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Caroline Underwood - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 28th July 2016
Caroline Underwood, award-winning series producer for Canadian television, looks back at how the landscape of environmental and natural history programming has transformed over the last few decades, and the challenges it faces today and moving forward into the future.

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Caroline Underwood

Caroline is an independent, executive producer and wildlife film consultant. For more than three decades, she has produced, directed and written for Canadian television, including award-winning documentary series and international co-productions. From 2008-2015 she was Senior Producer/Commissioning Editor for The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, the CBC’s flagship science series. She has worked in many remote locations, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to reveal the beauty, complexity and the threats facing some of the planet’s last great wildernesses and their inhabitants.


Earth in Vision Project

Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014

My name is Caroline Underwood and I’m now a senior producer at the CBC’s science series called The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.

How I got started

I was one of those unlikely little girls that actually did like to play out of doors and my father liked to walk and we did a lot of walking in the woods. When I went to university I did a degree in Biology and Physical Anthropology and then I went on and did a degree in Environmental Studies, because the programme that I chose allowed me essentially to write the programme that I wanted to do and there aren’t many places that will let you do that, they always want to line you up and put you in boxes very early on and I just knew what I wanted to do, which was to look actually at television and see what television had to say about the natural world.

Documentaries I’m most proud of

Well there’d be a number of different ones. One that got me into a lot of hot water that I’m very proud of was a doc that I did about the use of animals in research, raising the questions of alternatives. It was very early on in the process, I think it’s come a long way since then, but I had a significant amount of feedback from the medical community about that show, so I think it did open a dialogue and that programme was certainly used a lot in schools and universities, as do most of our shows. And in the wildlife area I think it was a series, we ended up doing three different programmes, each one building on the previous one. The first one was with Jeff and Sue Turner about the killing of wolves in Northern British Columbia, and the next time around it was also being done in the Yukon, and wolves were being killed to try and increase the number of ungulates, things like elk or moose, for hunters. Hunters were getting unhappy because they felt that weren’t enough animals for them. So we did a pretty hard-hitting documentary in ’81, I think, sorry, in ’91 that looked at that whole issue. And it was tricky, because there were native First Nations’ rights issues and various things, so it was a complex subject and I think it was one of the first shows about the killing of wildlife for another reason and that was for augmenting the populations for hunters, that had really been broadcast in Canada, other than there was a bit on the news, but that was about it.

CBC’s The Nature of Things is the world’s longest running environmental strand

The Nature of Things started in 1960, which I think does make it the longest running science show globally, and it’s still much beloved by its audience as wildlife and science shows tend to be globally, they attract for traditional TV viewing the older audience, but our host and narrator who was the host and narrator since 1974, David Suzuki, attracts a younger audience wherever he goes. We put a show on in the cinema and it’s around the block with the under-20 crowd. So it’s really interesting, I think that has more to say about television and the use of television than it does about our show.

But when the show started, and it only had a very few executive producers, Mr Sinclair, who was a kind of renaissance man in Canada even in 1960, was executive producer for a couple of years and then Jim Murray took over, and Jim ran the series as executive producer up until he retired. So I think it was unusual in that it had the vision of one man who drove the series and the kinds of things that we tackled as subjects were things that he thought were very important and that had to do with our relationship with nature. So early shows were things like Man at Work, which was very speedily cut, I have to say, it was a black and white show, but it had a lot of the kind of techniques that would seem quite fresh and modern now. And it was about, in fact, danger of man at work, was really what it was about, so it was looking at logging and mining, all of those kinds of things, so going back very early on, our environmental credentials go back a long way.

And as time went on and filmmaking became more sophisticated, I think just the kind of cameras you could take out into the field and that kind of thing, then the way in which we could tell these stories became more sophisticated. So we took the first colour documentary broadcast on The Nature of Things (broadcast on the CBC was The Nature of Things) and it was about the Galapagos. We were the second film crew to go to the Galapagos, just narrowly beaten by the BBC. So Jim very early on, one of our big, hot button issues was pollution, the Club of Rome, we did a whole episode on the Club of Rome and things like Small is Beautiful all through the ‘70s, those kinds of shows.

