Category Archives: Interview

Laos – the new Thailand. PORTRAIT & CULTURE PHOTOGRAPHY

Portrait/culture photography with the G9 and GH5

I recently went out to Laos on my first assignment as an ambassador for Panasonic to solo shoot a short film about the unbreakable bond between an 80-year-old mahout and matriarch elephant. Alongside the videography I took stills of the people, places and culture around this most beautiful and mysterious of countries – one that is so often overlooked in between it’s more popular cousins; Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I can’t recommend visiting this ethereal and magical slice of Indo-Asia; it’s one of the few remaining Asian countries that can offer you a genuine experience of the culture without hoards of tourists. You can have precious moments to reflect without running into paparazzi or drunken party goers (yes, even in Vang Vieng!) So if you’re keen to learn about Laos and what you can photograph/do in the city and villages – look no further!

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Humans – such a complex and fascinating species, and perhaps of all the animals that roam our vast planet. Over 7000 different languages spread over 7 vast continents, all 7.4 billion of us are as unique and beautiful as the atoms that make up our universe.

Without getting too deep and sounding rather philosophical, I am of course referring to the very nature that defines us as human – our intelligence, our curiosity, and our emotional capacity. These qualities are the very essence of humanity and is something we can all relate to – across all boundaries regardless of cultural, language and political differences.

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Faces are incredibly expressive for a reason. There are 43 muscles in the face, most of which are controlled by the seventh cranial nerve (also known as the facial nerve). This nerve exits the cerebral cortex and emerges from your skull just in front of your ears. It then splits into five primary branches: temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular and cervical. These branches reach different areas of the face and enervate muscles that allow the face to twist and contort into a variety of expressions. This is something I really love to capture when photographing people, I am inherently wildlife photographer but have been keen to explore what makes us as supremely evolved animals tick.

It can be trickier to photograph that moment in time where your person makes the smallest of expressions – which makes the challenge all the more enjoyable. In film you can shoot off speed and capture this more easily, I always shoot 50/60fps for people to highlight their subtle emotions rather than 75/120, the latter would only be in situations where my character is moving incredibly fast or for a special effect (usually in sports where you can go up to 2000fps). Again the eyes always draw me in because they are among the very first features we notice when passing by or meeting another fellow individual – so much can be read emotionally by looking into them. I mention looking into them – never at them, because this cuts you off from the persons true essence. I believe that a lot of portrait photography is about building trust, even if for a brief moment passing by, and ALWAYS ask for their permission!

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So first a little history lesson; and yes I’ll make it a quick one I promise. It is of course the summer season! But you’ll want to know what you can do with that amazing camera that you got for your holidays, right? 😉

Despite it being one of the poorest countries in South – East Asia, one of the things you notice, is that nobody dies of hunger. This landlocked country is known as the ‘fruit/vegetable basket of Asia,’ and most families manage, not only to meet their needs, but even to put an important part of their small earnings to one side so as to participate in what small futile pleasures that make life enjoyable. Laos is a country of smiles, where composure and serenity reign and from where a sort of karma and an invigorating energy exude – from your local flower lady to the monks praying for our happiness. Laotians say that this special karma, was born with Laos, many centuries ago.

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The Lao people (Hmong, Hill tribe, monks, Buddhism). With nearly 5 million inhabitants on an area half the size of France, Laos is one of the least populated countries in S.E. Asia (17 inhabitants per km2). Laos counts about 80 ethnical groups which can be grouped into 4 families. Each group speaking its own dialect and having its own customs, traditions, religion, etc.

Laotians have an easy-going, smiley and amiable character; and quite Latin (I’m half Spanish so just saying!) in that they generally prefer to take their time, the same as in their way of life, savouring each moment not overthinking or worrying about the future, unlike the hustle and bustle of other mega Asian countries or indeed our own. This is one of the things that decidedly give this country its exceptional charm, completely the opposite to the Vietnamese or even Thai restlessness – which is partly why I wanted to visit this staggeringly beautiful country. It’s so often overlooked for it’s more famous surrounding countries.

Whilst the Laotians primarily practice Bhuddism, Hmong people are traditionally animist, worshipping the spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment. Shamans (Ouanung) are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in moments of ill health and village adversity. It tends to be that a spirit is upset and offerings such as livestock are made at the spirit’s request. Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits – and you can buy their amazing jewellery and hand crafted artisan gifts in the night market..

Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please them. During Hmong new year white paper is put on the columns of the house and a chicken is killed in their honour; and there were certainly plenty of them going around (waking me up at 3am every morning!)

