect, so covering a range of issues. From that, that was available as a DVD and is also online on Vimeo, so that people who funded the film could then watch the film or get a copy of the DVD. Trailers were online… bonus features, a huge use of social media, and things like that. And regional TV as well, showed it for a little time. So it did get a little bit of TV time.

Fish are…Because they are in a different medium to us, most people don’t perhaps go jumping into rivers like I do, so they don’t get to see it as much. So, by showing all these behaviours – the breeding, the fighting, the spawning, and what not – they’re able to see something that they wouldn’t normally be able to see. It’s just basically showing off a hidden side, something that is unseen to most of us. It’s just allowing, lots and lots of people to be able to see this.

How did you measure the success of your film?

There was a hit count, I’m trying to think. There was one on YouTube, the last time I checked that was about 9,000-odd views on there. The actual film itself, because you had to buy it, so obviously that would limit numbers to somewhat, but I think about 300/350 people-odd did pay to see the film. So an impact in some way anyway <chuckles>.

Traditional television versus new media

I’d say with the advent of YouTube and Vimeo and Facebook and all these places where you can post videos you can put things in real time, so if something’s happening you can, in theory, upload it as soon as it’s done. So you’ve got that edge, I suppose on things that maybe have an allotted timeslot or a time frame. Certain programmes might only be broadcast at a certain time, whereas with any of these websites in theory as soon as you’ve done it you can get it out there, so it’s certainly got that advantage.

How I see my career developing

I’ve kind of gone down the niche of underwater I suppose, so that’s what I’m looking at doing more. It is a tough industry or I see it as a tough industry coming in through it, I mean I’ve only been doing it professionally three-and-a-half years or so, but I’m getting there so it’s just finding the right contacts, the right people, the right stories if nothing else as well and the right conservation issues. So it’s trying to tell a story that maybe hasn’t been told or telling a story from a different point of view as well, so rather than doing something that’s maybe been done before a lot, showing a new light to it.

The challenge of introducing conservation messages

It’s a difficult one with conservation because I think if you just keep putting out doom and gloom, and I hate to put it like that, but if you keep saying, ‘This is happening’ I think a certain degree of people switch off a little bit. So, it’s that media, do you try and push the issue to people? Or, do you try and balance it out to show them and get them interested? Because the difficulty is if you keep saying this and this and this, a lot of people, they don’t want to hear it. It’s unfortunate but that is the case with a lot of things. So, I think it’s finding a balance in we need to get these issues across but we need to do interesting ways of telling it. And give them a little bit of hope as well I think, <chuckles> rather than it’s all doom.

Mixing environmental filmmaking with blue-chip

I think it’s only a good thing if we can show off these problems as well, because there are so many of these conservation issues that just don’t get the light of day. And the amount of audiences that blue chip get, it would reach a lot of people. And even simple things, you know, not using as much water, maybe taking your own plastic bag, just little simple things that anyone can do, if you can get these messages across on large platforms it’s only going to help the environment.

Environmental films: Are they bad box-office?

I would agree, I would say that a lot of these programmes with a heavy environmental message, like you say, it can switch people off, they don’t necessarily want to be told they're doing something wrong. So it’s difficult, you want to get these conservation messages, these environmental messages across to people but at the same time you need to make sure enough people watch it and stick to the end.

Has television reflected the disappearance of so much wildlife since 1970?

I’ve come across the fact that half the world’s wildlife has declined but I don’t think I’ve come across that on a natural history programme, so it probably would be good to know which wildlife have drastically declined, which ones around the world, whether it’s ones closer to home or whether it’s some bird in Madagascar or something. So it would be interesting to see more of what’s declining and why it’s declining as well.

It’s a big stat, half the world’s wildlife has declined, so how do you do that? How do you show that in half-an-hour/an-hour programme? You can’t cover every single thing. I don’t know, I wouldn’t like the task of doing it all myself, no, I don’t know.

Making BBC natural history archive available: A good or bad thing?

