Spies unlike us
10:00 am – How to cheat a dolphin?
Barely catching my breath after climbing the steep stairway of a Victorian house on Bridge Road, Bristol, I am just in time for a morning briefing. John Downer, head of John Downer Productions, and three young gentlemen are discussing something vivaciously. My unprepared ear catches mysterious fragments: "Did anyone get in touch with the singing white whale? What can we do with it?.. It is impossible to cheat a dolphin, they are too smart... A floating cam – dolphins can play with it, scan it with their eyes... What if we use a tuna to carry a camera? Yes, this fish can be fast!" I can´t join in the conversation even if I wanted to: these folks talk about things known only to them. The place where it all happens is in fact a spacious attic. The biggest room is the reception and office all in one. A corridor leads to the editing room (and to the kitchen on the right hand side); behind it there is the postproduction room and negotiation room. Here and there among the usual office stuff one can see strange artifacts. A "rock" (apparently plastic) with a hole in it, a lense shimmers from the inside – and from the outside there are traces of birds´ feces (apparently real)... Another spy camera is hidden inside what looks like a small iceberg. These are exclusive home-made devices used by John Downer Productions for making unique wildlife cinematography. From behind the wall constant noise of hammer and saw can be heard – John´s house is being renovated. Yes, we are in the attic of the house where John and his family have lived for the last 18 years. The atmosphere here is really cosy and homelike: some people even walk on wooden floors in socks. "What I´m trying to do is to create an environment where wild ideas can be realised," John says. He definitely succeeded in this – after all it´s in this attic where someone came up with ideas to attach a camera to a vulture´s back or train elephants to be cameramen. I won´t even mention the tuna.
10:35 am – There´s a penguin on your shoulder!
The morning briefing with all three producers of the company – Philip, Rob and Matt – was dedicated to a brand new project, documentary about dolphins. But the main concern currently is the film about penguins – a three-part series filmed on 50 customised cameras. Philip, one of the producers, has just returned from the Falkland islands. He brought with him a pile of hard drives full of new material and left his colleagues on the island. We are going to Skype with two of them, Mike and Geoffrey. We are connected and the whole staff is already here looking at the screen. Two gentlemen sit in a cosy room. I try to imagine what the world outside this room looks like: a tiny island which you can walk about within a day, rocky shore infested by penguins... On a shelf next to the research journals behind cameraman Mike Richards there is a toy penguin. It urges John to start the conversation with the words: "There´s a penguin on your shoulder!" The word penguin is perhaps the most frequently used words during this Skype session and moreover: it is October, the show is scheduled for Christmas and the deadline is getting closer. There are two crews left in the field – this one in Falklands and the other one in the Antarctic. They have no more than a week left to film more scenes – there are still gaps to fill in. Deteriorating ice and weather condition doesn´t help them do their job. Furthermore, the rough seas in Falklands broke a flipper off the underwater spy cam disguised as a penguin. John is a sort of concerned by this all: the story still lack a few final shots. But if you´re not listening attentively enough, it may seem that these people have gathered here to kill time by chatting merrily. – How have you got on without Phil? – Much better (laughter). – How is the nest building going on? Do the penguins steal nest material from each other? – Not quite. There´s not much happening at the moment. The penguins don´t seem to be walking to collect material. – Basically you´re saying that all the activity has dropped since Phil left? – Yes basically! (big laughter). – So you´re going to have a nice holiday now? – Yes. And the big problem is we can´t see them from our bedroom. (homeric laughter). "All of this was typical English humour," Philip explains the conversation a few minutes later. "They all work really hard there. When we have crew in remote parts of the world, we often use playful humour to keep morale up."
11:20 – I spy
If you are in the editing room it´s hard to keep yourself from constantly turning your head from side to side. On a screen to the right the final edit of Part 1 is going on. In the Antarctic a couple of Emperor penguins incubate their egg. I have a feeling of a home-movie shot by another penguin, probably a relative or a close family friend – such is the warmth and intimacy of the scene. On a screen to the left the rough editing of the files brought by Philip is underway. I watch a fast-forward of the film shot by an underwater cam in the surf zone and the scenes where the camera itself: this is just the same penguin cam that is out of service now due to a broken flipper. From time to time a group of penguins race by the cam. These shots are being edited in sequence. "The camera is shooting non stop automatically. When the penguins approach (they are usually seen from the shore through the binocular) the camera turns in the needed direction," Philip says. The camera looks much like a real bird – only the power cable betrays its artificial origin. If I was a penguin I would mistake it for a congener. "That´s it," John says. "The idea that the cameras should look like penguins has proved very successful. So we have walking penguins, floating penguins, some penguins even lay eggs and the eggs are spy cams! The cameras are in their eyes – what they look at, they film." Phil leads me to another room and unpacks something that looks like a battle droid from "Star Wars" – but according to someone´s whim, it is equipped with a rockhopper penguin´s head: orange beak, funny yellow eyebrows. Philip pulls a "skin" on the droid – now it looks every inch a penguin. The skin smells fishy. In a minute the penguin starts marching proudly across the coffee table. "We call him robo-penguin," Philip says, holding the remote control. "It is based on a kid´s toy but it´s been seriously upgraded. It can make about a hundred movements, typical for the bird. In can stand up after falling, lean against strong wind. It has a gyroscope and the camera is here, in the right eye. This is our spy in the huddle."
