The Saint sat down with Alastair Fothergill, alumnus of St Andrews and creator of Planet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet, ex-Head of the Department of Natural History at the BBC, and founder of Silverback Films. We discussed his time at St Andrews, career advice, and his upcoming Netflix series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, Our Planet.
Mr Fothergill split his degree between St Andrews and Durham, attending St Andrews as a zoology student between 1979-80, the perfect university for a nature lover. “As somebody who likes nature, I loved the West Sands, I loved the sea being there, and I loved going up into the Highlands.”
However, the beautiful surroundings were not the only reason he enjoyed his time here. “One of the reasons I kept coming back when I moved down to Durham is that the social life in St Andrews was so good. I felt that [there was] something about being three streets a long way from anywhere, I felt that everybody was very good at making a good time and having fantastic parties.
“It’s a very tight gang of friends which even now, over 30 years later, is as close and as warm as it ever was.”
After Mr Fothergill left university, he immediately started in a job as a researcher on the BBC Wildlife Magazine in Bristol. How did he know he wanted to go into this field?
“In my year off, when I was between leaving school and starting at St Andrews, I taught in a prep school. In the evenings I watched Life on Earth, the original series about evolution. I was utterly gripped by it. I thought it was the best soap opera ever, because the story of evolution is an amazing soap opera. I knew then that I wanted to make wildlife films.”
However, Mr Fothergill did not walk straight out of university into a job. While at university, he won a BBC competition, which was where his career really started.
“The BBC were running a competition in memory of a cameraman called Mick Burke, who died on the south face of Everest expedition with Chris Bonington. Basically, the competition involved choosing six amateur expeditions, giving you a camera, and going off an making a film. We did a trip to the Okavango swamps in Botswana, and it was an amazing trip. We made actually a very bad film, but I realised that a way to be paid to be with animals was through wildlife filmmaking.”
His degree in zoology helped with this career path, but he always knew that he was not destined to be a scientist.
“I loved zoology and I really admired my professors, but they would spend their whole life studying one bird or one mammal, you know, and I knew that I was always more of an artist than a scientist. “I used to write for the University newspaper, and I made two other films at university, and I always knew that my passion was to try and communicate my passion for the natural world to others.”
We discussed the fact that many students reading this piece may want to go into media in the future. Mr Fothergill gave his advice for people who wanted to follow this career path.
“If you want to go into the media, in the end it’s about communication. It’s about storytelling. Whatever you do: natural history, film-makers, it’s about telling stories about nature, sport, whatever it is. In the end you’ve got to have a passion for communicating between human beings. “The most important thing for me, actually, is proof that they are passionate about communication. So people who have written for their school or university newspaper, or people who have done radio, there’s quite a lot of ways.”
Mr Fothergill pointed out how advances in modern day technology can make anyone a film-maker, so if it’s a career path that you want to follow, the best way is to do it yourself.
“You can actually, with a very relatively cheap handheld digital camera, go out and make a film. So why not? It was hard for me, I had to get chosen by the BBC to give us a camera, but if you’re going on an expedition on your holidays or you’re doing something exciting in your holidays, why not make a film about it and edit it? I mean you can edit it on your laptop nowadays, with programmes which are written well and are free.
“A lot of people come to me wanting to be David Attenborough, that’s quite a common desire, but it’s the people who’ve actually gone out and proven their passion.
“The other thing that I would say is that I like people who don’t take no for an answer. It doesn’t mean that they should be persistent without being annoying, but getting people to tell your story, getting people to work with you on a TV shoot, you have to persuade people. They don’t necessarily immediately want to do it. “So people who are good at persuading in the sense of getting their way, in the nicest sense of the word, are important.”
Mr Fothergill also gave his advice for what he looks for in hiring people going into wildlife filmmaking specifically.
“When I look for CVs, I look for people who, obviously in my field, have a passion for the natural world. If they’ve got a zoology degree it’s good, but it’s not essential. I also look for what I call “muddy boot biologists”: the people who’ve actually been into the field, because in the end, t h e guys and girls that I employ g o out with camera men and women, they’re filming elephants and lions, so they need to be good in the field.”
Six months after his graduate job at the BBC Wildlife Magazine, Mr Fothergill started working on children’s programmes. After creating wildlife documentaries such as Life in the Freezer, he was appointed Head of the Department of Natural History at the BBC at the young age of 32. It was in these years within the department that he made Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Frozen Planet, arguably the most popular nature documentaries of all time. However, in 2012 he decided to leave the BBC and start his own production company, Silverback Films. Why this move?
“When I was 32 they made me Head of Department, so for six years I ran the Natural History Unit with those 300 people, and that’s a job you normally do in your 40s, so I’d done that early.
“Then I did Blue Planet, then I did Planet Earth, then I did Frozen Planet, and I got to the end of that and I thought I needed a fresh challenge. I’d done the biggest management job in natural history, and I’d made three big series: those series take four or five years to make, and I felt a bit like a hamster in a wheel.”
“In all my career I’ve always been really terrified at every stage. I always feel like I’m jumping in the deep end. When we started Blue Planet, I had no idea it would be successful, I was really nervous about it, and a lot of things went wrong, but it worked out alright in the end.
