A life behind the lens

Dr Paul Stewart, the cameraman behind Planet Earth II’s BAFTA winning snake-iguana sequence, takes a break from filming his latest project in the Peruvian Amazon to share advice and stories from a thirty-year career in wildlife filmmaking.

“I like Cinematographer because it sounds way more impressive Paul jokes as we sit down at our slightly wobbly candlelit table – rustic is how we’re describing our jungle interview room. He’s just come in from a long day out in the field, in a freezing Peruvian cold spell, and yet his cheerfulness isn’t dampened by either. Paul has travelled the world filming and producing wildlife documentaries for thirty years – and in this time, he’s even managed to fit in a doctorate on badgers. Whilst interviewing him I can’t help but think he is one of the most interesting and impressive men I’ve met and, beyond that, incredibly down to earth and humble. I begin to ask questions and he surprises me with a complete willingness to talk…

On getting his foot in the door

I had a very convoluted way in. I always wanted to make wildlife documentaries but back then it was impossible for me to be a wildlife cameraman because if you weren’t rich you couldn’t buy kit and so couldn’t start. I decided my way in would be to do a doctorate on an animal, and then make a film on it. I was lucky because my supervisor had done Meerkats United as Scientific advisor. Day one of the doctorate he asked if I’d work on a television series with him and so the plan worked in a rapid but indirect way. I went to work with the BBC, I started as a researcher and within two years I was producing a film for BBC1. In 1992 I left the BBC and spent five years studying Badgers in Oxford for my Doctorate. After that, I got a camera bursary with the BBC to train as a cameraman.

Last year I was stalked on foot at night by 12 lions, that was really terrifying, and earlier this year I spent 7 weeks at -20 in a hide in the far east of Russia to film Tigers..”

His recent projects

Last year I was stalked on foot at night by 12 lions, that was really terrifying, and earlier this year I spent 7 weeks at -20 in a hide in the far east of Russia to film Tigers. I was part of the team that shot the snake-iguana sequence for Planet Earth II on the Galapagos. My next trip is out to Papua New Guinea shooting birds of paradise. In the last year I’ve worked on Disney feature film projects, for the BBC and Netflix. It’s really diverse, and the travel and wildlife experiences are a real privilege.

The industry’s biggest change

I think wildlife filmmaking has changed for the better. Programmes like Blue Planet and Planet Earth got such massive viewing figures and sold so extraordinarily well that they proved it’s okay to make purely wildlife films, they made wildlife filmmakers braver. Now, there’s more days in the field to get more difficult behaviours. Once a shot of a pretty spider was good enough and now that spider’s got to be doing something awesome. Also, I’d say the audience is more receptive now and more interested in conservation.

“Television is the honeymoon everyone has with wildlife.”

On the importance of conservation messages in wildlife films

When I grew up, conservation and ecology were viewed in the mainstream rather negatively and if anything’s changed that view it is television. No other force has brought wildlife into people’s homes and general consciousness. Television is the honeymoon everyone has with wildlife.

I always felt television was a very real extension of conservation. You’ve got to get people to see what it’s about. Don’t make it too sad. Don’t always make it endangered. Just make them love it and they’ll find the rest themselves. However, you could justly say it’s a dangerous thing if television gives the impression that everything’s ok. We must now draw attention to the fact that many species and areas are threatened and people have to mobilise quickly.

“You’ve first got to get people to see what it’s about. Don’t make it too sad. Don’t always make it endangered. Just make them love it and they’ll find the rest themselves.”

On the compromises he’s had to make

I would do the job for free but I ask to be paid because spending time away from your family is hard. That is the compromise. The nice thing for wildlife cameramen is that we’re generally freelance. Nobody can make me take work if I don’t want to. So, if I’m faced with a year where I think I should be at home more, like when my son was young, then I can do that.  I’ve even managed to get the whole family abroad with me. In any case, few camera men spend more than six months abroad a year.

His most fascinating behavioural encounter

It’s often the last thing that you worked on. While you’re filming a sequence it seems like the only thing that matters. If I had to choose, there was a time on the Galapagos where I spotted these glints of light on volcano Alcedo, and had a hunch it was tortoises on the rim. We pursued it and where the volcano was bubbling up was a marshy world of steam and mist. All the giant tortoises were bathing and coming to life in the morning and heat. They’d wander around to feed on the vegetation till they got too cold and go back to the fumeroles on the rim. To have spotted it, pursued it, and for it to pay off really beautifully as a sequence, was doubly satisfying. We started Life in Cold Blood with David Attenborough up there with those same tortoises.

The challenging locations

Caves are some of the more extreme environments. I did Life of Mammals in a cave in Texas with one of the largest Mexican freetail bat colonies: tens of millions of bats. The cave was so hot, there was so much ammonia, and the guano-mounds were like mountains. Everything was covered in these flesh-eating bugs and the moment we went in we were covered in them too. 10 days there and I caught histoplasmosis – the curse of the Pharaohs – and collapsed a lung, it was a horrific trip that just got worse. Some places are pretty rough but that’s the job, going places not everybody goes.

How hard is it to get into the industry?

Not very. You can start your own company, make your own films or produce your own beautiful time-lapses and drone footage. That impresses people enough to get opportunities. Other people work in kit hire-houses, understanding the equipment, before somebody will give them a chance to take that kit out themselves. Netflix and Amazon are taking films, and internet content has barely begun. YouTubers don’t do wildlife much yet, but they could do. As an industry it’s expanding. More channels, more avenues. If you make a film it can be shown in every territory. Wildlife appreciation is a universal language and the world is a big market.

Advice for those starting out:

  • Make sure that making a programme is what interests you, not just the lifestyle. The lifestyle alone will never be satisfying. You have to like the idea of authoring television and stories. You need to not only care about what it takes to get the product, you must care about the product as well.
  • Get field experience. When I applied both to the BBC and for a doctorate, the fact that I’d done field work abroad, was field-tested, was something they looked for perhaps more than qualifications.
  • Knock on doors. In the UK, Bristol is the hub of wildlife filmmaking and there’s a lot of independent companies always looking for somebody with a good idea, a skill, an animal they know, or is keen to work for experience.
  • Do your research. If you’re going to a producer make sure you’ve seen their films. When they ask say ‘oh, I’ve seen The Hunt, loved that scene on…’ and you’ll be impressing them that you’ve understood something about the industry and that you’ve bothered.

“So many people in wildlife didn’t have a clue until they were about thirty.”

I was lucky, I always knew what I wanted to do so I could always point in that direction, but not everybody can or should know. So many people in wildlife didn’t have a clue until they were about thirty but I’ve never met anyone who wanted to go into wildlife filmmaking and didn’t eventually. It can take a few years and there can be set backs and short contracts, but everybody gets there.

People say it seems terribly difficult because from any individual perspective everybody’s journey is so different and everybody imagines you have to follow one route, but there are as many routes as there are people. If you keep pushing on the door (the one in front, rather than behind you!) you will go through it eventually. I believe that’s true.

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