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Alastair Fothergill - Earth in Vision

Updated Monday, 23rd May 2016

Alastair Fothergill, former Head of the BBC Natural History Unit and Series Producer of 'The Blue Planet', 'Planet Earth' and Executive Producer of 'Frozen Planet', talks inspiration, green issues and Sir David Attenborough.

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Alastair Fothergill

Alastair Fothergill was educated at Harrow School and the Universities of St. Andrew’s and Durham.  He joined the BBC Natural History Unit in 1983.  He has worked on a wide range of the department’s programmes, including the BAFTA award-winning ‘The Really Wild Show’, ‘Wildlife on One’, ‘The Natural World’ and the innovative ‘Reefwatch’, where he was one of the team that developed the first live broadcasting from beneath the sea.

Alastair went on to work on the BBC1 series ‘The Trials of Life’ with Sir David Attenborough.

In 1993 he produced ‘Life in the Freezer’, a six-part series for BBC1 celebrating the wildlife of the Antarctic, presented by Sir David Attenborough.  While still working on this series, he was appointed Head of the BBC Natural History Unit in November 1992, aged 32.

In June 1998 he stood down as Head of the Unit to concentrate on his role as Series Producer of ‘The Blue Planet’, a landmark series on the natural history of the world’s oceans.  In 2001 Alastair become Director of Development for the Natural History Unit.

In 2002 he co-presented ‘Going Ape’, a film that took Alastair to the Ivory Coast in Africa.  He has produced ‘Deep Blue’, a cinematic movie of the world’s oceans and he was one of the presenters and Executive Producer of the innovative live broadcast ‘Live from the Abyss’.

He was Series Producer for the Natural History Unit’s landmark series, ‘Planet Earth’, the ultimate portrait of our planet.  He subsequently co-directed the cinematic version ‘Earth’ to great worldwide acclaim.

He was Executive Producer on the Unit’s major landmark series ‘Frozen Planet’, a natural history of the polar regions, which aired to record audiences and critical acclaim in autumn 2011.

In addition to his work with the BBC Natural History Unit, Alastair co-directed two cinematic movies for Disney as part of their Disneynature label. One of these movies featured the big cats of East Africa and was released in the states in April 2011 and worldwide during 2012. The second movie features chimpanzees was released in the states in April 2012 and will be released worldwide in 2013.

In November 2012 Alastair left the BBC to set up his own production company Silverback Films. He is currently co-directing two further cinema films for Disneynature. Silverback Films is also making a new landmark series for BBC 1, ‘The Hunt’, which looks at the relationships between predators and their prey. This series is due for broadcast in autumn 2015.

Alastair is fellow of the Royal Geographic Society who awarded him their gold medal in 2012. He has honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durham and Hull. Alastair lives in Bristol with his wife Melinda and two teenage sons.


Alastair Fothergill

Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014

Earth in Vision Project


AF:         My name’s Alastair Fothergill, I am a director at Silverback Films, which makes wildlife TV and movies for Disneynature at the moment.

How I got hooked…

As a little boy I was one of those chaps who always had a snake under my bed, I always had tadpoles, much to my mother’s frustration, and I grew up for a lot of my youth on the North Norfolk coast, which is a wonderful area for birds, just an amazing wilderness, and it was a passion for birds initially that drew me to the natural world. I did a Zoology Degree and then ended up at the BBC Natural History Unit.

The films that inspired me…

Over the years there have been so many films that actually I found really special and I think in the early days the Fragile Planet series, Fragile Earth series on Channel 4, there was an amazing film called Korup about the rain forest, when the very first time we were up in the canopy and that was extraordinary, but probably the series that most influenced me was Kingdom of the Ice Bear, a series done in the eighties about the natural history of the artic and I always, always wanted to go to the poles and I made Life in the Freezer about Antarctica and most recently Frozen Planet. So I think that series more than any other really set me on the journey that I’ve been on for myself.

What I’m most proud of…

People often ask me: of the three big series that I’ve done, Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet which is the best, and I think the one that I’m most proud of is probably Blue Planet and there’s two reasons for that. One is that the Open Ocean episode and The Deep ocean episode was really mould-breaking, over 50% of the animals in The Deep episode had never been filmed before, so that was a real new frontier. But also it was the first of the big landmark BBC series that David didn’t actually present in vision, and at the time it was a really worrying decision; there was lots of sort of naysayers who said, ‘Without David in vision, this series will never deliver.’ And actually, of course, he very kindly narrated it. He couldn’t present it, because the diving would have been too difficult for him and he narrated it and everybody thought it was a David Attenborough series anyway, but I was very proud of how we achieved that series. I think it’s probably the best of the three actually.

