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Paul Williams - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 28th July 2016
Paul Williams of the BBC's Natural History Unit discusses how to make wildlife go viral and how to create awareness of environmental issues though natural history programming, as well as the creative opportunities of opening up the BBC's digital archive.

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Paul Williams

Paul Williams is a wildlife photographer, and a producer at the BBC Natural History Unit. Born in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Paul's interest in the natural world started at a young age. He found his first fossil on a beach when he was 8 years old, and from that moment he was hooked. At University Paul studied palaeontology, before working as a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. In 2003 he began work as a researcher at the BBC Natural History Unit. Since then he has filmed in more than 30 countries. He has climbed active volcanoes, sailed with traditional Polynesian navigators and explored a toxic cave with crystals the size of trees. More important to Paul is the time that he has spent working with people dedicated to studying and preserving the natural world. The most memorable of which is the team in Sumatra that he filmed rescuing an orang-utan as the forest around them was being felled.

Paul has worked on a wide range of productions including Life, Life in Cold Blood, How Earth Made Us and Wonders of the Monsoon. Most recently, he produced the New England episode of Earth's Greatest Spectacles. In addition to surprising and rarely seen behaviour, it is the fascinating intricacies of the natural world and how it all fits together, that he hopes to reveal in the films that he makes. 


Earth in Vision Project

Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014

I’m Paul Williams and I’m a Producer/Director at the Natural History Unit.

How I got started…

When I was young I lived in the northern town of Rotherham and that’s where I grew up. And to be honest I didn’t really engage with wildlife that much at an early age because there just wasn’t much wildlife around me, but my grandfather gave me a book which was a book showing all these wonders around the world and that kind of hooked me thinking that there must be more out there.

Palaeontology is what really got me into natural history. When I was eight I was on a school field trip and I found an ammonite on the beach in Lyme Regis. And the ammonite has been very precious to me ever since, and that allowed me to enter natural history through a palaeontological, a geological understanding of the earth and that’s what I studied at university and then I went to the Natural History Museum and worked there for a brief while. And through that route I kind of found myself in this world of communicating science and that’s how I ended up in the BBC Natural History Unit.

The role of wildlife filming in creating awareness of environmental issues

I think most people’s awareness of natural history and conservation issues actually comes from appreciating the wonder of the world and wildlife. So series like Planet Earth, although it could be argued that Planet Earth didn’t have a big environmental kind of stance, a big conservation stance to it, it still raised people’s awareness of these wonderful places around the planet. And by doing that conservation organisations were able to come off the back of that series and really promote these places and the awareness of it. So I’d say that Planet Earth, for a lot of people, was a real benchmark. But of course when we’re filming series like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet and series like this, often we’re trying to show the ideal world, the world that we would love to really exist. And this means that we’re often standing on the side of a road pointing away from all the pollution that’s behind us. So we’re trying to hide a lot of that side of things because we know that in order to inspire people, people need to see beauty and wonder.

But inevitably there is a real sense and a real motivation in the Natural History Unit to try and bring these conservation messages across, so we’ll try and do it through other mediums. We try and work a lot with the websites and with conservation organisations to try and help them, but also, at the end of a lot of our series we have these ten minute sections, the making of, the behind the scenes sections and sometimes that’s a real opportunity to get under the skin of some of these issues a bit more. So in a series I’ve just worked on, Wonders of the Monsoon, the final episode is about a human understanding in the Far East and the integration between human culture and wildlife. And the final ten minutes, which is the part that I produced, we went out and we rescued a wild orangutan. And that’s a story of conservation, it’s on the ground, conservation heroes really going out there in order to save wildlife. And I think their passion really comes across because these are the people that, as film makers, we rely on. We couldn’t do anything if we didn’t have the conservationists and the scientists on the ground willing to give up some of their time to work with us. And it’s because they do that we’re allowed to capture these beautiful images, and then hopefully it’s a two-way process; they can use our beautiful images in their work to show people, to show the public that it is important to save these animals and these places.

