Vanessa Berlowitz is a world-renowned wildlife film producer and director. She joined the BBC’s Natural History Unit 24 years ago and went on to make over 20 award-winning films for 5 highly internationally acclaimed global landmark series – Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, Life of Mammals, Land of the Tiger and the Human Animal – as well as for major long-running strands and series such as The Natural World, Wildlife on One, Animal Peopleand Postcards from the Country. Vanessa’s films have won multiple awards at numerous international film festivals including the Emmys, Baftas, Jackson Hole Film Festival, Wildscreen, and Missoula International Wildlife Film Festival.
Vanessa won an Emmy as the Series Producer of Frozen Planet and then went on to become an Executive Producer for the BBC, developing and winning a number of commissions, some of which are still in production. These include Great Bear Stakeout - grizzlies filmed 24/7 with multiple remotes, Life in the Air - an innovation led wildlife series on animal flight, Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur – a one off special that investigated whether a recent dinosaur discovery really is the largest in the world, and Planet Earth 2 - a sequel to the original series, taking an innovative and immersive filming approach to our planet’s habitats and the amazing ways animals survive in them.
Earth in Vision Project
Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014
My name’s Vanessa Berlowitz and I’m an Executive Producer at the BBC Natural History Unit where I’ve been working for about 23 years and I’m currently working on a number of projects including One Planet, Waking Giants and Skyworld.
How I got started
I was drawn to work at the Natural History Unit after doing a degree actually in human sciences and being really inspired by looking at the world in quite a multi-disciplinary way and seeing that actually there was a real benefit to not just looking at your environment in terms of what we see, beautiful landscapes and animals, but understanding the bigger picture and contextualising it. And I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to take this up as a career by coming to work in, of course, the unit that’s been inspired by David Attenborough and I had always really admired his work. And then thought actually I think so many of the people that I’ve met are really driven by an awareness of the environment and every time we started filming in any location, you would hear people saying ‘but the real story is’, and that’s what’s driven me to think there has got to be ways to reach audiences to try and pull the bigger picture together.
What inspired me…
I was really inspired actually by a film that was made by a filmmaker called Phil Agland called Baka: People of the Rainforest, which I know it’s not a traditional natural history film, it’s a people and wildlife film. For me it really connected to me, it was something when I came into this unit I thought, ‘That’s the kind of film I want to make,’ because it seemed to grapple with the natural world in a very real way and really connected you as a viewer to the importance of protecting fragile ecosystems like the rainforest.
What I’m most proud of…
I’ve worked on a range of series, I’ve worked on series like Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, Life of Mammals and some of the shows really give you a sense of the complexity of the ecosystem and I’ve really enjoyed that when I feel that we’ve given you a sense above and beyond the individual behaviour. And I guess working on Planet Earth, actually having the Cineflex at our disposal, which is an aerial system that we pioneered on that, being able to put the animal in the context of the environment was very important. And actually seeing polar bears in their natural surroundings and using almost the metaphor of ‘the melt’ and the spring coming as a kind of bigger metaphor for change, which is something we did in the Ice Worlds show. I think a really powerful piece of behaviour that we filmed was with the polar bear and walrus, which is a new behaviour that’s only started in the past 30, 40 years. And because the melt comes earlier and lasts longer in the Arctic now, walrus have ended up gathering in very large areas and being much bigger numbers than they used to, and polar bears have taken advantage of this and this is not a usual summer food. So we managed to catch an extraordinary sequence where a young male polar bear actually goes onto a walrus island and attacks what is effectively really lethal prey with foot long tusks. And it’s a really powerful sequence and in fact the polar bear is fatally injured at the end of that sequence, and for me I felt it operated on two levels; it was a very powerful sequence in its own right, but we were able to talk in the script about this is clearly a sign of changing times.
And for me that was a real sweet spot of the power of what you can do with great blue-chip natural history. And it was very interesting the response we got from viewers, it caused an enormous amount of press and we had lots of reaction with viewers saying, ‘You should have stepped in and saved the polar bear, you should have shot the walrus,’ and it became a real focal point and opportunity for us to draw in scientists and talk about this in more depth.
