Ancient forests, pristine rivers and a spectacular coastline. David Attenborough’s Tasmania sees the famed naturalist narrate the story of this vast island wilderness, as we interview cinematographers Peter Nearhos ACS, Nick Hayward and Simon Plowright.
By Colin Rampton.
Imagine crouching for hours, waiting for the perfect wildlife shot, when you are suddenly and painfully bitten by a Jack Jumper ant. At 12mm, these ferocious insects are not only gargantuan in ant terms, but they carry an almighty poisonous bite which, at best, is very painful and, at worst, can give you an anaphylactic shock and even kill you. Such is the dedication of wildlife cinematographers such as Peter Nearhos ACS that during the filming of the Jack Jumper sequence in the David Attenborough narrated documentary, a nasty bite became a potential occupational hazard. Fortunately, experience of filming the ingenious yet aggressive creatures had taught Nearhos the wisdom of wearing gumboots. The ants are not keen on rubber apparently. He still received one very painful bite.
Regardless of the impracticalities of the boots and the discomfort of joint cramps – lying down would be really asking for trouble – Nearhos succeeded in getting stunning footage as part of his contribution to this outstanding nature film. The cinematographer captured the summer ritual of the ants changing the outer stones of their nest mound from dark to light. The purpose of this is to reflect the rays of the sun and provide a cooler environment for the queen and larvae. The mind boggles as to how they learned such behaviour, but it illustrates how the natural world adapts to the changing seasons, and this is one of the themes of the film.
If you haven’t seen David Attenborough’s Tasmania, I highly recommend you do. The superb photography is perfectly dovetailed with Sir David Attenborough’s lilting voice to illustrate the beautiful, ever-changing Tasmanian landscape and the unique wildlife which inhabits the island.
I had the good fortune recently to interview three of the cinematographers responsible for the film’s success, and we obtain some inside knowledge of the ups and downs of being a wildlife cinematographer.
Nearhos, along with colleagues Nick Hayward and Simon Plowright, have years of experience between them. They were commissioned along with Damon Heather to make the film. Now a nonagenarian, Attenborough did not travel to Tasmania, but he approved field producer Matt Hamilton’s script and certainly he would have added his own style of narration. The cinematographers were full of admiration for the wildlife legend’s abilities, having worked directly with him on previous projects.
Nearhos recalled once witnessing these skills in the studio, when Attenborough was able to faultlessly complete a live voice-over read in one take.
Plowright expressed his pride to be the subject of Attenborough’s narrative in a ten-minute extra of Tasmania, which highlights some of the issues he faced while filming Tasmanian Devils. This is where the cinematographer articulates his knowledge and concern about the creature’s welfare. It was available on the Australian DVD release and is currently available on ABC’s iView. The title of the extra in which Plowright emotionally laments the Devils’ dwindling numbers is appropriately entitled Devil’s Advocate.
You would expect that any wildlife film associated with Sir David Attenborough to contain cinematography of the highest calibre, and Tasmania Weird and Wonderful does not disappoint. As well as the wildlife, the film depicts the rugged coastline of the island, as well as its ancient and towering forests. It also features the giant, 100 metre tall mountain ash trees; the tallest living organisms on earth.
But where does one start with the creation of an iconic wildlife documentary? Well, the nature of the project at least ensured that filming would be specific to Australia’s smallest state. The idea was initially conceived by Stephen Dunleavy, the executive producer and owner of Humblebee Films early in 2016, and he immediately approached Nearhos and producer Matt Hamilton. Some hiccups with the Tasmanian side of the operation caused a frustrating delay, however when Plowright and Hayward (co-owners of Wild Creature Films) came on board, the project was soon up and running, and filming began in earnest.
The island we now know as Tasmania drifted away from mainland Australia some 12,000 years ago. The footage clearly shows that there are many creatures which are now unique to the island. Other species, whose cousins can be found on the mainland, have developed along very different lines, having adapted to the cooler climate and the unpredictable weather. The Tasmanian Giant Lobster for example weighs in at 5 kilos and can be up to a metre long, taking 40 years to grow fully. The wombats, nocturnal elsewhere, wander freely during the day here, and the egg laying echidnas have hair to keep them warm, rather than the spines of their counterparts across the Tasman Sea.
In the words of Attenborough’s narration, “Tasmania is Australia with a twist.”
The duck-billed platypus features significantly in the film. It has no predators on the island, and it has consequently adapted to become three times the size of its mainland cousin, with none of the latter’s shyness. In order to keep warm in winter the platypus needs to eat incessantly, sometimes hunting for ten hours a day. A memorable sequence shows one of these strange creatures nonchalantly ambling across country, from one stream to another, in broad daylight.
The island’s extreme seasonal changes are beautifully photographed and the early scenes of a snow-covered mountainous landscape with a foraging wallaby immediately captures the attention of the viewing audience.
