Nature documentaries can be amazing: The majestic scenery, the wild bird’s melodic call, the killer snake’s dramatic close-up, the lion’s gruesome assault on the savanna. But these documentaries’ awesome spectacles hide the obstacles that go into capturing them. While human participants generally offer some degree of decorum, animals don’t sign consent agreements or take direction.
Memoirs by wildlife filmmakers show just how challenging it is to navigate the line between the real and the visual while working with wild animals. For this post, I read two memoirs, Snarl for the Camera: Tales of a Wildlife Cameraman by James Gray and Shark Tracker: Confessions of an Underwater Cameraman by Richard Fitzpatrick.
The memoirs share themes. Both writers fell in love with animals and nature as children, and both studied everything they could about them, either through university studies in Fitzpatrick’s case or more independently in Gray’s case. Both books recount experiences with different species. Gray and Fitzpatrick face perils when the animals get shy or aggressive before the camera, and they also face equipment issues in getting just the right shots and hauling expensive equipment around the globe.
Richard Fitzpatrick’s memoir had “shark” in the title so of course I had to read it. A specialist in filming marine life, particularly around Australia, Fitzpatrick recounts meeting undersea creatures both exotic and mundane: great white sharks, grey nurse sharks, eels, squids, jellyfish, clownfish (like Dory), and pearlfish, which take shelter in a sea cucumber’s anus. While majestic sharks and other venomous creatures comprise some of his filming obstacles, what was the most troublesome? Spawning coral. He writes
Of all the events I have to film, coral spawning stresses me out the most. Getting the location, the timing and the light right is one thing — then you have to hope that the sea conditions will be favourable.
With four years lapsing before successfully getting that footage, no wonder it is so stressful.
Filming underwater with sea creatures poses multiple threats: oxygen depletion, decompression sickness, equipment failure, and animal attacks. Despite them, Fitzpatrick maintains an energy and excitement about interacting with and filming these creatures. He also recounts a couple of occasions when he plays jokes on other scientists and divers, not to mention his own injuries and hospital runs.
Not all of the challenges in filming wildlife come from the animals. One incident in particular caught my attention because it resonates with Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about Tilikum the killer whale, his horrible living conditions, and his killing of his handlers. In 2003 Sea World in Australia planned a shark exhibit, and Fitzpatrick was asked to examine the condition of a captured tiger shark. He concluded that the shark, which was held in too small of a space for it to move freely and thus was damaging its body (and probably its mind), should be let go. The backlash he experienced was swift, isolating, and defamatory. Even Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, accused him.
While Fitzpatrick’s recollections focus mostly on filming under the sea, Gray’s memories stay mostly on dry land. Gray offers experiences in filming a wide variety of animals from around the globe: polar bears, panda bears, caimans, fiu-fius, stick nest rats, gibbons, and vultures. What I appreciate about Gray’s memoir is the level of detail he provides in his writing. He delves more into the process of getting just that right shot, which often results from a series of near and far misses and a handful of successes.
Some of these processes might raise an eyebrow. In one assignment, Gray needed a shot of a cricket with a fly on its back. Crickets jump, and flies, well, fly, so how … ? Gray explains their staging:
We put a dead fly on the back of a live cricket. At first the cricket’s movements unseated its jockey, but with the application of a drop of superglue, we had that shot.
In another assignment, Gray needed to film human lice laying eggs. He jokes about his previous experience with lice as a parent: “Poisoning them, squashing them and eliminating them with eye-stinging shampoo were more in my line.” But then he learns that in order for the lice to breed, they need a steady diet of human blood. To feed them, Gray volunteers his own arm as a food source, and he donates his own hair stuck in plasticine for their egg-laying site. The jokes continue: “Lice that refuse to breed sounds like a dream come true for people working in public health, but for me it was a problem.” This kind of humor weaves throughout the book.
Gray in particular focuses on equipment and its uses in getting just the right shot. He mentions using a wind-up Bolex for his first film. Weather hazards affect camera performance, and some shoots require getting down into the mud or freezing in arctic winds. Getting aerial shots from a helicopter require rigging the camera with bungees. Gray also explains something he calls “camera courage,” which arrests the dangerous reality of the animal on the other side of the lens, rendering it a “harmless” image instead. This courage appeared while he tried to film a panda and an elephant, but someone pulled him away just in time.
The biggest surprise of wildlife filmmaking to those used to seeing the drama and glamour of nature documentaries? Waiting. According to both Fitzpatrick and Gray, waiting is the hardest part. Fitzpatrick notes the “hours of utter boredom that come hand in hand with shark research. Discovery Channel never show that side of things on their ‘Shark Week’ documentaries, but in reality waiting makes up larger proportion of the job.” Gray recalls days of strategic waiting for hearing mating calls or capturing polar bears emerging from their winter dens.
Both authors share concluding thoughts in their memoirs. Fitzpatrick ends with “Richard’s Rules,” which include treating airlines with respect when checking in camera cases, wearing “rubber gloves when handling electric animals,” and staying “away from the pointy end of a shark.” James ends with a rumination about his intentions toward becoming a cameraman in the first place: “In light of my experience though, I’m not quite sure how much I have been helping to save the world, and I’m even starting to wonder whether being a cameraman puts me on the side of the good guys at all.” He also wonders about these wildlife films just being free adverts for the tourism industry.