Gordon Buchanan – wildlife filmmaker

Gordon Buchanan filming on Lost Land of the Volcano in Papua New Guinea

Raised on the Isle of Mull, Gordon Buchanan is a highly-respected filmmaker and, more recently, has also become known as a presenter thanks to the success of series such as Autumnwatch and Lost Land of the Volcano. Richard Rowe catches up with him between trips

First published in Autumn 2010

To what extent did a childhood growing up on Mull shape your love of wildlife?

The older I get the more apparent it is that growing up on Mull not only shaped my love of the outdoors and everything in it, but really defined me as a person and dictates the things that I think make my life better.

When did you realise that wildlife filmmaking was for you?

I was lucky to land the job of field assistant when I was still at school, but really it was the only option I had at the time. It wasn’t until I was past my twenties that a genuine passion for filmmaking took hold. Before that it was the fear of failure and of being ‘found out’ that dominated my career.

When was your first big break?

I got to know Nick Gordon who was a wildlife filmmaker living on Mull. He had an 18-month project to make a film in Sierra Leone and needed an intelligent donkey. It was an amazing opportunity and one of the most formative experiences in my life, but also one of the loneliest.

What is it about filming wildlife that touches you so deeply?

I can’t talk about my job without sounding smug! I work in some of the most incredible places on our planet and get to film things that few people will ever have the chance to witness. I suppose what I love most is the simplicity and perfection of nature – a thing far more impressive than humans have ever created.

Do you have a strong affinity for a particular species?

I’ve done a lot of work with big cats over the years but I can take as much pleasure in filming the most unassuming animals. I was never really big into birds until recently and now I love them.

How would you describe your style of camera work?

For me the most important part of my job is to convey the splendour, beauty and intricacy of the natural world. It’s quite a traditional approach but simple always seems to work. I strive to get to the heart of the story and tell it in the most natural way possible.

How often do you get the chance to film in Scotland these days?

I am as happy (if not happier) filming in Scotland as I would be filming on a volcano in Papua New Guinea. It’s great being involved in Springwatch and Autumnwatch; before them, it was quite hard to film on my own doorstep.

Is there a particular bit of filmmaking that you are especially proud of?

The annoying thing about what I do is that you are never fully satisfied. I always think that I could have done better or worked harder. I’m proud of the Lost Land of the Jaguar series [which ran on the BBC in 2008]. It showed what that rainforest is really like, and I hope has gone a little way to protecting it.

And what about the ones that got away?

For every piece of amazing footage I shoot there are always more things I’ve seen but been unable to film. We don’t talk about those. There is a saying in wildlife filming ‘if you didn’t film it, it didn’t happen’.

How have you found the adjustment to being in front of the camera?

In recent years I have done as much jigging about in front of the camera as I have behind it. I didn’t set out to be a presenter, I kind of fell into it. Like falling into a Scottish bog, it’s horrible at the time but good fun when you look back on it.

How has wildlife filmmaking changed over the years?

When I started, conservation films were becoming unpopular – they were too preachy and worthy. For a long time they weren’t really made for the mainstream, but now with a bit more sophisticated story telling you can make a conservation film without the viewer necessarily realising it.

Where are you now and what are you working on?

I’m just back from Bhutan filming a series called Lost Land of the Tiger, but am currently sitting on the Gatwick Express on my way to a meeting about a man-eater series I am doing for National Geographic. I’m heading back to northern Minnesota next week to carry on filming a series for BBC2 about black bears.

Are there any particular animals still on your filmmaking wish-list?

I really want to get into the water with killer whales. It’d be scary, but I like scary.

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