Behind the camera


Wildlife film maker Doug Allan discusses working with sharks, snow leopards – and Sir David Attenborough.

Danger and discomfort is all part of life as a top wildlife film maker. But so, too, is exhilaration, when weeks of effort pay off, and satisfaction when your work inspires viewers to join in conservation efforts.

Doug Allan, one of the very best such film makers in the business, is coming to his native Scotland to talk about his experiences, and his new book, Freeze Frame. In advance of his appearance at the Borders Book Festival, we took the opportunity to ask him some questions.

Which documentary series has given you most satisfaction?

It’s hard to pick out a single one. I’m fortunate to have been involved with some of the best all-round production and post-production people in the business. They’ve given me some great chances and then made the very best of the building blocks that I supply.

But if you want my special one, it would be The Blue Planet. Wonderfully challenging, it gave me fantastic chances to go for a huge range of sequences in the poles and elsewhere, including some behaviours that had never been filmed before, like belugas being hunted by polar bears, or orcas chasing down grey whales. The end result was truly remarkable. It still looks great today, 13 years later.

Of all the animals you have filmed or photographed, which has been the most challenging?

When you aim high with ambitious films, you have to accept there will be failures or no-shows. The snow leopard filming that I did in Ladakh – two shoots of five and six weeks duration – was probably the toughest in terms of terrain and sheer elusiveness of the subject. In those 11 weeks I had the beast in my lens for only one hour, and it was asleep for 50 minutes of that hour. We were using remote cameras along the paths in its territory so we were capturing some images with them, but that’s not the same as being face to face.


Your job can be dangerous at times – what is the closest you’ve come to death or serious injury?

I was once grabbed by a walrus while I was snorkelling off the ice edge in the Canadian Arctic. He came up from right below me without warning, hugged my thighs with his flippers just as they do when catching seals in the same way. I looked down, hit his head with my fist, he let go and I swam back to the solid ice. Took less time to happen than it has done for you to read this. Now if he’d held on and taken me down… well, no more Doug I guess.

It’s true that as wildlife film makers, we do face situations when animals are potentially dangerous. White sharks in the water, wolf packs on the tundra, that sort of thing. But experience and a ‘feel’ for the animal will often let you know when it’s OK to approach, and when it’s time to back off.

You’ve worked a great deal with Sir David Attenborough, one of the greatest broadcasters ever. What is he like to work with?

David has always said that if people weren’t aware of the beauty of our natural world then they wouldn’t realise the value of protecting it. It’s a message he carried throughout his 50 years of making wildlife series. It’s interesting that in the last few years he’s also been presenting programmes that are more directly involved with the environmental issues faced by the planet – climate change and population growth are crucial problems in his eyes.

David is always right in there to offer help with carrying gear, setting up camp, anything at all. But he does have a wicked sense of fun and an amazing memory so there’s never any shortage of stories from him. The odd person will meet him and start calling him “Richard” but he just has a wee smile and lets the mistake run by.


What advice would you give to a young photographer hoping to specialise in wildlife?

Stay passionate about your subject, and keep on clicking. Work with animals that you enjoy and are challenged by. It’s never been easier to aim high with your photography, digital cameras offer instant feedback and the learning curve can be super fast. Teach yourself to think and shoot like a professional, study magazine articles and see how to work sometimes like an artist, others like a photojournalist. Try to have your own images and stories published. But remember the difference between stills and movie if you’re shooting both styles. Stills you’re looking to capture the moment. Movies it’s all about story telling. So study programmes, see how they’re constructed, shoot for your editor while you also keep it perfect technically. Hang on in there, be willing and helpful. No one works with a pain in the ass.

This is your first book – how difficult did you find the writing and selecting process?

I had a book inside me for a long time but I just couldn’t see a format that would have the right balance between pictures and words. I couldn’t face writing a hundred thousand words in a linear biography but I knew I wanted to include details about me, my life, the animals, the places and wildlife filming. The solution was to wrap the details inside short stories. Write them like I was answering a question from the audience at the end of a show. Keep it brief, tell the truth, make it memorable. Doing it that way wasn’t difficult – I wrote the 35,000 words in three spells of about a month each between May and November.

The book was self published and it does owe a great deal to Roz and Simon, my editor and designer. We picked the pictures between us.

Every picture DOES tell a story, and sometimes a good story is perfectly illustrated by a picture. In the case of Freeze Frame, it works both ways.

What are you planning for your appearance at the Borders Book Festival?

BBF14Doug-Allan-Red-jacket-in-Antarctica-GF-002031-insetI’ll be doing a presentation that’ll be like an extended version of those 10-minute diary pieces that go out at the end of most episodes in big series. Behind the scenes stories, so to speak, but I’ll be throwing in info about the animals and the locations, too. It’ll be suitable for all ages from 8 to 80, illustrated by my own images and clips from various programmes and series.

Doug Allan appears at the Borders Book Festival, at Harmony Gardens, Melrose, on 13 June at 6pm, tickets £14.

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