Plowright and Hayward worked together as they filmed all the wild Tasmanian Devil footage, including the amazing close-up of a salivating animal noisily crunching bones. Relative to its size (as big as a medium-sized dog) the creature has the most powerful bite in the natural world. The cinematographers’ perseverance ensured the capture on film of complex mating rituals and touching scenes which depict the tender side of the marsupial females as they bond with and take care of their young. Such scenes rather refute the devils’ fearsome reputation. There are also high definition close-ups of newly born and under-developed devil babies suckling sightlessly.
The cat-sized Eastern Quolls, which were once widespread on the mainland, are now found only on the eastern side of the island, but as Simon and Nick’s footage of these small nocturnal relatives of the Devil shows, they are making a slow recovery. The film contains some dramatic fiercely competitive hunting scenes as the quolls squabble over their prey.
Nearhos worked alongside field producer Matt Hamilton and he was responsible for the scenes with wallabies, Jack Jumping ants and Little Penguins. Film of the penguins leaving the water at night to avoid predatory gulls and other birds was challenging, but with the use of cleverly located LED lighting Nearhos was able to capture the male penguins dashing ashore on Bruny Island to bring food to the females and nestlings. Such is his ingenuity that he built frames for a couple of low wattage LED lights and erected them along the beach near the penguins’ path. These were able to throw a sidelight to provide subtle illumination as the birds anxiously sought the safety of their burrows.
The LED lights are a huge development on previous lighting methods where the need to muffle the noise of a generator could be an additional hurdle to be overcome. From within an igloo-shaped hide, Nearhos could shoot inside a Little Penguin’s burrow through the entrance of man-made concrete burrows that are igloo shaped. These are made by conservation groups to provide a secure nesting place for the birds. “All this low light penguin footage was filmed on the Sony A7sII which seems to have a sweet spot around 16,000 ISO, though we often went higher,” explains the cinematographer. Nehros was able to throw some low wattage LED light beside the lens, in an unobtrusive way, which the penguins happily ignored. The film shows some excellent footage of penguin chicks peering from the sanctuary of the soft feathers between their parents’ feet.
The white wallabies were less problematic and as they also have no natural predators on the island, their numbers are growing. Nearhos was able to drive around until he saw groups from a distance and then with the stealth and patience of an experienced wildlife photographer, he was able to get up close enough to film them. Producer Hamilton is also an experienced cinematographer and he filmed many of the time-lapse scenes.
Nearhos would agree that there is no substitute for experience, and Hayward put this succinctly, “Knowledge of the locations and the techniques for filming these critters in the wild has been built up over the years.”
The production was put together within a few months after the initial false start. Apart from researching the best locations, getting the necessary permission when filming was to be on private land, and ensuring the equipment was fully functioning, preparation was kept to a minimum and work in the field maximised.
I wondered if it becomes tedious waiting for the perfect shot, but all three photographers refuted this. They clearly love their work, “If you are engaged with your subject it rarely gets boring,” says Nearhos, with Plowright adding, “When I sit in a hide or wait in the forest it gives me nothing but pleasure.” Hayward also adding, “One of the great joys of wildlife filmmaking is to sit quietly in the bush and absorb the environment.”
On the technical side, I asked about the equipment used to get the best shots. Nearhos mainly used a Sony F55 with Canon EF glass and a RED Epic for the forest scenic shots. He also used Sony A7sIl for low light scenes. Other equipment in his field bag included a Nikon macro glass, a Bosher straightscope kit and a Sachtler Video 25 tripod. He improvised with a home-made slider dolly and he also constructed his own low-wattage light frames.
For this project, Plowright and Hayward sometimes had three cameras rolling once the lighting was in place. They used two Sony FS7s and an action camera near the animals. They explained that the FS7 is a good choice for filming nocturnal creatures as the native 2000 ISO works well. They are planning to change to Panasonic Varicams in the future as the native ISO of 5000 will enhance the detail even further.
To echo Nearhos’ enthusiasm, Plowright and Hayward are also big fans of LED lighting. They used several Fresnel lights and panels which were all battery powered. Simon recalled previous shoots where lengthy cables were needed to ensure the generator was as far away as possible in order to minimise the chances of startling the wildlife. Hayward pointed out that the cables needed to be elevated to prevent the Tasmanian Devils from chewing through them.
Neither cinematographer miss the days when the only option was to dig and roof a pit for the generator in order to muffle its constant buzz. The pair have collaborated on many productions over the years and specialise in lighting the wild animals cinematically, where possible using camera movement to create sequences which have a bold narrative feel.
Plowright also explained that wild animals need time to get used to the lights and that it is important to be able to control the lighting set up with DMX and all lights must be capable of dimming from 0 -100 percent. As the animals wander near to the chosen spot, they are potentially very nervous, and you must be able to raise the lighting very slowly from the filming hide to a point when exposure is possible. Experience, again, is invaluable here.
There are specific techniques which are invaluable when filming insects and other small creatures. Nearhos enjoys macro filming them and he appreciates the predictability of the insects’ behaviour. “You put the characters in – the hunter and the prey or the male and female – and they do their stuff without worrying about the big lumbering humans around,” he explains.