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Monks – it is estimated that about 1 in 3 male Laotians join a monastery for at least some period of their lives, ranging from a few months or years to an entire lifetime. Most novices enter monastic life at an early age, learning the ancient chants and sutras, while also attending a regular school with a curriculum similar to that followed by most young students around the world. For many children in rural areas of Laos, joining a monastery is the only available option for education. Life in the monasteries can be tough and some novices from remote communities are only able to visit their families once or twice a year. The young monks follow a strict daily routine, living communally, sharing food and daily chores.

 

Camera: G9

The low down on the G9 before we get technical; this camera packs a powerful punch in terms of features. From the 4K, 60P, 4:2:2 GH5 goodness that was released late last year (I’ve been shooting with since February 2017), came the photographic brother that boasts:

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  • No Optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter
  • 20MP micro four thirds sensor
  • ISO sensitivity from 200-25600.
  • 5-axis Sensor-shift Image Stabilization
  • 3″ Fully Articulated Screen
  • 3680k dot Electronic viewfinder
  • 20.0 fps continuous shooting
  • Built-in Wireless
  • 658g. 137 x 97 x 92 mm
  • Weather Sealed Body
  • 6.5-stop built-in image stabilization system
  • 4K UHD recording in 24/25/30/50/60p.
  • Full HD recording in 25/30/50/60p.
  • Long GOP compression.
  • 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 video resolution high-speed video recording up to 60fps.
  • Full HD high-speed video recording up to 180fps
  • CINELIKE D and CINELIKE V photo styles.
  • Depth from Defocus AF.
  • Mini jack input for an external microphone.

 

The Lumix G9 gets the same 20.3MP Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor as the Lumix GH5, which means that, as on that camera, there’s no low-pass filter. And if 20.3MP isn’t quite enough resolution for you, the G9 also features a new High Resolution mode, which outputs files at the magnificent equivalent 80MP. This works by combining eight images that have been taken in rapid succession, with small sensor shifts between each one, which means that, unlike with some rival systems, a tripod is a must when using this mode. Whilst I don’t use this mode because of storage  (the 20MP images are amazing enough as they are!) it’s a nice little feature to show off with. In timelapse mode you can go all out with this and pan/crop as far in as you want. The auto focus is ridiculously fast, even a cheetah couldn’t outrun this little baby feature and it’s one of the quickest on the market.

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The double SD card slot means you can shoot jpegs on one card and RAW on the other which is quite handy when you decide if you want to keep the JEPEGs or vice versa.

Ergonomically I love this camera – the buttons sit right where you fingers rest where with the tip your finger you can zoom in before pressing the shutter button (a specialism of this model for telephoto users – hence why this is geared towards wildlife photographers). Also I’ve put this through its paces in the humidity when hiking to caves and through the leech, tick infected jungles (!) and of course the (light) rain – and it handled this well. On a more recent trip it handled the freezing constant rain too, was really impressed by its rigidly. 

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There are of course video recording features like the GH5 but please bear in mind that this is not a video camera like its brother. So it has much less features but can still record both HD and 4K resolutions in MP4 format, 4:2:0 colour sampling and 8-bit colour depth, lacking the internal 10-bit capabilities of the GH5 so your video is noticeably more compressed. However, it is possible to record 8-bit 4:2:2 in 4K 30p via an external recording device, I’ve always got my trusty Atomos Ninja Inferno to do the job.

The responsiveness of the camera was perhaps the standout feature for my day with the G9. After over 2,000 photographs the battery was still going strong and the results were strong in almost every case when shooting a timelapse – so this certainly bodes well with wildlife photographers. All in all it’s a great stills camera more than a video one (go for the GH5 or its newer sibling the GH5s) – you should give it a go!

And now for a little more technical details with examples from my travels, each with a key theme to help you decide what and how to shoot on your next project.

 

Key factors to think about:

1. The light – I can’t begin to describe the beauty of this country in terms of light – it is ever changing and so incredibly awe inspiring words can’t do it justice. Play with it. Follow it. Bask in it.… use it as the ultimate tool to create images that capture the nature of your subject – human, animal and/or landscape. ALWAYS shoot in MANUAL for such images, as well as in RAW so you can also have as much fun in lightroom and Photoshop (just kidding it’s more fun actually being there…). Remember to adjust your variable ND if you’ve got one on.

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P10442942. Movement – we are by nature very mobile, with our physical movements to the way in which we live our lives in chaotic urban settings or indeed nomadic lifestyles in the countryside. Capturing that sense of movement is fun when you use different techniques – so here I wanted to shoot a timelapse at one of the many famous night markets in Luang Prabang to highlight this. Using the 3 axis shark slider mini you can programme the movement with the easy to use app – video of that up soon!

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Shade – this helps with your tone and mood. A lot of black and white stills photographers will focus on the varying light and shade to get their feelings and message across – fear, love, joy, happiness, sadness, admiration, hatred, hunger, elation…. removing colour makes you think of how to tell your narrative in far more sensitive ways in a way similar to producers of B&W movies back in the 60’s would have directed their shots. Patience when using natural light to frame your subject is KEY!

