Meet Doug, the extreme filmmaker

Published 17/09/2013|15:49

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Doug Allan on location in Canadian Arctic. June 2002

DRIFTING IN the freezing waters off northern Canada in 1998 with camera in hand, wildlife photographer Doug Allan was grabbed around the waist by a famished walrus.

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Sheer instinct prompted Doug to take a swipe at the mammal, which loosed its flippers from his body and swam away, before turning around to look quizzically at his strange prey.

Over 40 years as a wildlife photographer and cameraman Doug has had many brushes with death and extreme conditions, but this memory is more vivid than most.

'The walrus came and grabbed me, having mistaken me for a seal. They are big mammals and have dangerous tusks. I hit him and he let his flippers go. If he had taken me down I was a goner.'

Doug will give a talk about his fascinating career at St Michael's Theatre, New Ross, on Wednesday, September 25, at 8 p.m.

Described by Sir David Attenborough as the toughest photographer in the wildlife photography business, Doug is best known for his work on the hugely successful BBC series Life, Human Planet, Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Ocean Giants.

Over the course of his career, the multiple Emmy and Bafta award-winning wildlife cameraman and photographer has been to some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, and on this national tour he'll share stor ies about diving under ice, being near polar bears, filming at minus 40C, swimming with humpback whales in Tong,a and Weddell seals under the ice in the Antarctic, among many more.

From Scotland, Doug's love of the water and extreme sports was evident from his childhood.

'I got into diving when I was in school, which led me on to study marine biology, and then I read about this guy who was working as a diver in the Antarctic and wrote to him and he told me how to get a job with the British Antarctic Survey.'

He got the job in 1976 and spent 18 months living there. 'It was a phenomenal way to live. There were 11 of us stationed there. We used to dive in the ice.'

He was based at Signy Island in the South Orkneys. The job entailed helping the scientists to carry out their underwater studies – from boats in the summer, beneath the ice in the winter.

Doug said he adapted well to his new environment, learning some skills which would one day prove very useful to him as he pursued a different career path.

'The cold is not the easiest to deal with but I prefer it to the warmth when you have bugs and leeches. Spending time in uncomfortable places is par for the course being a wildlife filmmaker. There are times when it gets very, very cold in the Antarctic and it will gnaw away at your soul.'

Doug picked up a movie camera in the 1980s and the rest is history.

'I learned how to keep my fingers warm and move over snow and ice. All these camerawork tricks came as second nature to me when I needed them after.'

Doug fell in love with the medium of storytelling through film and learned to cut and edit his clips.

He had plenty of time to hone his skills, as for eight months of the year he was virtually stranded at his workplace base.

'Summer in the Antarctic is from mid November to mid March. That is when the British Antarctic survey ships would be around. By the end of March the temperatures would start to fall and all the ships would head north to the UK. There was no access to the bases for almost nine months. There were fewer people and you are not in a rush trying to get everything done. We could go out exploring and I became used to being in the sea and on ice.'

It was while living and working in the Antarctic in the 1980s that Doug first crossed paths with David Attenborough.

'He was responsible for me getting into wildlife films. I was working as a diver and David and the film crew came to our base for a day. They were shooting scenes for Living Planet. We caught fish for them. I went into the water and filmed this fish for him. As I worked with his crew I began to realise that they were having a really good time. I saw the cameraman was finding the going difficult and I helped him.'

He said the meeting with David Attenborough opened his eyes to the possibilities of wildlife filming as a career.

'David has been the big name in every phase of wildlife film. He was there from the very start of the genre and he's still there. He has celebrated 60 years of being involved in wildlife media from black and white to 3D. Nobody will surpass that.'

A decade later Doug worked with his newfound friend on a BBC programme called Life In The Freezer.

'David was the presenter and I just came into this work when the BBC started doing these big series. I have been involved with all the major series over the past 20 years.'

He said he works freelance so he can be commissioned by different companies to do work.

'I wrote a book. I do "talkie tours" – that's another string to my bow. I'm trying to get the public inspired about the natural world and to get them inspired by wildlife filmmaking.'

Now 62, Doug still travels to the Antarctic every year for a few months.

'I travel to South America and sail from near Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina to the Antarctic Mountains. I love going back because it's so scenically attractive. There are lots of penguins and seals. I go to different parts of the Antarctic.'

Comparing the North Pole to the South Pole, he said: 'On the North Pole you're standing on a frozen ocean. You are at sea level and on ice about 15 feet thick. At the South Pole you are standing in the middle of a frozen continent on ice about 10,000 feet thick.'

Describing the feeling of standing on the South Pole as being like standing on a high mountain, he said you become short of breath.

'It's much colder than the North Pole. The warmest temperature would be –20C but it goes down to –75C. It's very hostile and there is nothing there. Over the past 60 years only two birds have been seen there by the observatory.'

Through his company Tartan Dragon Ltd he films for broadcast and for his stock library. He lives in Bristol, and continues to work successfully with Sue Flood. He has one son by a previous marriage, Liam, who's 17.

Doug has contributed to numerous radio shows. His audio diary recordings while he made his 'Wildlife Special: Polar Bear' became an acclaimed radio programme in their own right. Over the years, he's also written numerous articles about wildlife and his experiences, and two children's books. In February 2012 he published his first book, Freeze Frame, a collection of polar pictures and experiences.

'That book was a long time in the making. I didn't know how to write it. I didn't want to write a typical biography as I wanted to say something about the photographs. Then I had a brainwave that I could write short stories around the images and include bits and pieces about my life along the way.'

He also focused on the mammals and birds he encountered on his trips.

But he likes the challenge of filming people as well as animals, and has done documentary sync shooting for many programmes, including assignments with Discovery along the length of the Andes, to the deserts of Africa and to the upper reaches of Mount Everest.

In 2011 he filmed and was a presenter for the BBC series Ocean Giants about whales worldwide.

The show at St Michael's Theatre, New Ross, on Wednesday, September 25, focuses on Doug's time at the Arctic and the Antarctic.

'People will learn about how different both places are. I'll be speaking about the coldest and driest place on earth when I talk about the Antarctic and I'll speak about the Emperor penguins and show clips from the movies.'

He will also discuss problems at both poles due to climate change. Following a short break the talk will resume with a discussion about the environment underneath the ice and how seals live in the extreme conditions. Following this there will be an informal questions and answers session with the crowd.

'I have had five- and 85-year-olds at the shows and as far as I know no one has fallen asleep or left early,' Doug said.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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