The rain blurs the twin humps of a Bactrian camel, standing motionless at the back of its enclosure; watching our lone car trundle down a muddy road. The downpour, a product of erratic storms breaking over the nearby Cairngorm National Park, is in fact obscuring every detail of the place we’re approaching. It’s eerily quiet but then that’s only to be expected—I’m at the Highland Wildlife Park, mid-week, mid-winter and in the middle of a storm. Not exactly an environment conducive to enticing tourists to come and take a look at the red pandas, Amur tigers, European elk and other amazing animals on display at this site, owned (along with Edinburgh Zoo) by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
One thing is however stirring in the otherwise empty carpark: a team of two, in the middle of loading an incredibly heavy and expensive-looking camera onto an open-backed truck. It’s Paul and Tina, and they’re the people I’ve come up on a 10 hour overnight train from London especially to meet. As the Editor of this website, I get to read and write about all sorts of interesting animal facts and news, not to mention watching a shed-load of amazing documentaries on creatures right across the animal kingdom. But for once the focus of my reporting was not on the animals themselves, but the people behind the camera—a Love Nature film crew. I wanted to know more about how our teams worked, the technology behind the scenes, how they go about capturing great visuals, and what challenges they face on the rocky road to shooting a documentary.
Paul Cuthbert is the crew’s DOP, Director of Photography, and has been with Love Nature’s parent company Blue Ant since its inception back in 2011. When I meet him, he’s in the process of attempting not to lose sensation in his fingertips—it’s cold work manhandling a ream of plastic sheeting around the camera, trying to protect the equipment from the worst excesses of the gloomy Scottish weather.
‘The rain I can deal with,’ he tells after we’ve shaken numb hands. ‘The wind I can deal with; it’s both together that’s the problem.’
We all make our introductions, four of us in total: myself, my photographer Matthew Traver, Paul and Series Producer Tina Verma, who’s been with the company since September.
It’s a fairly brief and innocuous round of hellos; Tina and Paul have a job to do and recommence doing it with gusto. Paul sets up the camera on the back of the truck, Tina simultaneously battling with an umbrella in the wind as an additional layer of shelter for the exposed and expensive equipment. They work fast—the team’s on a deadline after after all—and the weather will likely take a turn for the even worse at any minute. Quickly and moments later they’re in position and the truck rumbles off into the elk enclosure—a wide and spacious plot of Scottish moorland undulating away into the distance. Matt and I following behind in the rental car, heater on at full blast.
The Love Nature film crew of two landed in the UK from Canada nine day ago; they’ve been running up and down the country ever since. ‘We’ve only got a week’s worth of filming days,’ Tina explained later on that night, ensconced within the cozy interior of a traditionally tartan-draped Scottish pub, ‘but we need to shoot a dozen animals segments and six interviews to go alongside them too. Interviews are the really time consuming part,’ she adds with perhaps a touch of tiredness appropriate for someone approaching the end of a jammed-packed schedule in a foreign country. As part of that same programme, the duo have visited some of the nation’s most well-respected zoological institutions to gather the many different shots they need.
They are recording for two upcoming shows: ‘Baby Animals’ and ‘Strange Creatures’. The former aims to use infants and juvenile animals as a medium to explore interesting facts about that given species; the latter is a series concerning evolutionary adaptations, odd behaviours, weird appendages and why those animals have evolved the way they have. Both feature 24 animals, divided into six minute segments on each. Considering that shooting ratios in documentary filming can stretch past 10:1 levels—10 minutes of footage filmed for every minute that makes the final cut—it’s clear they have a lot to film.
Back at the park in the european elk enclosure we follow behind the truck, car windows rolled down, Matt leaning outside to capture photos for the piece we’re writing on the filming: a documentary team following a documentary team following the animals being documented; how Escheresque.
‘Where are the elk?’ Matt asks as I swing the car in behind the now stationary truck, but no sooner has he asked do the herd lunge out of the grass, past the car, straight toward the keeper; their odd cries sounding a little bit like hungry dogs. The weather seems to be allowing a pass on this one and Paul quickly gets to work, filming different angles, 100% focused on the task at hand as he works shot after shot, wrapping the entire segment up in under an hour.
The team need every minute they can get; they are on tight deadline that’s for sure and fate’s already made it that little bit tighter. The first day they arrived in the UK, the camera, a £20,000 Sony PMW F55—capable of capturing the crispest of 4K imagery, broke. The power board had died, the entire model rendered completely useless without it. ‘We’d tested everything before we left,’ Paul explained in a tight lunch break after the elk filming episode, ‘and then on the night before shooting. But when we came to turn it on again in the morning, it just wouldn’t work’.
‘We didn’t waste time at all though,’ added Tina. ‘We tracked down a rental company. We had no prior relationship with them at all; we turned up on their doorstep after one hasty phone call asking to rent a camera worth tens of thousand of pounds, with no accounts set up, no verification in place and with our production coordinator still asleep back in Canada.’
‘In the end we had to leave our broken camera as collateral.’ Paul adds with a laugh.
Overall the crew lost half a day to this and things just got tighter from there. Two days were spent travelling, two days they couldn’t shoot, leaving just one week to get everything they needed. On top of that, it was to be a week of incredibly tight hours; the light needed for shooting generally fading by 3:30pm.
