This year’s Lecture Programme was brought to a highly entertaining close by award-winning natural history film producer, Philip Dalton, who took us on an illuminating, and at times visually stunning, journey of his work.

Coming from a family of wildlife enthusiasts (father a wildlife photographer and mother rehabilitating bats in the airing cupboard) it is easy to see how Philip’s career developed. After school, he was advised to read a Science at University, so armed with a Biology degree, he confidently applied (numerous times) to the BBC. Hearing nothing, he gave up and went to Alaska to look for bears, which as it turned out were all hibernating. Luckily he heard that the BBC had offered him work experience back in London, starting almost immediately. The BBC was not quite the introduction to filmmaking he had hoped for, consisting mainly of routine office work, but he did meet producers and editors. At the end of his two week placement, he bumped into a film producer who offered him a job on a low budget film about wolves. Brimming with enthusiasm and amazing ideas, he discovered that his beard and long hair had earned him the role of a werewolf for a piece on the mythology of wolves. Finding himself on the wrong side of the lens, and with a costume of only paint and yak hair, it was not quite the break he sought. However, soon after, he met another BBC producer and never looked back.

After a few years at the BBC, he joined John Downer, an inspiring producer and director well-known for his innovative approach to filming wildlife, who Philip still works with as a senior producer and sometimes cameraman. Whereas most filmmaking was made at a distance using a long focus lens, they like to get as close as possible to their subjects. On one of his first films, Lion in the Den, they sent a small robotic camera device, covered in fur, towards the lion enclosure. The lioness stalked it, picked it up in its teeth and dropped it next to her cubs to use as a pillow. The remarkable footage it produced received fantastic reviews. Another project was Spy in the Wood, a film about five different species of bear including the polar variety. Philip gave examples of how challenging filming conditions can be, especially with a small budget and limited time. Having been dropped by helicopter in the Arctic, the film crew soon encountered severe storms which kept them confined to their cabin for three weeks with no hope of filming. On the last day, when the storm finally abated, and with only eight hours until their departure, they emerged from their refuge to see numerous polar bears, enabling them to film some extraordinary footage.

Having formed a special attachment to polar bears, they made Spy on the Ice. After securing funding, typically a lengthy process, they planned four shoots of four weeks featuring polar bears. The first expedition encountered a sea of ice, stretching for hundreds of miles with no visible sign of polar bears, resulting in no footage. On the second trip nothing for two weeks but then at last success. Using a floating icebergcam, and thanks to the bears’ curiosity, they were able to get great footage. For the third shoot in late winter, and to much amusement, they arrived to find two polar bears using the cabin’s roof as a slide. For filming they used a snowcam with a heat sensor that powered up and started recording when activated, and a satellite phone that alerted them to any activity. Another storm hit and they were frustratingly stuck in the cabin with time ticking. Early one morning the phone rang - polar bear calling. This produced some amazing ‘nose to lens’ film of a mother and her very young and cuddly cub - the perfect start to their story. The final shoot included footage of the polar bears eating grass, stealing eggs and fishing. The team’s ingenious devices - seemingly for every occasion on land or water - caught natural footage of these sociable and clever animals at their best.

What next? Penguins – Spy in the Huddle! For filming Rockhoppers in the Falklands, a robotic penguin camera was designed to walk into the heart of the penguin colony. Despite scientific doubts over the scheme, and penguincam taking an initial battering from wary males - spooked as it turned out by its extra-long yellow eyebrows (all was well when these were trimmed), the project was a success. With its articulated joints, ability to walk, stand up, and natural posturing, penguincam helped to deliver an award-winning film. The most ambitious part of filming was of Emperor penguins during winter, which took nearly a year to shoot with the camera crew being totally isolated for 8 months in temperatures as low as minus 50-60 degrees. Using static and mobile snowcams, penguincams, eggcams and a very endearing chickcam, they were able to document the colony’s remarkable life cycle, typically using just one minute of film footage for every 100 minutes actually shot. The use of robotic cameras to film wildlife has also attracted much scientific interest, and has proved far less stressful for the subjects than traditional handling methods.

Much to everyone’s delight, Philip then gave us a special demonstration of how some of the remote devices worked, including a penguincam, and film footage of how a drone was used to film a huge flock of flamingos. The drone itself stayed safely on the Chapel table! Our only complaint about Philip’s visit? We didn’t want it to end!

For further information on John Downer Productions and any news of future projects, see: