In Conversation with John Aitchison
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 of change 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?
In terms of a job, that came after how I first got into it, which was for interest. I had a great interested in birds, natural history, and then photography. Then I realised that there was actually a Job that involved not photographing with a stills camera, because the thing that interested me was working on television programmes. I had seen some and it was of course David Attenborough and I thought someone must be there doing the filming for him to be in the picture. But there was no way then really without the internet to work out even who to ask what to do about it. So it took quite a long time. I did a degree in Geography, and 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 on to work for the RSPB film unit. They made three half hour conservation films about birds a year at that time. Initially I was doing budgets for them, writing research notes about the subjects of the films, going to the film laboratories. Gradually I got more involved with the production of the films but didn’t do any filming. Then I realised that the only way to become a camera person was to demonstrate that you can do it, which is still true today so I left and bought a cheap video camera. The first film I did was about a rare bird in Thailand. My now wife and I traded our filmmaking for help and support in filming the birds for Birdlife international ho were protecting the birds. We then showed it to the BBC and ended up getting some work that was.
“We are not just trying to make shows that people will enjoy 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 and the northern coastal environment. In terms of other places, generally 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 things 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. They take 3-4 years to film so some of those are just starting out and some are just finishing. One of the shoots I am doing is for one of those BBC series that is just about to finish and 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 the reason I got into this work. To then produce a film and film some of it with him as a delight. I think the other highlights are when the films make a difference. They are not just entertainment, we are not just trying to make shows that people will enjoy 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 it is starting to be reflected in the programmes now, more than in the past. I think in the past there was a risk that by documenting natural processes and animal behaviour that we were by omission 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, has started to address that and show that humans are a part of the animals environment as well and 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?
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 them 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 they 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 and sometimes the most fascinating things were the subtle things they noticed. 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 some hope is that we were able to film what happened and document it accurately and honestly and it being included in the programme. In the past if the programme was not about just whatever happened to the animals we were filming but about say how they hunted, then we would see it happen but it wouldn’t be in the film. But because this programme wasn’t of that type, now everyone has seen it and knows what pressure the lions are under and how few there are. They now have an insight into how much it matters that these conflicts are resolved. There are people herding cows that do live alongside large predators and they have a big problem. There are more people, more cows and fewer lions, so the conflicts where lions and people do meet are increasing.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?
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 are. We are there to observe and document. But if humans have caused a problem, for example the Blue Planet II episode with the baby turtles going away from the beach towards the light and falling into drains, 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. 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 and if people have affected the lions in a negative way and we can help, then it is very clear cut. It could easily have been someone else who found them. It was the park authorities that called the vets, but there was no antidote for the poison and in the end they had to put the young male down, and the other two lions died from the poison and the one that was put down was never going to survive.
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 if there are more occasions where people can 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 feeling 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, emphasising and wanting to help is a good thing. In the end, that is what we need, more of us, ideally all of us, deciding we can’t just leave it like it is and we should be getting involved in some form, whether that be 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 in the sense of humans getting involved and not turning a blind eye to what is going on in the natural world is absolutely crucial, we need to do something about the extinction event that is going on.
“Blue Planet II has made a concrete difference in the action of plastics going into the ocean, on a global scale.”
You mentioned there that people may feel sad watching the animals in recent wildlife documentaries suffer. 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?
It’s difficult to say because the documentaries have been around far longer than a lot of people on the earth today have. David (Attenborough) is 92 and he has been making natural history films, and he wasn’t the first, for 70 years. Few people could therefore remember a time when they weren’t being shown. Therefore it has become part of our, at least in Britain, part of the culture of what we now 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, 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. In a specific way,
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 rich bio diverse places, which use 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 and so when you realise and feel that they you do change your view of the world. No one knows what the amount of food 7.5 billion people needs like in terms of land use but you start to feel the edges of it and see that it is a colossal change to the functioning of the planet. Without understanding where the threshold of where we can no longer feed 7.5 billion people, we are likely heading towards that cliff edge unknowingly. There is not a simple way to solve it 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, the time I came into doing this was a time of equipment transition and in a way it coincided with the end 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 natural spectacles that remind us 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 of change and that people are causing it but 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 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, it could be all sort of different things. But the creative minds, the keenest and most motivated, have a very open field and a lot to play for. So go, do it, please!