Cinematographer Bertie Gregory is the 26-year-old behind BBC's Seven Worlds, One Planet. He's already a 2020 BAFTA winner and has made a name for himself as one of the youngest and most sought-after wildlife filmmakers in the business. Along with Seven Worlds, he has contributed his talent to a variety of wildlife projects, including producing/hosting for National Geographic’s online series, WildLife: Resurrection Island and WildLife: The Big Freeze.
In our exclusive interview with Bertie, he shares the process of the creation of this epic wildlife docu-series and how he spent over two years shooting and exploring the ecosystems of each of the seven continents they examine. In addition, he also gives his unique behind-the-camera perspective on shooting wildlife, and how aspiring creatives can become wildlife filmmakers like him.
PH: How have you been? What's changed for you regarding COVID-19?
Bertie Gregory: Everything has changed. The majority of the work that I do is filming internationally overseas, but right now everything is on hold. One of the tiny silver linings, has been being able to reconnect with British wildlife. The reason I'm interested, and was first inspired to get obsessed with wildlife, is because I grew up in the southwest of England. Now that I film professionally all over the world, it’s very rare I actually get to see the wildlife I grew up with, so this period of quarantine has forced me to stay at home and get to re-know my local wildlife. It has been a silver lining because it reminded me of where my passion all started. It's always nice to remind yourself that you don't have to go halfway around the world to see amazing wildlife!
PH: There's been a lot of buzz around your docu-series Seven Worlds, One Planet. How did this project come about?
Bertie Gregory: My role on each project I'm involved with varies hugely. For example, when I work on a series for national geographic I pitch, produce, and am involved in the whole process, where in the case of a BBC series, like Seven Worlds, One Planet, I’m a cinematographer. There is a massive team of around 1,500 people also working on Seven Worlds, and as a cinematographer I'm hired on a shoot by shoot basis. There's an amazing team that does a lot of hard work, such as finding the stories, researching them, and getting us in the right place at the right time. I then go on the shoot with the director and we try to put the plan in action.
PH: How long were you filming and what did the editing process look like?
Bertie Gregory: Seven Worlds, One Planet took four years to make. There's about a year of research, the filming takes about 2 to 2.5 years, and then editing is another year. I'm involved in the filming part, so I was lucky enough to work on six of the seven episodes; I was mostly involved in the North and South America episodes. What was really special about the South America episode in particular, which was actually nominated for a BAFTA (very exciting!), was getting to work on many of the stories within that program. Often I’m involved in one 3 or 4 minute sequence in a whole hour long program, where in this case I was involved in half the sequences in the program. That was nice because it feels like you're a part of making the whole program come to life.
PH: What were some of your favorite places to explore and why?
Bertie Gregory: There were so many standout moments in this series, but there was one I was most excited and proud of. In the North America episode we filmed a polar bear jumping on an adult beluga whale. I was able to capture the bear hours ahead of time and hours before it made the kill cleverly set up the ambush. The bear swam out into the water, climbed on rock just above the surface, and then proceeded to fall asleep. It then waited for the tide to rise around the rock, and as the tide rose it brought the beluga whales, these big white whales, closer and closer to the rock. The bear then used that rock as a diving board to launch and jump on the whale as it swam past. Seeing that level of intelligence, foresight, and planning needed to line up all those things and manage to execute that plan was extraordinary. Polar bears are big and can weigh 1,500 pounds, but beluga whales are much much bigger.
PH: You have to be super careful when shooting animals. What are some of your techniques and tips for getting the perfect shots?
Bertie Gregory: On the topic of being careful around animals, the most dangerous species we encounter on wildlife shoots are always people. You have to be very unlucky to be attacked by an animal where it's completely unprovoked. More often than not the vast majority of cases where people are attacked by animals, it’s because the person made a mistake leading up to the attack.
In terms of tips and techniques for getting great shots, I believe the most important part is knowing the animal. You can technically be the best camera person in the world but if you don't know how to find the animal then you're always going to struggle. Sometimes on these projects that knowledge involves some of your own personal knowledge, particularly from somewhere you've worked before. In the North America episode, I filmed black bears on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, which is a place I've lived before, and I know those bears extremely well. This allowed me ti predict their habits, where they're going go, and how we must behave around them.
In other cases we rely on local experts. These experts are the key to our success. In the South America episode of Seven Worlds we were filming mountain lions hunting for guanacos, which is like a big wild llama. We were almost totally reliant on our two trackers Roberto and Diego. Their ability to read the landscape and pick up on tiny little clues to lead us to find those cats was critical.
