BWPA judge James Brickell tells us about wildlife film-making.
James Brickell is a two-time BAFTA award winning wildlife filmmaker at BBC Natural History Unit. He joined the BBC in 1997 where he has been responsible for many groundbreaking sequences and ‘world firsts’ in his career. His work includes ‘The Really Wild Show’, ‘Wildlife on One’, ‘Life in Cold Blood’, ‘Great Barrier Reef’ and ‘Deadly 60’. Most recently he broke new ground when he harnessed the public’s own love of nature to help make the BBC1 Series ‘The Great British Year’. He has particular love of the oceans and reptiles.
1. You’ve travelled to many incredible places. What’s been your most memorable experience working in wildlife television?
I could think about this question for the rest of my life and wouldn’t be able to choose one place. I’ve been so lucky and seen so many wonderful things, so I am going to completely fudge this answer and give you a top 10 (in no particular order).
- Having breakfast in bed with David Attenborough watching an England play rugby.
- Seeing the Amazon jungle – the only place I have ever been on the planet where I felt hope that humans haven’t destroyed everything.
- Filming with the Deadly60 team in Borneo. So many great experiences including such highlights as a ‘how-many-leeches-can-we-attract-to-our-bodies’ competition and climbing to the top of the world’s biggest pile of poo. It ended with an apocalyptic party as well, the details of which should probably remain secret in case any BBC management read this.
- Playing a clip captured by our camera trap on Life in Cold Blood and realising that the crew and I had become the first people to ever film a rattlesnake hunting for real. There was lots of man-hugging that day.
- Taking my wife and daughter out to the reef when we were making Great Barrier Reef. I can die happy now.
- Working on Big Cat Diary with the amazing crew from the Natural History Unit in an amazing place: Kenya’s Masai Mara. Africa has an atmosphere that is special to me… it’s enticing one minute and a little bit scary the next. Waking up with a huge male hippo scratching its rear end on my bed sums this up quite nicely, I think.
- Filming the aerial sequences of the Great Barrier Reef series – several days in a helicopter seeing the full scale and beauty of the reef and the rainforest was mind-blowing – including watching hammerhead sharks hunting below us on the reef flats.
- Exploring the wreck of the SS Yongala, just off Townsville in Australia – the most amazing wreck dive I have experienced.
- Diving with Humboldt squid in Baja California. Scary.
- Can I have another 10?
2. What inspired you to become a wildlife film-maker?
Gerald Durrell’s books and a film called Blue Water White Death by Peter Gimbal both made a huge impression when I was a young boy. Later came the work by Australian cinematographers Ron and Valerie Taylor. The Natural History Unit and David Attenborough played their part of course – that was when I realised that it was actually a job that someone could do, particularly Alastair Fothergill’s series The Trials of Life. Underlying all that, my parents were incredibly supportive and helped me believe I could succeed in whatever I wanted. They also let me keep all sorts of exotic pets… cementing my transition into geek-hood. I was teased horribly at school for it but geeks fit right in at the BBC, so it was good preparation.
3. You’ve won two BAFTAs for wildlife film-making. Can you explain a little about what such an amazing-sounding job really involves?
It’s not a glamorous job. The time I actually spend watching amazing wildlife is proportionally quite small.
Most of the time is spent either in planning or dealing with the material afterwards. For a ‘blue chip’ series like Life in Cold Blood, or the latest Natural History Unit blockbuster that I have been involved with – One Planet – the planning stage is all-consuming. The whole team at every level are researching ideas, talking to experts, looking into logistics, testing equipment, contacting embassies and organisations. They are gathering masses of information and using it to make plans which then need to be constantly reassessed. Filming wildlife is a game of chance so we are trying to control many factors in every given situation to increase our chances of success. As a series producer my job is to focus all this effort.
After all that planning it can be a relief to finally get out on location. This is the part of the job that most of us joined up for. There is the potential for incredible life-changing experiences – maybe watching lion hunting or coming face to face with a tiger shark. Even in situations like these it’s rare that I’m able to relax completely and ‘enjoy’ the experience because of the pressure to get the shot. The enjoyment and reflection come much later. There is also the potential for catastrophe of course – bad weather being the most common but there are thousands of other things that can go wrong on a shoot. In theory, if everything goes to plan then a wildlife director doesn’t have an awful lot to do apart from make tea and carry tripods… but that has never actually happened to me yet! The reality of a shoot is that I usually find myself in a situation with a diverse group of people who have come together to achieve a challenging filming objective. They are often from all sorts of backgrounds with different but critical skills – and most of them might have never met before so my job is to tie the whole thing together and get everyone working together as a team… ideally without anyone dying in the process.
When the filming is all finished the job undergoes a strange transformation. All the team that until that point might have been racing around the planet like a lot of modern-day Indiana Joneses become confined to dark edit rooms, dotted around Bristol. Starved of natural light they live on coffee and chocolate biscuits as they edit the films, gradually getting paler and paler. This part of the job couldn’t be more different from the filming side of things, but it can also be the most creative and rewarding. Particularly if you like chocolate biscuits.
4. How do you feel that photography and film competitions like the BWPA can benefit conservation?
Anything that engages people in wildlife and the natural world is a good thing of course. The natural spaces on this planet only seem to survive when someone can put a price on them, so the less obvious benefit of a competition like this is that it makes the natural world part of an industry (albeit a small one). Photography is so popular and accessible… people buy equipment like camera lenses and clothing and visit the natural world where they pay to access wildlife reserves. Monetising nature is the only way it will survive with our growing population.
5. If you had one wish that could help UK wildlife, what would it be and why?
That anyone who throws rubbish our of their car window would be simultaneously and violently thrown out of the opposing window and into the nearest hedge, where they could have a long think about what they’ve done.