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Q&A with Filmmaker Doug Allan

In advance of his lecture on Thursday, March 19th, we chatted with filmmaker and photographer Doug Allan about his experiences documenting some of Earth’s wildest places:

Published March 10, 2015

Dr. Doug Allan

How did you start working in wildlife filmmaking and photography?

My first passion was diving, which I started at school. That led to a marine biology degree, but upon graduating in 1973, I decided I didn’t want to be in what I termed ‘science at the sharp end.’ Two years later, I read an article in a dive mag written by someone who had just been working as a scientific diver in the Antarctic. I tracked down the address for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), applied and in 1976, was chosen to head south to one of their research bases on a year-long contract. Best move I ever made! That was where I started my still photography, processing the films on-base and  writing articles around the pictures. I guess editors were interested because it was a significant departure from the millions of coral reef pictures that were making the rounds.

At what point did you realize you wanted to make this your career?

I met David Attenborough in 1981, when he and a film crew came to our Antarctic research station to film for the BBC series Living Planet. I helped them for the couple of days they were on the island but by the end I simply knew I wanted to be a wildlife underwater cameraman. They were encouraging about my cold water know how, and said that would be a valuable specialization. I then spent a winter as a base commander with BAS at Halley Station, which offered me the chance to capture Emperor Penguins on cine film – I was low on experience of filmmaking, but my experience in the extreme cold proved to be an asset and the BBC bought the footage for a forthcoming series. I went on to have two films commissioned by Survival Anglia in 1987 and since then I’ve spent part of every year filming in either one of the two poles. 

You’ve filmed animals around the world, but what interests you about Arctic environments specifically?

Living and working in the Antarctic as I did, part of a small overwintering team, instilled a lifelong fascination with snow and ice. Dealing with the cold both on the surface and underwater became second nature. My first films were in the Antarctic but when I became known as the guy to go for when it’s chilly, then the Arctic was a logical progression. The native Inuit people, the fact that that the north is a frozen ocean with its own unique marine mammals, including the world’s most charismatic predator, the polar bear—all those are powerful attractions and wonderful subjects for filming.

What do you enjoy most about sharing your experiences with the public?

I really enjoy engaging with people, and sharing my passions. It brings out the frustrated actor in me. We’re all dependent on the natural world, but you can’t expect people to care for what they don’t understand. My hope is that by offering them my stories and experiences, the dramas and the humor, the science and the photography, my audiences take away a deeper awareness of the big picture: a realization that we as a species are a part of the planet, not its controllers. I like to convey the message of feeling in balance with it, not at the expense of it. Living on less to make space for more. But, keep it fun to listen to at the same time!

Have you ever worked in an environment that proved to be too extreme?

I never quite made it to the top of Everest on the two occasions when I filmed climbing expeditions there, and the snow leopard filming in Ladakh for Planet Earth was eleven weeks for not very much.  In all that time I had one distantly in front of the lens for only an hour, and she was asleep for 50 minutes. Not an experience I’d be rushing to repeat.

To hear more from Doug about his life’s work documenting the frozen ocean, be sure to check out his upcoming lecture! 

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