Interview with Neil Nightingale, Head of the BBC Natural History Unit

Neil Nightingale

Listen to Neil talking about his career here. (MP3 6mb)

I run the BBC Natural History Unit. Every year we make about 100 hours of television about 50 hours of radio.

I make sure we get enough great ideas for the radio and television commissioners, and then ensure the productions get made at the fantastic quality that our natural history productions are known for.

Average days might involve:

Meetings with my development teams, executive producers to see how productions are going, viewings of final programmes and visits to London talking to commissioners or channel controllers about future ideas and ongoing projects.

Because our work is international, I also travel from time to time. I used to travel on location as a producer, but now it's more to places like Washington, Tokyo and Beijing, striking deals, bringing money into the BBC on co-production, so we can continue to make the big expensive blockbusters like Planet Earth and other series.

"I rarely get a chance to go out on location now..."

although I will go down to Spring Watch in May - that's very close, in Devon - and last year I was lucky enough to go out and see the Big Cat Diary operation. I have been out to China this year, but that's mainly been to set up business deals rather than getting out with the pandas!

"I suppose the real highlights come at both ends of the process"

One is when you get a fantastic new commission, something exciting that you've never done before, something better, and you get the go-ahead to do it, and at the other end is when it goes out, something like Planet Earth at the moment, when it's a big success and everyone loves you for it.

"When I finished university, I was looking for a way to continue with a career in natural history"

I was interested in animals from a very early age and later I was also interested in writing and journalism. I was looking around at the kind of careers that would allow me to combine both of those and making natural history films seemed like a fantastic opportunity.

I got a job at the BBC in the natural history department. I was given a few days research which then continued, on very short contracts. I think you have to be quite dedicated if you want to get into this thing! EveBoldntually I got on a BBC training scheme for two years, which kicked off my career.

"I still remember back to the days when I was working on news and in regional programmes"

I think particularly that very fast turnover, working in areas on daily and weekly programmes, gave me a huge boost. I was making films and preparing items every few days.

I think it's important to work on some fast turn-around programmes if you want to get on, because you probably learn more during that time than you'll learn in the rest of your career or even on a training course. You're learning from your mistakes every day.

"One of the most valuable things I've learnt over the years is flexibility"

Always look ahead and don't get stuck in a rut, look for the opportunities and problems that are about to hit you. I think it's the same in any creative job.

"If you're an aspiring wildlife programme maker, I think you've got to really want to do it"

It's incredibly competitive, but if you stick at it, if you're talented and you really want to do it, you can make it, there are great opportunities.

If you want to get a good idea of the programmes we make, the BBC Science & Nature website is excellent because it gives you both an idea of the programmes we have produced recently and a certain amount of behind the scenes material.

"Technology has always been a huge part of natural history"

I made a series called The Private Life Of Plants about ten years ago. We developed some of the first computer controlled tracking using time lapse cameras. This enabled us to follow plant behaviour over weeks, even months on occasion.

We're now well known for miniature cameras which we're able to put on the backs of birds, and things like boulder-cam and so on. But even at a more basic level, in terms of camera technology we now use Z1s the little HD DV cams, for some of the synch shooting on the diaries and we're moving into high definition which is very exciting.

Planet Earth is in high definition

It not only produces high picture quality but also has advantages such as being able to work in very low light, being able to work in a video format which allows you to remove the lens from the recorder. Gyro-stabilised helicopter mounts become possible because you only have a very small lens and the whole back end is in the helicopter - that's produced some fantastic results.

Technology is also a real driver in terms of post-production. On Planet Earth, producers have had access to their rushes on their desktops and have been able look at material, review it, log it and assemble it prior to editing.

In terms of new media, I think the Planet Earth website is certainly the richest we've had with very high quality media and a spinning globe which enables you to go to any part of the world and search for images. It's very exciting when technology opens up new opportunities like that.

"A good wildlife programme must be entertaining"

Whether it's a popular programme on BBC One or a more intellectual one on BBC Four or indeed a radio programme, whatever it is, it has to engage an audience first and foremost.