Help from the experts…
I’ve been absolutely dependent on the academic community throughout my career as a natural history filmmaker; we justly simply can’t access the stories that we need to in order to stay at the forefront of what’s relevant and what’s exciting for viewers to see. And actually this is something that I’ve found, the really wonderful part of my job is that I can access people working at the front line, and in doing so you’re not only seeing great animal behaviour, but you’re seeing people who are literally documenting change. And the best thing for me is when you can bring those stories into the great wildlife shows, and that’s why working on Frozen Planet was fantastic for me, because what did happen with Planet Earth that I thought was very interesting was that we had a very successful series that led to a switchover series, which actually looked at the environmental issues. And then as the broadcast environment changed there seemed to be an appetite to bring those issues into the main show, which has to be better, because surely the best way to engage the public is to show them the beautiful stuff, but then once you’ve got all that interest and you’ve got your big audiences, then you start to contextualise it and bring in the bigger picture of the science. So with Frozen Planet we were really excited, because we got a seven-part commission and the seventh show was in fact about change in the polar regions and actually working with The OU and a number of top scientists around the world, the British Antarctic Survey, the National Science Foundation, we were able to key into the latest science on the changing ice worlds. And that was really exciting, because you suddenly feel like, ‘OK, this is really coming in to land, my private passions are starting to align with my professional abilities, so it was a great moment when we could produce that show.
Blue-chip versus environmental filmmaking
I think it’s a real challenge for filmmakers, because the reality is if you care about the environment it’s not necessarily the most effective thing to make just a very campaign-driven or very purist conservation programme, because you’ll only reach small audiences, so the challenge to us as natural history filmmakers has got to be how can we bring those techniques that engage huge international audiences together with compelling, relevant information about the real condition and state of our planet? And this for me is now actually as I enter my second decade of filmmaking, I think, ‘This has got to be the next challenge, I’ve done the beauty material and now it’s about how can I combine that?’ But it is a challenge when commissioners and broadcasters are nervous. They’re nervous of issue-led films, so we have to be clever and stealthy and utilise hooks where you make audiences fall in love with their environment and really start to inspire them at a very emotional level, and I think once they’re in that place then you can start to actually seed in quite complex ideas or sometimes quite disturbing ideas. And I think in Programme 7 of Frozen Planet there were some very powerful sequences in which we started to even refer back to shots that had been earlier in the series where you’d seen polar bear families struggling against the ice and saying, ‘Well, actually there’s another story here, it’s not just that the mother is struggling with her two cubs; she’s actually having to swim further than ever before.’ And there’s very touching shots that we had of that. But also we are able to tell the ice story in that show and that was really exciting, because again, there’s a bit of a drive towards fill the shows with cuddly BBC 1 animals, as we call them. And I think actually audiences today want to see the bigger picture and the context and we’ve done that now, it’s time to move on.
Why natural history films used to leave out environmental issues
There was a whole strand, our Natural World strand, which became quite formulaic but it absolutely did try that trick of, it’s all beautiful, this is paradise… there was a great orangutan show, and then you literally swing the camera and there was a very, quite trite summary at the end saying, actually it’s all being chopped down, and I think that was just unsophisticated storytelling. So sadly because they didn’t do well with the audiences because people said, ‘I don’t want to watch this, I don’t want to fall in love with an animal and then suddenly I feel cheated and confused’ they stopped commissioning those shows. There was actually huge nervousness around anything with conservation, it became a sort of… it was like ‘the c-word’, don’t mention conservation. And then I think as our storytelling has improved I think people have realised that you can do more than just show a fluffy animal, you can actually utilise that in a cleverer way. And I think people are doing that, the level of gloss and using all our techniques to actually film human stories or environmental stories in a way that fits really well with the natural history has also really helped.
New media and environmental stories
Well, I’m very excited by a multiplatform future and I think that gives film makers a huge new opportunity to tell multiple stories in multiple ways and actually to utilise, the most accessible way is perhaps the bit that goes out on terrestrial television, but then utilise the digital channels to give the bigger picture. I think that’s one opportunity that’s open to us now, because in the past we were so reliant on what the broadcaster would commission, but now there are other avenues. But I still feel that we ought to be trying to get those stories into the main broadcast, because that’s still what reaches the maximum number of people, and we’re in the middle of a sixth extinction; biodiversity is at an absolutely critical turning point. So if we’re not utilizing this great audience that we’ve built up around our big brands, the Planet brand or the Life brand, we’re actually, I think, we’re not doing our duties, we’re underserving the environment and the natural world which is actually what has given me my job and my livelihood. So I feel very passionately that we shouldn’t use digital channels as a kind of copout, you know, it’s really exciting and it’s a way that we can engage new audiences in new ways and actually be freed up to be more experimental. But we’ve got this opportunity with large landmarks to really take out big ideas to big audiences and we ought to be doing it.