Then we started into … logging became a really big issue in Canada, because nobody had really thought about the impact of logging, other than the fact that it was just an aesthetic problem, that you looked at it and it didn’t look nice. And as people began to dissect what was actually happening when people tried to replant forests and it wasn’t working, particularly on the West Coast. I think the hot button issue was in Haida Gwaii, a place called Clayoquot Sound, and David Suzuki was very involved in that story, because he had become, as a young science journalist, although he was a geneticist and a very well-known geneticist, he was interested in education and so he was really keen to get that story out and his family was there during the sit-in and everything that happened. So when we did a documentary called Windy Bay looking particularly at Clayoquot Sound and the fact that you can’t replant an old growth, temperate rainforest by just putting in a few trees, when that show was broadcast the next day it was actually mentioned in parliament and within a very short piece of time we were able to see that, in fact, the politicians had sat up and taken notice and it was saved, Clayoquot Sound was actually saved. Of course there were many battles in the forests around it and in other watersheds and they continue to this day.

I think one of the things for those of us who’ve been involved in environmental issues for so long is why haven’t we had more success? We’re finding that we’re going back and fighting the same battles that we fought before, we’re having to do it again.

How has The Nature of Things succeeded in mixing natural history with environmental issues?

The Nature of Things is a science strand, so we cover natural history, we always have had natural history shows as well as environmental shows, medicine, technology, anthropology, archaeology, all of those genres in the science strand. People, I think, are like everywhere, natural history, depending on the species will often get a very big audience. Our environmental shows have also, I think, drawn big audiences, depending on what piece of the environmental world they’re actually taking a look at. I remember we did a two-parter called The Great Northern Forest, I think, I can’t quite remember the title now, but it had a combination of natural history and environment stuff in it and it definitely got a big audience, one of our biggest of that particular season. And one of the scenes that I always remember in it is that David Suzuki met a bunch of loggers on a logging road and there was a bit of a confrontation between them, as is the wont in that time, and I think what it did was show to people that loggers were human, that David was human and that there was this conversation that actually unfolded on camera. I don’t think that they saw eye to eye, but I think they both saw each other as human and we played that out in real time more or less in the show, so it was a compelling moment.

Environmental issues in the 1980s: Was there less pressure for balance?

When we were broadcasting environmental shows in the eighties, which is when I started working on the series, it was the time when people would still write in about a show. There was obviously no internet then, so people would write you a letter and they would tell you what they think. But one of the things that we did was we would put information packs together about conservation organisations working on a particular topic, what you could do if you wanted to make a difference, the politicians you should write to. When I think about it now, I mean, we would never be able to put that stuff up on line, it would have to be much more carefully couched, but all through the eighties we sent out thousands of these information packs telling people how they could make a difference, essentially.

Why we got away with it

Well, I think it’s a more difficult space to work in now, because… I think we flew under the radar. I don’t know that it was naturally… actually that the CBC endorsed what we did. We lived in our own little world at The Nature of Things in that we weren’t part of news and current affairs. Oddly enough we started out our life in arts, music and science; we were part of that department. And then it became an arts and science department and then it became, oh god, I think, scripted and unscripted or something, and it had various other titles, but we were never moved into the mainstream of news and current affairs, which has a very strong journalistic policy, which of course, we would never have been able to meet for some of our shows. We strove to be not only honest, obviously that’s a big part of… and accurate about a subject, but we also did strive for balance within our shows, but unlike a journalism news story, where how you interpret the journalistic policy is a bit different than we did, we had a little more flexibility. So I think it wasn’t so much that a public broadcaster made a decision that it would support us. I think we just weren’t on their radar, except when one of the major banks in Canada said that it was no longer going to buy commercial space on the CBC, because of one of our logging shows, or something like that. It created a kerfuffle, but we, I guess, in the end did get the support that we needed. It’s a bit of a different landscape, I think, now, but that’s largely just because the whole television landscape has changed.

How easy is it to get environmental programmes commissioned?

