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Telling wildlife stories - BBC expert

- By Kemantha Govender

Neil Nightingale’s curiosity for the natural world started when he was four-years-old. He is still fortunate enough to be working in environments that allow him to indulge his passion.

On 26 August, Nightingale addressed a packed auditorium at Wits University. His talk, The Quest for the Unmissable in Wildlife Film Making, offered fascinating insights with stimulating visuals.

He gave examples of the lengths that British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Natural History team goes in order to give access to never see before places and animal behaviour.

In short, the gripping content offered in BBC’s programmes require time, dedication and a deep desire to tell such stories.

Translating passion

Nightingale was the former head of the BBC Natural History Unit from 2003 until 2009. He now leads BBC Earth’s creative development.

“I have been passionate about nature since as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to explore the woodlands and fields. I was very lucky for the last 30 years or so I have been able to translate that passion into a career and share it with millions of people around the world,” said Nightingale.

He said that making animal documentaries is no different to other types of film making. It requires the same effort in storytelling and cinematography.

He said his team is well aware that they are competing with drama and entertainment offered to television and therefore need to always strive to take it a step further.

“The natural world is every bit amazing as fiction,” said Nightingale.

Nature's inspiration

Nightingale believes it is still important for children to be inspired by nature.

“We don’t always take the easy route… we put pressure on ourselves continuously. We travel to the ends of the earth to find new stories, new perspectives and behavior.

“We make sure that what my colleagues and I show is really relevant to people and the next generation and that we inspire them for the future... we have to convince them with drama and entertainment,” he said.

He quipped that everything, including bacteria fascinates him and his colleagues and it is their responsibility to bring that fascination to life and to the world.


He also demonstrated, using stories about different animals, the innovation in camera technology offers in modern day film making.

Nightingale believes that telling stories about plants are equally important because they too, like animal lives, offer enthralling insights. He used the example of the Amazon water lilies, to make his point.

Nightingale said the strategy of hunting is just like any great human drama – it contains heart stopping moments and unexpected twists in a plot. He said these elements can be seen in the series, The Hunt, on BBC which will feature a great range of predators.

One of the animals that are featured in the series is the polar bear. This series focus on the strategy of hunting.

This animal spends most oftheirtime in between the world of water and ice. Polar bears mainly hunt seals by stalking them in water. Trying to capture that on film is challenging to say the least.

That has never been filmed before because it means overcoming impossible working conditions.

“You can’t use a tripod, you can stand on the ice because it is too small and you can’t use a boat because it is too rocky,” said Nightingale.

However his team used a stabilising mechanism to navigate the water while being able to film without much movement. The mechanism was initially used to stabilised predator drones used by the US military and was later adapted by Hollywood to stabilise their cameras.

Nightingale co-directed the major 3D feature film, Walking with Dinosaurs, released globally in 2013. He is now completing, as co-director and producer, the Enchanted Kingdom 3D, an ambitious wildlife feature film set in Africa. 

The talk was hosted by the School of Animal, Plants & Environmental Sciences.