“I left the BBC because I wanted a fresh challenge. The BBC is a big organisation, and even when you’re head of department and you’re trying to change things, it’s like this enormous oil tanker that you can only sort of nudge. “When it’s your own company, you can create an atmosphere and you can employ the exact right people you like, and you can just try and create a really good workplace for people to do good work. That’s a very satisfying thing to do.”
Before leaving the BBC, Mr Fothergill co-directed two cinematic movies for Disney as part of their Disney Nature label. He is currently co-directing three further cinema films for Disney Nature.
However, Silverback Film’s biggest undertaking so far has been the creation of Our Planet, which is being globally released on Netflix on 5 April. It has taken more than three and a half thousand days to film, with 600 crew members working in 50 different countries in every continent. This series is different in subject matter to what Mr Fothergill has worked on before.
“The previous series I’d done (Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Frozen Planet), were principally celebrations of those habitats: explaining their richness, entertaining and educating their audience, and revealing a lot, and I’ve always felt that it’s really important you do that.
“Planet Earth was slightly criticised by some people for rose-tinted spectacles, not showing the destruction of the natural world, but we filmed the snow leopard for the very first time, and I’ve always felt that for people to care about something, they’ve got to see it.
“However, the planet’s been changing. On Frozen Planet, the seventh episode was about global warming, and that was on BBC One at primetime, so we were dealing with environmental issues, but I thought the time was right to do a global series that dealt with the challenges to the environment. Not in a negative way in the sense that we’re not going to film loads of rainforests being cut down or oceans being polluted, because we need millions and millions of people to see it, but within the narrative of the show we explain the value of the habitats: why they’re important, why they have a crucial role in the health of the whole planet, and the bits that are still remaining that we have to save and why we have to save them.
“The series though is the tip of an iceberg, because surrounding the series, launched on 5 April, is an enormous amount of online content, which we’ve done and developed alongside World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who are our partners on this project.”
This change from the BBC to Netflix was a big one for Mr Fothergill, having worked his whole career to produce content for the BBC. As well as the reach towards the younger generation, who will “inherit a damaged planet,” Mr Fothergill explained that it was the global reach that was necessary.
“The reason for that is that on 5 April, in 190 countries in the world (there are only four that Netflix is not in), half a billion people will be able to watch this series, and importantly, it won’t disappear. “Planet Earth 2 was enormous when it broadcast, but then it was on iplayer for a month, and then you can’t see it. The joy about Netflix is that it’s there the whole time and will be, and that’s particularly important for this project because we want to continue a conversation about the state of the planet.”
Why is it so important to have this conversation now?
“Every month, the online activity will be updated, and we’re building towards Beijing 2020, which is the next Paris. “Paris was about climate change, Beijing is the next big UN meeting. It’s about biodiversity, and so the aim is to make people realise that when I was growing up and I was making wildlife films, conservation was about saving the rhino, and saving the Serengeti. It still is, but actually now we’re saying to people that the very health of the planet, not just for animals but for us as human beings, depends on biodiversity.
“If the planet is going to recover, we need biodiversity, and that is what we explain in the series.”
However, it’s not all bad, and Our Planet strives to recognise what is going well as well as what needs to be done.
“I think that the bottom line is people just don’t want to finger wag, and there are still amazing areas of the natural world. One of the things we think is really important, and we have done in Our Planet, is we’ve shown the good news stories. “Just to give you one [example], we filmed an extraordinary aggregation (over 100) humpback whales, gathered off South Africa, that were feeding together. That was an aggregation of humpback whales that even four or five years ago you could never have filmed. The reason is that hump-back whales are recovering, because in the 1970s globally we decided to stop commercial whaling. We had almost caused the whales to go extinct by whaling. Within that period, humpback whales have recovered: they’re back to higher numbers than they used to be.”
In Mr Fothergill’s opinion, fighting climate change is everybody’s responsibility. “I think it’s really important to empower people, and say ‘Look, this is what you can do’. In our online activity, on ourplanet.com, there are things you can do as an individual.”
So, after almost 40 years in the wildlife film-making industry, it seemed like a must to ask Mr Fothergill the most spectacular sight he’s seen in his career.
“I’ve seen a lot of amazing things, and spectacular is quite a specific word as it refers to spectacle. “Of the spectacles that I’ve seen on our planet, in Malaysia I floated down a river, where in the trees along the river were literally hundreds of thousands of synchronous fireflies. They’re called synchronous because they flash together, and for miles down this river there was this flashing sort of ‘Harrods on speed’ – that was very spectacular.
“I’ve done a lot of work in both poles, the Arctic and the Antarctic, and the scenery in places like South Georgia, an island in the south Atlantic which I’m particularly fond of, is just so spectacular.
“Actually often in nature, the things that I most love are not so much the spectacles, but the sheer amazing characters of animals. A lot of my career I’ve worked with chimpanzees, and the joy of nature is that it’s so amazingly beautiful.
“I get as much pleasure from nature as I did when I was eight. If I eat too much chocolate, that doesn’t give me so much pleasure anymore, but the love of nature is never-ending.”
Our Planet will be released globally on Netflix on 5 April 2019.