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Playfulness – this is one of the defining characteristics that makes us intelligent mammals. It is seen across the animal kingdom, from dogs, to horses, tiger cubs to humpback whales – and again is a universal motion that transcends boundaries (or species). I feel that as a photographer you certainly have an influence in bringing about this feature – although children are the easiest to capture with this emotion; as they are devoid of the adult tendencies to judge, criticise and generally be more grumpy!

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Textures – peoples skin, their hair, their clothes say a lot about them as individuals. I don’t mean in a vain sense but you can gather a rich array of information about them as characters or background what they get up to and how they hold themselves. The culture in Laos as mentioned above is so incredibly rich and vibrant – it hits you with it’s sharp saturated colours, like those of a bold acrylic painting. I often think England  is the complete opposite, and draped in a sweet, soft glow and the light painting it in equally soft water colours. The food, dresses, festivals streets and of course magical temple offer this in glorified abundance. When first arriving in the Capital, Vientiane, my senses were overwhelmed by such a variety of colour, shade and patterns – all of which are a joy to capture.

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The remnant French archways and colonial architecture among the hotels and homes, the soft, large shapes of the many fruits adorning the markets and of course the magnificent sharp, elaborate temples – of which the country has over 100’s. I was very excited indeed to go on my very first ‘temple run!’ Such exquisite colour – would be nice to see such comparably colour in our own churches and places of prayer. In this particular temple, one of the largest and most superlative in the city, I used the 12-60mm 4.6 lens with a 46mm Gobe variable ND filter. It was a bright, sunny day, and whilst I would have liked to capture it during the golden hours, I felt that it wouldn’t do it’s full colour spectrum justice. I also used the Panasonic 100-400mm lens for some closer details of the statues and patterns adorning the holy site.

Monks are of course a central part of the religion and culture in Laos, and something that I was especially eager to photograph. Again the bright, bold colours highlights the amiable and fun personalities of the locals, whilst the actual reason for their colour choice lies in ……. At first I’ll admit I was rather shy and reclusive at photographing them out of courtesy and etiquette – but then you quickly realise that all it takes is a smile and polite gesture to your camera to ask their permission… and 9/10 times you’ll find they are more than willing to have their photo taken. This one was taken at the same temple as above.

Here I was rather lucky to see a group of young monks walking along the mighty Mekong riverside front as I went out the first day to explore – the light was perfectly aligned with one of the tallest of the (collective noun for monks?) group. I moved myself into position from the opposite side of the road and so that I could frame the rather beautiful verdant green parasol against them as they paraded along. Again this was with the 12-60mm and I did use photoshop to tweak the highlights – but I can promise you that the colours were just as vibrant and enchanting.

 

Emotion 

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I think this particular title is highlighted in all of the above mentioned – as texture, colour, shade all feed into our emotions and how we react to each image or film clip. It’s one of the most basic principals in cinematography and where the Director of Photography will work closely with the director to create a specific look and/or feel to the film. Photography also uses this principal and of course a lot of it can be touched up and edited in software later. This is quite often where all the magic happens (sorry to burst any bubbles – but I’m guessing many of you reading this are well aware of this!)

Washer woman cleaning off her dinner – people look so incredibly timeless in Laos, I could never tell how old she was.

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So a handy little anagram for what to look out for when photographing people include:

H- humour: So this can work both ways. They can be (and this is most of the case!) laughing at you and find your odd demeanour and camera geekiness quite entertaining; don’t wait for the moment to pass – snap away and capture the moment!

U- unique: What’s unique about your subject (person)? Have they a standout feature, eye colour, beautiful smile, scar, long/short/frizzy/straight hair? Whatever is distinctive about your person, make sure to celebrate an honour it by making this one of your focal points of the image. It’s what makes us all special.

M – movement: Just slow down that shutter speed and experiment with your person, especially if they’re moving. Adding a little motion blur to your image can bring it to life and give you a whole different angle to play with.

A – activity: What does your subject do? Are they dancers? Crafts people? Artists? Scientists? Whatever it is they do, try to photograph them in their element doing what they do best – not only will this make them more comfortable, but you will certainly make the image more genuine and interesting to the viewer.

N – ature: Try to capture and set your human in their environment, their natural habitat that represents them. I really can’t emphasize this enough, a single image of a person in whatever comes naturally to them is key to capturing their essence.

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My encounter with the people of Laos has been a magical one at that – their resourcefulness, peace and positivity reflects the equally majestic landscape where they are able to sustain and feed their families – securing a better future for all. Family is certainly a huge part of this country, and everyone plays their part in taking care of each other – with young girls cooking, cleaning and taking care of elderly relatives – with the men earning a living in the farms and wives working like wonder women in the rice paddy fields. For me the most surprising thing was seeing how happy they were compared to another poor country I recently visited, Kenya. I can now see and understand this to be partly due to the abundance of food which is far more readily available than it is in Africa. But also the spiritual belief and conviction they have that their Buddha/deity/spirit guide will help them live a prosperous life in the here and now – as well as the next should the reincarnation cycle not be broken…

Until the next post – all about the wildlife in Laos!

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Interview with Digital FilmMaker Magazine

I was recently interviewed for one of my favourite magazines – Digital FilmMaker! Here is the original with some of my photos from my ‘A Lion’s Tale’ shoot in Kenya; exactly a year ago. Hope you enjoy it and feel inspired to do your own!

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  1. Why will this project be of interest to readers of Digital FilmMaker?

Hopefully this will be of interest to anyone wanting to shoot their first short film and have only just begun to delve into this creative, thrilling world of visual storytelling. Also, that it is indeed possible to do on a very small budget, whilst travelling to amazing places in the process! Natural history differs to drama in that you cannot predict what the wildlife ‘characters’ will do; or control a great deal of external environmental factors. However, with careful planning and preparation during the pre-production stage; it is possible to make an emotive and personal human-wildlife story that resonates with your target audience.

  1. What had you done project wise in the lead up to this?

This was one of the first and biggest project that I was completely involved in. I studied Zoology during my undergraduate years and played around with cameras in different university societies; but nothing on this scale. I lived in southern Spain all my life before moving to the UK to study as an 18-year old, and upon graduating I then came to Bristol to pursue an MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University of West England. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to get into filmmaking (since I was 12), growing up watching David Attenborough and living in the countryside greatly inspired me. However, there was no academic support in Spain for me to progress in this field, and so dreamed of getting into camerawork and research at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol; where a staggering 40% of the world’s wildlife documentaries are made. The Master’s course certainly helped me achieve this, and part of the MA involved making our own film, drawing upon all the skills we learned alongside it. Whilst my academic background was scientific, I had always loved being creative as a child; storyboarding, drawing and writing took me to the far-flung exotic and biodiverse places I saw on our television.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 21.58.46Where I grew up in Southern Spain – the light and birdlife greatly inspired me.

Watching producers and cameramen/women filming behind the scenes sparked my interest; combining the best of both science and art worlds. Then when I was 13 my father bought me my first DSLR, and could finally capture the Bee-eater birds and Short-toed eagles that were always tantalizingly out of reach. Armed with my telephoto lens, I wanted to share my passion with others but knew that being self-taught wouldn’t be enough to cut it in this competitive industry.

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I therefore had a lot of catching up to do at University; joining the Leeds Student Radio societies, television and photography clubs so that I could begin to create a portfolio and apply for the MA. This included a conservation YouTube Channel about local biodiversity, and two radio programs that I produced; Weekly Wildlife Watch and the Travel Talk Show. Whilst radio and LSTV taught me how to write, shoot and focus on story; PhotoSoc helped me to compose and learn about the fundamental principles of photography.

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  1. Who has done what on the film?

As part of the MA requirement, I saw the entire project throughout each of the processes – from the initial idea as a researcher, producer/director, camerawoman, sound, editor, SFX/mixer, grader and now social media manager promoting the content online. It was certainly challenging juggling the different roles, but I loved learning and trying out a variety of methods, techniques and styles from both the drama and natural history world. Learning through mistakes is certainly the best way forward in all walks of life, and by having total creative and editorial control I feel I’ve made something close to my childhood memory and dream. It certainly has been an extraordinary experience that I will remember forever.

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  1. And how did that utilise your individual skills?

With my camerawork, I attempted to adapt different styles of shooting as well as techniques to create a visual story that would suite a film festival audience. Such immersive filmmaking techniques include those seen on various BBC series capture the animal’s perspective to add an emotional level to the story, leading to a more powerful, captivating documentary. I attempted to capture privileged views of the lion in its environment, and learned a great deal about how different documentaries are made by analyzing the shots in different sequences.

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I shot in high speed in attempt to create a sense of drama for the first and last sequence of A Lion’s Tale, as well as with the use of extreme close ups (in particular the ranger patrol) for an immersive feel. The storyboarding of key sequences proved to be invaluable during the shoot, as it allowed me to focus on what I wanted to achieve in terms of framing, direction, action, speed.

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Early morning starts – shooting high speed with the FS700 and Canon 100-400mm.

Equally, I took the camera off the tripod and onto a small inexpensive rig to allow for camera movement – and emphasizes the feeling and mood for a scene. The use of jibs, cranes and float cams are increasingly being used in natural history to create dynamic movement and a parallax between the scenes as seen in drama. The development of gimbals has now made this possible, although I had to resort to a very crude version of one in the end – my arms!

