Making a nature documentary

What goes into making a big beautiful nature show?
09 March 2021

Interview with 

Elizabeth White




Everyone loves a good nature show, and there’s a fresh crop appearing, putting them back in people’s minds. As the climate continues to change, and not for the better, the messages these shows contain is more pertinent than ever. But what goes into making these shows. Elizabeth White producer of award winning nature documentaries spoke with Adam Murphy, as well as guests space scientist John Zarnecki and pharmacist Bahijja Raimi-Abraham, about her move from academia, to television...

Elizabeth - I was indeed a biologist at Bristol University with an interest in, certainly animals and animal behaviour, but I didn't really have any idea what I wanted to do after university, when I started. Very sort of fortuitously for me, I happened to be studying fish around the time that the BBC was making the Blue Planet series, the original Blue Planet series. And I was a diver and super keen on marine life. And I sort of applied to do some work experience at the BBC, and ended up helping out quite a lot with the original Blue Planet, because they needed someone who had a passion for fish and could identify fish. So it became a part-time job I did while I was studying for my PhD. I was very torn. Did I stay in science or did I try and move into the media? And I think I felt very much as if I wanted to do something that was more creative than sitting in a lab. And so I moved towards the TV direction, and luckily found myself at various points, moving into television production, or at least initially as a television researcher.

Adam - And what kind of things did that let you work on? What have you done?

Elizabeth - As I say, my passion was really on the marine side of things. And in fact, last part of academic work I did was I had a grant to go and work with the British Antarctic Survey, down in Antarctica. And I remember sort of coming back from that thinking, I was super, super passionate about getting back to Antarctica somehow. Within a few weeks of returning from that, I was called in for an interview at the BBC, and it was a series initially about animal migration and I'd worked on eels. So I knew a bit about animal migration. So I was offered a kind of short-term researcher job, and then that extended and initially it was a lot of work that was marine because I was a diver. So I was lucky enough to work on some tropical programs. And then out of the blue, a series called Frozen Planet came up, which felt like it ticked all my boxes for me. And so I interviewed for that and was lucky enough to get a job as a researcher, and then assistant producer on that series, which was a lot of fun going to both poles and doing lots of stories on penguins, and ice whales, and things like that. And that really kicked off my passion for what you'd call landmark television, for the big sort of Blue Chip TV. And that's really where I've stayed for the last 10, 12 years working on series like Planet Earth 2. And now funnily enough, it's all gone full circle. And I'm now working on another series of Frozen Planets. So I'm working on Frozen Planet 2.

Adam - And what's going into Frozen Planet 2? What's it about, other than a frozen planet?

Elizabeth - Well, the Frozen Planet 2, is kind of a more contemporary take on the series that we made 10 years ago, but it still has fabulous stories of penguins and polar bears. But this time we've opened it up to be all the cold regions. So it's really the story of all the cold and snowy places. So we have mountain stories. We have a film purely about mountains and high altitude cold regions. We have films about the Arctic and Antarctica of course, and about the snowy forests, but I think what we've done with this one, much more so than the original series, is focus on how these places are changing through the eyes of the animals. So in nearly all of the programs, you'll see stories where appropriate, of the changing climate and what that means to the animals. It's a very contemporary viewpoint, still got the same absolute lovable animal characters, and stories, and beautiful photography, but with a very sort of contemporary twist.

Adam - And given all these things that you've made, what is it you hope people take away from them?

Elizabeth - Well, I think most of all, I hope people feel more connected to the natural world. I think all of us who go into wildlife TV do so because we're passionate about the outdoors, we're passionate about the planet, we're passionate about animals. And I think so many people today don't necessarily have access to nature. And certainly in most of our modern lives, I mean, a lot of my time is based in Bristol where my home is. So I'm not outside in the polar regions all year and so on. And I really feel like I appreciate it a lot by seeing it on television. And I see places on TV that I will never get to go. I think for me, it's about that connection, hoping that people feel more connected to these places, and then understand how important they are and how they fit into, you know, us as a species.

Adam - For you. What kinds of things have changed since you started working in the TV business?

Elizabeth - When I started, and I think it's also true of science to some extent, I think as a woman, it was a much harder environment to work in. If you look back sort of, you know, a hundred years, women obviously didn't work in science. If you look back to when I was born, my mother's generation couldn't go to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, women weren't allowed. And I think when I started in television, it was a world that felt like it had a lot of men. There were a lot of rufty tufty explorer types, making TV. And I think one of the nicest things is how that's really shifted. Certainly sort of 10 years ago, we started to see some really fantastic female producers coming through. And they've obviously moved on, become series producers and execs. And now today, the business feels in terms of the editorial side, much more even. Women can be fabulous storytellers. Women can be fabulous camera operators too. And I think that's a side of the business that's slower catching up. There are a lot less women operators out there than men, but certainly on the directing, producing, logistics side of production management, it feels like a really thriving industry for women to work in.

Adam - And then, Bahijja, just to come over to you for a moment. Do you love a good nature documentary? What are your thoughts on watching them?

Bahijja - I do love a good nature documentary. In fact, I was trying not to a hundred percent fangirl when Elizabeth was talking, I am obsessed with Frozen Planet. I like anything to do with the sea. And because I just think it's still such an underexplored area, and also Antarctica as well. So yeah, I love it.

Adam - And what about you, John?

John - Yes, of course. And, and one of the things that amazes me, I mean, apart from being incredible locations and animals is how over the years, because I've been watching these programs for many years, how the, I suppose the technology, but the photography, how it's changed dramatically over the years. It's just totally stunning now. I mean, I still remember the grainier images that we used to see, and cameras being more fixed, less flexible, less sensitive. So I mean that aspect, I think has given enormously greater opportunity and potential to program makers.

Adam - Have you seen that sort of technology shift Elizabeth?

Elizabeth - Very much so. Yes. When I started, it was very much still on tape. I missed film, film thankfully was largely in the archive, but everything was on tape and then it all shifted to be digitally captured. And now of course the great thing is the size. So cameras are so much smaller, which makes a big difference to us when we're taking things all around the world. You know, we're all very conscious of our carbon footprints. And if you can reduce the amount of excess baggage and technology you take with you, that's fabulous. But it also, having smaller cameras means that obviously you can do more with them. So these lovely gyro stabilised rigs that allow you to sort of move around as if you're flying and floating. And then obviously more than anything for me, I think has transformed the world is the use of drones being able to put a drone up in the sky somewhere where you would never get a helicopter. I mean, it means a lot less disturbance to the wildlife number one, but also allows you to get a perspective that you just couldn't get before. So it's exciting. It's a really exciting time to work in this industry, actually.


Add a comment