Bertie Gregory: Capturing Wildlife Wonders in ‘Animals Up Close’
Wildlife photographer, filmmaker, and National Geographic Explorer Bertie Gregory joins us to talk about his journey into photography and filmmaking, and we catch up about his exciting new Disney+ series, ‘Animals Up Close With Bertie Gregory’.
Having worked on series including Planet Earth III, Frozen Planet II, and Seven Worlds, One Planet, Gregory’s impressive career has seen him explore almost every corner of the earth, from Antarctic icecaps to the top of Patagonia’s peaks.
Gregory’s latest series brings us up close and personal with wildlife, taking the viewer along on the journey with enthralling behind-the-scenes moments and gripping wildlife action sequences.
What came first – a passion for wildlife or a passion for photography?
Definitely wildlife. Photography is really a secondary thing.
I mean, I guess I’m interested in cameras, right? But I was very much obsessed with wildlife first, and I think that all started because my family are all obsessed with being in the sea.
I grew up with three brothers and parents who love sailing, surfing, that kind of thing. I think when you grow up bobbing up and down on a surfboard off the Cornish coast getting cold, you gain an appreciation for it.
When I was in my early teens I started taking pictures of the animals that I was getting obsessed with, the ones that were in the farmland near where I lived – foxes, badgers, red kites, all that fun stuff!
I also developed a fascination with urban wildlife, particularly the peregrine falcons that live in London and Bristol.
I found that if I took pictures of these animals that I was sneaking off to try and find, it was a great way to channel my passion for wildlife, but more importantly, it was a good way to explain to other people what I was doing, because everyone thought I was a bit weird.
Following your degree in Zoology, you began assisting National Geographic photographer Steve Winter. How do you feel this helped you pave your future in photography and filmmaking?
This was definitely key.
National Geographic is, I suppose, the pinnacle for stills and video, alongside the BBC and David Attenborough. And it’s initially a difficult organisation to crack. It really helps to prove yourself with someone independent, who then gives you that helping hand into the ‘inner sanctum’.
Steve is one of the legends there and so as soon as I proved myself with Steve, he introduced me to all these people; and so I could then walk into any office at National Geographic and say ‘I’m Steve Winters’ assistant’ and suddenly the doors open.
He’s always been a great champion and I’m really passionate about mentorship now because I got so much from Steve.
It’s the least I can do to give back, and I’ve also come to realise that you actually get a great kick out of seeing people that you’ve helped come up through the ranks and be successful themselves.
Have you taken many people under your wing and helped with mentoring?
Yes, as part of Animals Up Close, we were able to take on several people, namely Anna Dimitriadis who was my camera assistant for the project.
Having just finished up with me on Animals Up Close, she’s now working on a new and very prestigious series for the BBC.
What would be one piece of advice you would give to young people who want to get into the photography and videography industry?
Go do it.
Given that I have a public profile, I meet a lot of people at film festivals and events who come up to me and ask things like ‘Please give me a job’, ‘Please give me an opportunity, give me my big break’.
I have learnt that getting lucky is very important in this industry. But luck is where preparation meets opportunity. And so if you want to get lucky, you need to do the hard work. A lot of people like the idea of wildlife filmmaking more than they like the reality.
So the most important thing is to get out and go and shoot. We live in this amazing age of cameras being relatively affordable, and everyone has a phone with a camera, so even at the most basic level, you can go and make films, and edit them yourself.
You can then put them on this amazing marketing tool that is the internet. And maybe they’ll be rubbish to start with, but that doesn’t matter. The point is you’re making mistakes and you’re learning on your own time.
This means that when you meet someone at a film festival and you ask them for a job and that person turns around and goes ‘What have you done?’, you can show them a portfolio of work.
If I see that, I will immediately go ‘Oh, okay, now we’re talking’ rather than just ‘See you in two years, after you’ve gone away and made some films’.
