Mother nature of invention

If there are any new stories under the sun in the natural history world, they're only going to be told thanks to technical innovations, says Icon Films CEO Harry Marshall
November 1, 2008

Technology is pushing the boundaries of natural history filmmaking.

Go to any natural history film festival and you will see the usual filmmakers and cameramen sitting hunched in conspiratorial circles around commissioning editors, promising them something new. Natural history filmmaking is, probably more than any other genre, hungry for new images. Something nobody has ever seen, let alone filmed before. But after 50-odd years of wildlife filmmaking and crews going off to every far flung place on the planet, how do you come up with – or more importantly, come back with – anything new? The animals are the same and they do more or less the same things.

The big thing that’s changed is the technology. The heligimble was the bit of kit that made the BBC’s mega series Planet Earth really different from anything that had come before. The heligimble is a gyroscopically stabilized HD camera with a huge lens, capable of delivering pin sharp, rock steady pictures of animals on the ground so far away they weren’t bothered by the helicopter. The results were extraordinary images; a giraffe wading dreamily through a swamp straight toward a camera; a lost baby elephant walking the wrong way back into the desert or African painted hunting dogs fanning out after their prey with military precision. All poignantly, breathtakingly, beautifully documented – and tantalizingly out of the reach of most budgets.

But it’s not always the high-tech developments that get those prized images. John Downer of John Downer Productions has always come up with new ways of filming the same old chestnuts just as he did recently with his brilliantly simple idea of getting a domesticated elephant to carry a remote controlled HD camera concealed in a fake tree-trunk. Tiger – Spy in the Jungle had over five million people watching some of the most intimate images of tigers ever recorded. Well, as Gore Vidal once said, ‘Whenever a friend of mine succeeds, a little part of me dies,’ but if asked to comment, I would limit this to the confession that I wish I had come up with the idea myself.

Coming up with ideas is, curiously, something that independent producers like John Downer seem to do rather better and more often than the big corporations. Pioneers, they say, get scalped and although Martin Dorhn of Ammonite Films still has what hair he hasn’t pulled out himself, he perhaps hasn’t had as much acknowledgment as he deserves for being the Professor Brainstorm of the natural history world.

Back in 1995 Martin developed the first of his ‘starlight’ cameras. These cameras work off what little light the stars and moon provide, allowing as if by magic, the nocturnal filmmaker to see at night. As this is when a lot of animals do their thing, this is a rich territory for those in search of that most elusive natural history moment – something genuinely new on film.

Martin says he didn’t make much of a fuss about his prototype because ‘we didn’t know whether it would be of any use.’ But the results were incredible – animals all behaving naturally at night for the first time. It was all new. A whole new world was opened and hitherto unseen events filmed – without the animals even knowing that the camera was there.

Over the following decade Martin developed Starlight cameras Marks 1, 2, 3 and 4 – ever more sensitive image intensifiers – funded by Ammonite and driven by Martin’s combination of optimism and optical genius. He is currently about to launch an hd version and once again new technology is about to give us an entirely new perspective on the natural world with an instrument 100-times more sensitive than its nearest rival. On this occasion no little part of me has died. Martin Dorhn is the Prince of Darkness.

Whether by the high-tech or the low-tech road, this desire to come up with that killer image is hardwired into all good natural history filmmakers. We were recently making a show about a huge man-eating cat fish in the Himalayas. It’s known as the Goonch and looks like a transgenic cross between Mick Jagger and a cod – and (as I had told our commissioning editor) had never been filmed in the wild. Just before the shoot set off for Northern India I saw our enterprising assistant cameraman James was busy gaffer-taping three empty plastic bottles around a small lipstick camera. He explained he would be threading this down the fishing line to get a shot of the creature as it came for the bait.

Good lad.

About The Author