Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Doug Allan ready to shoot an army of king penguins in South Georgia island, Antarctica. -

Doug Allan ready to shoot an army of king penguins in South Georgia island, Antarctica. -

Doug Allan, wildlife cinematographer, on his art and experiences.

Doug Allan, the award-winning wildlife cinematographer has done a number of impressive films. These include the films he did for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), including the `Blue Planet'. His big break came in 1976 when he first went to the Antarctic to work as a research diver at the British Antarctic Survey station at Signy Island in the South Orkneys. The job entailed helping scientists carry out their underwater studies - from boats in summer and beneath the ice in winter. It was the start of an affair with ice that has lasted to this day. The BBC bought some of his footage of emperor penguins in the Antartic winter for its series `Birds for All Seasons', and Doug's career took a new direction.

As one of the cinematographers of `Blue Planet', he made over 25 filming trips, during which he caught on camera unusual images - of orcas attacking grey whales off California, polar bears trying to capture belugas in a frozen hole in Arctic Canada, and so on.

His work has taken him to the heights of the Andes, to the deserts of Africa and to the upper reaches of Mount Everest. Recently he stopped by in Mumbai en route to Leh, for the shooting of a film on snow leopards. He shared some of his experiences with Frontline, in an interview with Dionne Bunsha. Excerpts:

When you shoot wildlife, a lot is left to chance. How do you still manage to get such stunning images?

When you are shooting big animals, you don't have much control over your subject. The only time you can control or recognise is when the lighting is particularly nice.

When you are shooting stills you have to recognise that one split second when everything comes together. With movie-making, it's about telling stories. Some producers think in terms of pictures. I think in terms of writing a story. Of pictures that could tell a story. And then you just set out to get these pictures in your mind and you just tick them off one by one.

A piece of (animal) behaviour has a beginning, an introduction, a middle, a climax, and an end. You take enough shots so that you can tell that story and so that you can play around with time. Almost everything you see on television, whether it is a lion chase or anything else, usually happens much quicker on the screen than it happens in real life. Lion chases take hours. They are just shortened. The knack of good editing is to make the viewer forget about this piece of trickery. To make it all appear like it's happening in real time and seamlessly. A good cameraman will film [enough shots] so that the editor has as many options as possible.

Sometimes it may take six to seven weeks just to get a minute of film. And sometimes you see the behaviour one day and manage to film a part of it. But you need to see it again to get different shots. So you piece together the sequences slowly over many experiences.

Have you shot any really rare footage?

In the `Blue Planet', one of the big sequences was of a killer whale attacking a blue whale. That had never been seen before. A scientist who had been studying killer whales for 10 years knew that they attacked blue whales. But she had never seen a complete attack. One day she saw a blue whale being attacked, but when she took the boat close, the killer whales just left.

So we went down with our boat. The scientist was with us. And after three days, we saw an attack from the beginning to the end. It lasted six hours. We found the killer whales and were filming. Suddenly, they started moving very purposefully in one direction. And 20 minutes later they caught up with a grey whale. And then, in six hours they separated the calf from the mother. Then they killed the calf. That was four years ago. Since then two other camera crews have gone out for weeks at a time. But nobody has seen this. So, we were very lucky.

Another instance involved the polar bear and the beluga whale. The belugas were stuck in a hole in the ice. They have to come out to the surface to breathe. The sea was frozen and the nearest breathing hole was 20 miles [32 kilometres] away. Effectively the whales were stuck in the hole. We heard about this and tried to film the polar bear catching the whales. We spoke to the Eskimo guides and asked them if they had ever seen this before and they said no. One old guy said that he had seen it 40 years ago. That was another rare event.

What subjects are you drawn to?

I like real animals and real wilderness, which means big animals. I have a rule. I don't take films with animals smaller than a rabbit because if you get to animals smaller than a rabbit you usually have to start making sets - keeping them in semi-captivity, habituating them... . There are a lot of special techniques that I am not really interested in. I have a lot of respect for people who can film these sets, get animals to behave as if they were completely in the wild. That is a skill. But I'd rather be out there in the wild.

That's another attraction of the poles - particularly the North Pole because in a great number of countries you work in a national park or a reserve where there are restrictions, very sensible restrictions. All African films you see are filmed entirely in a land rover. When they are filming something spectacular, there are a dozen other vehicles full of tourists. That's fine. But there's a little bit of me that likes the thought that when I'm seeing a polar bear there's something special about it - that it's just me and my assistant who have the privilege of seeing this. And I don't think the Poles will get as many visitors as the African plains because they are tough places to go to. There's something a little bit perverse about enjoying the uniqueness, the greater feeling of privilege about working in the Poles.

