Wildlife Filmmaker Gordon Buchanan On ‘Animals with Cameras’

In our latest podcast episode, NATURE executive producer Fred Kaufman speaks with BBC cameraman and presenter Gordon Buchanan. Gordon hosts the upcoming NATURE mini-series “Animals with Cameras”, which premieres on PBS three consecutive Wednesdays, starting on January 31st.

If the name doesn’t give it away, “Animals with Cameras” employs state-of-the-art cameras worn by animals themselves. These animal cinematographers have an important mission: to help expand human understanding of their habitats and solve mysteries that have, until now, eluded scientists.

You can listen to the podcast above or read an edited transcript of the interview below.

FRED KAUFMAN: I think we’ve finally come to the point that we all felt was inevitable: why don’t we make wildlife documentaries and just give the cameras to the animals? This way, we’ll get better material and it’ll be more interesting. In a way, that’s what you’ve done.

GORDON BUCHANAN: Yes. I think everyone is filming more these days. This is a visual revolution. You see kids that are photographing themselves, photographing each other. Recording images is something that every one of us do more than ever.

As a wildlife filmmaker, I’ve spent much of my career being frustrated and disappointed because the animal you’re interested in has disappeared down a hole, climbed a tree, ducked underneath the water. Now, the cameras are small enough that we can hand them over to the animals.

I just worry that I’m putting myself out of a job. It may be the dumbest move ever to say, “Actually, you don’t need me anymore as a wildlife cameraman. The animals can do it much better.”

FRED: It’s easy to say that we just give the animals cameras, but clearly, there are so many issues and logistics, even ethical questions that need to be sorted through.

Which animals? How do you select them? The manufacturing of the camera and the harness to make sure that you’re not interfering with their behavior. So many questions that need to be addressed. How did you work through all of those?

GORDON: The first port of call was really to speak to scientists and ask them “Is this even possible with the animal that you’re studying?” The research kicked in straightaway to find out what stories were out there, what we even wanted to do.

It’s simple premise: let’s put small cameras on animals. But everyone was surprised by how difficult it was to make sure it was going to work. Some of the scientist just said, “No, that’s going to work. I can’t see that we’re going to be able to have a camera system that’s going to be able to tell us anything.”

But there were a good number of scientists who were really excited by the prospect of us working together.

FRED: The series features an all star cast of animals, including meerkats, cheetah, bear, devil rays, fur seals and dogs. They’re all associated with scientists and research groups. They’re habituated animals; they’re used to being around people, for the most part. So the challenge wasn’t approaching them.

But none of this has really been done before. How do you put a camera on an animal?  How do you secure it? Tell me about the research process.

GORDON: The starting point is what size or weight of camera are we talking about? A brown bear, a creature that stacks on kilos and kilos of weight every year in preparation for winter, that’s not really a consideration.

But for a meerkat, what weight can they carry that’s not going to interfere with their natural behavior? We found out that a six month old meerkat can cope with 38 grams without any problem.

So, we said, “Okay, where’s the camera that weighs 38 grams?” It didn’t exist, so it was like, “How can we shrink everything down to that level?”

Chris Watts, our camera engineer, was such a wizard and had a talent not just on the engineering side of things but in reprogramming these cameras to do exactly what we wanted them to do.

Then you look at the animal and you think, “Where’s the best place? What’s going to give us the best view? Where is the ring side seat on this animal?” For a creature like a baboon, you think, “Okay, the camera doesn’t have to be minuscule, but they’re a very intelligent creature. Where is the best place for the camera to go on them?”

For each species, there was a different problem we were solving.

FRED: Generally, what was the reaction by the animals when you put this foreign object on them?

GORDON: With the devil rays, it was a simple rubberized loop system that you loop over the front of them. To see that have no adverse reaction from the devil ray, you think, “We are filming right now,” and that devil ray disappeared down to the murk of the ocean. You think, “We’re still filming. We haven’t got a clue what it’s doing, what it’s seeing, but the cameras can.”

With the meerkats, because they’re so accustomed to people and so used to the scientists that work with them, once we got the camera on them, they were really oblivious. It was a real surprise, but I suppose it’s a bit like slipping a wristwatch onto someone. You know there’s something there, but it doesn’t really interfere with your life in any way.

FRED: In terms of the length of time the animals had the cameras on them, I’m sure it varied from species to species, but what was the general approach? Would you put it on in the morning and take it off at night? Was it on for a couple of days? How did you go about figuring that out?

GORDON: With the meerkats we were less interested in what they did above ground, because you can see that very plainly. You can walk with a family of meerkats from dawn to dusk and capture everything the traditional way.

What we were really interested in is what happens when they go below ground, so we had different cameras that would be on a time delay. We knew the sun sets at say 7:00 PM at night, so the cameras don’t start working until the meerkats go to bed.

For the devil rays, we thought an eight-hour cycle would be best. They’re hopefully going to do something interesting within that eight-hour period.

