Capturing the planet: an interview with Alastair Fothergill
Posted on July 05 2019
Recognised most recently for his work on the outstanding Netflix series, Our Planet, Alastair Fothergill has been at the forefront of natural history programming for more than 30 years. After an extensive career at the BBC’s Natural History Unit working with legends such as Sir David Attenborough, he co-founded his company, Silverback Films, and has produced countless award-winning documentaries, TV series and movies, including The Really Wild Show, Wildlife on One, Planet Earth, The Blue Planet and Frozen Planet, to name but a few. We talked to Alastair about his incredible work, and how his Billingham bag played a part in one of the most memorable events of his life.
Alastair Fothergill during filming
Firstly, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to be interviewed for the Billingham blog! You have been a filmmaker and producer for many years, focusing on wildlife, nature and environmental topics. What or who inspired you to follow this career path?
I had a very early interest in nature and wildlife and spent much of my childhood outdoors walking and bird watching. One of my masters at school was very inspirational, and encouraged these activities. When I was at University in Durham studying zoology, I entered a BBC competition, which had been launched in memory of Mick Burke – a cameraman who sadly died on an expedition to Everest – and I was lucky enough to be part of an amazing trip to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where I made my first film. At that point, I realised that being paid to be close to animals was a career option I’d definitely like to follow.
Did you always want to work in production and make movies, or did you originally have another career path in mind?
Originally I was planning to become a research biologist or scientist, but when the opportunity arose to work for the BBC in the Natural History Unit, that changed everything. The rest is history.
We understand that you have just received an OBE in recognition of your services to film. Congratulations from the Billingham team! Apart from being awarded your OBE, what have been the highlights of your career so far?
Working with Sir David Attenborough on series such as Life on Earth, The Trials of Life and Blue Planet have definitely been highlights. I have been able to travel the world, and filming in the Polar regions for Life in the Freezer was truly incredible. Working on Blue Planet, the first series where Sir David Attenborough provided the voice-over rather than presenting the programme, was hugely inspiring. His voice is so recognisable, it was always going to be a major success. Of course, receiving an OBE is also a tremendous honour.
Alastair Fothergill and Sir David Attenborough during filming.
Working in remote locations such as the Antarctic, we imagine that you must be using the most rugged equipment available, to withstand those conditions and temperatures. Can you tell us about the kit you use at your company, Silverback Productions?
We use a wide range of equipment from Red to Panasonic to Sony – these are all top-end cameras with the highest specifications and 4K HD resolution. Due to the conditions we experience, the kit has to be checked thoroughly for resilience. We carry out testing in local freezer centres to minus 25 degrees Celsius. Some camera equipment has to be ‘worn’ during the filming, to ensure that cables don’t snap and that batteries are protected, as they will run down more quickly in these extremely low temperatures.
We read the story of your recent trip to the Arctic to film polar bear colonies for Our Planet, where you experienced a terrifying ordeal. We were astonished to hear that your Billingham bag floated to the top of the water and surfaced between the ice. Can you tell us more?
It was the most frightening experience of my life. Our vehicle disappeared under the ice, and we were very lucky to escape. As we watched it all vanish, suddenly up popped one of the car seats, followed shortly by my Billingham bag!
That bag had great sentimental value to me, as I had owned it for 30 years since working on The Trials of Life, so imagine my surprise and delight when it floated to the surface. Inside were my passport, my binoculars, notebook, pencils, A4 files and other items. I was extremely happy to see them, despite everything that had happened! That bag has been with me everywhere to the most remote locations – from the South Pole to the North Pole, in submarines, tropical rainforests and every other incredible place I’ve travelled.
I love the way a Billingham bag looks when it ages. Mine is still in great condition, even though it has been subjected to so much over the years!
You now have a new Hadley Pro. What do you carry in this bag and why?
Generally, I don’t carry cameras with me now. My Billingham is used to protect practical items such as scripts, notebooks, sketchbooks, brushes and paints – all my essential belongings – and it’s an ideal size for that. My team also uses Billingham bags to carry various equipment. The larger cameras are transported in hard cases, of course.
You have worked extensively with Sir David Attenborough, who is an inspiration to us all. What has been your most memorable work with Sir David and why?
Probably the most memorable time was filming chimpanzees hunting on the Ivory Coast for The Trials of Life in 1989. Before this series, nobody knew that chimpanzees were hunters and meat-eaters. It was really incredible to see them running through the forests in this way. That was a beautiful moment. Filming the Frozen Planet was also a very special time in 2010, when we travelled to both the South and North Poles.
During your work, you must see some incredibly beautiful sights, but also some disturbing effects of climate change. What is the most significant environmental subject you have covered in your filming, in your opinion?
In this job, you can clearly see the effects of global warming, particular in the Polar regions, and the glaciers in South Georgia Islands in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Every year, the sea ice melts earlier, which means that polar bears are losing their hunting platform – this is having a dramatic effect. I would also say that witnessing at first hand the bleaching of the coral reefs, and the shrinking rainforests, have been extremely disturbing experiences.
What has been the most inspiring or outstanding subject you’ve ever filmed?
As mentioned previously, filming chimpanzees has been a major highlight. I am particularly enthusiastic about polar bears, so capturing those has been fantastic. Other extraordinary sights are the glaciers, and the enormous colonies of penguins at Antarctica – these are true spectacles of nature.
Of which project or piece of work are you the proudest?
I’m proud of the entire body of work. Some of the series take years and years to make, so together, they add up to something really special.
What has been the most difficult subject to capture technically?
Chimpanzees in their natural habitat are quite challenging to film as they are dark in colour and travel at the bottom of the forest, moving extremely quickly. Obviously working in the deep oceans presents great challenges, too, due to the pressures under water and the lighting conditions. Every frame is difficult to achieve. The physical environment in the Poles is also very demanding for so many reasons.
Within the world of nature programming and filmmaking, who do you admire most?
That has to be Sir David Attenborough. He has been a trailblazer and a leading light for everyone. I love his passion for the natural world. He has set the standard for us all.
What advice would you give to young people thinking about a career in filmmaking today? Would you encourage them to get involved in the wildlife/nature category, and why?
Firstly, I would recommend they study for a zoological or biological degree. But qualifications are not everything. It’s very important for producers and filmmakers in this category to be passionate about the subject. At Silverback Films, we welcome ‘muddy boot biologists’ – that’s to say, they need to have been out in the field, and to know how to work with, and to appreciate, animals and nature. Thirdly, they need to have an ability for story-telling and be passionate about communicating their subject. That’s what we look for in young filmmakers who approach us at Silverback.
What is next for Alastair Fothergill? What are your next big projects?
We’re always working on something new. I can’t give away too many details, but I can tell you that we’re working on a new DisneyNature movie on polar bears, which is incredibly exciting. There are also two new BBC series and a Netflix series in the pipeline.
When you are not travelling and filming, what do you like to do to relax? What is your biggest passion outside work?
I love walking and painting – and of course spending time with my family and my dogs!
Where can readers find out more about your projects?
The latest projects are all featured on the Silverback Films web site at https://www.silverbackfilms.tv/latest/news/ and you can also find lots of information on the most recent series, Our Planet, at https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80049832 and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/ourplanet/
Alastair Fothergill on location.
Alastair is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and was awarded their gold medal in 2012. He has honorary doctorates from the Universities of Bristol, Durham and Hull. In 2017, Alastair was the BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award winner. In June 2019, he was awarded an OBE for services to film.