I think filmmakers, certainly independent filmmakers who maybe present, shoot, edit themselves tend to have this tendency to want to kind of contain it all themselves. But thinking about certain things, perhaps if you only have a short timeframe and something’s happening in the spring and you’re shooting in the autumn and they’ve already got that footage, then that would be helpful to use. Also if you’re trying to compare, say something that happened 20

years ago to now, obviously I wasn’t filming 20 years ago, I was in a cot probably, so it would be nice to be able to use footage that I don’t have access to maybe from 20, 30, 40 years ago to illustrate what’s happening now and how things are changing now. So that kind of whole network of footage would be fantastic for emerging talent, if I can class myself as that, to be able to use.

BBC archive: How would you use it?

So, if I had access to that amount of footage I would basically look at the things that perhaps I can’t do myself or maybe I don’t have the budget to do myself, so maybe it’s far flung places that I can’t necessarily get to, maybe it’s footage that was done a long time ago that obviously I wasn’t around to be able to film that or maybe it’s things that’s been shot and equipment that I don’t have access to, whether it’s incredibly long lenses or interesting night cameras or things like that. So there are all kinds of uses that would be very much helpful to someone like me.

How social media helped get me my first break in mainstream television

My first breakthrough, I suppose, with the BBC was a series called The Great British Year and that came out in 2012/2013 I think, and they made a point of using social media to get ideas and to get photographers and cameramen involved with it. I think that was the first real series that really took to the use of Twitter and Facebook and things like that and they used it massively to their advantage in terms of finding out all these hidden little gems.

So, the story I contributed was “chub”, which are a fish that live in rivers and whatnot and they wait under bushes and they wait for berries and fruit to drop in. And it’s something I’d known about and I never really thought it was that unusual, but when you say it out loud ‘a fish eating fruit’ it is quite unusual. And they thought so too and they came down to literally more or less my back garden, my little local patch – it was quite weird having a RED Epic camera down where I walk my dog normally. And the producer, James Brickell, and the cameraman came along and we did that and that was all through social media. And from that it spiralled into things like Springwatch getting in contact. And again, you look at Springwatch and other programmes like that recently, they’re using social media massively as well, whether it’s doing little hash tags to get the public involved. I think social media has given the public a voice directly so these groups, so in a way they’re doing it fantastically.

What’s the importance of social media for today’s filmmakers?

I think certainly because I grew up with social media it’s kind of second nature to me. And I think some of the perhaps… and I mean this in the nicest possible way, older cameramen maybe don’t use it in the same way that I would use it. In that, obviously with smartphones I’m never away from… and there’s always the thing with young people always on their phones… but, it’s a very useful technique for me to let people know the sort of things I’m working on, which for some reason, they are interested in.

But at the same time you do have to have that skill, it’s all very well being able to publicise what you’re doing but you need to be able to get those shots, get those stories, get those behaviours. So it’s probably a mixture of the two, of being able to publicise yourself but at the same time getting a decent job done.

Has mainstream media reflected issues like climate change and habitat loss?

Some of the blue chips, I forget the last one, it might’ve been Frozen Planet or Planet… one of them did… they normally do the last episode or something like that and they will reflect a wider issue. So, it is addressed somewhat. So, I think they do cover it because they… a lot of people are well aware of the polar bears losing ice caps and things like that and it does filter down through the masses. So, when I talk to people who maybe don’t know much about wildlife they will say things like that and it’s surprising how much the general public do actually know about wildlife because of these big blue chip, David Attenborough series.

Are you motivated to try to make a difference?

As a filmmaker, you always want to be a part of something that’s going to turn heads and get people thinking. So I think there is room for more conservation-based films where we can address issues about what’s happening to the wider environment, and indeed, to the planet really and that only kind of wets my appetite as wanting to do something like that.

Have audiences changed much in your lifetime?

I think so. I think audiences have changed somewhat in that… I mean, I always used to watch wildlife documentaries from a young age and not necessarily people my same age when I was younger would do that, whereas I do think now it is of a wider interest to young people. It might not necessarily come across a lot of the time but it is surprising how many young people are interested in conservation, are interested in helping wildlife and the environment and things like that.

