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Abbie Barnes - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 28th July 2016

Abbie Barnes, founder of Song Thrush Productions, 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.

Abbie Barnes

Abbie is a 19 year old semi-professional filmmaker and photographer who specialises in promotional shorts, and wildlife conservation and expedition-style productions. She currently produces every aspect of her work, from research, script writing, filming, presenting, and editing, with the primary goal of inspiring her viewers to actively engage with the natural environment around them. In 2012 she established the production company Song Thrush Productions, and has received national and international recognition for her work. She has worked with organisations all over the country, including the United Nations and Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

Alongside media work, Abbie is an avid long-distance backpacker and trail runner, traditional archer, musician, and climber. She is a trained Mountain Leader, qualified Open Water Diver, personal trainer and fitness instructor, and bushcraft leader.


Earth in Vision Project

My name is Abbie Barnes, I’m a semi-professional filmmaker based in the Southwest of England and I make films based on wildlife, conservation, adventure, pretty much anything that goes that’s to do with the outdoors.

What got me interested in the natural world

Well I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors and wildlife, I mean my parents are backpackers and they got me into that pretty early on, and I suppose it’s just being a part of nature and observing nature just through daily activities that made me really appreciate this beauty and fragility in all the little things. I suppose it’s picking up on those and deciding that they mean so much to me that I want to protect them, and that’s really where it began and I suppose I just looked for my niche of being able to protect them and I found that that was film for me, so that’s where the conservation came into film.

What got me interested in conservation

Well, as a child I was absolutely obsessed with elephants, I am still yet to see any in the wild but I still love them. I got a book from my granddad, by an author called Michael Morpurgo, when I was 13, and it was called Running Wild and it basically talked about palm oil and the destruction that palm oil production was causing in Indonesia. He gave it to me because it had an elephant in it, but for me I kind of became hooked on the issue of palm oil. And that’s really where my passion for conservation stemmed from; it was quite a pivotal moment for me reading that book and deciding, do you know what, I want to do something about this, so that’s really where my passion began.

Television programmes that inspired me most

Well, as a child I watched all of the Attenborough series, as everybody does, loved them, they’re absolutely fantastic, really inspirational. There’s nothing in particular that stuck out for me. I watched things as and when they were on and just decided I’d like to do that <chuckles>.

What I’m most proud of…

In July 2014 I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and that was whilst producing a film for the Plant a Tree Today Foundation. So we were making a film about global climate change and the impact that global climate change was having on the mountain’s glaciers, the endemic wildlife species, the tourism trade on the local people, so the whole package. And for me that was undoubtedly, hands down, the best, most proud moment for me, summiting that mountain, seeing the glaciers and producing that film as a whole. I did suffer from acute mountain sickness or altitude sickness, did get very, very ill but we all made it to the top. And that was such a pivotal moment for me, the fact that I’m doing what I love to do, I’m making a difference through making these films, and I’m doing something that so few people are actually able to do, so I’m so proud of that and so grateful for that experience and it really spurs me on.

The possibilities for new filmmakers

Being 19 everybody’s like, ‘Oh you’re so young, you’ve got a long way to go,’ which is great, but there’s so much encouragement out there for young people to get into the industry, and there’s so much that supports us in getting our foot in this industry. So you’ve got social media, you’ve got YouTube and all of the online things to put your work out there, and of course everybody has mobile phones, they’ve got a little camcorder, just some form of technology on them to be able to produce a film, to take pictures. So as a young person I’d say, do you know, I just think it’s absolutely fantastic being able to get into this industry now with everything that’s available; I don’t think there’s really a better time for it and I’m up for the challenge.

New media versus traditional television

I think with the access to new media, you know, we’ve all got cameras and technology and the internet. I think there’s various things that we can do that perhaps big TV programmes or just TV as a whole can’t do. For example, we can report on things as they’re happening, so on YouTube you can do live streaming, so you can actually have direct conversations with your viewers and find out exactly what it is that they want, and then you can go out and produce that and then feed it back to them, really quite quickly. Whereas I suppose TV, yes, they have live programmes like the Springwatch series, but it’s not quite the same thing; it’s not as direct, hands-on I suppose.

So I kind of feel that we have the voice of the general public really, so we’re in touch with everybody around us and everybody that’s following our work and we can really produce exactly what it is that they want to see, so I suppose we’re kind of ticking all the boxes as quickly as possible, whereas TV, they produce fantastic quality stuff but it doesn’t necessarily meet everybody’s requirements of exactly what it is that they want to see on a Saturday night, if that makes any sense.