Why here? It’s a question that intrigues me. Why come to the UK to shoot a Japanese macaque (also known as a snow monkey), which was the next animal on the programme schedule. I pose the question directly to Paul.
‘Our goal is to educate and entertain, and to reveal interesting animal behaviour,’ he explains. ‘To do this we have to be always punching, we need to get shot after shot; constantly reacting and getting the footage we need. Sometimes this means you need to line up several animals in places you know that they’re going to be found.
‘This is the only viable way to get the wider breadth of interesting behaviour we need to make truly informational shows,’ he adds. ‘We need to be super drilled in on our research, hyper efficient in our shooting schedule.’
To help this mercilessly methodical production programme, teams like Tina and Paul’s work closely with educational zoological institutions like the Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo.
‘Their goals are similar to ours,’ explains Tina, ‘We want to reveal interesting behaviours and traits, to entertain and to inform. In addition to numerous conservation projects, their goal is to educate the public and they work really hard to do that.’
The park is a perfect example of how the two groups come together to achieve both objectives; the keepers explain to the filmmakers key points of interest about their animals, as well as what to expect from their behaviour. This helps the filming crews document said behaviour as effectively as possible.
‘Animals are not this inanimate object,’ Tina concludes, touching on why she enjoys the process so much, ‘When I’m out in the field filming these animals I am hyper aware that I get to watch and document non-human animals—animated beings that are complex and unpredictable—as glib as it might sound, it is a privilege.’
The second day of the Highland shoot begins completely different from the first. Pulling through the Bactrian camel enclosure, it’s not rain that greets me, but golden sunlight, glinting off a fresh layer of snow, which has dusted the ground and surrounding mountains in a gentle coating of white. The park is once again quiet this early in the morning, and it’s only the crisp crunch of frozen ice underfoot on the wooden boardwalk that alerts the team to my presence as I sneak up on them filming again at the Japanese macaque enclosure. With better weather today they’re managing to get the much needed shots of the three mothering snow monkeys and their babies at play beside the banks of the wind-rippled lake.
Asking how they’ve got on, Tina replies that they’ve got about an hour of footage; Paul’s already onto the second card. In there they’ve got some great shots of the monkey troupe, poised like statues with their newborns. All that’s left now for this particular section of the programme is to nail the follow up interview.
‘The length of interview depends on how confident a person is on camera,’ says Tina as they prepared for the final part of the segment, ‘If they’re confident, we can get it quickly in a few shots, If tight-lipped, I have to keep finding different ways of getting at the information.’ Luckily the keeper in question, Rachel Williams, is not only confident but also incredibly articulate, and begins to reply to the questions in a succinct and self-assured manner suggestive of the fact that this isn’t her first time being interviewed about the animals in her charge. A flake of snow lands in her hair, then a few more; within the space of thirty seconds the bright sunshine has turned into a raging snowstorm. The whole interview has to be restarted under cover to ensure continuity. Even accounting for this, it wraps up in rapid time; 40 minutes flat.
More animals are in need of filming before the daylight wanes, but I can’t feel my hands from the cold and choose to retreat into the warmth of the park’s cafe to write up my notes instead. Before I know it, a text message buzzes my phone into life: they’ve finished filming. The snow is really coming down now as I walk across the park to the behind the scenes staff area, finding Paul half hidden among a mound of hay bales in a barn (used to store feed for the animals I presume); he’s packing up the car, ready to ship out.
‘All wrapped?’ I ask, through chattering teeth.
‘Yeah,’ he says happily in reply. ‘We’ll finish packing and then then hit the road ready for the flight tomorrow morning. All done.’
But of course they’re not all done, not really. They fly back tomorrow, but after that Paul will be home for less than a month before hitting the road once again to recommence filming, this time on an island off the coast of Mexico, a place so remote that it takes three days to reach by boat. Tina on the other hand—who’s just emerged from the Park’s staff office clutching a stack of signed paperwork—is going straight into the edit suite when she gets home. Even though filming is done, there’s of course still a script to write, a rough cut to produce, narration to record, colours to be corrected and a whole myriad of other small—but essential steps—to go through before the show is finished and ready for public viewing.
It’s seems a tough job, one defined by constant travel, high pressure deadlines and a reliance on skill and reflex (not to mention, more than a little dollop of luck) to bring to life the animal kingdom in such an appealing and entertaining visual format. But I ask them now—as we say our goodbyes—how their tour of duty’s been and there’s nothing but smiles in way of reply; it’s really clear these two would not be caught doing anything else.
The world is filled with animals that seem to thrive in the toughest of environments; what I can conclude from my little Scottish journey into the field is that the teams that go out to capture these animals on film share more than a little of their subjects’ gritted and determined disposition. They’ll do whatever it takes to get the shot, and by doing so help routinely expand common knowledge of the rest of the animal world. For a job like that they’ll brave rain, snow and numb fingers any day.
More ‘In the Field’ with Love Nature:
In the field: The quest to film the world’s highest observatory
Love Nature sets up Camp Zambia, to create shows offering an intensely intimate look at the country’s wildlife
Under the lens: Peacock mantis shrimp
Destination spotlight: Underwater around the world’s ‘most beautiful island’