I remember an occasion many years ago when I was working on a National Film Board film about what happened to the bison, popularly called buffalo, after they were practically wiped out by the gentle ministrations of the invading European settlers. (I read the other day that they now number 30,000, spread across the continent, whereas pre-contact a conservative estimate was that there were at least 15 million of them).
Anyway, there we were out in Alberta, where the federal government maintains Elk Island Park especially to preserve the Wood Buffalo species, trying our best to get a picture of that momentous occasion on which the male bison go to battle for predominance over the nearest female, or sometimes for determining which is to be the boss of the herd. At this time of the year the bison are given to sudden charges, taking off without warning and travelling at a hell of a pace, so one has to be wary not to be suddenly caught in their delirious path.
Anyway, there we were, three or four of us, crouched expectantly in our van, our camera set up outside the van just in case some action might occur. Suddenly, those two massive bulls that had been sort of half-visible across the field, were on the move, and they were coming in our direction. This was the signal for the cameraman to get out there and get the camera rolling. As the bison got closer and closer we could see they were in a kind of stampede mode, reacting to some hidden pressure that was impelling them to run at full bore, never mind where, and never mind what obstacles they might encounter. I have seldom seen a more impressive spectacle than those two bulls, charging at full speed across the field, to all appearances following some command which ushered from their instincts. They weren’t going anywhere in particular. They were just charging across the field, and it was with great relief that we realized they would miss us by a few yards. You can depend upon it, the camera was not rolling, and the cameraman did not long hang around in an effort to get it rolling. He took shelter in the van like the rest of us as the majestic spectacle roared past us a few yards away.
That was my only experience of trying to film a wild animal in its natural habitat, and the only usable shots we got out of it were a few long-distance glimpses of the two bulls agitating each other, banging into each other with their immense heads, setting up to fight. Of course, we could possibly have got more if we had settled down to wait, but we were working on a tight schedule, had already spent a long time setting up for the shot, and hoping something might happen, and we simply didn’t have the time to wait any longer.
This experience gave me an immense respect for the work of wildlife photographers that I have observed over the years. And at the risk of boring my small audience to tears, I have to say that the David Attenborough film, Our Planet, which I have mentioned in my last two Chronicles, is jammed full of photography of the very highest quality I can imagine.
An insight into the trials that those photographers went through has been provided in a series of interviews the cameramen and women gave to a Guardian reporter a week or so ago.
Sophie Lanfear, for example, talked of being surrounded on a Russian beach from which the sea ice had retreated, leaving the more than 100,000 walruses with none of their habitual place to rest. “Seven of us lived in a tiny cabin for two months… The walruses turned up over night. It was pitch-black outside and you could hear them coming ashore and getting louder and louder, their tusks scraping the sides of our cabin. They were banging on the walls, right next to where our heads were. It was scary. The next morning, the walruses had blocked all the exits. We had to climb out through slats in the ceiling to get on the roof and film them from above.”
What they were able to film was the riveting spectacle of the walruses climbing the cliffs. “Watching that …. was harrowing…. They’d be on the edge for hours, looking over, teetering, and eventually you could see them wanting to join the ones going off to sea. So they would just walk off the cliff. The first time, you can’t take it in. You’re rooting for them not to do it. It was shocking seeing something so large fall from such a height. Some die outright, or crush others below, some don’t die and go back out to sea only to return to shore later for their last breaths. They’re lying there tremoring in front of you. That’s what really broke me. Some walruses made it down! We saw some groups of six or seven go back the way they came. It was amazing. We were cheering for them: ‘Woohoo, they’ve worked it out!’ ”
Adam Chapman filmed from a helicopter a huge chunk of ice the size of the Empire State Building falling off a Greenland glacier. “We were low to the water, and massive lumps of ’berg were racing up and shooting higher than the helicopter until we were looking up at it….. Then a huge block of ice came off the glacier and hit another bit, which sent this piece of ice the size of a truck spinning through the air towards our helicopter….. It was the most mindboggling 20 minutes of my career. A couple of times, there was that slight question in your mind: no one’s ever done this before, are we pushing it too far? The pilot had never flown around a glacier before. This was uncharted territory for us all.