Nature on my doorstep

I have to say I’m so grateful for where I live, I have access to the coast, I’ve got all the national parks, Exmoor, Dartmoor and then, to be honest, it’s really quite easy to get anywhere in the UK with all the transport options. I love living here, there’s so much to film, there’s so much to see and there are so many stories to tell, and that really excites me. I mean I wake up in the morning and I’m like, ‘Ah! I can make a film on that.’ And there’s just so many opportunities and things that I can do and I’m very excited by the prospect of working in this industry, and it spurs me on every single day, I think it’s absolutely fantastic.

A film I enjoyed making

In the summer of 2015 I produced a film for the Jurassic Coast UNESCO team, and that was just, it was a short film, about five minutes or so, and we were looking at all of the amazing sites around the Jurassic Coast, so Durdle Door, you’ve got the Lulworth Cove, all of the local walks, just chatting to some of the people, the wildlife there, why it appeals to surfers, so the whole package, everything that goes on. And I really, really enjoyed that because I’ve grown up on those cliffs, I’ve grown up exploring all of the little caves, and producing that film was great, it was showcasing the beauty of my local area and showing that all of the people around me, that they appreciate it too.

What sort of films do you see yourself making in the future?

I think for me the future may be slightly different from other natural history filmmakers, because my passion really is just the outdoors as a whole, I love being outdoors. I love my long distance backpacking, I love my trail running, I love my bush craft, and specifically those films that I have produced online that are available on YouTube, they, for me, have the higher number of viewers. So this year, for example, I’ve got my National Trails Challenge where I’m going to be walking and documenting each of the 50 National Trails, so they’re long distance footpaths in the UK. And I’m producing those films because… or documentaries I suppose, so looking at the geography, the archaeology, so everything that makes them so unique, and then I will drop in the conservation messages and the wildlife messages within those films, because I know that I’ll be able to get a higher number of viewers. So I think for me the future is more adventure-based I suppose you could say, and then I’ll get the message in through that. Because I like to appeal to younger audiences, but then older audiences are also interested in the culture of the UK, so I just try and encompass as many different aspects as I can and bring in as many messages as I can through that.

The duties of natural history filmmakers in a changing world

I think natural history films do have a responsibility to communicate the interactions that humans have with nature, the positive and the negative. There is so much going on there, it’s so complicated, but the key thing is that it’s so interconnected, I don’t think you can look at wildlife without looking at the human interaction with that because it sounds… it’s ridiculous to say like 90-odd… pretty much everything we look at in nature has been shaped in some way or another by human hands, be it now or in the past or definitely in the future. So I think yeah, natural history films do have a responsibility to communicate the role that humans are having on the natural world, but as I say, the positive and the negative ‘cause there’s the two sides and I think they’re both as important as each other.

Blue-chip versus environmental filmmaking

So blue chip films they’re absolutely stunning, I mean who doesn’t love a good blue chip film? They’re really inspirational, just to see the natural world and how beautiful it is, and then of course you’ve got the kind of environmental films that hit hard with the message that global climate change is happening, the polar bears are losing their ice caps, the rainforest is being destroyed. I think there is a difference, there is a very big difference between those types of views and there’s a difference between the viewers, the people that watch those kind of films. I mean who doesn’t like to snuggle down with a cup of hot chocolate when they’re ill and watch a blue chip, it makes you feel better. But I don’t think you’d do the same with an environmental film, you kind of watch that when you feel, right, I need a purpose in my life. So there is a difference between the two but I don’t think it means that they can’t be intertwined and I think that that would then join together the viewers and inspire people even more to make a difference. Because they can make a difference and I think the key thing is the message is out there, people know what they can do, it’s actually inspiring them and motivating them to do the things that they can do, so perhaps by joining the two that might achieve that goal.

Can you mix conservation with blue-chip?

You could definitely fit environmental messages into blue chip films. I think that’s so important, it’s important to showcase and feature how humans are affecting nature. I don’t think we can live in denial any longer with these blue chip films that nature is pristine and untouched by mankind because that’s just not the case anymore. I think it’s so key to showcase what is going on, the positive and the negative, to nature and I think blue chip films should do that.

Environmental films: Bad box-office?

It’s kind of common feedback I suppose that environmental films don’t have such a great viewer rating, they don’t meet as many people’s ideal film, I mean who wants to watch doom and gloom? Nobody really, I suppose I wouldn’t even choose to do that. But I think those films are key. The key thing is producing those films in the right way that appeals to viewers. So for me, for example, one of my projects is called Advent in a Tent so for the Christmas period I will camp out each night and I will produce a video throughout the week just looking at why global climate change is important, why we should care about it and the things that we can do as individuals. I’m very passionate about people power, I suppose, about individuals taking action. And I suppose these big environmental films have so much potential to make a difference; people know what they can do, they know that they shouldn’t leave the water running whilst they’re doing their teeth, they know that perhaps they should shower instead of baths, they should try and eat organic or locally produced. There’s so many things that people can do, young people know about them, old people know about them, but it’s really about motivating them to do that.

