Making the Series
by Gareth Huw Davies
the life of birds
about sir david The kiwi is one of the rarest
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and shiest birds in the world. It only comes out to feed by nights in remote parts of New Zealand. So how did the BBC manage to film it so candidly for "The Life of Birds?"

Series producer Mike Salisbury takes up the story. It proves the value of the assiduous "reccy" or reconnoitre trip, the many months spent in research before an inch of film was shot.

Mr Salisbury went to New Zealand determined to find a good location in which to film the unique bird. "After a month I had still not found anywhere. The kiwi is the national symbol, but even the Department of Conservation said it would be so hard to find we might have to film tame birds. I told them wherever possible our policy was to film birds in the wild, behaving naturally." Eventually Mr Salisbury met a man in a bar in Invercargill, on the southermost tip of New Zealand, who told him kiwis could be seen on Stewart Island off the south coast. He took the ferry, booked into the hotel and asked around. He was directed to local man Philip Smith who took him out that night in his boat, around a headland to a secluded beach.

"We crouched down on the sand and, just as the moon rose, out of the forest came two kiwis to feed on sand hoppers along the tide line. It was a magical moment. We wrote this scene into the script and returned the following year to film the perfect sequence with Sir David Attenborough." [It features in the last part of the first program.] They used the Starlight camera (so sensitive that, as the name suggests, it only needs starlight to operate).

"The Life of Birds" took three years to make at a cost of $15 million. Sir David Attenborough travelled 256,000 miles during filming - 10 times round the Earth. The production employed 48 cameramen and camerawomen, many of them battle-hardened veterans of overseas wildlife filming, working in 42 countries on five continents. They used up 200 miles of film on 300 bird subjects.

The kiwi filmed by starlight camera
They applied the latest techniques of ultra-slow motion filming, night vision cameras and tiny cameras that film inside nests, allied to plain old-fashioned field craft, to bring in footage of some of the world's rarest birds and examples of remarkable avian behaviour never filmed before. The few failures were greatly outnumbered by many spectacular filming successes.

The series is the logical follow-on to the BBC's Private Life of Plants. Mike Salisbury, a veteran producer in the unit, was appointed executive producer. He met with Sir David to decide the number of progams and a basic structural outline. Sir David then wrote a proposal, outlining the program themes. This document was accepted by the controllers at the BBC and co-producers PBS.

BBC Natural History Unit wildlife series like this follow the same painstaking development - with up to a year of planning before an inch of film is shot. The series is founded on an exhaustive world-wide research trawl to find the best answer to any question presenter and producers could put on birds, providing the best examples to illustrate any avian point they wanted to make.

Two researchers spent many months reading journals, scientific papers and books; they contacted behavioural scientists in universities, people in bird organisations and all the main naturalists conducting research on birds around the world. The Internet, too, became a powerful research tool during the making of this series.

A bird take a look at a grub (and possibly a micro camera)
The researchers' brief was to gather many good examples and stories on bird behaviour, preferably new ones that not been covered much, if at all. The final research document contained far more examples than could ever be included in the series. Many old assumptions about birds were junked. The researchers frequently came across interesting avian behaviour of which Sir David had never heard. Unexpected discoveries were made - for example about the unassuming British dunnock, which turns out to be a garden Lothario.

"In many meetings we kicked around what we liked and didn't like in the short-list of stories, themes and possible sequences," said Mr Salisbury. "Sir David would argue his case or accept a better example. Then the producers assembled, and we divided up the world into research areas - North America, South America, Africa, Australasia, the Far East.

Armed with these draft treatments, each producer was sent off to investigate his zone of the world. They tried to visit the scientists who had given them the fruits of their research and decide how to turn it into a film sequence. Years of work were, of necessity, pared down to a brief few minutes of TV in the series. Often the visit would tease out new ideas, and identify better film locations.

Only now would filming begin. "It is important to plan carefully," said Mr Salisbury "There is the danger that if we started too soon, our film sequences would not fit in with the overall plan. We had to know the context: filming had to be relevent to the story we are trying to illustrate."

The series hired a top team of seven cameramen - famous names in wildlife filming like Barrie Britton, Andrew Anderson and Mike Potts; and one one women, Justine Evans.

They used the latest technology. But this was not a series for which radical new equipment was specifically devloped. Mr Salisbury explained: "We decided that, unlike Private of Plants, where we spent a lot of the budget developing new technologies to film plants, for this series we would use much of our budget on keeping our camerpeople in the field for much longer that they would normally stay even for an important wildlife documentary. We wanted them to be out there for as long as it took, employing good old fashioned field craft to film their subjects.

Professor Davies, studying the lifestyle of the dunnock
"We also decided not to use any trickery: no filming against false blue backgrounds, for example. Nor did we want to attach miniature cameras to birds. We wanted to make the sequences as natural as possible, filming as much as we could in the wild with real wild birds."

However there were a few occasions where they did use habituated birds, when they wanted to show big close-up details of flight, where it was an advantage to have a camera directly alongside a flying bird.