You’ve recently released a new series on Disney+ – ‘Animals Up Close with Bertie Gregory’. Can you tell us a bit more about the series and the inspiration behind it?
Yes, so I was fortunate enough after working for Steve Winter to go and work for the BBC’s Nature History unit, (which I still do now) on the David Attenborough landmark documentaries Seven Worlds, Planet Earth III, Frozen Planet II etc.
I noticed that whenever an episode came out that I had worked on I would always get messages about the last ten minutes, the behind-the-scenes section that I was in a couple of times.
And that got me thinking. Whilst we spend most of our time, effort and resources on the first 50 minutes of an episode, often the last 10 minutes are secondary to the primary goal – it’s not our main job to film the behind-the-scenes when on assignment.
So I thought, if so many people love these last ten minutes where they get the inside scoop into how we’re filming an episode, why don’t we make that as a show?
I’d been working on a similar concept for an online series for National Geographic when Disney+ was invented, and it felt like the right time and the right platform to do that on.
So, I got the series Epic Adventures commissioned with Wildstar Films in Bristol, and Animals Up Close is really an evolution of that.
It’s a hybrid show so we film wildlife at the highest level with the best technology and the best people. The idea is that if I was removed from the series, the wildlife footage you’re watching could stand alone in the next David Attenborough series.
But then we really lean into the behind-the-scenes elements, our struggles alongside the animal struggles, to give people an insight into what it’s like to be on an expedition for these wildlife shows.
This behind-the-scenes style means that as well as shining light on the amazing animals, we can shine a light on really cool people.
So often when making natural history documentaries, you work with an awesome boat captain, a great scientist, a dedicated conservationist, etc, and now we can really make them part of the story.
The format also means we can really unpack the big environmental story and show some solutions and some good news, which is really important in this day and age of doom-and-gloom media. And that’s really how it was born and what it is.
In one episode, you cross the Drake Passage, a historically perilous body of water, to reach Antarctica. How do you prepare for this crossing, and is it as terrifying as it looks on screen?
So I remember the first time I did this crossing. Before I went I thought that I didn’t get seasick.
I grew up sailing boats, and I worked as a deckhand on a bear and whale-watching boat off the West Coast of Canada for three summer seasons, where I could make hot drinks for everyone in the galley with absolutely no problem.
Then, half a day into my first crossing, going to South Georgia, I was vomiting everywhere.
Some people say that you can train yourself to get over seasickness. That’s rubbish – you just learn what really triggers you and so you do everything in your power to avoid these triggers!
So to this day, I’ve been down to Antarctica several times, and I still get sick as a dog. It’s just the price of admission, and there’s an amazing and magical place at the end of the journey.
The ocean crossing does make you feel very small and insignificant – especially when the waves are big and making shapes that you didn’t know water could make!
I used to get a bit worried when the weather gets bad. But I go down with such amazing boat crews that I now gauge my reaction on them, so if they are relaxed, I’m relaxed.
I had one really funny encounter with a crew member called Dave Roberts. We’d been down to Antarctica to film the fin whale episode for Epic Adventures, and we were on our way back when, halfway across the Drake Passage, the toilet got clogged.
Now, if you’re already pretty nauseous, imagine smelling that! Dave needed to go down to unblock the toilet, so he left me on watch at the helm looking out for chunks of ice.
15 minutes later, he came upstairs with a big bucket of – well, you can imagine what – and went to tip it overboard. He then came back inside covered in sea spray and remnants of the toilet. I looked at him and told him he was such a hero for doing that.
To which he said ‘It’s all good, it’s just part of the job. It’s not all just playing with dolphins and whales,’ and went back down to scoop more poo!
He had an amazing attitude and perfectly summarised Antarctic sailing.
Have you had a favourite encounter during this series?
So I would say my favourite episode, rather than individual encounter, is the ‘Patagonia Puma’ episode because we were there to film Petaka. She’s a female puma I met four years ago as a cub.
