Some of the most beautiful camerawork in the world isn’t found in the fictional realms of Hollywood or scripted TV, but in capturing the breathtaking beauty of our planet. Anyone who has seen an episode of Netflix’s Our Planet has likely been stunned by the images wildlife cinematography is capable of producing. But producing them isn’t always an easy feat; it’s a mode of shooting that comes with its unique challenges and approaches. Matt Aeberhard, who trained under legendary wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, shot the jungle sequences in Our Planet. We spoke with him about the art, logistics, and nature of wildlife cinematography.
Planning a Wildlife Shoot
Aeberhard works with Silverback Films, the Bristol-based production company behind wildlife projects like Disneynature’s Penguins and BBC’sThe Hunt. Aeberhard received briefs from Silverback series producer Huw Cordey that shaped the nature of his work on Our Planet and the footage the production was hoping to capture. Those briefs included plans for essential shots of wildlife, with some more ambitious ones, as well. “We might also invest in a few sequences that could be a little bit risky, or tricky, in the hope that one or two will pay off and deliver something really new to the screen,” Aeberhard says.
The tricky part comes from the subjects of any given shot. “With wildlife film, you have a whole host of different risks because, of course, you cannot control animals,” Aeberhard says. “Wildlife film is perhaps trickier than other subjects in that regard. You can never be sure what you’re going to get.”
Which is exactly why the briefs Cordey assembles exist in the first place: To bring structure to the unanticipated. “That way, when we’re out in the field, we’ll have very specific goals, or very specific targeted behavior that we’re after,” the cinematographer says.
Matt Aeberhard working on Our Planet. Photo courtesy of Netflix/Silverback
But it’s not just about capturing flashy-for-the-sake-of-it wildlife moments. Everything is still driven by narrative goals. “We have to make choices about what sequences are appropriate for the story, because the story is the driving motivation – as it has to be in any film,” Aeberhard says.
Collaboration and Preparation
Aeberhard may receive directions from Cordey and Silverback, but never at the expense of having to forfeit his own creative capabilities. Wildlife cinematographers need to be very adaptable, and others depend on that. “You have to be reactive to circumstances on the ground. In that sense, oftentimes a wildlife cameraman is actually a director, as well,” Aeberhard explains. “The wildlife film business at this level is very collaborative. Camera people like myself will often suggest sequences to the producers and the directors back at base.”
Spontaneous animal behavior has to be spotted and slotted into the creative vision of the project, too, which needs to be internalized by the cinematographer for those moments when opportune shots present themselves. “It’s good to be organized with your thoughts, because you want to get the material that you can get quickly, and that opens up free time for the really important stuff that you know is going to happen at some point. Just being ready for it is the key thing,” Aeberhard says. “If you weren’t using your time creatively and productively at the lead-up, then you could be in an awful situation of having your key shot, but no sequence.”
Shot of an orangutan in Our Planet. Photo courtesy of Netflix/Silverback
Composing in the Wild
Given the unpredictability of wildlife subjects, how do cinematographers like Aeberhard then capture key moments that make a project stand out? “What you want to try to do, in a sense, is to create the time for those lucky moments to emerge,” Aeberhard says. “Good wildlife cinematographers will try to get themselves in positions where those events can fall out into the camera in a neat way.”
Sometimes getting into those positions requires constant movement and repositioning of the camera, which is no easy feat in physically demanding environments like jungles. Sometimes it also means waiting for a long time in a blind (a style of camouflage) for a perfect moment. Either way, thought-out composition is always a consideration, even in the face of unpredictability. Aeberhard recalls how his mentor, van Lawick, would give him instructions like, “Pull me a foot further forward, Aeberhard, because I’ve got a tree growing out of that giraffe’s back,” because a tree in the background was interfering with that composition. Or, “Aeberhard, you know, we’re shooting the bat right here. Pull me a foot further backwards so that my lens can fall in the shadow of this tree, so that I’m not getting a flare.”
That said, it’s not always possible to achieve a perfect composition, especially because of lighting. “Every time you go out into a forest, you’re just desperate for what I call ‘bright dull,’ which is a veiled sun. Because, of course, everything in forest is then illuminated much more than it would be if there was direct light trying to filter through the canopy,” Aeberhard says. “If we don’t get that, there are really large chunks of the day that don’t give you a good image.”
He does point out that modern lighting kits can help, however. “There are sometimes occasions in the forest where you can bounce or fill light to get a nice eye shine or brighten up a bird’s glossy, shiny plumage,” Aeberhard says. “You’ve also got these amazing LED units that have no power, and you match them to ambient color temperature just with the turn of a switch.”
But for those times a shot of unique behavior may not be perfect, van Lawick had more good advice. “He would say that if you have something that is irreplaceable happening in camera, in frame, then shoot it, and it doesn’t really matter what it looks like, because the action will grab people and take them through the shot. But, if you’ve got a scene or an image that you know you can get again, but get it in better light or get it in a more beautiful location, then do that. Get it in beautiful light. Get it in a well-framed shot.”
An underwater scene from Our Planet. Photo courtesy of Netflix/Silverback
When asked what advice Aeberhard would give to aspiring wildlife photographers, he offers pointers that are both practical and philosophical. “You’re going to want to frame things with the rule of thirds, but as you get more experienced and you develop your own style, you can be much bolder in framing the action. You’re faced with these endless possibilities, but you develop a methodology, and that comes into play along with an instinctive ability. Any good cinematographer is going to be a good photographer and will find certain things like framing very natural. So, I think you have to have that ability, and then it’s just a question of honing it as you develop your career.”
Top image courtesy of Netflix/Silverback