I think these environmental films, they have to focus on the positive. That way they’ll inspire people and more people will want to watch them, because nobody wants to watch animals dying, it’s just not cool, it’s not in <chuckles>. So I think there’s a key way to do it and it’s just about honing in that skill to getting it just right.

Has natural history television failed to reflect the demise of the natural world?

Personally I feel as a whole that media, so TV, radio, just the whole package, has not accurately reflected the sheer scale of environmental destruction and loss of wildlife that’s occurred around the planet. I believe that we’re just living in denial, I just don’t think people know, and that it’s been showcased, that such wild-scale destruction is happening and that in some respects we’re all responsible for that. I feel that there’s a huge amount more that can be communicated, that should be communicated, that must be communicated and I think we need to be doing that very quickly, we need to be quite hot on that actually. So yeah, personally I do believe that there’s a lot more that media needs to be showcasing and that we haven’t done that quite as much as I think we should.

Making the BBC natural history archive available

If the BBC’s archive, for example, was made publicly accessible, I can’t really see that as being a bad thing. There’s so much knowledge out there, everybody has their niche, their passions, and if they had access to the footage then they could make films on that and then the films can go online and they can share that message. I can’t see it as being a bad thing. I think it would be fantastic, there’s so much potential for people to get messages out there and to make a difference. So I think access, especially if it was affordable, for young people perhaps studying media or people doing natural history and people that know their local area, to be able to look back over time and be like, ‘This is how it was 20/30 years ago. This is how it is now,’ and to be able to show that transition with the archive footage, it’s something that at the moment only really the true professionals within the industry can do. So for me, with my Advent in a Tent, my global climate change is my big passion, I’d love to be able to go to Greenland and film the ice sheets and to have footage of polar bears and be like, ‘Oh look what’s happening,’ but I don’t have access to that. So if the archive was available that would be… all of the films I’ve ever dreamed I’d be able to make to be honest. I can’t see that being a bad thing at all.

BBC natural history archive: How could it be used?

Well I imagine the BBC’s archive to be quite extensive, so I think you’d certainly spend quite a while trawling through trying to find the specific footage that you’re looking for. But for me, if I had a direct access to that I would definitely use it to showcase my passions for palm oil production and for global climate change. So when I was 13 I spoke in the European Parliament about palm oil production. Basically I was able to do that because I’d produced a short film talking about palm oil production and then that won the film competition so the prize was to speak to the MEPs in the European Parliament. However, I ended up just using pictures from online and put them on top of my voice over just talking about palm oil and why it was destructive. So if I had access to the BBC’s archive, I would use images of rainforests and palm oil plantations and orangutans and all of the native species to make a proper film, as opposed to, you know, you make the most of what you have at the moment. So if I had access then it would just add a bit more edge to my films <chuckles>.

Are broadcasters responding well to new media?

I think within recent years, so mainstream broadcasting has picked up quite quickly on social media and just involving the general public. I think they’ve done that very well and they’re still doing it very well, but I still think there is always more that they can do, especially considering how big and powerful they are. People have a lot of ideas and I think social media can be used to communicate those ideas and I think the big broadcasters should be picking up on what it is people want to see. People do want to see environmental films, but they just want to see them in the right way, and I think it’s just listening to the members of the public through social media, through the things that people are creating, individuals, There’s young people out there that just make films about marine debris, for example; they’ll go out and film beach clean-ups. And I think the fact that that’s all available online, the major broadcasters should pick up on that and be like, right, so we need to do something that perhaps involves these people and brings everybody together. So I think they use social media very well but I think there’s so much more they can do there.

How to get your first break

I think the key thing for getting your foot in the door with this industry is a good story, I mean, when people are encouraging younger people to look towards this career they say, ‘Oh just go out and take a few pictures, find that story and document it.’ And then as time goes on your skills develop and your ability to communicate that story develops. So I think the first thing, and the most fundamental thing, is finding that story; you don’t have to be the most talented person in the world; you just have to have that passion and you have to be able to communicate that passion, and then your skills and your abilities will develop over time. So for me I’d say it really is about the story and being able to communicate that, and having that passion, because your passion will come across in your work; the more passionate you are the more time you spend on it and therefore the more effective your film will be.

How vital are technical skills?

Well, I think having technical knowledge is very useful, certainly when it comes to editing and being able to get your work out there, but I think there’s plenty of people out there that want to help each other, so I think it’s about sharing the skills, sharing our knowledge and just encouraging people to develop their skills as they go. I think just so long as you have that passion and that drive and that ability to take knockdowns and get back up, then I think it’s the right industry for you really.

