Q&A: Doug Allan, Natural History Filmmaker & Photographer

Ahead of his appearance at the Eastgate in November, acclaimed natural history filmmaker Doug Allan talks about his love of the natural world – and how storytelling needs to evolve in this age of climate change and biodiversity loss

What is it about the natural world that you find so captivating?

As a cameraman, I’ve enjoyed the immense privilege of spending long times in natural places, in the company of wild animals. Whether underwater or topside, baking in the desert or freezing at the poles. I like the physicality of nature. I like the way that the potential dangers and uneasiness that you could feel in a challenging environment do, in time, somehow become comforting as you learn how to cope with them. I enjoy accumulating the fieldcraft that lets me share the intimate company of some animals – to perhaps feel as at home as they do wherever I find them. You never completely crack it, of course, but it’s wonderful to come close.

What has been the most challenging (and perhaps rewarding) species you have worked with?

I’d have to say my favourites are the big mammals. They all have personalities, and the best moments will come when you and them reach an understanding. So, let’s go for polar bears topside – big, sexy, charismatic, intelligent carnivores that will eat you if they’re hungry and you’re not paying attention. Working with them has an edginess that’s hard to beat. I remember the first time I saw one. We’d been out on the snow machines all day searching. No luck, real cold. Then late afternoon with the sun just scraping the horizon, we stopped for a final brew. And a big male stepped out from behind a piece of ice, maybe 100m away. Beautifully backlit, breath like smoke in the cold air, massively built, with an air of total confidence and just sheer survival ability written all through his body. Like he was born to be in this environment. Not a survivor against the cold and apparent barren nature of the sea ice, more a perfectly adapted individual. Magnificent animal … what else can you feel but respect?

Underwater also gives me time with big mammals. This is going a long way back, but one of my formative encounters was when I was filming right whales in Patagonia. These are big, slow-moving whales, up to forty feet long, and like any mammal, all the individuals have different characters. Anyway, I met a very friendly female and it was almost like she didn’t want me to leave. She put her nose against my chest and slowly pushed me though the water whilst I gently rubbed her head. To be in the presence of a friendly fifty tonne whale and look it straight in the eye – sheer magic.

And what has been your most surprising encounter?

I was once grabbed by a walrus while I was snorkelling off the ice edge in the Canadian Arctic. He came up from right below me without warning, hugged my thighs with his flippers just as they do when catching seals in the same way. I looked down, hit his head with my camera, he let go and I swam back to the solid ice. Took less time to happen than it has done for you to read this. Now if he’d held on and taken me down … well, no more Doug I guess.

You’ve said that your new talk is, in part, about moments of truth in the animal world. What do you mean by that?

I mean the moments when you realise, sometimes there and then, sometimes in hindsight, that you are having, or have just had, an experience that will leave you with a different perspective.  Whether about yourself, or about the natural world. Filming wildlife is often a case of sinking into the environment, acquiring that ‘feeling’ for it that will give you extra insights when it comes to trying to capture its essence in the camera. Then when the action starts, we live very much ‘in the moment’, with senses super sharp, total concentration on what’s happening down the lens. It’s a very vivid experience, I may be seeing something rarely, maybe never, seen before. It brings a new sense of values into your head about the importance of the natural world. And over the long term, an appreciation of our reliance on it. So, I’ll try to explain some of those moments through the presentation.

Your work has provided a front row seat when it comes to documenting our changing climate. At what point did you realise things were going terribly wrong?

There’s no doubt we have been on the wrong trajectory for many years. When I was a marine biology student in the late-80s, there was illegal logging in the Far East and the Amazon, whales were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands, and overfishing was prevalent in many parts of the world. Environmental awareness rose to a peak in the mid- to late-70s, and then we lost it. Our eyes came off the environmental ball and we turned into shoppers. Global trade boomed, the world grew smaller, we were persuaded that we needed many more material goods and the banking system made it possible to have them.

I filmed in the Arctic through the transition from stable to erratic, from when in the mid-80s it was possible to know, give or take a couple of days, when the ice would begin to crack in summer, and when it would start to reform in autumn. Ten years later the predictability had gone. Everywhere we filmed it was either the coldest, hottest, driest, windiest or wettest it had been. I saw the tipping point in the frequency of extreme weather events in 2018.

How might (or should) natural history storytelling change in the coming years?  

I can already see the emphasis shifting from simple revelation of spectacular behaviour to the genre becoming more thoughtfully but purposefully relevant to the environmental issues we’re facing. Of course, right now climate change is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and the skill will be to keep it there without ‘overselling’ it. We need new ways of telling the story – perhaps through the eyes of the animals facing the threats, or by truly integrating the wildlife with the conservation efforts being made. Wildlife films should be important drivers of connection between people and the planet, so perhaps the time has come for their ecological content to be deeper with an emphasis on how all life on earth is interdependent.

What one piece of advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

All of us are unique and valuable individuals. Be passionate about what you do and you’ll make your own footprints.

Finally, what specific actions would you most like to see come out of the COP26 summit in Glasgow?  

Targets are mere words unless the actions and the roadmap are laid out to reach them. So, end the words, show us the actions, and start doing them. The natural world as we know it will not exist if the planet is 3-4 degrees warmer so stop talking about adapting to a world that’s 3-4 degrees warmer than now. Take the emphasis off consumption and take up the 3 Rs. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Start now.

Further info

Doug Allan appears at the Eastgate Theatre in It’s a Wrap at 7.30pm, Sat 6 Nov. Tickets available from Box Office on 01721 725777, or online here.