To achieve this they used the technique of "imprinting", which several producers at Bristol have perfected. So consultant Conrad Maufe became a duck "mother" (the results are in programs 2 and 5), personally caring for birds from the moment they left the egg. In the absence of a real mother, the ducks fastened on Mr Morfe as their surrogate "mother."

Once they had learnt to fly they would follow him anywhere, when he was riding a bicycle or even driving a car. In one sequence, filmed on a dam in North Wales, Mr Maufe drove a car along the water's edge, with cameraman Mike Potts sitting next to him training a camera on a drake from Mr Maufe's "family" flying alongside, a few feet away.

Producer Nigel Marven wanted, in the same unbroken sequence, to show the drake flying close to the camera, then banking over to Sir David who would be sitting in a boat in the lake introducing the program on water birds (program five). It went exactly as he had hoped. The drake did tear himself away from his "mother", breaking the bonds of imprinting, because he had seen his harem of female ducks sitting on the water around Sir David's boat. One lure turned out to be stronger than the other.

This imprinted mallard flys alongside the camera vehicle
Mr Salisbury cites some of the sequences of which he and the team are particularly proud. One was the filming of New Caledonian crows, which use tools to extract grubs from trees. "It had only just been discovered and had never been filmed. We used a micro-camera inside the tree to reveal more about the exact technique used by the crows than even the scientist who discovered it had known. People had told us we just couldn't film it."

Then there was the buff-breasted sandpiper in the Alaskan tundra. A PhD student had just discovered its extrordinary mating display, an usual dance by the male. But it only happened for four days each season, immediately after the first snow melt, which is very unpredictable. The crew were filming phalaropes in the region when the researcher alerted them to the arrival of the first sandpipers. They dropped everything and rushed over to film the sandpipers. If they hadn't done so immediately, they would have missed the action - that year only the first day was suitable for filming. The next day thick fog set in and stayed for the rest of the week.

"They had to make quick decision," said Mr Salisbury, "whether to leave what they were doing and go to film the bird, a day's journey away." They decided to go. In the end it made an important four minute sequence (see it in in program 7). In caves in Venezuela, Justine Evans used low light cameras to film oil birds, "illuminating" the scene with infra red light which birds cannot see. Sir David was left in the pitch dark to make his commentary.

One sequence amply illustrates one of the series' great values - attention to detail. Peter Bassett and Andrew Anderson were determind to film a dawn chorus in a depth that had never been achieved before. They made sure every shot was genuinely at dawn, back lit so the bird's breath can be seen - an indication of early morning chill. Microphones were fixed to the posts where the birds perched to record them as they sang: it was not, as sometimes happens, added afterwards.

The New Caledonian crow footage broke new ground
The same applied to the episode with the lyre bird, the superb mimic able to copy the sound of a camera's motor drive and many other details. The cameraman insisted on filming with synchronised sound because he thought viewers would not otherwise believe it was happening.

The film makers suffered frequent discomfort, sometimes of an amusing nature. Producer Peter Bassett was bombed in the face with droppings by angry fieldfares that attacked him to defend their nests. One scored a direct hit on his glasses.

Cameraman Barrie Britton spent a cramped week lying on the ground in a hide in Professor Nick Davies's garden in Cambridgeshire to film the hitherto unsuspected bigamy of the unassuming donnock.

One film crew had to dress up in costumes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan to film endangered whooping cranes in the USA. They were also not allowed to talk to each other, but had to hoot just as cranes do.

Sometimes things did go wrong. In Alaska a scientist had just discovered that the spectacled eider ducks of the Arctic Circle wintered at a rent in the sea ice way out from shore. Thousands of birds keep the water ice-free with their body warmth, feeding on molluscs 200 feet down. A crew tried to film them from a helicopter, but it was so cold the film kept breaking.

The lyre bird
Cameraman Nick Gordon was on in a tree platform 75 feet up in the Amazon rainforest to film calfbirds displaying (never filmed before), when his tree was struck by lightning. And while trying to film Jamaican streamertail hummingbirds, a crew were severely bitten by swarms of tiny cattle ticks that infested their whole bodies.

The most logistically difficult trip was to the Himalayas, to film the mating behaviour of the Nepalese honeyguide. 40 porters carried the crew's gear, provisions and combs of dripping honey to attract the birds into an isolated valley. They found the birds, but mating never took place.

Returning from a trip to New Guinea a crew had their rare film of the McGregor's bird of paradise ruined by a powerful new airport security X-ray machine. It had been introduced, to detect explosives, without passengers being told. They were unable to return to reshoot the sequence because of an outbreak of tribal unrest.

It took two and a half years to complete filming. Sir David was kept extremely busy. The sequences where he speaks to camera on location and interacts with birds - for example where he "talks" to woodpeckers in Patagonia by tapping a tree - take a lot of time to set up.

"It is a lot more time consuming than if we used Sir David in a general location shot, then cut away to the birds. It's much more more difficult to get him in the same shots as the birds.

"We think a big feature in the success of the series is his terrific ability as a storyteller, to hit on a concept for each programme and work out a way to keep the viewer's attention, inviting the viewer to want to know more."

Nick gets back to work the morning after the lightning strike
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