So in that sense it's no different from any other genre. You have to get your audience in and hooked.

I think our audiences also expect quite a lot of information with their entertainment. We find that new revelations, seeing and hearing new things, or new perspectives is incredibly important.

"I first started in the Natural History Unit about 20 years ago"

Life On Earth had gone out just a few years before that, and The Living Planet was in production. Everyone at that time was saying that Life On Earth had pretty much done everything:

"Well anyway we'll go back and do it habitat by habitat on The Living Planet and then everything will be done, we won't be able to make any more wildlife programmes because we'll have done it all!"

Well here we are 20 years later, and I guess when you see something like Planet Earth, you could ask how we'll top that, and yet we're making a raft of around 20 new series that we're making over the next three years.

So I think with inventiveness, both creatively, editorially, technologically and so on, there will always be new things to film, new ways of filming them and new stories to tell.

"The essential qualities of a good wildlife programme maker depend on the role"

If you're a camera-man, creativity, technical ability, an understanding of animals and animal behaviour, and patience is important. If you're a researcher or producer, a story telling ability is absolutely essential.

We have producers that have backgrounds in natural history, news, in entertainment and so on. There isn't one single route or one single quality that we rely on - we have a whole range of output that requires a whole range of skills.

"The amount of tenacity wildlife programme makers need to have depends on a variety of things"

For example a Bill Oddie programme, How To Watch Wildlife, is shot in five days. We're out in the country, it's very rough and ready.

At the other end of the scale, on Planet Earth, the snow leopard sequence took three separate trips and many many weeks, just to get one sequence. The camera-man spent weeks sitting in hides getting nothing. So at the really difficult end, it requires huge amounts of patience.

When I made The Private Life Of Plants, we went for weeks without getting shots because it was technically so difficult to get the time lapses working, getting the plants growing and so-on. But by persisting over weeks, we cracked it and became very productive.

It does need more patience than filming people, who can just talk and talk - animals don't do that!

"At times however, you have to draw a line and give up on a shot"

Time is money and sometimes despite the amount of time you've invested in making the best plans and preparations in the end you have to realise that you're just not going to get it, and it's time to cut your losses!

A lot of wildlife filming is about risk management. It's deciding how much risk to take and when to pull out.

"It's always important to have a narrative in any type of programme, wildlife or otherwise"

The narrative can take many different forms. An investigative programme might have a very straight narrative, where one's trying to find out the truth about something, but a show like Spring Watch might have various narratives over the week - will the baby birds live or die, how they'll do and so-on - and that's all mixed up in a much more entertaining format.

There always has to be some kind of narrative, but it doesn't have to be the same kind of narrative.

"We've got lots of series coming up"

Following on from the success of Big Cat Diary, we've got a similar stripped series looking at polar bears, black bears and grizzly bears, we've got another series of Spring Watch, and this year we're also going to have autumn watch, in October, we have a fantastic trilogy on the Galapagos, shot in high definition coming up in the late summer, and we have a scientific expedition to Borneo to find new species, and that will produce a science adventure series for transmission towards the end of the year.

Science & Nature homepage
Planet Earth
Behind the scenes of Big Cat Diary
Radio 4: Planet Earth - an insight into the making of the programme

Planet Earth repeats on BBC Four from 11 April, Tuesdays at 7pm

From www.bbctraining.com

Photo Credits (from top to bottom of page)

1. Snow geese in flight, USA. Image shows a few of the birds in the flock, estimated to contain 500,000 geese.
© Ian McCarthy

2. Base jumper diving into the Cave of Swallows, Mexico.
© DCI/Ed Carreon

3. African Elephant underwater, Okavango, Botswana.
© Peter Scoones

4. Helicopter, showing the 'heligimbal' camera. The Rockies, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA.
© Jean-Marc Giboux/DCI

5. Cameraman Mark Smith and team in the Himalayas, looking for snow leopards.
© Jeff Wilson

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