I definitely think that in the commissioning environment, environmental programmes are considered to be a drag, that people are not going to come and watch them, that they don’t want to be told that they’re part of the problem. And I think what we’ve striven to do over the years is to try and find new and innovative ways of telling those environmental stories, so that we still slide it in there, but it’s not the finger wagging, finger in your face way that was popular in the seventies and eighties and that obviously did get us audiences. We were not so foolish, even then, to put documentaries on that were going to get us a zero audience. We still lived in a world where ratings mattered; they just maybe didn’t matter as much as they do now.

Successful environmental programmes, some examples

Some of the shows that stick out in my mind, we had one that started out its life as a theatrical doc called Sharkwater, which was made by a young filmmaker who was a Canadian, Rob Stewart, and for some reason the doc that he made resonated with young people. I think partly because he was the face of that doc, he was in the doc, so it went on not only to garner a theatrical audience, but was broadcast in many different countries around the world and it was about the problems that sharks face and about how sharks are not as bad as they’re often made out to be. Now that seems a bit old hat now, because everybody including Discovery in their shark week are saying what wonderful creatures sharks are, but back when he did his doc, I guess it must have been about six or seven years ago, young people lined up. There was something in that doc, besides the fact that it had this young Rob Stewart swimming around in it with just his diving gear on, that obviously worked.

In terms of other shows, obviously the one about the dolphin, I’ve forgotten the name of it, The Cove, and it’s interesting that those start out their lives as theatrical docs and then garner a broadcast audience and perhaps that’s a good model for trying to get attention. Of course you have to fund the thing in the first place; that’s the difficulty.

Environmental filming: meeting the creative challenge

We had a doc by a Canadian filmmaker, I can mostly talk about that ‘cause that’s the ones I remember, that’s the ones that resonated, a doc by a Canadian filmmaker who lives on Saltspring Island, West Coast (…we do have other places in Canada besides the West Coast), Mort Ransen, and he made a doc called Grab the Money and Run, something like that, and it was about a logging issue on Saltspring, so it was his backyard, a very personal exploration of the story. And people went and watched that film, because first of all people who were interested in filmmaking watched his show, but he got some great moments, because his background, I think, was not in environmental filmmaking. So at one point this float plane lands and the bad guy, who owns this land that’s being logged, wades out into the tidal bay and picks up his wife or girlfriend and carries her in so she won’t get wet feet. I mean it was just such a human moment.

I think that we tend, because we try as environmental filmmakers, we try to cram so much content in, so many bits of information that we think that people need to have, rather than remembering that we need to have those human moments, that those are the things that people will remember. Like Jane Goodall touching the fingers with one of her chimps and things like that, those kind of magic moments. Now you don’t always get the chance at them, but sometimes you do.

Releasing the archives: What are the issues?

I think one of the problems in looking back at our history and figuring out how we can use some of this amazing material that we have, and I’ve trawled many a time through our archives over my career at The Nature of Things looking for a shot that we didn’t get that I can snatch from the past, is just the very prosaic one of formats. In 1960 when we started we were looking at black and white, we’re looking at reversal film, we’re looking at a different format of 4x3, rather than 16:9, all of those kinds of things. And the whole problem of… The material is in not very good shape, the colours have faded. So really the older material, the sort of, probably 1978,1980 backwards, that material, I think, while it could be of interest to film students or people who are studying the history of the environmental movement, is not going to be really something that most viewers would ever be interested in.

Our more recent stuff is complicated by huge issues to do with rights, writers’ rights, music rights, as well as we very often don’t shoot every single shot to include in a project, so then there’s the visual rights as well, so it’s a massive amount of paperwork in pre-computer days. So pre-’95 where none of this stuff exists in an easily accessible format, it’s stuck in a file drawer, buried in some basement. So there’s just these really tedious practical problems and the fact that like all public broadcasters around the world that have these great archives, the CBC has no money, so who is actually going to physically go and track down this stuff and make it available?

