Interview with wildlife cameraman Doug Allan

Ahead of his appearance at Cheltenham Science Festival, SoGlos had the pleasure of chatting to world-renowned wildlife cameraman Doug Allan about working with David Attenborough, death-defying encounters and life in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Imagine swimming face-to-face with whales, filming emperor penguins, and capturing polar bears in their natural habitat – well those are just a few of the amazing encounters that wildlife cameraman and photographer Doug Allan has experienced during his career.

Appearing at Cheltenham Science Festival on Wednesday 7 June 2017, Doug will be sharing incredible stories of his time in the Arctic and Antarctic, with SoGlos enjoying the chance to catch up with the cameraman before his appearance on stage.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

My life has been a case of following my passions. I got into snorkelling when I was at school and that led on to scuba. This was through the 1960s when there was a lot of excitement about underwater and people were doing things below surface for the first time.

There were two frontiers really, there was space and there was underwater. I was very excited by the underwater and that led me to my degree in marine biology.

The best thing that came out of my degree was a great awareness and a great appreciation of science and scientific method, but also the realisation that I didn’t actually want to be a scientist, or rather the ones who crunched all the numbers. I preferred to collect the data for people, particularly underwater, because back in those days not as many scientists actually dived as they do today.

How did you then end up specialising wildlife filming and photography?

When I left university I worked on a couple of biological expeditions and the really big breakthrough was in 1976 when I went to the Antarctic as a diver. That was my introduction to the Antarctic and the way of life and the wonderful wildlife that was down there.

That was when my interest in underwater photography kicked off, not just in wildlife photography but also the whole photo journalism thing. I wanted to show people not just what the animals were like, but the science that was down there.

So I ended up going down for three winters and at the end of the final winter I happened to meet David Attenborough and a film crew who were in the Antarctic for five weeks filming for his second big series called Living Planet.

He came on to our base for just two days and during that time I took them to different parts of the island, watched them working and saw what a good time they were having and I even made a dive with their underwater cameraman.

Interview with Doug Allan

What was it about David Attenborough and his team that you found so inspiring?

I was just so impressed with the work that they were doing, and also I was very aware from talking to them how little covered Antarctic had been as far as filming was concerned.

They were down here in the summer, and bear in mind that I had just spent three winters underwater, I appreciated just how much more interesting wildlife was during the winter months.

How did you career progress after that?

Then I had the chance to go to the Antarctic and work for the British Antarctic Survey on a base where there were penguins. I contacted the BBC and asked if they were interested in any films of these emperor penguins. The BBC was interested and when I took it back they were quite pleased with it and that led to another contract. So one thing led to another really.

The cycle that gives me the most satisfaction is that exactly 10 years after meeting David in the Antarctic, I was working with him on Life in the Freezer, which was a big series that the BBC did about the Antarctic.

What was it about wildlife filming that piqued your interest so much?

I recognised that it encompassed all the things that interest me – travelling, wildlife, diving, photography, and also I realised talking to David early on, how much scientific knowledge and experience came into wildlife filming.

Scientists are often the first point of contact that people go to when looking for new behaviours. As wildlife filmers we very much stand on the shoulders of scientists who bring us the new stories, and it definitely helps me being a scientist myself, in that I can get on their wavelength and talk to them scientist to scientist before we actually get filming.

How did you learning about photography and filming?

I was entirely self-taught and to be honest the techniques of filmmaking have got a little bit more sophisticated since then. But, basically there are certain rules that you follow when filming, which means that you bring back material that the editor can edit.

Technically it’s become more sophisticated, when I started it was a camera and film, now it’s all sorts of toys and things and the technology has developed. But the basic tools are the same – you’ve got to keep it in focus, looking good, you have to film it bearing in mind that the whole afternoon of action might have to be condensed down to just two or three minutes on screen.

But by studying films I taught myself all those rules and I think my intimate knowledge of the Antarctic and of cold places was very valuable back then because it was a pretty remote place and very little filming had been done. It wasn’t long after I started establishing myself as a filmmaker that I was asked to go to the Arctic and that started a whole string of lovely experiences with polar bears, belugas – the stuff you don’t get down in the Antarctic.

