Whilst many may dream of following in Sir David Attenborough’s footsteps, not many get the chance to spend two hours in the iconic Natural History presenter’s presence and fewer get the opportunity to get their individual questions answered in person.

This is the privilege the National Film and Television School’s inaugural intake of Directing and Producing Science and Natural History students enjoyed, each getting the chance to put three questions to David. (Applications are open now for the NFTS Directing and Producing Science and Natural History MA - more information at www.nfts.co.uk/naturalhistory)

David drew us all in from the outset as he informed the students how audiences are usually built for programmes and introduced the concept of the ‘inheritance factor’ when at least 50% of the audience is inherited from the previous programme.  This certainly applied in the days when there were only a three TV networks – and probably still does to a considerable extent.  He gave the example of Planet Earth II being followed by the hugely popular Great British Bake Off, - although he was quick to point out he didn’t watch cookery programmes himself!

He put his popularity down to the fact that he had been appearing in natural history programmes for as long as most viewers could remember.

On how he writes narrations, David said: “When I happen to see a programme that I narrated a long time ago I almost invariably feel that there were too many words!  A commentary should not blather but let the pictures tell their story.  It should never give information that viewers can see for themselves.

The attributes that make a good presenter are a lot more difficult to pin down according to David. “It’s very difficult to know who will capture the interest of the audience. Hollywood had the phrase, ‘does the camera love him or her?’   One person can be magic on screen while another can be boring for no obvious reason. There’s no correlation between zoological knowledge and being a good natural history presenter. If you can’t mug up on the subject, you shouldn’t be in the business. You’ve got to have a feeling for animals of course and have the ability to speak from the heart. What’s so unfair is that so few get the chance to demonstrate their talent and many get into it by accident, as I did.”

Still from BBC's Planet Earth II

David was vociferous when asked if Blue Chip natural history programmes have a future when there are so many wildlife programmes: “Of course they do. The familiarity of a species is seldom a huge problem.  We know that people love looking at apes. It doesn’t matter how often they see them, apes will always be fascinating. And if you can’t make a decent film about big game, you’re in the wrong business.  But the programmes have to be well filmed – and that can take a lot of money.  If natural history films are given the proper budgets, I am sure they will hold their place!”

The conversation then turned to the prehistoric as David was asked to choose which prehistoric place and period he would like to visit and what he would make a film about. “It would most certainly be terrestrial and probably Triassic. Surprisingly little has been done on pterosaurs.  We still don’t know how some of the really big ones flew.” David then regaled us with a charming story about telling a lady at a black tie event how he was making a film about pterodactyls gliding over the cliffs of Dorset, to which she replied, ‘Oh they are so lovely aren’t they!’ and turned away.

Still from Flying Monsters 3D

The narrative then swiftly moved to politics and whether David has ever been tempted to join a political party, given his considerable influence and respect. “I would like to influence no matter what political party is in power. I’m not a politician. What astonishes me is that politicians are expected to know the answer to everything! Don’t ask me about the economic effects of Brexit! I don’t know! But I do have strong views about CO2 and feel confident speaking about it to whatever party is in power.”

Technology was the next subject covered thanks to a question about whether new filming techniques affected the way audiences view nature. “I don’t think any filmic tricks have changed the audience’s attitudes.  I hope they have instead deepened their knowledge and broadened their understanding. Not so long ago, we could only film during the day so people thought that lions were lazy creatures since they sleep for much of the day.  But of course, at night they are very active hunters.  The more technically competent we become, through using high-speed cameras, drones and night vision and so on, the fuller the story we give. The aim of the natural history programme maker is to tell the truth about the natural world and convey the reality about what is going on out there.”

Continuing the theme of truth, one of the students asked whether there is a place for anthropomorphism (crediting animals with human emotions). “A certain amount is justified.  We inevitably judge what an animal is feeling by comparing it with our own reactions.  If an elephant flares its ears, trumpets and charges towards you, you can be pretty sure that it is angry - even though anger is a human emotion and you are, therefore, being anthropomorphic.  On the other hand, if you watch an elephant pick up an elephant bone that it finds lying on the ground and fondles it with its trunk, you cannot be equally sure that it is mourning over a dead relative.  So if you say that it is, you should make it clear that this in only a suggestion.”