The possibilities and restrictions of releasing media to the public

These projects are very complex because there’s many different parties involved in funding wildlife television projects and so it’s very difficult to get all the parties to agree on any one thing, especially when it comes to sharing media. Personally I don’t think that there’s any geographical boundary to media anymore, but of course when we’re making a programme we’re making it for different territories, we’re making the programme for the British audience, maybe for Discovery for the American audience, maybe for ABC for the Australian audience, and they want to broadcast these programmes at different times. So they’re not very keen, I don’t believe, on allowing us to release our media to a global audience in the first instance, because they want to have their big release in their different territories. So that’s a real barrier.

But what is happening is we take a lot of stills photographs on our shoots from what we do, and we do get our stills images out there and our personal stories from the field on working with scientists and conservationists, we can put those stories out and I think that really, really helps to get the message. And then when people do watch these shows, hopefully some people will have a deeper understanding of maybe what we went through to get the sequence and the people that we worked with in order to tell these stories. But I think as far as getting the media out there, I would love it if the BBC could just say, ‘Right, we have 1,000 hours of wonderful natural history television; let’s put it online and just give it to the people.’

I remember I worked in BBC New Media and Technology many years ago and the head of that department was Ashley Highfield and he always said, ‘We have to lose control of our content, because by losing control of our content people will take ownership of it and they’ll do wonderful things.’ And over the years we have had various projects where we have released small chunks of BBC archive and we’ve facilitated people to take that archive and create their own films using it. But nothing big has ever come of those projects and I would love for that to happen, for people to see this amazing stuff that we shoot. I mean as filmmakers I love to see the sequences that I have shot be used in different ways, whether it’s archive in other programmes, whether it’s conservationists taking some of our shots and using it as part of their message, it’s just really exciting and it’s really rewarding for us to see that the material that we film has a life beyond just the television programme.

The giant leech story that went viral

I don’t believe that there’s much of a geographical boundary to media anymore. The internet is all around the world; when something is broadcast in the UK, the American audience can instantly download it, usually by illegal means; when something is broadcast in America the British audience can download it, usually be illegal means. So this poses a real problem to broadcasters and co-productions, which are very important to how we make our films. We need to work together as international producers in order to generate enough money to make these big series.

One of the big problems… So I filmed this leech story and we put this leech story out in the UK – it became a global sensation, it went viral all the way around the world and a news television channel in America, based in Chicago, picked up this leech video online and broadcast it to their American audience, and the American presenter said ‘This is incredible behaviour filmed by the BBC Natural History Unit for this new series, Wonders of the Monsoon.’ Of course this series was also co-produced by Animal Planet, and because this news piece has been broadcast in America, it was potentially a difficult thing for Animal Planet, because they wanted to have their own big press release before the launch of the series in the United States. Now, one solution around this is, if as co-producers we all came together and we decided, right, like some of the HBO series like Game of Thrones, like Battlestar Galatica did, they broadcast the same series in different territories at roughly the same time, then there wouldn’t be a problem with things being released through the internet illegally or by legal means. And it could mean that we could really team up as international broadcasters to have a bigger press drive. So that’s one solution around it, by simulcasting, as you will.

Some of the other problems around online media is quite simply, it’s very, very difficult to stop people taking it, sharing it and doing things illegally. Once something is broadcast on television, it’s incredibly simple for somebody to take that programme and put it online and share it however they want to. So we can try and fight that and we do, organisations, television broadcasters fight that, they have a team of lawyers who constantly search online, they search YouTube and they are forever putting in claims of copyright against people who are sharing the programmes on their own YouTube channels. As a filmmaker I actually think it’s quite nice when people do that, because it shows that they really value and love our content so much they want to share it, but I can completely understand why the broadcasters and the co-producers have problems with this, because ultimately we work with commercial co-producers and they need to make money, and if they don’t make money they won’t give us the co-production money that we need to make the great programmes.