So, I do think that the audience has probably grown broader if anything just because, again, I keep mentioning social media and the internet, it’s all over the place and it’s all on there. It’s not just TV and books now it’s everywhere you go, it’s on your phone, it’s on your iPad, it’s on your laptop, you’re walking down the street and it’s on the big screen or something so it’s almost inescapable to a degree. Yeah, I think a lot more people are watching these things.

My future as a filmmaker?

It’s daunting doing it <chuckles> because you want to make sure that you do it justice, and that your camerawork is obviously up to a certain standard, but also that the people that watch it clearly get the message you’re trying to portray and there’s no confusion about what you’re trying to do. But it’s a fantastic feeling to be able to wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to go out and I’m going to do this and I’m going to enjoy this, as the same time as potentially helping something or helping raise awareness of a cause, it can only be a good thing.

How enabling is new technology?

Certainly in terms of technological advancement, in terms of obviously… I mean 20 years ago probably would’ve maybe just been digital, mostly film I would’ve thought, so it’s much more broad. If you look at just our phones, you get 1080 footage, I think 4k on some phones now so everyone, in theory, is a cameraman and if they see something unusual, whether they see the aurora, or whether they see a murmuration of starlings, they can film this and they can show this.

So, technology has advanced which means we have advanced in terms of what we can capture, you know, all these small little cameras that are relatively affordable now as well when 20 years ago were probably very specialist and especially expensive, now pretty much anyone with a reasonable budget can get a pretty decent camera, go out there and get shooting.

Environmental issues: The responsibilities of new filmmakers

You look at all these facts and stats that come out, 95% of eels have declined in the last 50 years and a lot of the… there seems to be a lot of stats about wildlife declining massively in a relatively short amount of time, it seems to be lifespans, you know? Even in my lifespan about all these… I think hedgehogs was another one, they’ve declined a massive 30% in the last 10 or something years, I can’t remember the exact fact. So I think going forward in the next 10/20 years then if I want to capture what’s around now and hopefully show its rise back up rather than following it really into nothing. So I do feel a responsibility to try and film these issues and show them off.

What I’m working on at the moment

I’ve got a few projects in the pipeline. I’m doing a film for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, so a much smaller scale but it’s really interesting to work in a local area, areas that I’ve been to and seeing new sides to it. So, filming the River Derwent from its source to where it enters the River Trent – water voles, dippers, otters, all this amazing wildlife that I didn’t realise I had locally. I’ve got a book coming out in September; I’ve always got something on the go <chuckles> so I keep myself busy.

What do you expect to be doing in the next ten years?

Hopefully, making enough money to keep the heating on and have a meal or two would be great <chuckles>. I’m kind of at the stage now, it’s that tipping point where I’m just making enough to keep my head above the surface, so 5-10 years I’d love to think that I’m going to be on a nice sunny beach somewhere in between filming, maybe having a coca cola or something and enjoying the place.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

I’m probably a realist in that there is a lot of things that we’re probably not going to be able to reverse the damage, there are things we might be able to alleviate with what’s happened but it’s human pressure and the conservation, which one takes precedence, and obviously there’s strong views on either side. I’d like to think that we can help wildlife as much as we can but it’s a difficult question to answer.

There are definitely things on an optimistic side that we can do: habitat restoration; and stopping invasive species spreading; and using, I suppose, cameras and things to show that all off. I’ll give you an example of a pessimistic side: obviously, I work with fish a lot and that’s kind of what I’m known for, and there’s a species of fish called the burbot and they used to be relatively common around the UK but because of pollution and because of global warming they no longer exist in the UK. And there aren’t really any efforts to reintroduce them for the simple fact that we think that we don’t really have waterways that are clean enough for them and we don’t think that it’s cold enough for them anywhere. So, it’s a species that we’ve lost through our fault that we’ll probably never get back in the UK. So, that’s probably the pessimist in me talking.

<End of Interview>


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