Love travel? Check. Keen on wildlife? Check. Willing to risk being trampled on? Erm... We ask Planet Earth's Martyn Colbeck about a career on the hoof
With its heli-gimbals and high-definition cameras, the BBC’s Planet Earth was hardly short on innovation, but perhaps its smartest idea was Planet Earth Diaries – the weekly epilogue devoted to the heroics involved in filming the series.
Suddenly the unseen star of the wildlife documentary – the cameraman – was thrust centre-stage, marooned for weeks in a Himalayan hut in search of snow leopards, jerry-rigging cameras up gigantic dunghills, or plunging fearlessly into piranha-infested pools. It was ten thrilling Sunday evening minutes guaranteed to make your Monday morning commute seem all the more humdrum.
How on earth do I get a job doing that, we wondered in our thousands. Surely, for the footloose wildlife enthusiast, careers don’t get any cushier?
Now imagine this. You’re alone in a vast rainforest in the Central African Republic. It’s dark. You’re perched 10m up a tree, and below you are dozens of angry elephants.
“They’re pretty terrifying,” says veteran freelance cameraman Martyn Colbeck, who put himself in just this situation for the second season of Planet Earth, which broadcasts this November. “I could hear them below me, crashing through the forest. You’re totally out of your element, and if anything had gone wrong there was nothing I could have done. You feel pretty bloody lonely.”
Martyn has been filming wildlife for 25 years, starting with water shrews in a studio and moving on to specialise in “big, hairy, furry and aggressive things” in the remotest corners of the planet.
After a Biological Sciences degree at Birmingham University, and a photography course in California, his Eureka moment came while watching a BBC documentary on ospreys. It was, he says, “a brilliant film of the old genre”, and it prompted him to doorstep one of the production companies involved: “I just wandered into their offices with a few photos, in my graduation suit, and said “Any chance of a job?”. Despite his complete lack of filmmaking experience, they took him on as a runner. A few months later he was filming those water shrews for BBC’s Survival.
Since then, he says, he’s never looked back – and two decades on he was one of the most experienced cameramen to contribute to the epic Planet Earth. For the first season, he shot the celebrated sequence of hunting dogs in the Okavango Delta. For the second, he spent six weeks in central Africa capturing hundreds of normally elusive forest elephants converging on a bai (clearing) to excavate minerals layered beneath the mud.
Filming in the bai was relatively straightforward, but Martyn was also keen to capture footage in the surrounding jungle. “It’s impossible to track them through the forest because a) the vegetation is too thick; b) they’re spread out over a huge area; and c) they’re bloody dangerous,” he says matter-of-factly. His solution was to climb a tree along one of the trails radiating from the bai, film from above at dusk – when the elephants arrive in large numbers – and then sleep on his makeshift platform overnight, all the while hoping the elephants wouldn’t scent him in the dark.
All very well, until a huge bull elephant got wind of the climbing ropes holding Martyn in place up the tree, backed up on his hind legs, and started to climb up the trunk. “Thank God he didn’t reach the ropes,” says Martyn. “But I didn’t have a good night – any time he could have come back and tried to knock the tree down altogether.”
Martyn’s precarious position was compounded by the fact that, like most wildlife cameramen, he works either alone or in a very small team. After talking the shoot through with a BBC producer in advance, Martyn travelled to the CAR accompanied only by assistant James Aldred, whose main job was to get him and his kit up into the trees.
That kit included a high-definition video camera and a powerful telephoto lens, plus assorted ropes and tripods. “We had five or six BaAka pygmies helping us carry our equipment,” Martyn recalls. “Both James and I are quite tall, so it was quite an amusing sight.”
Once the camera was set up, though, getting the footage was largely a question of patience. “There’s not a particular script; it just depends what happens. You’re trying to get certain bits of behaviour, but almost inevitably something happens on the ground and you need to adapt and change the storyline. Sometimes you get nice surprises.”
So for the aspiring wildlife cameraman (and most of them are men), flexibility is vital. Martyn may ‘specialise’ in elephants, but he also shoots big cats, primates – “anything really”. And while it may seem glamorous to routinely pick up the phone and be asked to go to Tibet or South America, this is a career that disrupts relationships and can make it hard to live a ‘normal’ life. “I’m abroad seven or eight months of the year and I don’t really feel I belong anywhere. I’ve got two daughters whom I haven’t seen as much as I should over the past 20 years,” Martyn admits.
Setting aside those personal costs, though, he says he feels incredibly lucky and privileged to do the work he does. And Planet Earth, he thinks, has raised the standards of wildlife filming to new heights: “I’ll be surprised if those images are ever shot again.” As the series returns to our screens, brace yourself for another six doses of career envy.
Be passionate - this is a vocation, and you need to commit to it wholeheartedly. Opportunities are rarely advertised and fiercely contested, so you need to network and make your own luck. Many people enter the industry from related fields such as photography, natural history, or documentary/drama production.
Know your subject - read wildlife magazines, study wildlife programmes on terrestrial and cable channels, learn about animal behaviour and geography, visit festivals and exhibitions, use the web.
Get some experience - formal training is not necessary, but an introductory course can give you a useful overview of the industry. Wild Eye offers a sampler weekend run by professional wildlife filmmakers in Norfolk. Weekend courses are also run by BBC producer Andrew Cooper.
Make a five-minute film - “These days you can buy a broadcast-quality camera for around £3,000,” says Martyn. “So go out and make your own film. With the editing software available, you can now deliver a finished, crafted film to a prospective employer without too much expense.” If you can’t afford a pro-standard camera, start by experimenting with a camcorder – the more you practise the better.
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