The fact that she’d even survived the four years was amazing, but not only did she survive, she had transformed from a bumbly little ball of fluff that was completely reliant on her mother, into this amazing powerful cat that now had two cubs of her own.
Over the 51 days we spent filming this episode, she just took us on this physical and emotional roller coaster. We did what she did, so if she walked 15 miles up and down the mountains, we’d walk 15 miles up and down the mountains (with 40kgs of camera gear on our backs!).
We’re always taught to disconnect emotionally when we’re filming so that we can concentrate on keeping the footage in focus and the subject in frame. But when it’s a cat you’ve known for such a long time, you’re so emotionally invested that that idea completely goes out the window!
So when she was battling with a big male who was twice her body weight and trying to kill her cubs – yeah, our hearts were in our mouths for sure!
When filming and photographing intimate moments with nature for a series like this, how do you know when you’ve got ‘the shot’? Are there ever times when you put your camera down and just immerse yourself in the moment?
Normally, I would say no, you are totally focused on the task at hand, always filming. But sometimes, you do get a chance to put the camera down and take it all in.
I remember on Epic Adventures we ended up seeing and filming the largest gathering of fin whales ever recorded. There were over 300 of them feeding all together, with big Antarctic, snowy mountains behind, penguins everywhere, and albatross flying through.
I don’t think I’ll ever see something on that scale again, it was so magical.
I’d been flying the drone all morning, and then getting in the water with the whales, which was wild. And then, when I got out, even more whales arrived, so I put the drone back up.
And then Martha (the expedition medic who was spotting the drone for me) said right at the end of the day, ‘I’m not an expert but I think you’ve probably got it now. You should probably just land (the drone) and look at this with your eyeballs’.
And I’m so glad she said that because I get so laser-focused on trying to do justice to this crazy event.
I looked up and the light had gone, and there were fewer whales, so I landed the drone, and Martha and I sat on the side of the boat and just looked out at all the blows going off like cannons in an old sea battle.
I took it all in and that’s what I remember now, what I saw with my eyes, not what I saw looking through a lens.
When you’re looking at a drone feed on a screen that’s a bit crackly and stressful because you’ve got several thousand pounds flying in the air carrying all your footage, you don’t really remember what you see. It’s all through the footage. So it’s nice to have some ‘real’ memories.
What do you hope to achieve with this series and how do you hope people will feel when watching the series?
I hope people come away just feeling really stoked about the magic of the natural world, and how complex it is, and how challenging animals’ lives are even when humans aren’t negatively impacting them.
But also how humans are negatively impacting these animals and these wild places, how we’re really pushing them to the brink of extinction in many cases.
That being said, I think what I’m most proud of with the series is that we show the good news.
I think it’s really important to celebrate conservation wins because I think that goes much further to inspire more people around the world to do their bit, to change our relationship with the natural world for the better.
Do you think there will be a Series II?
That all depends on how many people watch the series!
I guess my plea would be if anyone does watch and enjoy it on Disney+, please share it with their family and friends because that will determine whether or not we get to make more of them!
Congratulations on the recent win at Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the Behaviour: Mammals category. We can’t wait for more of your stills to be released. Are you working on any photography projects at the moment that you can share with us?
So the wave washing killer whales are in my first feature story for the November Issue of the National Geographic magazine, so that’s pretty cool.
I am also working on another story for National Geographic.
Looking to the future, what place do you feel nature photography and videography will have when thinking about ecosystem challenges and the conservation of wild places and wildlife?
I think that video and stills are very good for different things. I think the power of the still is that one single moment, captured on camera, really does stop you in your tracks.
Certain things lend themselves to being captured as stills much better than video, and vice versa. So I think stills will continue to have a really important place.
The wildlife photography industry is really saturated, but there is still a level that if a photo reaches, I think it can break through the noise.
I think that’s what any photographer should be striving towards.
‘Animals Up Close with Bertie Gregory’ is now streaming on Disney+. You can also keep up with Bertie’s latest adventures by following him on Instagram @bertiegregory.