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  1. So what’s the film about?

The Born Free story began with lions, and now 50 years later since the original film, A Lion’s Tale looks at the legacy that actress turn conservationist Virginia McKenna has left and the conflicts that lions and all wildlife face in Kenya. Set in the original heartland of the true father of lions, we journey to Meru National Park to see the Born Free team and Kenya wildlife service rangers on the front line of conflict and education. The world’s largest ivory burn is about to take place, as a symbol of Kenya’s determination to help all wildlife and stop the illegal trade. Will the next generation take up the challenge? Is there hope?

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This film reveals how Kenya’s new generation of conservationists is looking out for all wildlife, including the elephants, which is witnessed at the world’s largest ivory burn event – a symbol of stopping all wildlife trade and helping humans and nature co-exist. Gaining access to this historical event was one of the greatest challenges and provided me with the opportunity to capture a unique moment in time. It has quickly been adopted in the media with several feature films and documentaries have highlighted the event (The Ivory Game, Hugh’s Ivory War). It was a truly unforgettable experience, which I self-shot and have now begun to edit into a separate film alongside this production. Filming beside my heroes, both in the conservation and camera world was one of the highlights of the shoot. The worlds press and filmmakers were gathered to document it, and it was truly a sobering sight to see the 150 tons of ivory go up in flames.

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  1. Who wrote it and what inspired that?

The story of A Lion’s Tale began with my passion for lions and chance meeting with leading ape conservationist Ian Redmond.

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This love of Africa and felines started during my childhood, when I was encapsulated by the true story of George and Joy Adamson. For me, the purpose of making A Lion’s Tale was to emotionally engage and raise awareness – focusing on one of the major issues not only concerning lions, but all wildlife in Kenya. The original Born Free story captured the emotions of millions during its release in 1956, a time when our relationship with the natural world and ‘wild’ animals was viewed negatively.

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And so, whilst a large conservation movement was seemingly triggered with the momentum of a single film, it was the emotive driving force behind the true story about the real Adamson’s who released an orphaned lioness into the wild that led to actress Virginia McKenna to change her entire career and life plan – from actress to activist. I also felt it timely to produce with the upcoming ivory burn and Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species meetings in Johannesburg. I didn’t want to write a set script; and by using the characters’ voices in the film I hope this has allowed audiences to connect with and care about the cause – not be lectured on it. The major theme of the film is hope – an emotion that all humans can relate to and a message that I believe everyone involved in the filmmaking and conservation industry can use as a device to inspire and drive change.

  1. And who produced it and pulled the project together?

I was the producer of the project and responsible for all the script-writing, scheduling, budgeting, interviewing, shooting, etc. which did take extensive planning. After conducting all the research, calling and making the contacts; getting out on location was thrilling but accounted for only 20% of the production! Logistically it was challenging, Meru National Park is not a well visited park like the Maasai Mara or Amboseli. I booked a direct flight from London Gatwick to Nairobi to go and film at the Born Free office based there, the ivory burn and then a small carrier plane into the heart of Meru for the lions.

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Upon descending Meru, all I could see was a small office – no runway as such but more of a dirt track – then suddenly a giraffe galloping away from us in attempt to avoid a collision! However, the Born Free team and Kenya Wildlife Service were remarkable, they helped make the shoot a success – driving me to all the locations within this most beautiful and underrepresented of parks. The ivory burn was undoubtedly the hardest to get permits for; but with a lot a patience and incredible support from the Born Free’s president (CEO) as well as one of my contributors, Will Travers, I was fortunate enough to be able to film at the historic event.

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  1. Did you have much in the way of money to play with?

Not at all! I calculated a rough budget of £3000, as most of my negotiations brought the prices down and the park fees to film were waivered in return for me editing a separate version for them. This may seem ludicrous to most drama filmmakers, but in wildlife the budgets are far smaller and so this is where precision also plays a part throughout the production process. In total it cost £2600 for a 10 day shoot – this of course excludes all the pre-production and post costs as I was the one researching, filming, directing/producing, editing, grading, sound mixing; however the music was beautifully composed by MA student Richard Collins as part of his course. The facilities were provided by my university and the training in advance, but also a lot of practical reading and watching hours and hours of ‘How to…’ videos! Kit was also borrowed from the university and so most of the budget was spent on flights and accommodation. I did however set up a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise half the funds to go; kind support from family, friends and strangers alike. IndieGoGo was the platform I used as it’s less risky if you don’t hit your top target.

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  1. And what were your kit choices for this film?