Real animals, genuine locations in the wild and mammals, particularly marine mammals, are really stimulating to work with. Because marine mammals are intelligent. They all have personalities. Success in filming them depends on you and how you behave. Particularly in the water. On land, you are usually relying on camouflage; staying hidden and hoping that the animal does something in front of you within the camera's range. Whereas underwater is completely different. You really have to go right up to your subject for visibility. You are much more intimate with it. It's a very different style of filming. You have to behave in such a way that the animal accepts your presence and carries on behaving even though you are very close to it. It's not like you're trying to out-think a marine mammal. It's almost like you have to get on the same wavelength and you have to communicate with it in a whole lot of ways. If you gain its confidence, it gives you a real buzz.

I think all the good wildlife people will always put the welfare of their subjects first. They will never indulge in using one animal as bait for another. There is sometimes a lot of commercial pressure to cut corners with time and film. There are ways to cut pressure. You know, they can't afford to stay for two weeks and not see a tiger, so let's use this bait to get a tiger. You get into all kinds of ethics about tethering dogs even to get the tiger close. You may not actually let the tiger eat the dog.

Have there been occasions when you have seen something totally unexpected?

You don't just go out into the wild with no idea of what you may find. You're always usually after something. When you go underwater, you sometimes don't know what to expect. If you're on land, you can look at something and think maybe you could get a bit closer. But when you actually go underwater, it can be very different. The animals behave very affectionately. That may come as a complete surprise to you. It's just a great moment when you suddenly flick from `I wonder what's going to happen next' to `I think I know what's going to happen next'. Then you can anticipate the event. Suddenly, everything falls into place - the way you move the camera, the timing. That's when the real magic starts to happen. At that moment you move from not knowing to really appreciating what's going on. That's when a sequence can go from being average to being something really special.

Sometimes it's just a case of hanging on in there and waiting till you recognise enough of what is going on to be able to predict a big event. And that's what makes all the three weeks of just hanging around and watching come together. It's true if you are out there with nature, there's a feeling that something is going to happen. Animal behaviour will just change and suddenly you know that there's something different happening here. If you are tuned in enough to it. Some cameramen go away with a laptop and satellite phone and stuff to keep in touch with things. I prefer to go in with the fewest possible connections to civilisation because I find these distractions. I usually just carry a satellite phone for safety. But I wouldn't use it to keep in touch with people. I prefer to immerse myself as much as I can in the environment.

How fragile is our environment? Will we soon lose what you have been filming?

The world's oceans are in a very sad state because you can't see what is being done in them and to them. If you could, it might make a difference. We can see smog and waste. Those are all very visible signs of something going wrong but there isn't any economic will [to correct the problems]. The bottom line is economics.

I worked a lot in the Arctic. It's a very special place. It faces a very real threat from global warming. The thickness of the ice cover has been diminishing by 40 per cent in the last 50 years or so. If that sort of change continues, then it's going to have very severe effects on polar bear populations. And the thought of polar bears disappearing completely is terrible. Even the thought of them being restricted in their range is a sad thing to contemplate.

I also see small victories. A lot of countries have initiated marine reserves to protect certain reefs or life species breeding there. That is laudable. But what is needed is an integrated conservation effort, which runs across national boundaries. Antarctica is a good example. It's a well-protected continent. Several countries jointly own it. All of them have jointly agreed to sustain their territorial claims on it. And through scientific cooperation they have really managed to preserve it from possible destructive influences like fishing or mining. So it's a really good example of what could work. The good thing is that they got in before anything happened. It's more difficult to stop things or reverse a trend.

I just feel sorry that fewer and fewer people will be able to experience a lot of the wildlife that I have seen. People who have dived for a long time will see the difference in the seas. They are not as rich as they used to be. That's the reason we make wildlife films. So that people will want to go out and see what we see.

Are there any dream projects?

I'd like to do a film about blue whales. The biggest animal that ever lived. Bigger than any dinosaur ever found. Nobody knows where blue whales breed. Their breeding grounds have not yet been discovered, although I think it probably will be [located] in the next five to 10 years by satellite. It wouldn't be easy but it would make a great film.

I am hearing a lot about the Andamans... I would like to go to Argentina and film the whales there. There are a group of whales that go to Argentina every year. I filmed them 15 years ago and I'd like to go back there just to experience them again.

The snow leopard film in Leh is exciting. That's an animal that is not easy to film. This film will take five years in the making. It feels like a privilege to get the chance to film that.

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