Mixing blue-chip with environmental issues?

Well, I had a clear view that the main series should not have an overt environmental message, because I think often they become very, very trite, there was a tradition of 45 minutes of, ‘This is a wonderful place,’ and the last 5 minutes saying, ‘And by the way, it’s trashed.’ And I always thought that was dishonest to the audience, because actually the issues in the oceans need more than 5 minutes, you needed to do a special show on those issues, so editorially I was very keen to separate them. But also I strongly believe there still is a role for pure, blue-chip natural history, because with every generation they need to be exposed to the beauty of the natural world.

Blue Planet and the 9/11 effect…

There was an interesting thing with Blue Planet, because it actually aired in the UK the day after 9/11, which was a very, for us, was quite a seminal moment, because we were almost embarrassed actually to think that our little series was relevant after 9/11, but we had worked on it for five years. And literally the BBC ran solid news from the time that the second plane hit the towers and the first non-news show was Blue Planet. So all our planning, all our marketing went up in smoke, but actually it was funny, about a month later we started getting feedback and everybody was saying, ‘Do you know I just love Blue Planet, because I can stick my head under the water and escape from a planet which seems to have been shot to pieces.’ There was that mood after 9/11 that the whole planet, certainly in the West anyway, something had gone wrong with the planet on a big, big scale. And I think that there still is this real value. The wildernesses are out there and I think we have a job to report them and show people them, people that can’t go there in this increasingly urbanised world. Over 90% of the human population lives in cities, most people will never see the things that we’re bringing to them with blue chip natural history, so I make no apologies for doing that.

Blue-chip, Attenborough and green issues

We absolutely know that the people that come to the blue-chip also watch the other programming, so they are definitely interested. And I think David is a very good person to ask about this question, because I remember him saying to me, when he started out in the fifties the word ‘green’ meant naïve. And I think one of the greatest things that David has done and his legacy will be that actually green now means the environment. And I think it’s crazy to think that people who watch blue-chip shows don’t care about the planet, they absolutely do. And today with our multimedia world I don’t think you can see things in isolation; you can have the blue chip series, you can have the other messages online, you can make other programming alongside it, and certainly with Planet Earth that’s exactly what we did. We made the main series, but also, in between the two episodes, two series in the UK, because we put out five first and six after, David did his first big piece on global warming, and he did it partly because he thought it was perfectly timed between the two runs of Planet Earth. And it was the very first time actually that David had come off the fence and been very overt in his environmental message, and also on BBC 4 we did a big series called Saving Planet Earth and a book. And so I think it’s important that we do everything; if we just made blue chip natural history it would be a mistake, but we don’t.

Blue chip’s role in natural history

I think good natural history films have a massive audience. I think that Planet Earth now, they reckon, has been seen by half a billion people round the world and none of those people had ever seen a snow leopard before, because it had never been filmed in the wild. So I would have made Planet Earth just for 500 million people to see a snow leopard, OK? I think there is an argument that this rose-tinted view of the planet that you could say that Planet Earth showed and Blue Planet showed, because certainly we didn’t film destruction, we just went to film where the wildlife is and where the wildernesses are relatively untouched, lulls people into a false sense of security, but I just don’t think that’s true. The people I know who love the series I make are the same people that listen to Costing the Earth, that buy the BBC Wildlife Magazine, that are members of the World Wildlife Fund. It’s not separate and I think it’s naïve and actually rather rude to the audience to say that they’re not interested in everything. Yes, of course there are some people who aren’t going to watch environmental films, but they’re not going to watch blue-chip either. There’s always an audience we’re never going to get to, but I think to stop making blue-chip wildlife would be an enormous mistake, it would be dishonest, actually, to be honest. We have to film it.

Some of the things we filmed in Blue Planet I know could not be filmed now. There’s another BBC series on the oceans just starting and I just know that they’re going to have problems, because the open ocean, some of the big tuna schools that we filmed for Blue Planet just don’t exist anymore. So I want to show my grandchildren those tuna shoals and that’s why I do the work I do.

Is the BBC failing to get the message over?

No, I don’t think that’s true. I think if you look overall at the output that the BBC does, you’re talking about the BBC, I think there’s a lot of environmental journalism on the BBC in all sorts of different areas. It’s in the 10 o’clock news now, in the way that it wasn’t 10-15 years ago, and I don’t think you can criticise the BBC for being complacent about environmental messages. I think they’re much harder films to get to the mass audience, of course they are, but when they break through they can be fantastic. You only have to look at the movie Blackfish, a very small documentary in the States, it’s probably going to close down SeaWorld. I mean, you know, The Cove, an amazingly influential film, and actually they’re hard to make, but they can make a difference.

New Media and the future?

