Producer and director John Downer on how he created the BBC's most innovative wildlife series to date (with video)
The BBC series Earthflight took viewers on a journey like no other – into the skies to fly wing tip to wing tip with birds. From tussling with Alaskan bears to soaring with eagles over the Grand Canyon, Earthflight followed the migratory routes of a host of birds across the globe, offering a glimpse into a previously inaccessible world.
The series was the brain child of John Downer, a producer and director who has carved out a name for himself by creating ground-breaking and award-winning programmes. He talks to Peter Moore about the innovative technology he used to get those amazing shots. And what it's really like to fly over Venice with a flock of Common Crane.
How long did it take to make Earthflight?
Was that including research?
Yes, but we didn’t have a conventional pre-production. We were filming almost from the point of commission right up to transmission. Before the point of commission to be honest. We had such a lot of ground to cover. A lot of it was really specialised so we needed our specialist crews to hit the ground running.
Did the idea for the series spring out of the development of new filming techniques?
It goes back to when I first started. I was part of the BBC Natural History Unit, and I made this film called In-flight Movie, which looked at bird flight in the Wildlife on One series. In that I pioneered a lot of techniques flying with birds.
Of course, those were the days of film. We put a camera on the back of bird for the first time ever, a stripped down Super Eight camera, so the images were grainy. But still amazing images though.
I’m surprised the birds could take off!
(Laughing) It was amazing how light we got it! It was just a plastic cartridge and a little tiny lens in the end, and a tiny motor driving the thing along. But the image quality wasn’t there. It was amazing in that it was shot from the back of a bird, but on today’s big TVs it just wouldn’t cut the mustard.
So there were huge technical problems. We put gliders up among white storks. I filmed a bird flying in the air – from the air – for the first time. That was the green winged teal that I reared from the moment it came out of the egg and then took up in a paraglider and got it to fly alongside me.
Those were the early kind of experiments I did filming birds. A lot of time has passed since then, I’ve covered a huge amount of different subjects, but with the advances that have been made in technology since, I felt it was time to go back.
What were some of the new techniques that you pioneered on this series?
There are quite a lot. We’ve used a lot of different flying devices. As you can imagine, back then there weren’t many things people went up in the air in. Now there’s a huge number and almost all of them were used in the filming of Earthflight.
We had remote control drones. They didn’t make much noise. They didn’t have the shape of any predator, so they were quite good for stealth filming. And you can program them to come back if you lose sight of them, which we did occasionally. So that was a new technique.
We also created a glider that looked like a vulture and carried cameras into flocks of vultures. We also applied a lot of ‘spy’ technology from the Spy Series, The Spy on the Ice, which was about Polar Bears, and Spy in the Jungle, about tigers. The made heavy use of radio controlled devices, which were all used on Earthflight as well.
I read that you also used microlites to film imprinted flocks. What are ‘imprinted’ flocks?
It’s where you raise a flock of birds from the moment they hatch and they ‘imprint’ on you. They believe that they are your mother and they will then follow you wherever you go. First of all it’s just running along beside you. Eventually they will go up in a microlite and fly alongside you.
As you can imagine, it’s very labour intensive. I took them over some of the cities of Europe. I took them over Venice. We flew over Edinburgh. We flew over London. The microlite is the apex of the classic v-shaped formation. They are flying so close you could literally reach out and touch them. You can’t get closer to a bird than being up in the air with it, flying wing tip to wing tip. I wanted to translate that for audiences in Earthflight so they got that sensation.
Did advances in technology help you do that?
When we first started filming we didn’t have the cameras to do what we wanted to do. Thankfully, by the end of the four years of shooting we had a wide variety of cameras that let us do whatever we dreamed.
At the beginning, filming at high speed in high definition, we were still using 35mm cameras because digital cameras weren’t good enough. By the end of it shooting high speed in high definition with digital cameras had become the norm.
What were the most challenging birds to film?
The biggest challenge isn't a particular bird, it’s getting the behaviour. The amount of time you have to put in to get behaviour is immense. For example, filming baboons grabbing flamingos.
There’s no quick way of catching that kind of behaviour. It only happens occasionally and not always in a particular spot along a lakeside. You have to figure out the behaviour of both the predator and the prey to know where to put your camera and then wait and wait for incredible moments like that.
It was the same with snow geese being attacked by eagles in North America. We waited and waited and then suddenly we got the moment.
What have been some of the most popular sequences?
The one that grabbed the most attention was the brown pelicans flying above the jumping devil rays. I'd heard about them but never seen them. They became almost mythical but we filmed them and it was an incredible sequence. It is so extraordinary that it’s one of the most popular sequences in the whole series.
Filming the demoiselle cranes coming through a pass high in the Nepalese Himalaya and being attacked by eagles and peregrines was very difficult and took a lot of dedication. Even to just get to those mountain tops to look down on what was going on.
Each program is set in a different continent. How did you decide which birds to film?
Each continent has its emblematic birds. If you go to South America, you’re definitely going to do the Condor.
We tended to have a predator, a scavenger and a prey species. You’d look at the continent and decide which were the most iconic birds of that ilk. So for Africa, the scavenger had to be a vulture, prey species had to be a flamingo. And the predator was the fish eagle. It is a magnificent looking bird and we found it everywhere there were flamingos.
Are humans having an impact on birds?
Yes, but in quite surprising ways. We thought the impact would be negative, but there were a lot of positives really.
Farmers are going to protect their fields. But then you have a little place in India where the town is devoted to the welfare of cranes. And the cranes actually stop their migration because they’ve got such a cushy life there. They used to go on across India. Those are the nice surprises.
It was the same with condors. I never thought we’d see more than two or three at a time. Yet there were places we filmed in where there were 40 in the air at once. Near Santiago they put out decoy carcasses in the rubbish tips so the condors don’t go rooting around in the rubbish. There were a lot of surprising interactions, I think, rather than necessarily negative.
The other thing we found was that birds were hugely adaptable. There’s this misconception that they have fixed migration routes and are totally inflexible. We found that they were continually able to adapt to the environment. It was more a message of hope than despair.
That’s such a difficult question! I suppose in terms of the heart of what Earthflight was about – flying with birds – I just loved flying over Venice. The weather was perfect, the location was breathtaking, it’s a city I love and then to see it from that perspective with these cranes, flying wing tip to wing tip, is just so stunningly beautiful. To me that became the image of Earthflight really.
Were there any birds or shots you wanted to get but couldn’t?
We wanted to film eagles that are known to prey on young reindeer in the breeding season, and that was the only sequence that failed us. Reportedly, it was supposed to happen quite often but that wasn’t our experience. That was the only one that alluded us.
Can you see techniques that you pioneered on Earthflight being used in other wildlife programmes?
Definitely. We’re going to be doing a followup to Earthflight and that will definitely be using them. And as for other programmes, the only one I can tell you about, is a big three-part series we’re doing on penguins. I’m flying out to the Falklands in a week’s time to start working on that. That’s going to air in about a year’s time.
The other thing I can say is that we’re doing another version of Earthflight in 3D. It will be 90 minutes long, with all the best bits of Earthflight in proper 3D.
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