13:10 – From the baseboard and up to the sky
While waiting for the sandwich delivery I ask John for an interview. On our way to the negotiation room we get stuck in the postproduction unit. The making of Earthflight 3D is in progress. This is an extension of the most ambitious project of John Downer Productions to date, 6-part series commissioned by the BBC. John´s filming crews followed flocks of birds – geese, cranes, storks, pelicans, eagles etc – flying over the most spectacular sites in 40 countries on six continents: Loire castles, Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge, Venice, Istanbul... The unique filming was done from motorized hang gliders, drones and even birds. I put stereo glasses on and witness a little miracle on a 30 inch screen: gees pass buy the Statue of Liberty almost touching my face with their wings. "We were into 3D even before there were any 3D channels anywhere, because we were interested in it." John explains a few minutes later at lunch. "So when 3D came along we had a head start." I wonder how John and his company managed to find their own way and become leaders of the industry. "One of my first works was on children´s television at the BBC. I decided to make a little drama. It was about very small aliens coming from the outer space to find intelligent life. They landed in the garden. Everything they saw was different. I was very interested in the viewpoint: how the reality looks when looking from that level (points at the baseboard). To do that I had to have the whole studio built, the special cameras, the special lenses made — before I even started. From that point I felt that that was the only way to film. Before starting every film I made after that, I asked myself: what it´s like to be there? To get there with that animal rather than just watch things from a distance, with long lenses – which is what traditional natural history filming is about. And so it happened that it has always kept me ahead – at least technologically." John´s company rose to international fame thanks to the "spy films" created since 2000 for the BBC Wildlife Specials. One of the highlights of the series is Emmy-nominated Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice. The iceberg cam that I´ve seen in the office is a part of the equipment from that film. But John´s favourite is the three-part Tiger: Spy in the Jungle. "I wanted to show the world of tigers from their perspective and I had no idea how we were going to do it. It was an absolute challenge even to think about," John recalls and I clearly see how he still enjoys the story. "I went out there using the elephants to get close to the tigers. And then I had this light bulb moment. I saw the elephants in front of the tigers and realized that an elephant is such a stable platform... So I got them to carry the cameras, got the cameras designed so that they could be used by the elephants. The elephants took the cameras to the tigers, even put them down next to the tigers – and suddenly this secret world of tigers opened up. I think it´s now closed again. I would never try this again and I still can´t believe we made it."
14:55 – A fish-eyed turtle
"Would you like to go for a short walk? Have you seen our bridge?" John asks. Everybody in Bristol is proud of it. The marvelous Clifton suspension bridge over the river Avon is just a few minutes´ walk away from John´s home. Across the river there is Hiatt´s workshop. Hiatt is a man who creates all these rocks, icebergs, logs that become cosy shelters for numerous spy cameras. We head over there, with Rob, another of the producers. On the way, I find out that, as biologist, Rob considers filmmaking a unique way of exploring wildlife. "We constantly discover things. A few years ago we did Swarm – two-part series about swarming animals. We filmed driver ants in East Africa. They are renowned for being killer ants. We had incredibly miniature cameras which we could track alongside of the ants and actually go with the top of them and go down into their tunnels with them – like a roller-coaster ride with ants. What we found were not mindless killers. For example we were watching the trail and a millipede came wandering past. The ants poured all over him and unfortunately killed him because that´s the nature of what they do. But once he was killed they explored him with their antennae. The workers then came along, picked him up and dragged him to one side, put him down, went away. Then the other ants came along bringing tiny lumps of mud putting them next to the millipede. Eventually they completely buried him. The reason being: the millipede was poisonous. By staying next to the trail it posed a risk to the ants. They quickly learnt this and the message spread. I spoke to various researchers and told them this is what we saw. And noone had ever seen this before." Rob started as an animal handler for the BBC Natural History unit – he has a big collection of animals, mostly reptiles. When speaking about John Downer Productions, Rob keeps repeating the words "dream job", and I understand why. ...In the workshop the making of the new props is in progress. Hiatt shows us a sketch of the mobile turtle equipped with two cams – one in the head for shooting above water level and the other under the neck for shooting exactly from water level. "What if we put the third, fisheye camera inside its belly, that would film right downwards?" John asks. The men exchange glances. "Give me the overall dimensions, I´ll try." Hiatt replies. It seems that I am witnessing another wild idea being born.
18:05 – Metamorphosis
It´s been a long day. Just an hour ago Phil took time to help me make a short film using a six-rotor drone that they had used in Earthflight. John and I have tea in the negotiation room. Along the walls are dozens of international wildlife film awards. A Grammy statuette stands out: John was awarded with it in 1993 for making a music video to Peter Gabriel´s song Digging in the Dirt. I recollect my first impression of this video back then – full of fascinating and somewhat disturbing imagery featuring not just Peter but slugs, snails, wasps and caterpillars. A smile lights up John´s face: "Have you seen my latest video for Massive Attack?" A minute later we are watching myriads of mayflies dancing to the music of the Bristol group. On the screen a naiad turns into an adult insect – a universal metaphor for creativity. "There´s no point in making a film that is just basically saying what has been said before. You´ve got to have a viewpoint, to believe in it and take that viewpoint to the end. What I always tried to avoid doing is being driven by the technology. I am driven by the subject. You have to listen to the subject, and I think that´s the secret."
P.S. Penguins: Spy in the Huddle was completed by Christmas 2012, all the necessary scenes got filmed in time. It has become one of the most successful series in the history of John Downer Productions.