Still from Frozen Planet

“You should not conceal the way things are filmed, but you need not necessarily declare it. The classic case was in Frozen Planet. We filmed a polar bear giving birth and in the credits, we credited the zoo where it was filmed.  A journalist noticed this and accused us of fakery because we did not say so in the commentary.  The midwinter birth is a crucial event in polar bear biology. It would have been impossible to film in the wild without risking the life of the cub, the mother – or indeed the cameraman.  But it would have been absurd and defeated the purpose of the film to convey the reality of the Arctic winter to interrupt and say ‘by the way this scene was shot in captivity’.  We were not shooting a documentary about the experiences of an arctic explorer.  We were trying to convey the reality of a polar bear’s life – and we can therefore use background music, or cut together shots of different individual animals or different localities to do that.  The question simply is whether or not the filmmaker is trying to tell the truth.

On how to inject emotion into a film with a hard-hitting conservation message, David advised that “you have to start by producing a rational argument using cold, clinical facts.  Pleading a cause without a rational basis is dangerous.  Nor do you necessarily have to provide answers to issues.  Broadcasting on a national network is a huge privilege only given to few.  It should not indulge in propaganda, no matter how high-minded the issue.  Instead, it should strive to present both sides of an issue with such force that it cannot be ignored.

Most useful secondary skills for wildlife filmmakers was up next and David had plenty of intriguing stories to tell. “I’ve always said if I get into trouble in the bush, the person I want to have as a companion is a wildlife cameraman.  They are the most resourceful people, and skilled at everything from sweet talking customs officials to cooking! They have extraordinary mechanical abilities. For example when we were in the Galapagos shooting in 3D, a tiny lead broke.  We didn’t have a micro-soldering iron to fix it. The cameraman solved the problem using a hypodermic syringe from the medical kit – the tiny point of the syringe was used to make the connection. Their ability to improvise is really extraordinary! A recordist once even used a hollow plant stem to inject petrol!”

A question followed about whether future generations will lose touch with wildlife and how to combat this. “The industrial revolution led to great numbers of people losing contact with the countryside. There are great advantages and pleasures in living in cities. I live in London by choice. I love the theatre, museums, and have a wide range of friends.  But I’m aware that if I didn’t get away, I’d lose touch with the natural world which I also treasure. TV is very important in maintaining a link to the natural world. So people now can be more knowledgeable than they have ever been about the nature world-wide.  And that is of great importance when the natural world is facing such grave threats”.

(Still from Hummingbirds: Jewelled Messengers, narrated by David and produced and directed by NFTS Head of Natural History, Paul Reddish. Credit Mike Potts.)

On which of his trips he had enjoyed most, Sir David chose a trip back in 1956 to get the first ever television coverage of Komodo Dragons – “it took two months to get to Java.  No one there even knew about them!” He then reminded NFTS Head of Natural History, Paul Reddish about their own ‘unforgettable journeys’ together to film birds of paradise: “Paul and I had good times!”

And on which three people he’d like to have dinner with, David chose Darwin; marine biologist, William Beebe, and Canadian author and naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton whose books caused David to ‘weep buckets’ in his childhood and was a ‘huge influence on me!’

Charles Darwin

David had plenty of good advice for young filmmakers and on what it takes to succeed: “One thing you want is dedication and the ability to take the rough with the smooth. Persistence and being serious about what you are doing is key.” And the best way to convince potential employers that you deserve a chance is to make a 10 minute film to show what you can do.

David left the students to ponder the role they could have in the future of wildlife filmmaking and how they can make a difference:

“You are the future. It’s up to you to change things about the way we look at the natural world and exploit formats, styles and means of transmission to find audiences that I haven’t even dreamed about.” 

Applications for the Directing Natural History and Science MA are open until the 2nd May 2019 and the course will commence in January 2020.