John Aitchison | Wildlife Filmmaker

John Aitchison is a BAFTA and Emmy award winning wildlife filmmaker. Working on programmes such as Planet Earth II and the recent Dynasties series on BBC, John has had a firsthand insight into how humans are changing the natural world. Here, he talks about some of his experiences, discussing when we should intervene with the natural world, and what we should be doing in the future, in terms of conservation and the media, to help stem the declines of biodiversity in the natural world.

“What is clear is that there is a need to communicate the problem of biological extinctions and that people are causing it, but there are solutions we can adopt if we all get together and act as communities.” 

How did you get into wildlife filmmaking?

I first got into it because I had a great interested in birds, natural history, and then photography. Then I realised that there was actually a job doing the photography for wildlife  television programmes. I watched David Attenborough, of course, and I thought someone must be there, doing the filming, for him to be in the picture. But there was no way then, without the internet, to work out even who to ask what to do about getting a job doing that. So it took quite a long time. I did a degree in Geography, and I spent quite a lot of time when I was a student, learning to do filming because there was a filmmaking club at the university. I then went to work for the RSPB Film Unit. At that time they made three half-hour conservation films about birds each year. Initially I did budgets for these films, writing research notes, going to the film laboratories, and so on. Gradually I got more involved with the production of the films, but I didn’t do any filming. Then I realised that the only way to become a cameraperson was to demonstrate that you can do it, which is still true today, so I left and bought a cheap video camera, with my then girlfriend. The first film we did was about a rare bird in Thailand. We traded our filmmaking for help and support in filming the birds for Birdlife international, who were protecting them. We then showed our little film to the BBC and ended up getting some work that way.

“We are not just trying to make films that people will enjoy and then forget. We are trying to show how the natural world is now, and how it is changing.” 

You have travelled all over the world, is there a particular location you would always go back to?

Scotland, where I live! It has world class wildlife; it’s as good as it gets really, especially if you’re in a rich, wild part of Scotland. I love the northern coastal environment. In terms of other places, I really like colder places; I love the diversity of the tropics but I love the sparseness of cold environments, the long days and the richness that comes with that seasonality.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

A range of different things. Much of it is for the BBC. They tend to be quite coy about saying what future projects are about, but they tend to do a big landmark series once a year, such as Dynasties. I worked on Dynasties, on the lions episodes. These big series take 3-4 years to film, so some of those are just starting out and some are just finishing. One of the next shoots I am doing is for one of these BBC series that’s just about to finish. It will be aired next year.

What has been a highlight of your filmmaking career so far?

I worked with David Attenborough on a programme about amber. Like everybody I think, I had him as a hero and he was the reason that I got into this work. To then produce a film (and to film some of it) with him was a delight. I think the other highlights are when the films make a difference. These are not just entertainment; we are not just trying to make films that people will enjoy, and then forget. We are trying to show how the natural world is now and how it is changing. As times change, the pressures increase on the natural world, and that is starting to be reflected in the programmes now. I think in the past there was a risk that by documenting only natural processes and animal behaviour, we were not showing the truth that those things are happening in fewer and fewer places, and there are fewer and fewer animals. I am very pleased that now the programmes, particularly Dynasties, have started to address that, and show that humans are a part of the animals’ environment. We make a profound difference to them.

You were recently part of the film crew for the lion episode of Dynasties, how did you find that experience?

John Aitchison wildlife filmmaker - lion

Charm, the matriarch of the pride

I did about a third of the filming for the episode.  There was a team of us filming over a long period of time. By spending so much time immersed in their lives we got to know the lions very well: what they were doing, what mattered to them and what had changed.  We could understand their reasons for doing things and that their matriarch, Charm, the lioness was extraordinarily…. perhaps wise it too human to say…. but she was very experienced and made sensible decisions about what the pride should do and where they should go, and she took them out of danger. Sometimes she was constrained but sometimes she had a choice and she seemed to be making choices for clear reasons. That was fascinating. Sometimes the most fascinating things were the really subtle things. But then of course they were poisoned deliberately by people, and that was the hardest thing. Filming some of them dying was absolutely horrendous, but what gives me hope is that we were able to film what happened and document it accurately and honestly, and that it was included in the programme. In the past, if the programme was about, say, how lions hunted, then we might have seen the poisoning, but it wouldn’t have been in the film, but because this programme wasn’t of that type, now everyone has seen it and we all know what pressure the lions are under and how few of them there are. We now have an insight into how much it matters that these conflicts are resolved. There are people herding cows that live alongside large predators and they have a big problem. There are more people, more cows and fewer lions, so the conflicts are increasing where lions and people meet.  It is also possible in a programme like this to show what the solutions are and that there are people trying to do something about it.

“But if humans have caused a problem, like the turtles in Blue Planet II, then you put down the cameras and fish out the turtles from the drains. As a compassionate considerate human being why wouldn’t you do that? It is absolutely the right thing to do.” 

Dynasties has received a fair amount of attention for the interventions made in both the Emperor episode, with the crew digging a track out of the gully, and the Lion episode where a team was called in to help one of the poisoned lions. At what point do you make the choice to intervene?