Releasing the BBC archive: A personal view on the potential

I would like to think that if we released a large part of the BBC archive to the public that they would be really creative and might do things with our material that we’d never thought of, and also things that don’t work on television, because television is just one medium and yet there’s many other types of medium out there where our material could sit and be worked. And we don’t exploit those areas, like social networking, like YouTube. It’s a very different way of making films, they’re short, they’re often quirky, you can do anything, it’s a real experimentation ground. And I think when we’re looking for new ways to inspire us, as filmmakers, going to YouTube is a great place because you see all these wonderful and whacky ideas that people are doing and sometimes they really hit the nail on the head and they come up with a wonderful idea. And there’s lots of examples in television where filmmakers have taken real inspiration from YouTube channels, from clips they’ve seen on YouTube, and they have made a whole series out of them. Gogglebox is one. Gogglebox came from a few people posting online responses of their families watching bizarre and weird and wonderful sequences on television. Gogglebox saw that, they were inspired and they made a whole series out of it, which was incredibly successful.

But it’s not just ideas for programmes, it’s also ideas for just new and inventive ways of putting material together and playing around with storylines.

The Gogglebox factor

For some years people have been posting to YouTube, videos of their families and themselves responding to incredible scenes in television programmes. The filmmakers who make Gogglebox saw this and thought, wonderful, that’s a great idea, it’s a real hit online, let’s make it into a whole television programme. And they’ve made a really successful television series inspired by some people online being experimental and creative. And there must be many more examples out there of this.

Releasing BBC archive… even more potential

Online isn’t really a place for text, in my mind. People go online and if it’s loads of text they’ll generally read a few words, they’ll get bored and then they’ll look at the pretty picture of a cat and they’ll move on and go and look at the cats. So if we can give people our archive, our stills images and our video sequences, people can use that to illustrate their own points, to illustrate their own messages, be that environmental, be that personal stories of discovery, or be that just fun and whacky moments that they want to share with the world. So if we can give people our material, it could help make the internet a more colourful place and help people to make their own stories more colourful and illustrative.

Combining natural history with environmental issues

In the Natural History Unit there has been a real sense over the past few years of a need to tell more environmental and conservational stories. Many, many years ago …well, when I first started in television about 12 years ago it was all about showing the ideal world, we showed the beauty and the wonder and we very rarely touched on conservation issues, unless it was a current affairs or a news story. But as far as natural history or wildlife filmmakers, we very rarely did that, but there’s been a real movement over the past decade or so to try and bring conversation into what we do and I think that’s going to continue.

The ten-minute sections at the end of a lot of films are a real area where we can tell conservation stories and I think the audience really value us showing people the other side of what we do, because often we’ll go to a location and we’ll film the most wonderful scene and behind us they’ll be a rubbish dump or there’ll be pollution happening. So it’s really nice to be able to turn the camera around and say, ‘We’ve shown you the ideal world, how it would be if things were wonderful and perfect, but of course we live in the real world, things aren’t perfect and this is the reality of it.’ And I think that can be really inspiring, because for one, people would want to see the wonders and by seeing the reality hopefully it makes people want to support the conservation work that people do. And I think there’s a real sense and a real motivation amongst wildlife filmmakers to do that, because at heart a wildlife filmmaker is a naturalist, somebody who loves the natural world, and at the root of that it’s conservation and the need to protect it and to value it.

Natural history archive: The record of a changing planet

Archive, natural history archive, can really help people to tell stories about change because we have essentially captured a beautiful, vivid, illustrative record of change over the past 50 years, even beyond. We’ve been making wildlife films for over 100 years now, the Natural History Unit and the BBC has been making wildlife films for over 50 years; in that material there is so much stuff that would really open people’s eyes. If it was released it could really tell stories of how the world has changed. There are tales of species … In the past 50 years we have filmed lots of different species in lots of different places, some of those species have disappeared; we have moving, living records of these wonderful animals that once lived on our planet and don’t live there anymore. If we can release this material to people to use, they can use it to tell their own stories about how the world has changed.

Over 50 years we have filmed the most wonderful range of wildlife material, wildlife footage. We have filmed many species that have since gone extinct; we have filmed many places that have since changed beyond recognition and we have wonderfully filmed, throughout all that time, real hard-hitting environmental stories. They’re not as easy to get across, but they are there if you look, and if we can bring these to the fore and give them to people to tell their own stories, they’ll hopefully be able to tell a tale of how the world has changed, maybe in their small corner of the world, maybe on a bigger global scale. They might be able to tell the story of how one particular species has inspired them and how that species has had a significant impact on their lives.

