TEXAS -- When it comes to picture time, pets can be the most difficult subjects to shoot on camera.
Trying to capture wildlife in their natural environment is an even bigger challenge, even for the professionals.
In the above video, one of the youngest and most accomplished wildlife cinematographers on the planet, Bertie Gregory, gives our Burton Fitzsimmons some tips, and talks about his trips around the globe to capture animals in their element.
BF: My guest today is a cinematographer of the Seven Worlds, One Planet documentary series on BBC, a phenomenal window into our world. Bertie Gregory, thank you so much for joining us today.
BG: Thanks very much for having me.
BF: And especially in this time of the pandemic, wow, to be able to just through the eyes of the documentary series travel through the world, it's actually been refreshing, kind of an escape for me. Talk about shooting on seven continents all across the globe and all the things that you've seen out there.
BG: Yeah, so this series, there was seven episodes, and each episode was on a different continent. And I worked mainly on the North and South America episodes. So yeah, I was lucky enough to see some pretty spectacular things from mountain lions hunting guanaco, which is a big wild llama to polar bears jumping on beluga whales, to yet these fish called a pair of a tango, which live in the Brazilian freshwater jungle rivers. And they jump out of the water to pick fruit off trees. So yeah, it was- it was an amazing project to have played a part in. And yeah, it's got some pretty special memories for sure.
BF: I'm sure it does. And we look at this footage I mean, some places [in] the world that some of us will never ever be able to actually visit in person but you brought us there, you took us there. Talk about using your skills. Are you a drone operator? Are you the guy with his camera on the ground? Talk a little bit about actual the actual filmmaking production.
BG: Yes, so typically for each three or four minute sequence-- so each episode is made up of three or four minutes sequences about a different particular animal particular place, and then we go to a new place in the continent. And typically we spend between four and six weeks on each three minutes. So it's a huge amount of time for such a short period. But it's not really so that we can film loads and loads of footage of that animal. It's more so that we're in the right place at the right time. When everything comes together, because we're trying to film events that you can't just, you know, turn up and see, you know, wildlife doesn't do much a lot of the time. So you've got to spend the time to be in the right place at the right time. In terms of what I do as a cinematographer. I'm sort of a generalist, so I did a big range, I guess on this series. So did filming underwater as those I mentioned, those fish that jump out of the water, I was filming them from under the water. I did sort of the traditional method with a long zoom lens on it on a tripod to film things like parrots, but then yeah, as you mentioned, my sort of specialty is drone filming. And, you know, the technology really was very conveniently timed for the production of this series. So the drones really started to get good enough to be useful as tools in wildlife film right at the start of the production. So the timing was perfect, and I was like, lucky enough to be there and had some drone experience before to kind of take that tool and, and apply it to these wildlife sequences. And yeah, it just gives you a whole other view on all this stuff that that, you know, we have no idea what's going on until you get in the air and go wow, okay, that makes sense.
BF: I was able to interview-- had the pleasure of interviewing the producer Johnny Keeling right before the series came out and it just blew me away to see some of the imagery there. So great work, I can attest the quality of the documentary-- it’s phenomenal. I want to know this though: I know in production kids and animals are not easy to shoot. So how do you sneak up on the animals and capture them in the raw element without giving yourself away?
