Inside the Green Room: Wildlife Filmmaker Doug Allan On His New Talk ‘It’s A Wrap’

Ahead of his career-spanning talk at the Northcott this October, we caught up with acclaimed Blue Planet and Planet Earth wildlife filmmaker Doug Allan about his favourite animal interactions, the biggest challenges he has overcome, and his first-hand experiences of climate change’s impact on the natural world. 

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Hello, Doug! You’re bringing your brand-new talk It’s a Wrap to Exeter this October. What can we expect?

Doug: If I were to summarise the content and feel of the show, then I’d say if you’re a person who likes those 10 minuters at the end of the main programme, the behind the scenes diaries, then my presentation is for you. I’ll be describing the are big days when animals behave spectacularly right in front of your lens. And the other quieter times when a deeper understanding reveals itself, a new awareness of the environment and what lives there. I’ll be talking and reflecting on my most memorable encounters.

Your wildlife filmmaking career spans over 35 years – how did you choose what to talk about from over three decades’ worth of stories?

Doug: It’s great to be able to cover a range of places, animals and stories – some spectacular, some hairy and dangerous, some funny, some emotional, from the north, others from the south (the two poles are VERY different). Mixing polar bears with killer whales with penguins is a great combination!

Doug Allan, pictured here as a middle aged man wearing a fluorescent green high visibility jacket, lies down on a beach with a camera in their hand. Behind them, in the ocean, a group of walruses.
Doug Allan, pictured here as a middle aged man wearing a blue fleece jacket and olive green trousers, operates a film camera with a long zoom lens while looking out over a large group of penguins in the South Antarctic.

What do you want your audience to come away from your talk thinking and feeling?

Doug: I hope they’ve been entertained, and that they have a deeper understanding and appreciation of how we make wildlife films. But I try as well to gently remind the audince that we as humans are part of the natural world. For much too long we’ve somehow just become separated from that idea, particularly we adults because we get sucked into consumption, monetary value of things etc. It’s very true about how we adults don’t inherit the world, we just borrow it from our children, and they all deserve to be raised with a feel for nature. I’d like to convey the message of feeling in balance with nature, not at the expense of it. Living on less to make space for more. But keep it fun to listen to at the same time!

Do you have any favourite memories from your career as a wildlife filmmaker?

Doug: The first time I ever was close to a big whale, when I did Right Whales in Argentina way back in 1989. This female was so friendly that she ended up pushing me through the water on the end of her rostrum. The secret with any whale is to be patient, take the time to develop a relationship with the individuals, spend maybe the first couple of encounters just at the limit of vis so she gets to know you. But then if it’s inclined to friendliness, you can move in. Eye to eye, only a couple of metres apart, you completely realise how much she’s weighing you up. Play your cards right in terms of body language and she’ll relax. Then just more patience and the chances of seeing behaviour will follow. There’s no greater compliment an animal can pay you than be chilled in your company. Exciting, humbling, it’s a wonderful privilege.

Doug Allan, wearing a Scuba suit, operates a camera inside a waterproof housing to film a group of whale sharks in the ocean.
Doug Allan, pictured here as a middle aged man wearing a black and red insulated jumpsuit, peers down the viewfinder of a film camera while crouched down in snow. Behind him, an artic fox.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a wildlife filmmaker?

Doug: I often work in cold places. So the right clothing is essential. Especially for your feet and hands, the bits of your body that are most prone to frostbite. And the equipment needs to keep working too. The secret is lots of batteries so the camera can be kept in standby mode so they generate a lot of their own heat from the electronics quietly humming away. The lenses may need to be winterised with special low temp grease if you’re going cold otherwise they just seize up.

How has wildlife filmmaking changed during your career?

Doug: It’s changed a great deal. I began with film and we’re now full on digital electronic image gathering. Back when we were on film, there was no way to see what you’d shot until the film had been sent back to UK and processed. Which mostly meant no feedback until the shoot was finished. Now we get the footage one day, look at it in the evening, improve on it the folllowing day! Much less stressful I can tell you. Technically too, we can gather images from all kinds of new places – by starlight, from deep down in the ocean, using drones to fly alongside avalanches. And the internet has allowed programme researchers to search across the world for new behaviours to film.

How is climate change affecting the locations you visit?

Doug: The patterns of weather around the world that used to be reasonably predictable from year to year are definitely getting more erratic. The melting of the sea ice in the Arctic is happening sooner, and the summers are warmer. The sea ice in the Arctic is a crucial habitat for several seal and whale species, and of course for the polar bear. All the ecology of the Arctic region is at risk from climate change.

Antarctica is also being affected, the Peninsula region that stretches out towards South America – that’s the most rapidly warming place on the planet. Winter temperatures are several degrees C warmer than they were fifty years ago. That’s changing the distribition of species of penguin like the Adelies, whose numbers on the Peninsula are falling significantly. When we filmed Life in the Freezer in 1991, we visited a location with over 20,000 pairs of Adelie penguins. 20 years later the colony numbers had dropped to less than 5000.

I spent several winters between 1976 and 1983 working as a scientist and diver on a small island in Antarctica. To get to one part of the island you had to walk over a glacier. Now, you can simply walk along the beach, the front of the glacier has melted back 50 metres in the last forty years.

Doug Allan (centre), pictured here as a middle aged man wearing a black and red insulated jumpsuit, operates a camera while on a small boat with a middle aged woman (centre-left), wearing a blue and red insulated jumpsuit and operating another camera, as they sail through an iceberg-filled fjord.
Doug Allan, pictured here as a middle aged man wearing a blue puffer jacket and brown trousers, sits on a grey box surrounded by film equipment, in front of a green tent. He is sat at the bottom of a mountain valley.

Lastly, have you ever filmed wildlife in Devon?

Doug: A few years ago I was asked to ‘capture the feel of Exmoor’ for a very low budget film about the SW of England. They wanted it in a day of filming, but I ended up spending almost a week there. I loved the wide skies, the wilderness feel to it. I filmed in the (comparative) quietness of late April, I remember the brightly piercing quality of the light after the showers. It’s crazy I have yet to do it, but a visit to Lundy on the north coast would be the Devon location top of my bucket list. I’d love to spend time in the water in the company of the seals there.

Thanks, Doug! You can hear more incredible natural world insights and stories like these during Doug’s talk at the Northcott on Friday 6 October.

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