“Afterwards, everyone went quiet. The idea of what this massive event represents for the climate made us go from elation to sadness.”
Doug Anderson on filming a shark feeding frenzy in French Polynesia:
“The bite-proof chainmail I had to wear to film the sharks was a nightmare…. My chainmail weighed a stone, but it made filming possible. Trying to make this job safe took literally thousands of emails. Our main worry was if a shark bit our buoyancy compensator and it burst, all of a sudden we’d be incredibly heavy and sink to the bottom with no way of getting back to the surface. You definitely have butterflies before a job like this. The thing about a night shoot, especially when working with predators, is you can only see what you light up. “It’s behind you, it’s behind you!”
“I got bitten virtually every night. A shark would latch on to my leg or foot for a grab and rag. It felt like being bitten by a decent-sized dog, but without the lacerations. If a tiger shark or a great hammerhead had turned up, around the three-metre mark, we would have called it quits straight away. But these (sharks) were five or six feet long.
“Every time they had a feeding frenzy…. we wanted the audience to feel like they were part of it. There’s that shot of adrenaline you get being so close to such amazing animals acting in a natural way. It is pretty exciting.
“Sharks have taken an absolute hammering over the last 50 to 80 years. And it’s becoming increasingly clear they’re an essential part of the ecosystem, especially on coral reefs. Areas where there is more biodiversity – more sharks, more fish, more types of coral, more everything – are less vulnerable to change like global warming. It’s that simple.”
“It was up there with the worst places to film on the planet. You’re standing in water all day, getting trench foot. You get rashes from poisonous plants. And it’s challenging enough trying to film an animal up in the canopy, while you’re on the ground in a swamp with vines tripping you up every single step. But by the time you’d set up the heavy camera, the orangutang has moved on. That would happen time and time again.
“Every day for two months, we filmed from 6am. Sometimes we lost them and spent several days trying to find them. That’s why you have to be there so many hours – you have to even out all the bad luck.
“You have to be careful around them because they’ll throw things at you – sticks, branches – just to make a point: ‘I’m here, making my presence felt.’ They’re unbelievably powerful, and you don’t want to mess with them. When you see one in that mood, you definitely back off. The official figures say 100 orangutangs are being lost a week. It may even be more. The only thing we all know is that they are in desperate trouble.”
Jeff Wilson on shadowing Siberian tigers
“We spent two winters on their trail. The first year, we had very little luck. We put hides in the forest that had to be tiger-proof, so the largest cat in the world can’t punch through if it’s hungry. The hides are the length of a seven-foot bed. Our camera people had everything they needed for seven days in there: food, a bucket for human waste and lots of down as it gets to minus 25 degrees. Three people sat in those boxes for months, and only one of them ever saw a tiger in daylight … for 30 seconds.
“They all had terrifying cabin fever. You have to keep your blood flowing when you’re trapped in a box, and you desperately need to wiggle your toes but don’t want to make a sound. All of them got into a meditative state to cope with the cold and the monotony. You have to effectively put your brain and body into shutdown, but be ready to film in a split-second..….
“There was huge excitement the first time we saw one. But that 30 seconds of time equates to 10 seconds of footage – not enough to build a sequence around. The first year we backed ourselves too heavily with the hides. The cats are a lot more clever than we gave them credit for. That’s a nice thing, to be slapped down by Mother Nature. It restores the balance of who’s really in charge.
“The next winter, we set up 30 camera traps to build a network of eyes. Our cameraman Kieran had to go and check the traps. You have these horror moments when you’re wandering through a forest and you realise you’re a prey item. It’s a mixed emotion: here’s an animal you’re desperately trying to see, but that you could very easily be a meal for.
“We never encountered any poachers, though Siberian tigers have nearly been poached to extinction. There are only 550 animals left on the planet. For wildlife filmmakers, this is the holy grail. We filmed 35,000 hours in the end. Of that, there were only 37 shots of a tiger. It’s a herculean effort.”