Bristol, two hours west of London and known by toon enthusiasts as the home of Aardman Animations, also happens to be the world center of wildlife filmmaking and home to the top producers, directors and camera pros creating the influx of natural history shows that continue to grow ever more popular on TV screens around the world.
The city is the headquarters of the BBC Natural History Unit and also the base for large independent players in the nature film arena such as Silverback Films, Plimsoll Prods., True to Nature, Tigress Prods., Off the Fence, Keo Films and Icon Films. Top production and post-production houses in the area that cater to the genre include Films@59, Evolutions and Big Bang.
The best-known name in wildlife filmmaking associated with the city is David Attenborough, now 92, whose 1979 classic TV series “Life on Earth” began a wave of television that continues to crest with such shows as “Blue Planet.” Attenborough credits two producers in the 1950s with spearheading Bristol’s wildlife filmmaking community: Desmond Hawkins and Frank Gillard, considered by many the industry’s founding fathers. Hawkins hosted nature shows for BBC Radio and went on to form NHU. Gillard, a BBC war reporter during World War II, became the director of the broadcaster’s Bristol-based Western Region. Both were dedicated to making the city the center of natural history filmmaking.
Michael Gunton, an Emmy-winning executive producer and NHU’s creative director, says that Bristol has a “gravitational pull” that makes people tend to stay. “That means that everyone knows everyone, and while there is, of course, some competition, there’s a lot of collaboration,” he says. “The knowledge and experience builds and gives confidence to those who innovate and take risks. It’s a virtuous circle.”
One outgrowth of NHU is the Natural History Network, founded in 2011 by Vicky Halliwell and by Lizzie Green, a former NHU producer who began under Michael Rosenberg, the filmmaker behind Channel 4’s groundbreaking “Fragile Earth,” which ran from 1982 to 1993 and won more Wildscreen Pandas (the Oscars of the wildlife world) than any other production.
Green says the purpose of NHN is to provide a platform for professionals to connect, get news and views, and share opinions, and for production companies to get commissions and find the best people to work on those shows. “I want NHN to be a digital reflection of our brilliant industry,” Green says. The network holds a number of informal meet-and-greets called Networking Mornings that bring together about one-third of NHN’s more than 300 members. There is also a monthly guest speaker series as well as gear/equipment showcases.
With gender parity at the center of the discussion in the film industry, it’s noteworthy that among those working in production in the field of wildlife filmmaking (researchers, producers, directors), the number of women is about equal to that of men. In production management, women predominate. However when it comes to crafts such as camerawork, women are still the minority.
“It’s great to see a few talented women coming up through the ranks,” notes cinematographer Sophie Darlington, who shot Netflix’s “Our Planet” DisneyNature’s “Penguins,” among her many credits, “But parity just isn’t there yet.”
Perhaps networking may yet be the answer.