Kit wise I used what was available at university; the Sony FS700 with the kit lens (18-200mm f/3.5-6.3), the 50mm f/1.8, 100mm Canon f/2.0 primes and the 100-400mm with the EF metabones adaptor. The telephoto was crucial for getting close to the action when it would have otherwise been too far and dangerous. This was especially the case with the lions! For sound; radio mics, Sennheiser 416 with the 522 mixer, and a Tascam for good measure – the latter was used to record atmos in the field. The wild sounds of Kenya truly are as vivid and vibrant as you would imagine. I loved recording the young group of school children who sang to us, it stirs up many joyful memories when played back.

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The film was edited on Premiere Pro, Pro Tools, and graded in Da Vinci. In hindsight, I would have loved to have taken an DJI Ronin MX gimbal, FS7 and a Phantom 4 Pro drone for the aerials; but very grateful for the access to the kit we had, especially as students. You are only ever truly limited by your own imagination.

  1. Where does it sit alongside the rest of your portfolio of work?

In terms of technical difficulty, time scale, and aspiration to make – it’s right up there! As I am sure many of you reading this have experienced, we are our own worst critics. However, this is one project that I was excited and dare I say it, proud to have made. It’s been a life-long ambition to meet my heroine Virginia McKenna, and never thought I would get to experience the true Born Free story alongside the incredible people who keep that spirit of the Kenyan wilderness alive.

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  1. So where are you with the film right now?

The film is now complete, however there are a few colour grading tweaks being done by a professional, as I now have the confidence to hit the bigger festivals! It was something that I lacked skill-wise, and could only grade and colour correct to a certain extent. I’m looking forward to the festivals and so far, it’s collected awards at six in the US, UK, India and Spain; winning recently at the Wild Film Fest in Falmouth. But more importantly, it’s been shared in the schools back in Meru where it was filmed, and where the real difference in changing attitudes towards these amazing animals can be made. They are the generation that can make all the difference.

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  1. How is it looking at this stage in the game?

All finished! It took me 10 months in total, with my fellow course mates and I recently enjoyed a screening of our films at the Everyman theatre in Bristol. It was incredibly rewarding to see in on the big screen with family and friends, as well as some BBC staff who came to support us. A project that you are so involved in does, to a certain extent, take over your life for a while – but it’s such an incredible feeling to see the end creation. Although I always say that if I didn’t set myself a cut-off point, I’d be forever editing! I received a heartfelt letter from Virginia McKenna, my main character, about how much she enjoyed the film – and that was very special indeed as she had a huge influence on me when I was growing up.

  1. And how do you plan to promote it given that this is such a competitive marketplace?

I plan to promote it through a variety of social media platforms; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. and by connecting with influential Born Free supporters who can use their media presence to share and connect the film with the intended audience. Equally by continuing to enter festivals, I hope to promote it further worldwide. I also shot some 360 VR ‘behind the scenes’ clips to showcase on my website, especially during the ivory burn. Tapping into this market is key to reaching the younger audiences or those not necessarily interested in wildlife. During the run up to the film’s creation, I built up an online audience offering exclusive clips and images from the shoot as well as other stages of its development. It’s really important to engage with them and respond to what they have to say; as well as offer any advice. They also want their voice to be heard.

  1. Can you tell us about the other projects you’ve been working on?

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 19.05.27At the moment, I am employed at the BBC as a researcher with the digital team – one of the most innovative, creative and energetic group you’ll meet at the Natural History Unit! I’m loving every moment, most recently we released exclusive Snapchat stories for Planet Earth II in the US, and now I’m working on another digital project associated with the Blue Planet series. It’s incredibly exciting as you get to help out in various productions with different roles. Film-wise I do have a couple of personal project ideas in the pipeline, and I am very keen to shoot another short using the superb Panasonic GH5 – watch this space!

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  1. How do they differ from this one?

They differ in that they are not located in Africa! I’ve always been incredibly drawn to the continent but now have storylines I’m researching in Australia and Japan, both having more of a cultural-human element to them. However, another short I’d love to shoot is more of a pure wildlife blue-chip style, and I now have access to better equipment and financing to facilitate the projects.

  1. What is your favourite genre and why?

I’m a little biased when saying I adore making natural history, but it’s something I live and breathe every second of the day. For centuries, humans have told stories to make sense about the world- illuminating behaviour, making order out of chaos and to create moral meaning. It’s the way we can comprehend and pass on information, with which we have the insatiable need for form and structure in the way we tell them. Natural History has been documented for thousands of years through visual, physical and audible means, whether through the primitive Stone Age depictions of a hunt through cave paintings, to the now pioneering ultra-high definition wildlife films. Nature is endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and as a curious person it’s something that I’m always passionate and keen to share with others. I am certain most of us have this desire to learn about the world around us. I do of course enjoy watching a great variety of programmes and films; adventure, comedy, sports, fact ent, animation and action! You can learn many lessons from different genres.

