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An early interest in natural history films and film-making

 

As a teenager in the mid-1960’s I remember going to see some of the films made by the RSPB film unit.  They were shown by development officers who travelled out from RSPB headquarters to church halls, village meeting rooms and theatres up and down the country.  The films were 16mm reel-to-reel films projected on screens.  Swallows at the Mill was one production I remember seeing at an RSPB event in Norwich, and it caught my imagination.  It was in colour making it seem more lyrical than some of the black and white films on television at the time.  There was Armand and Michaela Dennis in Africa, the Zoo Quest adventures of David Attenborough which made travel to wild places seem so unbelievably exciting; and there was Peter Scott doing his Look programmes. All were heroes, but to me Scott was particularly special as he was also a renowned wildlife artist. 

At the time I was also painting and drawing wildlife, but film also captured my attention.  I was inspired and excited by all the creative possibilities that seemed to allow others to live much of their working lives by being out and about in the natural world.  Surely I could find a niche?. 

A little later, after undertaking a foundation art course at Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design, I attended Leicester Polytechnic to study Fine Art.  It was there I began working with super-8 film and a very early video camera with a massive but very slow playback machine.  The first (unsuccessful) effort was a very short film about wildlife in churchyards.

Beginning to feel that making a career as a visual artist might be more difficult than hoped, and wanting to learn more about wildlife film-making, I made contact with the RSPB film unit and volunteered to do anything to help.  Soon after I was sent to help a camera crew in Wales who were working on a film about red kites.  They needed someone to help carry equipment and put them into the camera hides and then retrieve the camera team at the end of the day.  There were other general duties to get on with and keep the base camp functioning.

At the end of my time at art school I asked The RSPB Film Unit again if I could help out, but this time I was very lucky to be offered a full-time job as a Trainee Film Production Assistant!

My 18 months there were fantastic as I was given every kind of job to do - a real apprenticeship.  I stood around in the editing suite handing glue and scissors to the film editor; I drove to the Rank film labs in West London to deliver raw film or retrieve rushes; sometimes I was at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol dropping off rough-cut sequences from films we were collaborating on.  I loaded film magazines and cleaned cameras, and once got the opportunity to shoot a film sequence of my own (of birds eating berries).

By now, hugely excited by the possibilities that film offered, I could see it being possible to combine my creative enthusiasm and artistic temperament with the passion and interest I had for the natural world and find a place working in wildlife film-making.  

But, throughout my time in the Film Unit, I was socializing and gaining friends within a group of scientists, field assistants and adventurers associated with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) that had is headquarters in nearby Cambridge.  It wasn't long before one of their number (Pete Prince) asked if I'd like to help him as a field assistant on a BAS seabird research programme he was putting together at fairly short notice.  It would mean 6 months on Bird Island in the remote South Atlantic, an island off the north-west coast of South Georgia.  It was an offer and opportunity I couldn't refuse!

It was such a fantastic experience and I was able to return to Bird Island for the following two summers seasons as well.  Every moment down south when I was not required for an assistant’s task I was drawing and sketching.  At the same time I realized the potential for making films about penguins, albatrosses, seals and whales was enormous.  Pete and I talked about that potential a lot.  So, after the first season, I returned to the UK and we borrowed money and acquired cameras and lenses, bought film stock, light-meters, changing bags, travel cases and all the necessary kit to make a film. 

Through my earlier contacts with the BBC Natural History Unit we were in touch about making a film on Bird Island, and they encouraged us but offered no commitment upfront.  Instead they showed a great willingness to view the raw material when we got back and to decide then whether there was a film to be made from it all.

Fortunately, as we had worked to a script, it was all up to the mark and there was a story to be teased from the footage and the many hours of sound recordings.  The first film we made was The Private Life of the Fur Seal which was subsequently shown on BBC1 television as part of the Natural World series..  A second programme telling a more complex Antarctic story, The 150 Million Ton Shrimp was made the third season down south and the finished film was shown on BBC2 television two years later in the World About Us series.  

As a consequence of all that early excitement as a freelance working with film - and meeting so many great people in the industry, I was able to enjoy a brief career in natural history film making and television!

A few years later, after writing and illustrating An Artist on Migration a book about bird migration between Africa and Europe, I was again thinking of film and film-making.  With the core of the book focusing on central West Africa and the story of  the seasonal floods in the Sahel which are crucial to millions of migrant birds from Europe,  I took this central idea back to the film director David Cobham who I'd met at the BBC.  A short while later we were off to Mali to make a film that was commissioned by the BBC  and shown on BB2 television in the programme Beyond Timbuctu.

Following the perceived success of that and other the earlier programmes (and working with David Cobham again) I was commissioned by Channel 4 Television to write and present the six part Birdscape series about a range of British landscapes and the lives of some of the birds, and the lives of the people associated with the crucially important habitats they share.

But then the follow-up ideas were not so enthusiastically received.  And also, I'd had an offer of freelance work as a wildlife cameraman if I set myself up in business, but declined because of feeling nervous about such a huge commitment that would have required substantial funding to get all the professional kit.  And besides, what I was doing as a visual artist was immensely satisfying and things were starting to go well.  So my life in film and television faded gradually but I'd had the most fabulous 10 years.

 

  All text & images  © Bruce Pearson 2019

Films from the Archives

 


 

Beyond Timbuktu

First shown on BBC2 in the World About Us series, September 1988

The film was directed by David Cobham who I was able work with again in recent years as he invited me to illustrate his book A Sparrowhawk's Lament.  Sadly David passed away in 2018.

Birdscape

These were a series of six programmes (directed by David Cobham) commissioned by Channel4 television and first broadcast in 1994.  Each programme focused on a UK habitat where there was an interesting landscape and natural history story to tell.  Here are three of the six - The Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, Kite Country in Wales and Heathland in Dorset.

 

A day out painting in North Norfolk

A short film I put together last winter and posted on my YouTube Channel