As the world’s leading celebration of natural history storytelling returns to the city, Emma Payne chats with industry trailblazer Alastair Fothergill

Bristol – global capital of wildlife documentary making – will welcome back the city’s famed Wildscreen Festival from 10-14 October this year, along with hundreds of industry delegates from over 40 countries. The programme of both public and industry events – which includes the Panda Awards, otherwise known as the ‘Green Oscars’ – aims to celebrate the natural world and the community of filmmakers, photographers, broadcasters, technologists and conservationists whose job, and passion, it is to ensure as many people as possible experience the natural world, feel part of it and want to help protect it, by telling the most pertinent conservation stories of our time. We caught up with one esteemed member of this talented community, Alastair Fothergill, director of Bristol’s Silverback Films and natural history storytelling veteran, to find out more about his Panda-nominated series The Hunt and what goes into making such beautiful television and cinematography.

EP: So Alastair, tell us a little about the filming of the series…

AF: I think what we wanted to do with The Hunt was really to change people’s views. Predators traditionally have been very much ‘tooth and claw’ and the villains of the piece, and that’s absolutely not the case. They usually fail. They’re the hardest working animals in nature, and what we were interested in was not the kill but the strategy. The relationship between predators and prey is, in a sense, the most dynamic and exciting in nature, and we developed ‘edge of your seat’ filming techniques, where you literally stalked with a leopard and ran with the hunting dogs. I was very pleased when I spoke to many people afterwards who were a bit anxious about watching a series which was just predation, but said they were actually rooting for the predators and really wanted them to succeed.

“Wildscreen Festival is the supreme wildlife filmmaking festival in the world. It’s the longest established, the biggest, the most respected…”

It has been nominated for a number of awards including editing, script and music – congratulations! Do you feel events like Wildscreen have made documentaries more of an art form?

Yes, and I think Wildscreen Festival is the supreme wildlife filmmaking festival in the world. It’s the longest established, the biggest, the most respected and it reflects the fact that Bristol is known widely as the ‘green Hollywood’. It’s an amazing meeting place; wildlife filmmakers tend to be spread all around the world, often working alone out on the savannah or on icebergs, and it’s an opportunity for a lot of old friends to get together and see films from all around the globe. There’s no doubt that it increases creativity just through friendly competition, and we’re very honoured here at Silverback Films to have six nominations for The Hunt; a record for us.

alastair fothergill profile

Alastair always knew he wanted to work with animals, image © BBC

You’ve had an amazing career working on some fantastic projects. What was it that drew you to wildlife filmmaking?

As a little boy I was very passionate about wildlife – I had snakes under the bed, and from a very early age I spent all my holidays bird watching. I always knew that I wanted to work with animals. While at university, the BBC were running a competition called the Mick Burke Award, in memory of the cameraman who died on the south-west face of Everest with Chris Bonington. I had the opportunity to make a film as part of that competition, and I thought ‘hang on, this is a wonderful way to be close to animals’. I was very lucky that after I graduated I was offered a job on The Really Wild Show – I spent 29 years there before setting up Silverback.

What advice would you give to anybody hoping for a similar career?

You have to be passionate about natural history. It’s good to have a zoology or biology degree, and it’s also good to have what we call ‘muddy boots’ experience – actual real field experience – so you know how to behave and work in the field. Also, wildlife filmmaking is storytelling. It’s not science, it’s communication, so we look for people who want to tell stories, whether it’s in pictures or writing. Wildlife filmmakers have to be persistent but patient, and I think if you want to get a job you have to be the same.

If ‘behind the scenes’ footage has taught us anything, it’s that documentary filming involves a lot of waiting and persevering. What has been your most rewarding moment?

One of the most amazing moments for me was on Planet Earth when we were filming polar bears from a helicopter for the very first time, and I filmed one swimming through broken ice. The pattern of the white ice against the dark blue water and this beautiful polar bear was wonderful – it was just a very special experience.

“David is an extraordinary man, and he has inspired everybody working in the wildlife filmmaking industry”

That sounds amazing. Watching footage of animals in the wild can be incredibly emotive, from helpless gazelles to a struggling cub that’s not going to quite make it – are you ever tempted to intervene?

It’s emotionally very difficult, because often one has spent six, seven, eight weeks working with animals and you get to know them very individually. You don’t want to anthropomorphise them, but I think it’s almost impossible not to do that. It’s the nature of human beings, but you genuinely can’t intervene, because what would you do? Say you save a cheetah cub from a hyena, you don’t have the ability to bring a cheetah cub up, and anyway, that hyena has to feed its own cubs. It’s tempting, but the first rule of wildlife filmmaking is to never interfere.

