Posted on 3rd October 2023

Wildlife Filmmaking in a Changing World

This World Habitat Day, Natural History Producer Matt Brierley looks at how climate change and biodiversity loss are impacting the wildlife filmmaking industry, and what positive steps can be taken.

It stands to reason that if nature is imperilled, Natural History filmmaking is under threat. Biodiversity loss and climate chaos are clear and present dangers. Our industry faces a challenge: to visually represent climate breakdown and biodiversity loss in ways that engage mainstream audiences and present solutions.  

I’m often asked how we capture such incredible stories. We’re blessed to work with experts and, thankfully, there’s predictability in nature. Mass spawning events, epic migrations, flamboyant mating rituals; there are annual windows to capture nature’s ebb and flow. But today climate chaos and biodiversity loss are eroding that predictability, scuppering best laid plans.

When the BBC tried to celebrate Winter garden birds, the second consecutive mild winter saw me road tripping, chasing snow and even – in utter desperation – filling my car with the white stuff to create a winter scene in a bird-friendly location elsewhere. Heart-breakingly the show was decommissioned, the tip of an increasingly melting iceberg. 

Plimsoll Productions have risen to challenges whilst filming Incredible Animal Journeys. A Canadian “heat bomb” disrupted Arctic weather. The key trigger for the mass aggregation of caribou didn’t happen. Another Plimsoll team was in British Columbia when more than 1,000 daily temperature records were broken over 11 days, 100 topping 40 C. They filmed half the expected shots due to low animal numbers and the crew avoiding heat.

From denning giant otter pups besieged by wildfires, to migratory birds arriving late versus a twenty year data set, unpredictable climate means unpredictable shoots. Even getting to location can be impossible. One producer tells me filming was interrupted by a record flood washing out bridges.

Biodiversity loss negatively impacts us too. When setting up plates for a CGI prehistoric series, the BBC drew a blank trying to find suitable Madagascan wetland due to habitat destruction.      

Climate change and biodiversity loss go hand in hand. Lose a rainforest and you lose its ability to sequester carbon. Heat up the planet and wildfires destroy forests.

So what can wildlife filmmakers do?

During the pandemic I directed crews in the DRC from my living room. As a team, we got world-beating shots of Grauer’s gorilla for Studio Silverback’s The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, without costing the Earth. It took a leap of faith to both find and trust ground crew. Technology was our friend – think satellite phones, whatsapp for quick feedback on shots off the back of camera and, for both more rigorous footage review and kickstarting the edit, low res proxies overnight via Wi-Fi. No one flew. Sustainable filming is possible. Today, post-pandemic, and action group Filmmakers for Future: Wildlife continue to encourage sustainable collaboration across our industry. 

Should programmes have a finite carbon budget? Who’ll push for change? What happens when climate breakdown hijacks shoots? Can programmes authentically tell that new story? Our animals are heroes on a quest. What if we included the antagonistic climate they’re up against? Or could our making-ofs include the jeopardy of filming in a world of climate chaos? Big questions for an industry that cannot be complicit in destroying the natural resource keeping us afloat.

This World Habitat Day the UN focuses on carbon-neutral sustainable living. For wildlife filmmakers it’s time to make sure our house is in order. Check out Filmmakers for Future: Wildlife for more.

Follow Matt on Twitter/X.

Download albert’s biodiversity guide for productions.