BG: Yeah, I mean, there's sort of two typical ways of doing that. One way is so that the animal doesn't know you're there. And in that case, I mean, as an example, for the South America episode, we were filming Scarlet macaws. Yeah, big bright red parrot. We filmed them in the Peruvian Amazon. And we were trying to film them eating orange clay. And the reason that they do that is that they need the salt in that clay and you'd think that okay, filming a big parrot eating some clay, how difficult can that be? But in actual fact, when they come down onto these cliffs, these clay cliffs in the jungle, they feel really vulnerable. And they're incredibly intelligent and incredibly paranoid. So actually getting close enough to be able to film them while they're in that vulnerable state is really hard. So what we have to do is we built a big blind-- out of sort of natural vegetation. But even then, even though I'm completely sealed, it's this, you know, completely hidden. It's still a new thing that they haven't seen before. And they're so paranoid that it does take time for them to sort of get used to that weird object. So that's one way is to hide. The other way and you can only do this with certain animals-- is you habituate the animal to your presence. So if you're there, you know that there's no hiding a drone, for example. So to get them, you need to choose the right animal that is, you know, gonna end up being tolerant to what you're doing. And so in the case, a good example of that was the mountain lion sequence that I filmed with a guy called John Shire, who's the other camera person on it. And those mountain lions have been studied. We filmed them in Torres del Piney National Park, in Chile. And those mountain lions have been studied for a long time, and they used to having people on foot with them. And so sort of, you know, a lot of the hard work had been done for us, though, that, you know, the mountain lions we were with are used to having people on foot with them. So, so it means that, you know, that's to me the best encounters because that's when the animal knows you're there, and is willing to accept you being there. And that's when you have really special encounters because they're well aware you're there, but they're just in the zone doing that thing. So yeah, I mean, at times, we were, you know, 20 meters down. Yeah 60 feet from these wild mountain lions and they're super relaxed and you know, nothing remotely dangerous. It's pretty special experience.
BF: What was your most memorable experience in all the shooting that you've done so far?
BG: Well, on this series in the South America episode, we tried to film a bear in South America called the spectacle or the Andean bear, and they called the spectacled bear because some of them have that they look like a North American black bear. They're a little smaller, but they've got these really funny white spectacles around their eyes. And they live at the tops of they like living in trees, there are arboreal species. And it's very difficult to film them. A lot of scientists that have been studying spectacle bears their whole lives, have only had you know, only a handful of encounters per year with them. And thanks to the amazing research team that we had on seven worlds, you know, there's so much work that goes into the project before you get, you know, the chance to hit the record button. The assistant producer on the South America episode, Sarah Walley, discovered this location where sort of randomly around every one year-18 months, a particular tree, it was a little mini avocado fruit. And that brings these bears in from all over the area to this one spot. And we got a call Sarah found out that the trees were fruiting and the bears were gathering. So we, you know, scramble the shoot within just a few days, basically, and then just went out there, dropped everything to go out there. And yeah, we were seeing up to 10 bears in one day, which is, you know, we didn't go a day without seeing a bear which is completely unheard of. So, well, that was the most special to think that there is a big predator, you know, a big bear on our planet that we don't know hardly anything about and it's so difficult to see and then to have the opportunity to get that you know, get that amount of time with animal wisdom, was magic for sure.
BF: No kidding. Was there ever a moment where you were terrified that you were going to become the prey?
BG: Well, in the case of those bears, although they do eat meat, sometimes they're largely vegetarian. And so the only thing needed to be worried in that forest was the little avocados. Yeah, it's a bad place to be a little avocado for sure. And now in terms of my own personal safety, no, they're, they're very relaxed, bears. And actually, what's interesting about them is when they're upset, they sneeze, they make it sounds like this thing. And so that's sort of, you know, the heads up that, okay, they want to come down the tree, maybe that you happen to be there, and it's their sort of little signal to say, okay, you know, you're done-- back up a bit, and then they come down and go on to the next tree. That's so funny.
BF: I would have never guessed that. Oh, one of my favorite scenes was with the lightning bugs. Did you shoot that?
BG: I didn't. That was that was a colleague of mine, Howard. Yeah, it was pretty spectacular. Completely pitch black to the, you know, the naked eye and then all of a sudden the lights, the light show appears.
BF: Well, I was gonna bring it up because we have a lot of that around here in Texas. But let me just ask this general question. So let's say I-- a lot of us do have kind of wooded areas in our backyards and enjoy watching wildlife. So give us some tips. What are some pro tips on how we can best capture nature in its element?