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  1. Are there other genres that you’d like to tackle?

Natural History will always be my passion – but I do believe you can cross-pollinate genres and get interesting results. A superlative example the award-winning success Virunga directed by Orlando Von Einsidel; where wildlife documentary meets investigative journalism. It combines elements of “The seven key steps of story structure” as described by screenwriter John Truby, and regardless of it being a non-fiction film, Virguna also contains strong dramatic elements and a classical story structure of good versus evil. Battles depicted through the civil war and conflict between the park rangers and the oil companies are also tied in with the need to survive, along with the desire to exploit natural resources for profit. These all conjoin into a single cause and effect pathway through the combined use of a ‘run and gun’ shooting style and profound emotive pauses. It would be interesting to try a more daring, journalist approach with a conservation story – thrilling audiences by being immersed right in center of the action.

  1. So what is the filmmaking climate like in your neck of the woods?

Wildlife filmmaking is quite different to drama in my experience. Whilst we are adopting more cinematic techniques and technology using gimbals and aerials to create a parallax and dynamic edge; the set-up times, cast (!), budgets, and approach are quite different. I worked recently on a drama set as a camera assistant and found the whole thing fascinating; there certainly are no repeat takes when filming a wild animal in action! Equally, whilst in drama you have many specialized roles such as focus pullers, gaffers, and make up; wildlife crews are noticeably smaller as costs for location shoots would soon quickly rise – budgets are noticeably smaller. Most crews are a jack of all trades, and you learn quickly how to be as multi-skilled and useful to a team as possible. It’s the most incredibly rewarding and thrilling industry, and you never quite know what animals you will see and how they will behave. If you’re lucky, you can capture unique behavior that’s never been seen before.

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  1. Are you at the stage of making any money from this as yet?

No, I decided that this project would not be for profit, despite my access to the ivory burn. I wanted this to be an educational and inspirational piece and shared far and wide; available to anyone with an interest in wildlife and Africa. Now that I know I can make a short film – next time may be different!

  1. So where do you see this filmmaking route taking you in the future?

I hope to follow in the footsteps of some of my filmmaking heroes; Sophie Darlington, Sue Gibson, Justine Evans – the best female camerawomen in our industry! But equally, I do want to pursue my passion for producing and continue to create compelling stories. I recently met the producers who worked on Planet Earth II who were incredibly inspiring- their work is truly in a league of its own. David Attenborough of course has been the greatest source of inspiration; and If I can make entertaining, emotive and compelling films that inspire others to want to make even the smallest of positive differences on our beautiful planet, then I’ll be a very happy earthling indeed.

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Virginia McKenna: Meeting my heroine

I was 10 years old when I stood up in front my my somewhat small class of 8 students in Southern Spain to talk about my heroine and great inspiration in life…Virginia McKenna. Having seen the Born Free film, and found out about the astounding efforts of the actress turn conservationist I felt compelled to learn more about this beautiful, spirited and passionate individual. 11 years later, little did I know that I would be producing a film about the plight of lions and my heroine for the Born Free Foundation! It truly is a dream come true and I am incredibly excited to share this with you all. I am certain you’ve all loved watching the Born Free, a story of true determination, passion, love and drama –  and one of the most successful conservation stories ever told all. Lion’s need our help more than ever, and this is why I want to share this story now

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After several trips to the car with various tripods, c-mounts, pro mic kits, radio mics, cameras, lenses, lights, gaffa tape, XLR cables, mixer… we set off! Virginia lives in a most beautiful part of the country, Surrey. The skies were clear and a deep azure, you could even see the reminiscent red silhouettes of the Red Kites as they soared with the thermals over the A4. Trails of happy holiday goers could also be seen with white airplane clouds trailing behind. I was reading over my questions with great excitement, I could not believe I was about to meet my childhood heroine.. she had been part of my early life through television, books and of course podcasts and audio books where her powerful words would inspire me to write, and read poetry about wildlife.

We were let into one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen by her incredibly passionate son Will Travers (president of the Born Free Foundation). He looked remarkably like her, with those dazzling blue eyes and handsome face. Down the bluebell woods which were dappled with a soft spring light, under the trees that whispered in the wind…and into Will’s gorgeous home to set up the kit. Gosh has he travelled. Adorned with relics from every country, the place had such a welcoming and warm feeling. The garden was such a retreat, with its quiet still and calmness– the birds and bees clearly sought refuge in this little piece of Surrey serenity.