I think it’s very exciting and certainly my children very rarely will come to broadcast TV as its transmitted, but actually that’s a very, very good thing for natural history. When I go to the States and talk to people about Planet Earth they’ve all seen it, but almost all of them have seen it on DVD; the original broadcast on the Discovery Channel was almost the advert for the DVD, and one of the wonderful things about the real top end blue-chip, which is the area that I happen to work in, is it has fantastic, long, long life. Every week a mum will come up to me and say, ‘My six-year-old has watched The Deep episode of Blue Planet for the forty-seventh time,’ and the life that our landmark stuff has is really not on broadcast, it’s on DVD or online. And I’m very excited about the potential for blue-chip in the new media, but equally it really makes the supporting information, the environmental stories, the human stories which we want to tell around the blue-chip, but may not be able to put in the ‘main series’ in quotation marks, much more easy to tell.

And yes, for the next series I’m doing for the BBC called The Hunt, we have a second screen experience, which is wonderful. It’s basically you’re watching a sequence, in one case it’s hunting dogs being filmed from a helicopter and on the ground, and we put cameras inside the helicopter and inside the vehicle and in sync with the pictures on the screen, on a second screen you’ve got the cameraman and camerawoman’s experience. And literally, it’s very rough and ready, but you do feel as if you are the cameraman, you do feel you’re going on this journey and it makes the ‘Making Ofs’ at the end of the shows, which everybody loves, seem actually quite slow; it’s much more dynamic and exciting, so yeah, I’m very keen to try this sort of stuff.

Ambitions for the next decade…

I think at Silverback Films an important part of our relatively recent work is working with Disney to get natural history into cinema under their Disneynature label. And that’s a very, very challenging thing to do, because our Disneynature movies release on 2,000 screens in America, that means New York, Arkansas, Los Angeles, and you’re competing in those showcase-type cinemas against all the top movies, and to succeed there at all is fantastic and I’m very excited by that, because it’s a different audience, it’s an audience that don’t turn to natural history on TV very much.

I also feel we do need to look at massive projects that can look at the whole state of the planet. I really do feel there is time for an audit. There is a view that in the next 25-30 years 50% of the natural wonders may go, and so I think I feel a moral responsibility, for the next generation, to record what’s still here. My expertise is blue-chip natural history filmmaking, I’m not a journalist and so I think I need to stay in the area that I’m comfortable in, but that said, I would love to see blue-chip recording what’s left for future generations and allowing people to think about it more intelligently. I do think the days of just isolated celebratory natural history shows may be beginning to come to an end.

Archive legacy…

I think as filmmakers we have a moral duty to release our archive as much as we can. Obviously there are financial constraints, people that pay for these shows want the first look, but once they’ve gone through that first commercial cycle, I think the archive should be made available. In fact, the Wildscreen Film Festival here in Bristol is trying to set up something called Exchange, which will just do that, and that very specifically is trying to provide archive to conservation organisations. All these conservation organisations that are trying to get their messages out are desperate for high quality images and the Exchange is an idea that they might be able to do that, without having to pay very much for it. But also I just feel that the YouTube generation would love to be able to play around with our archive, in fact they do. I can’t tell you how many versions of Planet Earth I’ve seen on YouTube, re-edited, re-voiced, people impersonating David Attenborough, I mean they do it and let them, I’d love them to do more of it, I think we should.

Archive dilemmas…

One of the issues of making it available to the public is the BBC don’t own all the rights and so that’s one thing. The second thing is the BBC make quite a lot of money out of selling it. That’s the third thing. And the other thing is a lot of the people that one goes to film with are quite concerned about their animals. There’s a chimp biologist who I worked with for 30 years, he would … and the relationship between us as film makers and the scientific community is a very precious, symbiotic one that I personally spend an awful lot of time maintaining, and I would be a little bit worried that those same chimp images were played around with by some … anybody. So I think that’s why it’s more of a … it’s one of these things which is a brilliant idea but it’s a practical minefield. But then all good ideas are practical minefields. So I think it should be done.

Planet Earth and the future: Optimist or pessimist?

I think any logical person has to be a pessimist, but I have to be an optimist, because I can’t get out of bed unless I am, and I suppose the one thing I have… I’ve seen enormous destruction in the natural world in just the 25 years that I’ve been filming in it, but also I’ve seen enormous awareness changes and people do understand global warming. And we just have to accept that’s probably the biggest challenge to humanity, certainly in the modern age, possibly ever, and at the same time I think, I hope, human ingenuity will solve that problem and I think we have the potential to do it. Clearly there’s massive political issues behind it, but you have to be an optimist, you can’t… If you’re not optimistic I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

<End of Interview>




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