Incorporating humans into natural history television
For example, I’m working on a series, One Planet, now and the idea of that was to take a sort of modern take on evolution and to immerse audiences in the heart of the action so they feel it’s like being within natural selection as a live event. And the idea would be to do land and then ocean and then to look at humanity, because of course all the same principles apply, we’re all playing out a game of evolution. And I think actually the more we start to bring humans into episodes or have landmark series, people will start to see that we’re all part of the same system and I think that’s really important. So I’m hoping one of the series I’ll do in the future will be actually about anthropology and looking at people today and the big biological challenges that we face and how we’ve solved them with different cultural solutions.
The value of archive
I think that the archive is a complete untapped resource. I’m absolutely delighted that there are new strategies for getting it out, getting it out to scientists. For example, I mean actually already we’ve started to do a bit of that. So when we were making Frozen Planet we documented an amazing glacial collapse and actually we have given that to glaciologists who are examining it, because it’s hours and hours of footage, and writing a paper. So it’s actually transforming their understanding of glaciers. And similarly we actually filmed snow leopards extremely extensively on Planet Earth; it was one of our iconic images, and of course very few scientists ever get to see snow leopards in as much detail as we manage to cover them, and again, we’ve been able to give our rushes to behaviour scientists who actually look at how snow leopards behave in the wild. So I think there’s huge opportunities for science and we often do work in the field with scientists, but actually our rushes don’t often get back to them, so I’m hoping that will happen more. But I think on an environmental level, you know, we’ve documented some species repeatedly over decades and in that is an incredible record of change on our planet which has not been tapped into. So I am hoping that we can actually liberate that so people can say, ‘Look, you can actually visually see how things have changed.’ Because we’ve got to accept that there is no better way to get that message across to our audiences than being able to just show it.
What ideas and themes do you expect to working on in the next 5-10 years?
Well I think the BBC and other large broadcasters are realising that there is a real thirst for big ideas, for audiences to get more meaning and more understanding of their environment. I think the days have gone where it was enough to just show and tell. When I first looked at David Attenborough’s early series you could just show a picture of a golden frog and no one had ever seen it and that was remarkable, but today people are looking for these big, iconic pieces to say something and they have to say more. I’m really, really interested in how we take big, important ideas and we democratise them and we actually bring that understanding out to as many people as possible, because I think it’s an incredibly empowering and ennobling thing to do; you can actually liberate people from the anxiety of what can seem like a very chaotic and stressful world if you can actually say, but look at it in the context of earth processes or life processes or evolution, it is actually very reassuring to us. And I think as people are seeing their planet changing more and with global climate change, things seem to be more unpredictable. I think now more than ever there’s a real thirst and appetite for series that connect ideas and that connect animals and life processes with earth processes and give people a higher level of understanding than they’ve had before.
How is television production evolving?
I’m really fascinated with the idea of no longer being a television producer, I feel like I’m a content producer and I love the freedom, the creative freedom that you get to say, right, you’re going to go out to one place and film, I don’t know, gorillas doing something extraordinary, but you’re going to simultaneously capture that and then version it in very different ways for different platforms for different audiences. Because what’s so brilliant about natural history is that it is universally appealing, it’s just the tonality and the storytelling that needs to change once you’ve got that great content. And we did some second stream piloting on Frozen Planet and saw that there were elements that were really popular and elements that weren’t, we’ve actually developed that now on One Planet where we’re looking at starting to engage the audience from day one of filming to come on the adventure of the filming, because that’s such a clever way to engage people around technology, adventure, political issues, climate issues, science, just the act of actually trying to get the shot. So we’re actively doing that now and the BBC is really encouraging this through something called the Earth Vertical.
So that’s a really interesting opportunity for us that that can build and hopefully grow a new audience that could then come to the television event, but then what I’m hoping is that they continue afterwards and that’s where we need to think of ways of increasing that digital engagement. So we’re about to try and commission a seventh episode of One Planet which will be a totally digitally interactive story, so you can understand how animals make choices in their environment and you can take different routes and I think there’s a huge avenue to explore there as well.
Using archive in the future
You know, it can only be a good thing to allow our audiences to interact with our footage. Some of the stuff that I’ve seen on YouTube where they’ve taken clips from Planet Earth and re-voiced them and some of the humour that… there was a birds of paradise clip where there’s the male that sort of flaps up a big cape and there’s actually a couple who re-enact that themselves and it’s really funny and you just think, brilliant, job done, we’ve connected to someone, they’ve reinterpreted it in a quite artistic, humorous way. And actually I’ve seen brilliant sketches that have been done where they’ve re-voiced Attenborough’s clips for a lot of stuff. So I think the more you could allow kids to play and actually putting it into schools and using it within education would be fantastic for kids to muck around and tell the story differently and what a great way to learn about behaviour.