Even with our more recent stuff, we’ve recently shifted to a completely drive-based system so that anything that doesn’t exist on those drives has to be found, has to be warmed up, because it sits in a cold tape archive somewhere, has to be put into a machine, has to be transferred, has to be loaded; somebody has to do all of that. There is no interest, I think, on the part of the tax payer to ensure that happens, so it’s really unfortunate. So the nice thing was that we had a big release to the national archives in Canada where you can go and see some of our older shows, all of the sixties material, was released there. So if I want to see something from the sixties that’s where I go, I don’t go to our basement.

Archiving is, I think, a major issue that the industry doesn’t want to address, because, like politicians, it’s looking to the next three or four years, they’re not looking to a 40-year history.

Projects that are exciting me at the moment

What I’m working on now, I mean it’s a bit different. When I was a filmmaker I was completely absorbed, in the way that filmmakers are, in making my one film and trying to deal with the question of limited resources and all of those things that beset the documentary filmmaker. Now, because I’m a senior producer or commissioning editor, I have probably somewhere between 15 and 20 films on the go at any one time and trying to help a bunch of very different filmmakers realise their vision in a context that I could actually broadcast on our primetime slot. That’s a very different kind of thing.

We recently had, a great passion that I had for the last couple of years was a series called Wild Canada, which seems strange, it was a blue chip natural history series that we commissioned from Jeff and Sue Turner, a great wildlife filmmaking team, and Jeff is also a cinematographer, and we had never had a series done about Canada by Canadians. And this has been one of the things that I have worked on, worked to rectify, I guess, almost my whole career, and I really focused to a great extent on making my own films be about Canada. Everybody thinks that you’re a wildlife filmmaker, an environmental filmmaker, you’re travelling all over the place and I have travelled all over the place, I’ve gone from one pole to the other almost. But Canada is one of those places… because we’re a big country with relatively few people and we didn’t have a lot of resources, a lot more stuff had been shot about Canada in a wildlife realm by places like the BBC and National Geographic, they all came to see our wilderness. So I’ve always felt that Canadians have, I think, a different way of telling stories than other people and that we should have Canadians tell our stories. So when Jeff pitched a Wild Canada series, that was really my passion for the last couple of years, was to make sure that happened. Now it didn’t happen without… just with us, it happened because we also had Brian Leith Productions and Terra Mater involved in it to help fund it, but it was very much a vision, I think, that was driven by a Canadian sensibility.

Environmental issues and natural history: The potential of new media

The whole notion that people’s experience of television won’t just be with television, we at the CBC are already doing some second screen stuff, but not in the documentary world. We did a little bit on one episode, the first episode when it went out of Wild Canada, we had Jeff available and viewers could throw their questions at him on a second screen, but it was not very successful. There were a few people who were doing it, but by and large what was clear was people actually wanted to watch the show. Then we had a big response afterwards, but during the show on something like a blue chip doc, people really wanted to be in there. So I think the blue chip format will continue as long as there’s the money to make them and they are universal and all of those things.

The environmental shows I think will become a lot more interactive, because I think at the moment part of our problem with attracting the younger audiences, they’re not watching hour-long anythings, so what they want is a very different kind of experience, and so far we’re not engaging them in that way and the conservation and environmental organisations aren’t engaging them that way, ‘cause finding an audience when they’re not being driven to one place at one time is an extremely difficult thing to do. And our poor digital person, when she has to do one of these more interactive things with a second screen, you know, our first broadcast is out of Newfoundland and our last broadcast is out of Vancouver and that’s a five-and-a-half hour time difference, so that’s a lot of time to do it for a country, but I think we’ll resolve those problems; it’s a man power issue or a person power issue, but I think that’s how we will gradually bring in people. The problem is they’re busy inventing new ways of doing things and we need them in on the ground floor helping to figure out how to solve this problem, not people like me, whose first world is not the digital world. I can do it, but it’s not my first world.

The future of Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

Oh, I hate this question! <Laughs> Well you know the question about being optimistic or pessimistic, it’s a really tricky one. At my age I’ve seen so much change in the places that I love and a lot of it is not good. I have seen some change where things have been turned around, where people are much more sensitive and think much more carefully about how they are in the world. So I think I would come down on that, it just sounds so namby-pamby, but hopeful. I am really hopeful that the world that the next generations will inherit won’t just be full of cockroaches and rats and squirrels.


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