I was quite lucky with it timing wise. I came into the industry at a time when the two areas I was most interested in exploring and the two areas I was best equipped to take on the challenges of, the Antarctic and Arctic, were really up for grabs. So I really enjoyed have a good long, 15 to 20-year spell where I was involved with a lot of the big chances that people had at the Poles.

Interview with Doug Allan

What are the biggest challenges when filming animals?

There isn’t very much that’s easy, there are all sorts of issues that make it difficult. In the case of big animals in natural habitats, you’re maybe after a piece of behaviour that’s quite rare, so therefore you have to have plenty of time to have the tenacity to go after it properly.

But at the same time you have to be aware of the welfare of the animals, give them space and let them get accustomed to you.

Have these changed over the years?

I don’t think the challenges are any different than they have been, except that the viewing public expect more bang for their buck. Every time there’s a ground breaking series, one has to go out and somehow try to excel it. So far I’ve done a pretty good job of doing so, either with different techniques, or new equipment, or a different way of looking at things. But we do seem to be able to turn up and deliver the goods every time.

What was it like to work with David Attenborough?

You’ll never find anyone to say a bad word about David and it’s because of the fact that he’s a wonderful person. He’s friendly; he’s just everything that you’d want in a good person.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that at any one time in history, there aren’t more than two or three people like David alive in the world, and we should all count ourselves very grateful that he’s had such a long career and still, in his 91st year, brings the same enthusiasm to subjects as he did 60 years ago.

Have you had any close encounters during filming?

I was grabbed by a walrus once, which happened when I was in the water just with a snorkel off the ice edge up in the Canadian Arctic. I’d been taking photographs of diving guillemots and I’d just finished and was treading water when something grabbed my upper thigh.

I looked down and it was a walrus that had come up from the depths and grabbed me, so instinctively I hit with a camera and made contact with its head and it let go and swam away.

Most of the time they feed on clams and mussels, which are down in the muddy sea bed, but very occasionally they will change their diet and go after seals, and I guess I looked like a seal!

Interview with Doug Allan

Do you have a favourite animal to film?

I think if I had my favourite it would be polar bears and my other favourite would be killer whales, even though they’re more frustrating in the sense that anything in the water is massively more difficult to see what they’re doing.

Are they any you’d still like to film?

I’d love to spend more time with primates – chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. I know that I’m one of those fortunate people that has an instinctive feel for getting close to animals, I’ve done it with whales underwater, polar bears and seals, but I’ve never had long enough or real quality time in the company of big apes.

It’s exciting enough swimming eye-to-eye with a whale, so to spend intimate time in contact with these great apes would be lovely.

Just how cold is it filming in the Poles?

The surprising thing about the Arctic and Antarctic is that most people visit during the summer and if you go then, the coldest you’ll get is like Scotland in March.

But in terms of filming in the winter, I have filmed at 40-45 degrees below zero, which is surprisingly not too bad as long as it’s not windy. It’s the wind chill that really makes it cold, once it gets to minus 20 and blowing 20 knots, that’s you beginning to get to minus 50 and that’s seriously cold. That’s the sort of temperatures that will freeze exposed flesh fairly quickly and you can lose feeling in your fingers very fast.

Well that sounds pretty cold!

You need to think carefully when asked to film somewhere with those temperatures and you might need to check all your equipment. You’ll never be completely comfortable, there’s no point pretending otherwise.

No matter where you go in the world as a wildlife filmmaker, it’s very rare to get somewhere that’s UK/Mediterranean comfortable. You’ll be in the jungle where the problem is the leeches and the fungal growing on your lenses, or you go to the Arctic and Antarctic and you have to cope with the cold.

Why do you think shows like Planet Earth have become so popular?

I think at the end of the day we are all connected to the planet, and therefore when we see beautiful examples of wildlife, beautifully filmed and brought into our lounge, then we do respond to it on a very basic level.

The images have never been more beautiful and detailed, television screens are bigger now than they ever were before, the level of sophistication and cleverness that goes into the programmes keeps getting exceeded by all previous series.

There is a subliminal connection to wildlife; I just wish in real life it wasn’t quite so subliminal. I wish people could hold this awareness and also be taught about the commercial value of the environment, which is sadly taken for granted.

Cheltenham Science Festival runs from Tuesday 6 to Sunday 11 June 2017. To see the full programme, visit directly.

By Anna Marshall

© SoGlos
Friday 26 May 2017

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