There are lots of obstacles to doing this. I mean just practically our archives are in a state of pretty bad disrepair, they’ve not been logged, they’re not kept up to date, they’re very difficult to search, we’ve got multiple formats so we’ve got film which hasn’t all been transferred correctly and we’ve got multiple digital formats. And of course now as we’re shooting on 4K, we’re getting more and more because the file sizes are big and also people are shooting more. I think in the old days you were given your ration of 20 cans of film and nowadays you can shoot endlessly, and unless there is a lot of personnel who are literally cutting stuff out and junking stuff you just get this enormous stuff that’s very difficult to search, an enormous body of stuff and it’s hard to search. And I worry that actually a lot of those riches will just disappear into the ether or onto drives and actually how will people access those?
So interestingly the older formats were easier for people to see, but today when it’s all on drives, unless you’re very computer literate how would you search through a drive, especially if you didn’t know what you were looking for. So I do think we need to invest more, we need to think of clever ways of logging, could we encourage students to help us with the logging given that potentially there’s a lot of synergy with academic studies, maybe together we could try and preserve this incredible resource.
I also think there are issues that we need to confront in that as budgets get smaller film makers rely increasingly on the archive, particularly from the large landmarks. And if that’s already been utilised by the public and is out there and had gone viral because someone’s cut that in a really clever way, that actually means some of the bedrock material that we utilise to then help make new shows with more innovative techniques are not necessarily open to us.
BBC natural history archive as a record of environmental change
So I think on the whole that our archive, the natural history archive, doesn’t represent change particularly well, in that often there are animals that simply aren’t around anymore and that’s clearly obvious something’s changed. But in terms of the environment in which those animals are operating we very rarely did turn the camera and do it incrementally so you could document that change. There’s one project that I’ve worked on that I really feel addressed that and it was something very close to my heart… I was very lucky on Planet Earth to finally manage to get very iconic footage of the snow leopard hunting and it was something that I nearly lost my job over, it was our fourth attempt and we ended up filming it finally in Pakistan.
But there was something really niggling at me after that because the experience of filming it and that environment was not represented, it was this icon of the wilderness, but it wasn’t showing the real story so... And we fortunately, through a strand like Natural World, we managed to get a commission to go Beyond The Myth, which was the name of the show, and we returned to Pakistan and the team worked there for a year contextualising the snow leopard. And I’m really proud of that film because it does film the environment, the fact that in the middle of the filming there was one of the largest earthquakes in Pakistan ever, 100,000 people were killed. And there was direct impact on snow leopards; more snow leopards were under threat as a result because of the pressure and the conflict. And we documented the amount of issues with all the livestock holders around who, you know, their livelihood is being taken by the snow leopards as they encroach further into national parks, there is a serious issue there. And it was something that I felt actually people could go back again in five or ten years and do almost like a Seven Up! and say, ‘OK, well is that situation better or worse?’
In fact, as a result of that film, which was shown to Musharraf, a very large donation was made to that park and it seemed to me that should be something we’re doing as a matter of course when we film these iconic animals, why don’t we have a strand of films that do show that and then are utilised locally to help raise more money or raise awareness of the animals. But, on the whole, those are rare opportunities, they’re difficult to get commissioned, and that was a perfect example of where an animal so captures the imagination that we were able to override that immediate instinct of ‘Ooh no, we don’t want to see the ugly story’. It’s like, ‘Well actually, I think people want to know more about this animal, so let’s tell them more’.
The future of Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?
I’m fundamentally optimistic that there is more interest from people today than I have ever noticed before in it’s not just enough to stop with the pretty picture; they want to know what’s going on, what the trends are and what they can do, and I really feel that, a sense that when I travel the world talking to schools and to kids everywhere. So that makes me optimistic ‘cause I think if people are thirsting or have that thirst to really look beyond the superficial, then there’s a chance that they will change their behaviour because they’ve already made that engagement. So I’m excited about the future, I think there’s an amazing wealth of new stories to tell that we’ve only just started to tap into in natural history and really broadening that out properly to bigger ideas.
And I also think the audiences are hungry for it, they’re looking to us more and more to join up the dots because they’re overwhelmed with constant footage and images that you can access anywhere. But there’s a real sense of help with the curation of bringing the scientific community and the filming community together and creating stuff that’s really valid and really gold standard and I think it’s a good time for all of us.
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