Filming in the Wild

People often ask wildlife film-maker Alastair Fothergill about the risks involved in making a wildlife film, and he always tells them that the most dangerous part of his job is driving to Heathrow! "If you think you are in danger from an animal th...

Alastair is chatting to me on a break from promoting his latest project, a cinematic version of BBC TV's 'Planet Earth' series. He was series producer for this, described as the ultimate portrait of our planet. The programme took four years to make in 200 locations worldwide, and while out in the field, the team shot extra material for the movie and developed a separate storyline, narrated by the actor Patrick Stewart.

Following the sun's journey north to south, the film looks at its seasonal influence on the planet as seen through the eyes of a polar bear and her cub, an elephant and her calf, and a humpbacked whale and her calf.

In the movie, the elephants battle a sandstorm and sadly one youngster becomes separated from the herd. And a polar bear struggles on thin ice, a dramatic scene that highlights the effect that global warming is having on the environment.

"I think we have to be aware that things are very fragile and global warming is definitely happening. Anyone who doubts that is not looking at the science," says Alastair. "But I feel optimistic that for the first time people seem to be very engaged. It's not too late but we have to act quickly. After all, it's a beautiful planet and it's worth preserving."

Alastair fell in love with natural history as a boy living on the Norfolk coast where his father was a schoolmaster. Educated at Harrow School and the Universities of St Andrew's and Durham, all Alastair wanted to do was to work for the Natural History Unit in Bristol.

Based in Clifton, the NHU has been making programmes with a natural history or wildlife theme since it was formed in 1957. Its output has included Johnny Morris's 'Animal Magic' series and the major series 'Life on Earth' presented by Sir David Attenborough in 1979.

In 1983 Alastair realised his dream. "After I graduated I came down here and got my first job. I was very lucky."

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Over the years he has worked on 'The Really Wild Show', 'Wildlife on One' and while on 'Reefwatch' he was part of the team that developed live broadcasting from beneath the sea.

He went on to work on 'The Trials of Life' with Sir David Attenborough, and in 1993 produced 'Life in the Freezer', a programme that celebrated the wildlife of the Antarctic and which was again presented by Sir David Attenborough. Alastair describes the legendary naturalist and broadcaster as "a total inspiration and a great communicator. He was a joy to work with."

"We have to be aware that global warming is definitely happening. But I feel optimistic that for the first time people seem to be very engaged"

In 1992 Alastair was appointed Head of the BBC Natural History Unit but stepped down six years later to concentrate on producing 'The Blue Planet'. Using submersibles to dive to 4,500m, the programme explored the colourful coral reefs of the tropics, to the eerie frozen seas. Viewers were taken on a journey to the abyss - the deep sea where new species were discovered on almost every dive - and were told that 'more people have travelled into space than have ventured this deep'.

In 2001 Alastair became Director of Development for the Natural History Unit and in 2002 he co-presented 'Going Ape', a film that took him to the Ivory Coast in Africa.

Following on from the success of 'The Blue Planet' , Alastair was a presenter and executive producer of an innovative live broadcast on BBC1. 'Live from the Abyss' used submersibles to scour the darkness of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

This brings us up to 2002 when he started on 'Planet Earth' and its movie version, which has gone down well with cinema audiences. For the crew, many elements of it proved demanding. "The main challenge for the team was the enormous range of habitats - the deserts, the deep water and the mountains," says Alastair.

His next project is a natural history of the Arctic and Antarctic. "Those wonderful polar regions are melting so fast so it's a challenge."

When he's not travelling the world, Alastair is based in Bristol, and he and his family have a thatched cottage near Dulverton. "We love it very much," he says. "I love the variety of the landscape and I am very fond of Exmoor. Many people drive past and do not realise just how wonderful it is and how wild it is."

Alastair's two sons are 12 and 7 years old and they love Exmoor as much as their father. But will they want to capture the wonders of the world on camera too?

"I am careful not to push it, but I hope they will follow in my footsteps." BY SARAH FORD. PHOTO BY MIKE ALSFORD