You’ve often worked alongside David Attenborough, who is synonymous with nature documentaries – has he influenced your career, and how do you think he has shaped the industry?

wildscreen david attenborough

Industry treasure David Attenborough filming Great Barrier Reef, image © Atlantic Productions

He has, enormously. In my year off between school and university, Life on Earth – his first big landmark series – was transmitting, and I had to watch every episode. I was completely transfixed by it, and immensely influenced by him. David is an extraordinary man, and he has inspired everybody working in the wildlife filmmaking industry. The other thing, which is amazing, is the programmes we’ve made with him are now used to teach in universities. Respect for David goes way beyond the filmmaking industry: the public love him, and the scientific community admire him and owe him a great deal. So yes, he is very precious to our industry.

With iPhones and the likes of iPlayer and Netflix, the way we watch television has changed massively since Sir David’s documentaries were first introduced. Why do you think it’s important to broadcast the world of wildlife and what’s the appeal?

Every age group and nationality loves the natural world. As the world becomes increasingly urbanised, for many people, the only way they can understand and enjoy the natural world is through filmmaking. A lot of television is disposable – you might watch a soap opera or a fantastic drama once, but not revisit it – whereas natural history films have a longevity and value which is pretty unique in TV. Planet Earth was massively successful in America, but most people saw it on DVD. It doesn’t matter how people watch it – iPlayer, Netflix or DVD – what’s important is the quality of the filmmaking and the storytelling.

So if anything, new technology is helping to widen the reach of documentaries…

I genuinely do think it is. Really good wildlife films are not cheap to make, because a lot of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been filmed before and people’s expectations of wildlife films is quite extraordinary. When they made Life on Earth back in the ‘70s they were unbelievably pleased to film a lion kill. Big cat kills are now two an episode, whereas the sort of behaviours we have in The Hunt were very hard to film; we filmed blue whales feeding underwater properly for the very first time, and much of our footage had never been captured in that way before. The natural world is infinitely varied, and it’s only limited by our own creativity.

When did you set Silverback up and what are you working on now?

I set it up in 2012 with Keith Scholey. We’re currently working on a new series for BBC1 for 2020, and a big landmark natural history series for Netflix for 2019. It’s a long way off, but they take a long time to create. We’re also making three movies for Disney under their label Disneynature, which we’ve been working on for some time. One of those, Monkey Kingdom, is a finalist at Wildscreen. So we’re busy!

What is it like to direct for Disney?

It’s very interesting. Making a movie is very different to making a documentary. People go to the cinema to be entertained, so you need stories and strong characters, and we write scripts for Disney like you would write any Hollywood script. Of course, the only trouble is the animals don’t read the scripts! Working with Disney is a wonderfully creative process and we’re fortunate enough to work with the Story Trust, which is a team of talented directors and writers that work on Disney animations like Wreck it Ralph and Zootopia. It’s a very creative and cooperative relationship.

What do you think it is about this city that fosters so much creative filmmaking talent?

I think honestly the key reason is that the BBC Natural History Unit was established here way back in the ‘50s, and so there has been a long tradition of wildlife filmmaking here. A lot of the freelance cameramen and independent companies have grown around the Natural History Unit – Icon Films, ourselves – and a lot of the post-production houses specialise in the things we need as well.

During the festival, what would you recommend readers see or do?

One thing I would really recommend is the awards ceremony on the Thursday night, which used to be a private event but is now open to the public due to the scale of the Colston Hall. You’ll see clips and highlights of all the very best films, and if your children like natural history it would be a really nice family night out.

What do you love most about Bristol, and miss most when you’re away?

My wife and my two boys. It’s the hardest thing about wildlife filmmaking – you do go away for a long time. There’s a lot I love about Bristol, particularly the fact that it’s big enough and dynamic enough to be an exciting place to live, but it’s small enough that you have a very good quality of life. I also think the great thing about Bristol is the extraordinary proximity to some of the best countryside in the whole of the country. In an hour you could be in the Black Mountains, in the Cotswolds, or on Somerset Levels – it’s unique and I think that’s very, very special.

For more information and to book tickets for Wildscreen, visit wildscreen.org

To find out more about Alastair Fothergill and his work with Silverback Films, visit silverbackfilms.tv

Feature image from The Hunt © Olly Scholey