John Aitchison wildlife filmmaker - turtle

Where humans have impacted animals in a negative way, it is absolutely right to help where we can

It’s an interesting question and something that does face the team sometimes. Not everybody is the same but the crux of it is, if there is a straightforward biological process going on, if a lion has caught a wildebeest, you can’t chase the lion away and release the wildebeest. That would be bad for the lion and possibly bad for the wildebeest too. We don’t know enough about it and who knows what the consequences would be? We are there to observe and document. But if humans have caused a problem, for example in the Blue Planet II episode, where there were baby turtles going away from the beach towards artificially lights and falling into drains, then it seems entirely right that the crew put down their cameras and fished out the turtles from the drains. As a compassionate, considerate human being why wouldn’t you do that? It is absolutely the right thing to do.

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Will and Lindsey, who dug the ramp for the penguins in the Dynasties episode, did absolutely the right thing. No other animal would have gained from the penguins dying in the hole; they weren’t the prey of a predator. It was a very clear case and I would have done the same. With the lions, they had been poisoned. If people have affected the lions in a negative way and we can help, then it is very clear cut too. It could easily have been someone else who’d found them. It was the park authorities that called the vets, but there was no antidote for the poison and in the end the vets had to put the young male down. He was never going to survive. Two other lions died from the poison.

With humans having an increasing impact on the world, do you expect that the number of interventions made during the filming of wildlife documentaries will increase in the future?

I’m not sure. It’s more a question of whether there will be more occasions where people could and should intervene. There are more people and fewer animals around, so conflicts may well increase and perhaps more people are aware and looking to help and feeling sad for the animals and wanting to be proactive and not just watch this decline happen. They may be feeling that there is nothing they can do. Helping one individual probably doesn’t make a difference to the survival of the species but in the bigger picture, empathising and wanting to help is a good thing. In the end that is what we need – more of us, ideally all of us, deciding that we can’t just leave it like it is and that we should be getting involved, whether that’s by building ramps for penguins or lobbying the government; it all comes to the same thing in the end. We don’t want to be the last species left standing on the planet, with everything else gone. Intervention is absolutely crucial, in the sense of humans getting involved and not turning a blind eye to what is going on in the natural world.

We need to do something about the extinction event that is going on.

“Blue Planet II has made a concrete difference, in terms of action on plastics going into the ocean, on a global scale.” 

You mentioned there that people may feel sad watching the animals suffer in recent wildlife documentaries. Wildlife documentaries often focus on charismatic species to engage viewers in the importance of conservation. Do you think people’s perception of the natural world has change with the influence of documentaries such as Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Dynasties etc?

John Aitchison wildlife filmmaker - plastics

Blue planet II has had a global impact on our response to plastics in the oceans

It’s difficult to say. David (Attenborough) is 92 and he has been making natural history films for 70 years – and he wasn’t the first. Few people alive now can remember a time when nature films weren’t being shown, so it has become part of our culture, at least in Britain, part of what we know about. Television is so pervasive, and wildlife is on television quite a bit.

Does it affect how we see the world and what we do? Yes, of course it changes how we see the world, but changing what we do – that is more difficult. I think in a general osmotic way it has done that, but in terms of actual concrete action, changing how we behave, there are some examples, but at best I think it will have slowed down the loss of nature. 

Has your own perception of the natural world changed during your career as a wildlife filmmaker?

Yes, The general pattern you build up as you see more places is that our best examples of all habitats, of all the rich, biodiverse places which used to be everywhere, are now in pockets surrounded by places that we have modified a lot. You can appreciate that as an abstract idea, but if you go to those places, say a tiger reserve in India, when you are there it is wonderful and you can step into the past and imagine how things were. Then you leave and travel for days across a landscape that is utterly unlike that and has nothing in it other than people, domesticated animals and crops. That is the reality, so when you realise that, it does change your view of the world. No one knows what the amount of food that 7.5 billion people need looks like, in terms of land use, but if you travel a lot you see that producing that much food has caused a colossal change to the functioning of the planet. There is not a simple way to solve this but there are a lot of people on the planet and we are using resources at a rate three times faster than the planet can support. We know there is a problem but we aren’t really doing that much about it at the moment.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone interested in following a similar career path to your own?

I have been lucky with my career. There was a timing aspect to it, because the time I came into doing this was a time of equipment transition and in a way it coincided with the last remnants of the golden age of wildlife. It seems to me that the great East African animal diversity is still there, just, and there are some other natural spectacles that remind us of how the world used to be, but they may not be around much longer.

What is clear is that there is a need to communicate the problem of biological extinctions and that people are causing it, and that there are solutions we can adopt if we all get together and act as communities. That is the cutting edge now. The means to say these things have changed radically. Young people are in touch with the new means to do this; social media and networking virtual communities are the solution to this. That is where I would say there is a desperate need and it’s not necessarily television and film that will achieve this – it could be all sort of different things, but the creative minds, the keenest and the most motivated, have a very open field and a lot to play for. So go, do it, please!

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