BG: Yeah, well, I think the biggest thing is, is spending the time. You know, there's a famous phrase in wildlife film that the more you practice, the luckier you get. And really spending the time because most of the time not a lot happens. So you need to spend the time but also what will happen during that time is you'll really start to get tuned in and you'll start to notice little things like for example, let's say you want to film owls. Well, a good indication that there's an owl in the area is that some of the crows might be a bit upset and alarm calling. So sort of getting in tune and starting to pick up on these little signs that even though that might not be the animal, you know, or the plant that you're trying to film, they can give you clues to other things. And then once I guess you've done that really simple things are things, like, if it's an animal that is on the ground, get low, and just when you think you're low enough, you need to get even lower because that'll give you a really intimate eye level perspective. But then if it's an animal that we're used to seeing from below like a bird, well then find a way of getting high and you know, showing these animals where they belong where they are, and with a surprising background, so instead of having the sky behind the bird, see if you can get high so you can get it with the, you know, with trees or the ground and in the background. So then I guess that those would be the what I love about those little tips is getting low or getting high in. It's such a simple thing to do, and it makes such a big difference to your pictures.
BF: Sure, yeah. Looking at the whole composition. Absolutely. Well, I grew up watching Nova here in the states. We of course have National Geographic, I hear you've done two National Geographic online series talking about those.
BG: Yeah, so it's a series called Wildlife and the second and the third season, we're into pretty cool places. The second season, which was called Resurrection Island was all about an island, a sub Antarctic Island, right at the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean, and it's called the island of South Georgia. And it's famed for having one of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the planet. It's just covered. It's a little island about 100 miles long 20 miles wide, in the middle of the ocean, but it's got these huge 9000 foot snowy mountains that just, oh wow, rocked out the ocean and then those-- that, that island is then covered in penguins and albatross and seals and what special about that island. And this is the reason I wanted to tell the story was because you'd think, given the amount of wildlife you can see there that is sort of been lost in time, never touched by humans. But actually, that's not the truth. We have destroyed that place in our history. You know, we hunted the whales to extinction there, we introduced an invasion of egg eating rats that ate, you know, just ran right through a lot of the ground nesting bird colonies. But now, because of protection, because of good governing and favorable environmental conditions, it's meant the wildlife there has bounced back just on a mind blowing scale. And the reason that I find that so special and that wanted to tell that story with National Geographic was because it shows you know, there is still hope for our wild places that have been destroyed. You know, these places if the governing is right, if there's enough people on side you know, wildlife can bounce back I think that's a concept that we need to be applying to so many places around the world.
BF: Absolutely. That's a great and important message. And I'm glad that you're able to capture that and share that with us, too. That gives us a little bit of hope as well. Well, in my research, I see you're not even 30 years old yet. You've been nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Award, also an Emmy nomination. What's next for you?
BG: Ah, that's a great question. Um, well, I'm sort of, you know, figuring out these interesting times at the moment, a lot of our, you know, a lot of my work relies on overseas travel, which is sort of on hold at the moment. So I'm sort of, I guess, tiny silver lining is that I grew up. You know, the reason I'm obsessed with wildlife was because I grew up in the UK, with British wildlife. And because a lot of my work, most of my work is overseas, I don't really get to see it much anymore. So this time sort of forced to be at home. I've had the opportunity to reconnect with my local wildlife and sort of really fall in love with it again so I've been doing some British wildlife work for now. But um, yeah, hopefully-- yeah, hopefully we figure this this situation out and we can get back to filming, you're telling these important stories in terms of what those aren't? Well, unfortunately, everything's on non-disclosure agreements. So everything's hush top secret. But, uh, yeah, I promise it's gonna be special and spectacular and some cool stories that definitely need watching.
BF: Well, I can't wait to see it. And in the meantime, I think folks will fall in love with your work that again may provide just a wonderful distraction, a wonderful window to the world at a time we can't travel.
BG: Another good way of keeping up with my work is on Instagram. My Instagram handle is @bertiegregory.
BF: I hope folks check it out, Seven Worlds, One Planet on BBC. Thank you Bertie Gregory, for your time.
BG: Thanks very much.