For these detailed shots, Nearhos previously filmed on S16 or HD with 2/3inch sensors where there was significant depth of field, but then 35mm sensors were used, then 4K, 5K and 6K, with the result that the depth of field was lost. He got around this by using different lenses, and by follow-focus rings instead of adjusting the lens barrel by hand. In some circumstances it was necessary to use the frame crop to 2K on the F55, or just 3K on the RED. In this way you can get greater magnification and consequently overcome the depth of field problems or the limited frame coverage on those older macro lenses that were made for the S16.
As with all the work with which Sir David Attenborough is associated, Tasmania Weird and Wonderful has an ecological and conservation message. Plowright has been filming Tasmanian Devils in the wild for thirty years and over that time it has got progressively more difficult. Previously there was an abundance of the animals which meant there were ample opportunities for interesting shots. Now it is much more restrictive, and the lower population has resulted in the animals being more nervous around humans. In past times the greater numbers meant the devils had to be more competitive with food and space and more likely to ignore an unobtrusive cameraman.
One of the reasons for the rapidly declining numbers is the recent and devastating epidemic of facial tumour disease. Plowright also explained that environmental changes have also reduced the population. “In the area where I worked with devils for years, the population has been decimated by a new road and a dramatic increase in traffic levels due to new developments in the area.”
Plowright appears in front of the camera in Devil’s Advocate. He highlights the animal’s decline and there is some upsetting footage of devils with the fatal tumours. The cinematographer comes across as a dedicated outdoorsman who has championed the creatures over many years. At one point, when talking about their dilemma, he found it hard to control his emotions. He is anxious to raise awareness and now spends a lot of his time taking enthusiasts on night treks to observe the animals, to significant acclaim. One trekker remarked:
“This is as good as anything I have ever seen on the planet.”
It would be a tragedy if the devils’ fate mirrored its distant cousin the thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger) which was ruthlessly hunted to extinction by early settlers. The thylacine was an even larger carnivorous marsupial with distinctive stripes on its lower back. The film shows black and white footage from the 1930s of the last of the species, filmed at Hobart Zoo. That individual died in 1936.
On a more positive note, there has been a vaccination programme for the Tasmanian Devils and there seem to be individuals who are immune to the facial tumour disease. As these individuals interbreed there is likely to be a generation who have a natural resistance to it. The Eastern Quolls are also slowly increasing in numbers on the island.
When I asked about the theme of Tasmania Weird and Wonderful, Nearhos was able to refer to producer Matt Hamilton’s talents. Hamilton had in fact just completed a rainforest film in South East Asia and he knew the value of having lots of pleasing to the eye atmospheric forest footage. The use of a smoke machine and a slider were thus utilised. The drifting, lyrical atmospheric forest shots are used throughout to link the animal behaviour footage and enhance the film’s appeal to show the uniqueness of the island, both flora and fauna.
There is some special footage in the film of the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. It is rare to see this, but Nearhos and Hamilton witnessed it one night off Bruny Island and used the time lapse setting on the Sony A7 to capture it. Although the breath-taking yellow/green phenomenon is visible in the night sky to the naked eye, the A7 discerns a lot more and the resulting shots are amazing. Ever willing to improve his work Nearhos has already decided that if the opportunity presents itself again, he would use the ISO on the A7 to make a shorter exposure and interval to give more frames and thus a longer sequence.
Of course, when you are a wildlife cinematographer you must be philosophical about your work. Sometimes the shots that you become most excited about disappoint, and of course the editor has the final say about what is and what is not included in the final product. There was an exciting shearwater night sequence which Nearhos filmed, but only so much can be squeezed into an hour’s viewing, and sadly it hit the cutting room floor.
Nearhos and Hamilton filmed much of the footage together, as did Plowright and Hayward and all agreed that being able to bounce ideas off one another is advantageous to making optimum use of shooting time. Certainly, each has an excellent reputation within the wildlife cinematography field and producers know where to go for quality work. As Nearhos says, “Once you do a good job on an animal people ask you to do them again and again.”
Hayward’s Lyrebird sequence shot for David Attenborough’s Life of Birds (1998) was once voted by the British public as their ‘favourite Attenborough moment’.
Peter Nearhos ACS, Simon Plowright and Nick Hayward are examples of folk who have rejected a nine to five city existence in favour of something they love. Being out in the field in wild locations, waiting patiently to capture a perfect moment to tell a true story as it happens is, for these guys, as good as it gets.
Hayward recalls,“On the northwest coast we filmed the Cape Barren geese flying out to the offshore island to roost. Flying across the ocean at sunset, the scene was like a beautiful Japanese oil painting all captured on the film.”
Plowright remembers sitting quietly for several weeks outside a remote den waiting to film the first steps of baby Tasmanian Devils with their mother.
“During the time when they weren’t out, which were very long hours, I had all sorts of wildlife playing around me. Several species landed on me or walked over me. I cherish those moments so much.”
And although Nearhos may not exactly love the Jack Jumper ants, his curiosity and enthusiasm for his work is infectious and almost compensates for the occasional painful bite.
Colin Rampton is freelance writer and ex-teacher. He recently returned to England after more than twenty five years living in Hong Kong. Rampton is passionate about natural history and environmental issues.