Can environmental stories get commissioned?

When we develop ideas for new series, we always try and come up with some environmental ideas as well as the usual blue chip wonderful ideas that we take to the commissioners, but very rarely do the environmental ideas ever get anywhere. And I think one of the reasons is that there’s a big assumption that people are going to switch off their television and are not really going to be interested in environmental issues, in environmental stories. But one shining light in that and one thing that I think commissioners are really sending a message to us about, is that actually if we can get these conservation heroes, if we can get strong human characters who are passionate, who have their own stories to tell, that is how we can get environmental messages across, but it has to be packaged in the right way. It has to be …

Television is about telling stories, it’s about unravelling a story, about allowing the audience to come with you on a journey to discover something remarkable or insightful about the planet. And there’s no reason why an environmental story can’t do just that, if we can use wonderful wildlife heroes, conservationists who have a real strong story to tell, emotional, engaging, with a sense of triumph that they are really getting somewhere and making a difference, that’s how we can get television to a wider audience – sorry, that’s how we can get environmental television to a wider audience. But inevitably it is very difficult to commission because the word ‘environmental’ sounds so academic, it sounds so dry, we often have to try and disguise it under other words, and ‘conservation heroes’ is this word that’s being bandied around a lot in the BBC at the moment, because we do see a value in telling conservation stories and if we can find those conservation heroes that are engaging and have a real story to tell, then we can tell these environmental stories using them as the mechanism to get the story out there.

Going viral with archive

The modern internet is all about images and video. Text is there simply as a bit of context around it, but what really works is sharing wonderful, quirky, cute, disgusting, gross and humorous images. If it’s cute, disgusting or funny it will go viral and it will get out there; the funny one is the most difficult to get right. But we have a great range of all of those in our archive, and often before we put a programme on television we try and release some of this footage via various means. I put images, I put video clips, I put gifs out on Twitter and into the social spaces and these get shared and shared, and on a recent series I worked on the social networking alone reached several million people and that’s before people come to the television programme itself. Now, if none of those people come and watch the television programme I’d like to think that those images and those little nuggets, those little stories that we put out there into the social world at least reach people and have an influence and give them a story that they might take and share themselves about the natural world.

New media, old archive, a winning combination?

Archive can have a whole new life online. As television programme makers we very rarely like to use archive; archive is kind of a back-up solution to fill in a few holes in an otherwise specially shot one-hour programme. But we have this vast archive and that archive can really exist out there because, as wildlife filmmakers at the moment, we’re all about shooting everything in HD, even 4K, even Ultra HD going into the future. And yet we have an immense amount of archive which was shot on black and white, which was shot in standard definition, which has a very limited use for us as television programme makers any more. But yet that material could have a whole new life if it was out there on the internet for people to share, because there are incredible moments… in fact there’s so much material in the archive that has never been seen by anybody. We film hundreds of hours of material to make one hour of television content and there’s ninety-nine hours of material, at least, per programme that is never seen by anybody. If we can put that out there and allow people to use it then it gives it a whole new lease of life and it continues the work that we have done for the past fifty years into the future.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

On one hand I like to be optimistic about the future of the planet and that’s because most of my time I work with the most wonderful, inspirational people who have a real dedication to preserving the planet and the wonders of the planet and the wildlife that lives here. And those people inspire me to want to help them and to want to work with them and to tell their tales. These are wildlife conservation heroes and they are the most important people that we work with as wildlife filmmakers. They make me feel very optimistic. But yet, when I travel around the world, when I go to these places that on the face of it should be wonderful paradise locations, there’s inevitably always a darker side to it, influenced by humans. There’s inevitably some conservation message that could come out of it. As wildlife filmmakers we’re quite limited in how we do that, but it does leave me a little bit pessimistic at times because I think the scale of this is so incredibly big, how can anybody ever change what is happening? And although these wildlife heroes that we work with are so dedicated and passionate and give their real life and soul to it, there are so many more people who just don’t really care. And I think, through the footage that we get and through the stories that we tell and by working with conservationists, hopefully we can take their stories and their messages to a much bigger audience. And if we can influence just a handful of people to make a difference, it’s just worth it. 


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