How social media can make a difference

So I think social media has, or does play a role, kind of above and beyond the role that TV and radio can play, in communicating certain stories. So I think, for example, it’s been mentioned in the news a lot recently, the possible reintroduction of lynx to the UK. Social media has stood out as a kind of platform for people to be able to have the debate of whether it should or shouldn’t happen. There’s groups set up, people can like pages, you can link to different charities and organisations and professionals involved in that, and that’s something TV just can’t do, it’s not real time; whereas social media you can log on in the morning and scroll through last night’s conversation and you can develop your own opinions through that. So I think social media really does stand out above and beyond TV and radio and other media sources for that kind of project.

How audiences have changed in my lifetime

I think audiences are really… they’ve changed throughout time, so I think say 20-odd years ago people would sit down and watch an Attenborough documentary whilst having dinner and be like, ‘Oh that’s very nice’ and switch it off and forget about it, they might have a nice dream that evening but they’d forget about it. I think now, films and documentaries, they have a different mission. You watch the programme, you go away from the programme and it’s still there, it needs to remain in your head because that’s the key thing with these films is the message, and then the message is what motivates people to act. So you’ve got CBBC and kids can watch Steve Backshall climbing down a cave with loads of bats around him and they’re like, ‘Oh that’s cool! I want to do that.’ So they might go on YouTube and then watch some of the bats. I just think audiences are so much more engaged and involved with the programmes after they’re produced, because they can do further research, they can possibly go out and visit these places. I just think audiences are far more engaged and involved in the films than they ever were before.

The environment and me

I feel incredibly responsible for all of the environmental issues that are going on out there. I mean whether that’s just my personality and I’m like, right, something has to be done about these, or whether it is just a general kind of young person thing, but I think there is so much drive out there within the young community to do something that makes a difference. People want to live rather than exist, and I think making a difference makes people feel like they’re living. I feel responsible for these issues and for me my way of communicating them is through film and media, but other people, they can utilise their skills, so art, writing, music, all of these different skills and abilities people have, they can use to communicate, and to make a difference. There is a lot of drive and passion out there to do something that makes a difference and that fulfils people. So I would say in general young people do feel responsible and they feel up for the challenge to make a difference.

What I’m working on at the moment

So we’re still pretty early into 2016 but lots of different projects have come up. I do a lot of promotional film work, so I make films for local charities and organisations, generally with a kind of environmental theme. This year my main focus is my National Trails Challenge, so that’s the 50 National Trails in the UK, which are long-distance footpaths, I think the shortest is about 80 miles and the longest is, I want to say 650. So I’m walking all of those solo, producing documentaries on each trail individually, just highlighting what makes them so unique, trying to showcase the beauty of the UK and encourage people to get outdoors and explore and interact with the natural world around us. So for me that is my big goal, I mean that’s going to take quite a while, that’s a few days walking there. But I’ll drop in all of the conservation messages and I just want to inspire people to get outdoors because there’s so much to see in the UK, it’s such a beautiful place; we’re so lucky to have all of the different landscapes that we have and that’s really what I want to communicate this year.

My plans for the future

I think it’s quite hard for me at this stage to look, as in, in the long term future, there’s so many doors that are being opened every single day, it’s ridiculous. You get an email and you’re like ‘oh I can do that’. Obviously there’s the potential for university, there’s the possibility to continue doing what I’m doing. I’d quite like to move more into actual writing of articles, so I’ve been working with the UN writing articles with them recently. There’s so many doors but for me it’s really focussing on getting people engaged with nature, so however I do that, be it through film, radio, writing, that’s all I want to do is just get people inspired to get outdoors.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

By nature I am an optimist, well, I like to think I am anyway. When it comes to wildlife I do my best to be an optimist, I think you have to in order to continue in this career, to focus on things that you focus on, on a daily basis. But I think… I don’t even want to say it, it sounds so bad, but I do think I’m kind of pessimistic. I’ve mentioned before global climate change is my passion, but it’s so big and there’s so much we don’t understand and everything is so interconnected, more so than I think we can ever understand, and you can’t help but be like, uh we’re not acting now so what’s going to happen in the future? And there is a lag; how we’re living now is going to affect the future. Even if today or tomorrow everybody had said, ‘Right, we’re not using cars or electricity, we’re just going to scrap all of that,’ we’d still be feeling the effects of our actions today ten years down the line, and it’s a bit like, OK, I’m trying to be positive here. But I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom but I think I am, unfortunately, quite pessimistic about it all.

<End of Interview>





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