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After discussing plans with Will about the trip itself and the interview, we met Virginia who had come up from her house.. I must say my heart was pounding! She was even more beautiful in real life and her voice so welcoming. We sat down and began the interview after setting the sound and framing with the cameras. From descriptions of the intense pulse of Africa, her Born Free role, her brilliant husband… to the future of Africa’s lions…to me there is something more remarkable than this woman’s countless number of achievements over the past 50 years. More than her bravery in changing her entire career path onto one of conservation, more than establishing one of the most successful animal charities in the world, more than helping thousands of individual animals and people through her hard work and determination.. it is her sense of hope and light that emanates from her. You not only see it but feel every word she says with such verve and passion that it truly resonates with you. I’ve conduced many interviews before but never felt so moved and inspired afterwards- her ability to listen is something that I believe has allowed her to help change the lives of so many.

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After the interview we chatted more about her love for Meru National Park, and I mentioned that I would be thrilled if I saw a naked mole rat (don’t ask me why but its something about their incredible evolutionary strategy which rather excites me..!), and she jumped in delight for my love of them, she was also a lover of all creatures small and mighty. We filmed a few cut aways of her in her garden and sauntered through to her stunning section of the house. Through the pathway an amazing view caught us by surprise, “That’s where Christian the lion use to stay when we helped keep him for Ace and John..” I had to restrain myself from squealing with excitement- CHRISTIAN THE LION! The famous lion from the YouTube video where he remembered his old owners in a fond and loving embrace. And then further down the garden was the most resplendent carving of a lion you’ve ever seen! By a very talented welsh chainsaw artist…the eyes were soft in contrast to the sharp, crisp details of his lustrous mane. Along his back perched a small butterfly; what could be more iconic as a sign of hope…Virginia’s very own butterfly lion although I am told he is called the Lion Guardian.

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After visiting her beautiful home, we thanked each other after an embrace and wished each other the best of luck on each of our journeys. This was the most incredible day of my life! There is always that fear at the back f your mind that one of your heroes, should you be so fortunate as to meet them, might not like you, think you’re somewhat annoying or downright  boring…but Virginia’s warmth and compassion came through and I felt so welcomed by both her and Will. I now see that this is their haven to retreat to after all the suffering they see with the animals they fight so hard to save. They are different to any other charity I’ve seen. They truly believe in what they do and care about every individual, and I feel greatly honoured to be starting my journey with them next week as I travel to Kenya, Meru National park- the original heartland of where George and Joy Adamson released Elsa the Lioness into the wild. It’s remarkable to think that now in 2016, the Year of the Lion and the 50th Anniversary of the Film, that the Foundation they set up is still going strong and making such a difference- keep up the hard work! And last week Virginia was awarded the Inspiring Lives Award in San Francisco- she couldn’t be more deserving.

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By Born Free Foundation. Virginia and her son Will by Elsa’s grave, Meru National Park.

Please help support their work, and also please check out my IndieGoGo site for A Lion’s Tale (https://igg.me/at/alionstale/x/11469504) for more details, and I’m giving $1000 to Born Free if we can reach our target; thank you! More to come soon about the story and film I’m making for my MA Wildlife Filmmaking course (Bristol BBC NHU) as I travel with my camera assistant Adrian to Nairobi, but for now, asante sana and Hakuna matata!

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Photography by the incredible Robyn Gianni, check out her work and where you can get her prints! http://www.robyngianni.org/

 

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Interview with Dr George Mc Gavin

Dr George McGavin interview about new BBC series, Monkey Planet!

​February 15th, 2014

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I had a very special guest interview with entomologist, lecturer writer, presenter and intrepid explorer Dr George McGavin! Was so excited to be able to speak to him as a huge fan of all his”Lost Land Series,” The Dark and Prehistoric autopsy. I had a bit of a hiccup when calling him via skype, as our sound system wasnt working and we couldn´t hear him! Thankfully our station manager saved the day and fixed the problem! We chatted about his two new series coming out soon, one next week about dissection on BBC 4 where we can “get up close and personal” with the human body and a very exciting 3 part series on Primates called Monkey planet that he was particularly excited about. He tells me about dissected and the incredibly talented Tom Yendell who paints with his feet and the incredible dexterity of the human hand in climbers. It´s rather good timing too as in animal physiology class I had to dissect a chicken the day after! I admit, it is pretty gory at first, but when you see how remarkble the internal organs, capilliaries, veins, muscle, bones and brain are, you begin to appreciate how complex life is. For his incredible Monkey Planet series, he travelled to Japan, to the Jigokundani Yaen-Koen monkey park to meet some rather precocious and pampered primatesand then to Thailand to meet another group who become particularly fond of his hair! He takes a look at the remarkable lives of primates (the prosimians and simians). Make sure you tune in to watch Monkey Planet on BBC one airing in April, its got some remarkable behaviour that has never been filmed before which is unbelievably exciting so we will keep everyone in Leeds posted on our website that and your fascinating two part series on Dissection starts next week so make sure you watch it!