So it's a bit of both -- sometimes it's our knowledge, sometimes other peoples. Your ability to get the animal in focus and keep it in the frame is obviously important but secondary!
PH: Can you talk about your perspective on filming? What's your approach?
Bertie Gregory: The key rule in wildlife films is that the animal comes first. What I mean by this is that it's really important that we are not disturbing the animal by filming it. This is important for a few reasons. The first reason is morally, you know we're meant to be the ones that are championing these animals and getting people excited about them. If we were disturbing them and putting their lives at risk, or influencing their behavior so that they are less likely to get a meal, that would be a bad thing. Our goal is to film natural behavior -- if the animal is disturbed by, or running away from us, we're not going to be able to achieve our goals. Those are two major reasons why not disturbing animals is critical.
In the case of Seven Worlds, one of the pieces of technology that we use a lot is drones. Drone technology just got good enough at the start of production a few years ago to now be a useful tool, not to just film pretty landscape aerials but to use these drones to follow animal behavior. Drones have the potential to be disturbing for animals because they can be fairly loud and they can go very fast. As a drone pilot on Seven Worlds, I worked extremely hard to figure out ways of filming animals with drones so we can reveal this new perspective on them, but critically in a way that doesn't disturb them. There are two ways of doing this, but again it comes back to what I said before -- It's all about knowing the animal and being able to recognize when the animals are happy or not happy.
I have to think about what kinds of things that make it unhappy. For example, animals that are preyed on by things that come from the air are going to be a lot more nervous of things like a drone. It starts by doing the research and working with experts because they're much better at being able to read the animal’s body language.
On one shoot for the South America episode of Seven Worlds, we wanted the viewer to feel like they were flying with a Scarlet macaw over the Peruvian Amazon, so I was flying a drone up in the air alongside these parrots with the jungle behind. To do that, I was working with one of the world’s leading macaw biologists to figure out how to get the drone close enough to the birds to film them and in a way so that they would allow the drone to be alongside them in the air.
PH: Can you talk about your experience producing/hosting for National Geographic’s online series, WildLife: Resurrection Island and WildLife: The Big Freeze?
Bertie Gregory: Those two series were a lot of fun to make and very challenging. National Geographic is the number one non-celebrity brand on social media. They have this amazing platform and the vision to invest in high-value online series. Putting that amount of investment in an online national wildlife series is something not many platforms do, and National Geographic is certainly leading the way in that area.
This allowed us to go for ambitious stories. In the case of ‘Wildlife: Resurrection Island’ we filmed on the island of South Georgia, which is a tiny little sub-Antarctic island right at the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean. It's a small island about a hundred miles long, 20 miles wide -- it's a little dot in the middle of the ocean. It's got 9,000 foot Snowy Mountain peaks that erupt out of the ocean and the island's covered in thousands of penguins, seals and albatross. The only way to get there is by boat, so we sailed there in a 50-foot sailboat through some rather large and scary seas. Fortunately we had an amazing captain named Kirsten. She is one of the most extraordinary humans I've ever been lucky enough to work with. Absolutely nothing fazes her even in the most dire situations in which engines and sails were breaking - she was always as cool as a cucumber.
The reason I wanted to tell the story of South Georgia was because it has so much wildlife - it can be really easy to think that this place was lost in time and untouched by humans. But that’s not true. At the turn of the twentieth century we destroyed the place. We hunted the whales to extinction, the seals to almost extinction and we released an invasion of egg eating that ran riot through the ground nesting bird colonies. We really hammered the wildlife there, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The reason I wanted to tell this story was because it has a positive twist.
Protection, good governing and lots of people behind the project has meant the wildlife has bounced back on an unbelievable scale. It's really a story of the best and the worst of human nature and showing that there is hope for wild places that have been destroyed.
You can watch that series on National Geographic's YouTube channel by searching Resurrection Island. You can also find the third season ‘The Big Freeze’, which is all about the Canadian Arctic. This one is a very special place where so many of the animals' lives are governed by an annual event called the big freeze; when the ocean turns from a liquid into a rock solid ice pathway allowing animals like polar bears and harp seals to live their lives.
PH: What are some other types of projects you're hoping to get a chance to work on in the future?
Bertie Gregory: I'm working on a few new exciting projects, but unfortunately I'm not allowed to talk about them because they’re secret right now. If you're interested in following my work, the best way would be to follow me on Instagram @Bertiegregory. That’s where I post my latest adventures!