Wildlife filmmaker John Downer on how he convinced penguins to reveal their most intimate secrets in recent BBC documentary 'Spy in the Huddle'
The BBC wildlife series Penguins – Spy in the Huddle spends nearly a year in the close company of penguins, deploying 50 spycams to capture as never before the true character of these birds. Peter Moore talks to the series director, John Downer, about the lengths he went to to shed light on the creature we all think we know.
Our spy series of wildlife documentaries has been going for a while now, probably about 12 years, and every time we’ve picked an iconic subject. We started with lions, then elephants and then, most recently, polar bears. There’s always been an iconic animal at the heart of it.
The other thing about the spy series is that they are always about animals that people think they know.
Our style is to get in close, spend a huge amount of time with the animal, filming from every single angle, as close as we can be and reveal something new about their behaviour and their character. Penguins seemed a perfect fit.
How was this series similar to previous ones?
When we did the polar bear series, we followed two groups – one was trapped on land, the other was off hunting on the ice. We were comparing the two sorts of life that they had to lead because of that separation. And when we did penguins it seemed that we could take that kind of storytelling, where you’re telling the story of one animal and comparing it with the same thing happening to another animal.
The penguins were perfect for that. We had Humbolts living in the desert in Peru and Emperors in Antarctica facing the same challenges in life but in totally different environments.
That became the whole narrative structure of the series and allowed a great contrast between animals living at the edge of extreme existence, carrying out everyday life, facing challenge after challenge. They were very different but also very similar – they were both trying to bring up chicks in a tough environment.
The watercooler moment of the series was obviously the robotic penguin cams. How did they come about?
Every time we’ve done a spy series we always ask ourselves ‘What can we do to get our cameras closer to these animals?”
We’d never actually made an animal to do the filming. It’s always been an inanimate object. It might move around but it’s based on part of the environment.
I think what happened with penguins is the coming together of all the ideas we’d had and technology reaching a point that it could happen. Our spy cameras were originally all very, very big. We always shot in HD and HD cameras were traditionally huge.
What’s happening now is technology is allowing things to become smaller. It allows more possibilities. We suddenly had this breakthrough moment when we realised that the spy camera could become the animal.
Once we got on that path and investigated the whole concept of using a walking penguin with a camera in it’s eye, it became reality. That was a sort of step forward.
Were you surprised by the kind of footage you got?
Yes and no. We knew it would allow us to get close to these animals. But with the Humbolts, for example, say, we had no idea how important the robots would become. You can’t get close to Humbolts without disturbing them. If they see you a 100-metres away, they’ll run. Put a penguin cam walking among them and they don’t look up.
We weren’t expecting the kind of interactions we got either. We never imagined other penguins courting it and jealousies. It was television magic, but we didn’t plan it.
What was the development process?
Basically, we make prototypes and test them on the first shoot. Then we come back and develop them more. There’s always the process of getting more and more cameras, more and more devices, and developing those.
One of the biggest surprises was how valuable egg cams became. They were easy to leave, they filmed for hours, ten hours at a time, and we didn’t know what they were going to capture. But over that period of time they begin to capture magic.
But in the end, it’s the combination of all these different cameras, all the different viewpoints that you get from all of them, that makes the series special.
The penguin cams are pretty sophisticated. Who made them?
It was a combination of people, actually. No one person had all the skills needed. The walking penguin cams, for example, needed the expertise of robot engineers in the States, model-making skills in the UK and, of course, our very own camera skills. It was the combination of a lot of talent to make them. But the great thing was that people were so intrigued by the project and wanted to do it, we were able to bring that kind of team together and come up with something so extraordinary.
Did they exceed your expectations?
Definitely. From the initial idea to where we got with it, we went a lot further than we dreamed of. That’s always what you hope but you never know until you get there. The underwater robot penguin was an extraordinary breakthrough because there is no footage ever shot like that. You’re actually swimming with them. Really extraordinary.
Where are the penguin cams now?
I’m sitting surrounded by them actually. They’ve taken on a life of their own. So I’ve got (counting) one, two, three, four, five six just sitting in my office.
Did you fool the real penguins from the start?
We had a very rough prototype that we took out on the first shoot to the Falklands. Very often, the first shoot is an experimental one, to see how the animals you are filming are going to react. We could see the penguin cams were going to work, but they weren’t quite realistic enough.
And the penguins picked up on that?
Yes. We were getting useful shots from it, which we included in the series, but it was when we came back with the more sophisticated devices that it suddenly took it to another level. The penguin cams were actually accepted as a penguin – maybe a slightly strange penguin, but a penguin nonetheless.
Before, our spy cams were just non-threatening devices but the animals weren’t fooled by them. The penguin cams got another level of acceptance. The other penguins started fighting it, courting it. We didn’t know that was going to happen.
Have you got any other creature cams on the drawing board?
We are filming dolphins next, but I can’t say what the spy cameras will be. We’ve been filming for a couple of months and already we’ve captured some amazing revelations. That should be out at the end of the year.