The fur seals, that was quite a tricky one, because to retrieve the cameras they had to come back on land. This population was swimming from a little island off the South coast of Australia all the way to Tasmania. We thought, “Okay, that’s great. They might do lots of interesting things, see lots of interesting things on this journey, but they have to come back to where we are.”

Again, those cameras, they were programmed to work when they were submerged, so it’s not just the case of battery life and memory for the camera. It’s that we’re only interested in when the animal’s likely to do interesting stuff, so the camera’s designed with that in mind. When the seal goes below the surface, the camera starts to work.

FRED: It must have been a thrill placing cameras on some of these animals, like the meerkat and the chimp.  As a wildlife cameraman, your job is essentially observational. Don’t get in the way, don’t be noticed, capture behavior.

It must be exciting to get close to these really iconic animals and touch them, and connect with them, and place these harnesses on them, and watch their reactions. It’s completely different than what you’re used to.

GORDON: Yeah, it is. As a wildlife filmmaker, I never was one to say, “I want to swim with dolphins and I want to touch dolphins,” or, “I want to interfere with their natural behavior.” but what I’ve realized is the boundaries, the comfort levels of different animals varies not from species to species, but from individual to individual.

I think as a filmmaker, if you can be one meter from an animal, why would you choose not to? For some wolves I’ve worked with in the past, 10 kilometers is their comfort distance between you and them. Up in the Arctic, there are wolves that are happy with a meter.

The closer you are, the more you can see, and you cannot get any closer than the camera mounted on the animal itself.

FRED: There are so many payoffs in the series “Animals with Cameras”, subtle behavioral movements or insights. Going into the meerkat den,  you see these newborn meerkats that you wouldn’t see otherwise. For you, what was the most rewarding payoff?

GORDON: I think with each species, every payoff we got was rewarding, because it was a real surprise. Of course, what we don’t show is that even the most exciting animals, a big part of the day is really boring. A chimpanzee sleeping or a fur seal hauled out on a rock isn’t that interesting.

But I think in each case, it’s as you said, it’s a subtle behavior. It’s the little things that you might miss. For example, take a chimpanzee walking through the forest. Because you’re there with it, you can almost see it thinking. You can see a turn of its head. Every decision it makes, it’s taking you with it.

There was one occasion, the first shot that we got, I thought, “This is amazing.” It’s this chimpanzee walking through the forest and it finds a piece of fruit. It picks it up, has a sniff, and then, “Okay, I’m not interested in that.” It happens so fast that you think, we could have missed that.  There’s no way that you could actually get that detail in that habitat in any other way.

FRED: One of the stories I really liked was the brown bear in Turkey. Again, you have the point of view of the bear, so it’s very intimate. It’s very personal. He gets into a fight with another bear and loses a claw. He’s bleeding. He continues to go on and in some cases, he’s avoiding a bear or there’s another bear being picked up on the camera.

Again, it wouldn’t be the same if you were there shooting it. But somehow, without you there, just watching its behavior, it really feels revelatory.

GORDON: Yeah, for every living thing, life is a journey. When an animal takes you on its journey, takes you with it on a moment in its life,  it is really intimate. You can see its thought process.

I think you can only see that from its perspective. When it’s moving along and you’re traveling with it, I suppose you’re opening up a sense of identity and character in these animals.

I think when you film in traditional ways, when you’re in distant or remote, you’re looking at that animal and you’re not as involved in its life or its story. Whereas when you’re with it and it’s taking you on its journey, that is really special.

FRED: Yeah, I think that’s really insightful. I think if you were there filming, it would be looking at brown bear behavior. And yet, with the camera on the bear, it’s this particular animal and its own personality and its own journey. I think that’s the distinction between what this series does and what a traditional, observational documentary does.

How did you  feel about the ethics of putting these cameras on these, basically, non-consenting animals? We’re all challenged with the ethical questions of what’s allowable, what we shouldn’t do. When do we cross a line?

GORDON: I had a head start on that particular question, because over the years I’ve worked with a lot of animals that have been radio-collared by scientists so they can track them. Scientists have been challenged on that and any filmmaker that films an animal with a collar does get challenged on that. It’s good to bring up these questions, because it gives you the opportunity to explain the need for those devices and the need to find out as much as possible about these animals.

The simple fact is that the wild world is not as wild as it once was. There is not a living thing on this planet that is not affected by the presence of human beings and there are lots of problems that nature and wildlife face, here and now. We’re having to look ahead to try and anticipate the problems that they are going to encounter and those problems are going to increase.

Using technology in this way, to find out, in as much detail as possible, about all living things really is for the benefit of all living things.

FRED: Let’s end on that, Gordon, because that’s a great statement. Congratulations. It’s a real eye opening series of animal behavior. Just tweaking how we approach what they do and how we shoot them really does inform us and challenge what we’ve known before, and what these animals are all about.