John Aitchison – wildlife filmmaker

After a 20-year career filming around the world with the likes of Sir David Attenborough, and with two BAFTAs and an Emmy under his belt, Argyll-based John Aitchison remains in awe of the wild beauty on his doorstep. Ida Maspero finds out more.

What childhood experience shaped your love of nature?
Where I grew up near Portsmouth was very urban, but there was a nature reserve with lots of mudflats nearby. It was my escape, a little slice of wildness. In summer we’d search the marshes with my mum, a florist, for wild flowers; and in winter I’d watch the migrant geese and waders, imagining their epic journeys from places I could only dream of.

How and when did you first come to hold a camera?
My dad, an engineer, introduced me to photography as a boy. Together we made a pinhole camera from a biscuit tin and I borrowed his SLR. Later, I was encouraged by a friend’s father, a wildlife photographer. At about 14, I was watching Attenborough’s Life on Earth, and it dawned on me there was actually someone with him filming that. I thought to myself, I could do that job and combine my interests in art, natural history and travel … though I had no idea how to go about it.

What’s your journey been from that earliest moment to standing beside Sir David himself?
It started with that biscuit tin and a pair of binoculars bought with pennies saved in a jar. Later, five years in the RSPB’s film unit as a producer and researcher crystallised my thinking that I wanted to be a cameraman. So, with my now wife Mary-Lou, I took time out to hone my skills, travelling for a year in Thailand, New Zealand and Alaska and practising by making films on a voluntary basis. We sent a show tape to the BBC, where the renowned producer Richard Brock gave us our big break.

What makes an exceptional wildlife filmmaker?
Firstly, a love for nature – it’s an all-consuming job with little time for sleep when you’re on location. And of course you need the background knowledge to anticipate behaviour and know the significance of what you see. Then there’s how you film it, technically and creatively, and how you choose to frame what’s going on. It’s visual storytelling as well as an artistic thing for me: the shot needs to convey the intrinsic beauty of the subject. I love filming patterns – of water flowing, flocks of birds swirling.



John Aitchison filming common dolphins (photo Jim Manthorpe)

Photo: Jim Manthorpe

You now live on the Argyll coast – how did you come to Scotland?
We moved here in 1994, after a year of filming a programme about the Ythan estuary near Aberdeen – our first big BBC commission. That fixed the idea in our minds that Scotland was where we wanted to be. With family links here, it felt like coming home. The desire to be surrounded by wildness and wild creatures drew us to the west coast.

Your own production company is called Otter Films. I take it you have a soft spot for otters?
To me, they’ve always encapsulated true wildness. The first thing we did when house-hunting along the west coast was ask “Are there any otters here?” and folk answered “They’re ten a penny”. That sealed the deal! We often film the same extended family in our area; our kids have grown up alongside their cubs and their lives are interleaved with ours.

Do you think natural history filmmaking has changed over the years?
Britain has always set a global benchmark in natural history films. Since the earliest days the storytelling has been excellent, but what’s improved is our ability to get amazing shots with new technology – high definition (HD), super-slow-motion and the finesse applied afterwards come together to raise the game.

Your latest project, Hebrides – Islands on the Edge, airs later this spring. Tell us about that.
With our trusty campervan we travelled the length of the Inner and Outer Hebrides – islands of incredible beauty and diversity, and full of wildlife. I spent 240 days filming over two years; others filmed underwater and aerials. Not much HD filming had been done in the Hebrides before, so the film breaks new ground.

The series tells the stories of creatures in the course of a year, starting in the south at the end of summer, then winter on Islay, Jura and Colonsay; late winter through to spring on Mull, Coll, Tiree, Oronsay and the Treshnish Isles, and then on to the Outer Hebrides in high summer to autumn. The producer and I agreed that character-based storytelling would be the most compelling, following key events in the creatures’ lives and the dramas that play out. The fourth programme is about the people who live alongside the wildlife in these places.

What was your greatest challenge while filming the programme? And your best moment?
The challenge was this rather hard task we’d set ourselves of telling individual animals’ stories. That required a lot of time – to find locations, the right animals, and then simply wait and observe what happens. And the midges. The best moments are when you’re invisible to the animals, who just get on with their lives.

What are you most fond of capturing on film?
Otters, of course. But in essence, beauty is what I like filming, and pattern-making. One of my most favourite things I’ve ever filmed was knot, a nondescript wading bird, in Norfolk – huge flocks taking off, creating incredible swirling patterns.

You’ve filmed extensively around the world. What is your most memorable moment to date?
For Frozen Planet, we camped for three weeks on a frozen Antarctic sea with emperor penguins. That was a real highlight and a privilege, not least because you’re so out of your own comfort zone, but totally in theirs. Almost on a par was following the lives of white-tailed sea eagle chicks for this Hebrides series – witnessing their lives from hatching to fledging. And going to St Kilda was extraordinary.

And finally, your bucket list?
I haven’t had enough of the Outer Hebrides. And I’d love to film brown bears – hopefully I will get the chance in Alaska this summer. But what I’d really like to do is look back one day and know that a film of mine has transformed people’s attitudes to the natural world around them. As a filmmaker, that’s the most important thing I can do.

The landmark four-part series Hebrides – Islands on the Edge will be screened on BBC One Scotland in early May (available across the UK on BBC iPlayer), as part of its Wild Scotland season. John’s own website and blog are at www.johnaitchison.net



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