Thursday 22 February 2018

How I got here: Into the wild

Barbara Harding

Name: Colin Stafford-Johnson From: Dublin Occupation: Wildlife and natural-history cinematographer

In the news for: Over the past two decades, Stafford-Johnson has tracked and filmed animals all over the world, including jaguars in the Amazon, tigers in India and birds of paradise in New Guinea. In 2006, he won an Emmy for cinematography on the film Mississippi — Tales of the Last River Rat for Discovery Channel. He has also worked with renowned broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough on the well-received BBC series Planet Earth.

Wildlife enthusiasts can see his latest documentary, Living the Wildlife, on RTÉ One on 1 April.

Barbara Harding (BH): What was you first paid job after school?

Colin Stafford-Johnson (CSJ): It was washing dishes in a Dublin restaurant. I think the wage at the time was 85p an hour. I was trying to save money to go away, so I scrubbed from morning to night and hardly saw daylight.

BH: Did you always have an interest in animals and nature as a child?

CSJ: Absolutely — since I was four or five. I was always out messing, bird watching or catching butterflies. I was never into the whole pet thing; it was more about wild animals for me. I wanted to find and observe them in the wild.

BH: Did you go to university?

CSJ: I did a degree in biological imaging in Derby, England. It was a biology degree mixed with training to be a cameraman and wildlife film producer.

BH: What was your first big break in the industry?

CSJ: It was going to India to make my first documentary on tigers for the BBC series Natural World. I was at a film-making conference and had sent my film reel around. The biggest producer in the UK happened to see it and asked if I would find a tiger cub in India and follow it for 600 days from dawn until dusk.

BH: What was the most fascinating country you’ve ever filmed in?

CSJ: Possibly French Guiana earlier this year for the series Planet Earth. The BBC can afford to send people out on a whim, and so I travelled to this remote area where the animals were said to be tame. We had to trek to the top of a river that was unfished and untouched by human hands. It was the remotest place I’d ever been but it rained for two months and we didn’t get a single shot. I just fished and lay about in a hammock all day. However, I did find a jaguar and the biggest anaconda I’d ever seen. I also had black piranhas swimming between my legs, and at one stage, I had to remove over 200 ticks from my body.

BH: What was your worst experience with an animal on a shoot?

CSJ: I had one encounter with a bear, when I had to run for my life. I was out in the bush in thick vegetation and heard it approach. It was a sloth bear and very aggressive. It was the most frightening experience of my life — like in a Sunday movie when the lion comes running at the man with the gun. I ran as fast as I possibly could through thorn bushes, jumped into my vehicle and drove away. It took about an hour for my body to come back to normal and stop shaking!

BH: Tell me about your latest series, Living the Wildlife for RTÉ?

CSJ: Its aim is to boost awareness of the fact that there is a lot of wildlife out there worth protecting. Often, people do things without knowing the impact it has on wildlife, so we are trying to point this out and educate viewers on all the things we can still do that we used to do as kids, for example, exploring caves looking for bats. It’s about getting out and about with nature and it doesn’t cost much money.

BH: What advice would you give to other budding cinematographers?

CSJ: In this particular industry it can be difficult, as it usually involves getting on a plane and being away from friends and family for long periods of time. You can also get a last-minute phonecall when everything is set up to say it’s raining in Tanzania, so the shoot is cancelled even though you had a six-month contract! Financially it’s up and down and you have to be flexible because you are dealing with wildlife. It’s also a competitive game. But if you don’t mind all of this, it’s great, as it’s all-consuming and can bring you to the most wonderful places on earth.

BH: If you could have a different career tomorrow, what would it be and why?

CSJ: It would be something like working in overseas development projects linked with the direct conservation of wildlife.

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