BBC cameraman and wildlife photographer, Doug Allan, talks to The Saint about 30 years spent in the polar regions, diving with killer whales, and working with a certain Mr Attenborough…
Hello Doug! Your most recent endeavour, Operation Iceberg, traces the life of an iceberg, and it was aired recently on the BBC. Tell us a little about it.
I was very impressed with how it turned out! It was an observational documentary which makes it really interesting to film – you don’t interfere, you don’t ask people to repeat things, you simply go with the flow. You are listening and being directed by the presenters, which makes for a great judgement call – you have to decide where to go with the camera and how to frame the shot. It’s a whole different ballgame compared to wildlife filming.
In Operation Iceberg, we see you in action doing what you love most – diving. What exactly is a glacial blue lake?
When depressions in an iceberg fill with melt water, the iceberg begins to melt and lakes are formed as a result. They have plug holes which can open and drain the lake at any moment, and from these holes come fizzing bubbles. I expected limited visibility due to the fizzing, but actually the water was so close to zero in temperature that there was hardly any melting of the ice, and so there was good visibility.
What was the dive like?
It was like diving under sea ice but with everything upside down. Normally all the ice is on top of you which prevents you from surfacing, but with this dive there was no ice above and all of the interesting topography was underneath you. I just had a look around. There was this eye of excitement, as there was some danger that the lake would suddenly drain. If you were close to the crack from where the water suddenly started flowing, then you would be in trouble.
There were quite a lot of intense moments during the programme – you guys seemed to put yourself at risk for the sake of science!
I think the good thing about Operation Iceberg was that there was none of this false jeopardy; the programme didn’t set out to be deliberately dangerous. There were real dangers present when Alun Hubbard descended down that hole, or when we steered the Gambo along the glacier front. But there was also a true purpose behind it all, and I think that the viewer can see that.
That final iceberg carving timed itself nicely on your birthday…
If it was a birthday present, then it was sent from on high! I’ve always thought of carvings as big lumps coming from the front of a glacier, but in this case the whole glacier down the whole depth of it was cracking. So it wasn’t just falling off the front, these big icebergs were pivoting on their glacier end axis and they were surfacing like huge submarines coming out of the water. It was a spectacle that was far bigger and far more impressive than I was expecting, and I was absolutely amazed by it.
Let’s talk about your book – Freeze Frame: A wildlife cameraman’s adventures on ice.
I’ve always been a very great admirer of the written word, as opposed to any other form of communication. Books have permanence about them: when people buy a book, they invest far more of their time, their self and their effort into reading it. You will return to a single good picture in a book, time and time again.
Had you been planning to write a book for a while?
I had several false starts, mostly because that I wanted to do a book that included a lot of pictures. I approached a few publishers about the idea, but they didn’t get it. They would say ‘it doesn’t seem to fit into any particular category: it’s not biography, it’s not a natural history book, it’s not a photography book, so what is it?’. And my argument was that it was all those things, and that’s its attractiveness.
So in the end I published it myself. I knew what I wanted it to sound like and feel like and look like, and I didn’t want to compromise that. I worked with 2 people whose opinions I respected and who I got on with; the three of us were on the same wavelength and I knew I could implicitly trust them to really pull out all the stops.
How has the book been received?
Freeze Frame was a hugely satisfying thing to do. I think that people who are initially attracted to the pictures will take it away and start reading, and then realise that they have something which is different and a bit more special in their hands. The great thing about touring is that people often buy the book and then they write to me afterwards and say ‘you know what I like about your book? It’s like I can hear you talking through the book.
The polar regions seem to hold a special place in your heart – why is that?
My first real interest was diving, and then that led me to marine biology at Stirling. I soon realised that being an actual scientist wasn’t the best bit; it was the data collection, the adventurist part of the job. After university I took a job in the Antarctic and that’s when I really got into photography, really.
And it was in the Antarctic that you first met David Attenborough?
I met David when he happened to come onto the base I was at, as he was shooting something for the BBC. I gave him a hand for a few days and by the end of that I saw, for the first time, that a cameraman could make a self-employed living from these moving images. Photography for me was all about a means of showing people how wonderful the Antarctic was, and how fantastic this lifestyle was that I was being given the chance to lead. I could see that David’s film crew were having a wonderful time, and so I thought to myself that I should learn to do movie filming.
How did you get your first gig with the BBC?
My next contract was to the south of the ‘real Antarctica’, to a research station where I was given the chance to be base commander. I knew that about 15 miles away from this base there was a colony of emperor penguins. Following on from meeting David, I had decided to take a movie camera with me, despite the fact that it was jumping in at the deep end. I had contacted a BBC producer who had said ‘let me see what you come back with, and if it’s good I’ll use it in my series’, and suddenly out of nowhere, the first half of his programme, entitled ‘Birds for all seasons’, included Antarctic material shot by me. Having material edited, narrated, and track-laid by BBC, is absolutely the best showpiece that you can have. So right from the start of my career I was given this niche, it was how people perceived me, and that has stuck ever since.
David Attenborough quotes you as ‘the toughest in the business’.
Well, it’s very generous of him. I smile when I hear things like that, because I know there are a lot of tough people in the business. It’s just that I happen to be one of the people who would rather have numb feet all day than eaten alive my mosquitoes. If you can suffer the cold, and that may be because you are physiological better adapted to it. I have a saying that goes ‘any fool can be uncomfortable’. So, when I am out there for eight hours a day in -30 degrees, I simply use all of my experience to be as comfortable as I can.
You have had a very expansive career, but do you have a favourite moment on the job?
It would have to be filming the killer whales for Frozen Planet. Getting that sequence was very, very satisfying – it was like achieving some sort of Holy Grail. I had heard about that particular hunting behaviour in the whales some 35 years ago, and Doug (Anderson) and I had tried once or twice before to get it on film, as we knew it was incredibly rare. We were aboard a ship skippered by Gerome, with whom I had sailed to the Antarctic many times, as well as John and Bob, who are perhaps the best orca biologists in the world. Working with that team was like working in the company of your best friends. We had the right tools, the right team, and the right conditions – it’s like everything came together.
Having had such a remarkable career, what advice would you give to university students of today?
You have got to follow your heart, you have to be honest with yourself, and you need to find an area that you are passionate about. I never met anyone who was meant to be an accountant, there are some people who were born to be something but they somehow lost their vision along the way.
While you are at university, you should be spending time and energy – besides all your studying and partying! – writing and making personal contacts with anyone who is working in the fields that interest you, and stay in the forefront of what is going on in it.
I think that there are few decisions that you can make before the age of 30, no matter how wrong they may be, that you can’t undo. Don’t be afraid if you’ve taken a wrong turn, slightly!
Doug is giving a FREE talk on November 15, at 7pm in the MBSB, North Haugh. His new book ‘Freeze Frame’ is out now.
Visit his website at www.dougallan.com
Photo credits: Doug Allan