insight - Doug Allan
Written by Ron Toft photography by Doug Allan
Occupation - Wildlife Cameraman
Award-winning wildlife cameraman Doug Allan was determined to find out if orcas – killer whales – really did work co-operatively by making waves to swamp ice floes and knock seals into the water where they could be easily picked off.
“I had first heard about this behaviour way back in 1976, but details were sketchy and pictures non-existent.”
While filming in the Antarctic for BBC TV’s Life series, Doug actually witnessed this behaviour for himself; but the seal escaped “and the sequence was frustratingly unresolved”.
The following season, however, while working on the frozen continent again – this time for BBC TV’s recently screened blockbuster Frozen Planet series – fortune smiled on Doug, his fellow cameraman, and the two marine biologists who were tagging orcas to shed light on their movements.
“During a three-week period in Marguerite Bay, we saw a staggering 150 waves generated by orca pods and 23 attacks on seals. What’s more, we filmed nearly every one of them!
“Obtaining definitive proof of a unique, almost mythical behaviour for the first time is the sort of thing that comes along perhaps only once in a lifetime.” During the past 35 years, Doug has worked extensively in the earth’s ‘freezers’, making him one of the most experienced polar filmmakers of his generation.
The first adult book Doug read, when he was 10 or 11, was a condensed, Reader’s Digest version of Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World. “It was that kind of excitement, that raw physicality, that led to everything I’ve done.”
Doug dived throughout his marine biology BSc degree course at Stirling University in the ’70s. “I learned enough about science to know that working at the sharp end of it wasn’t really for me.” He also knew he didn’t want to work at a desk or in a laboratory.
Fascinated by an article in a diving magazine about the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Doug applied for a posting with the organisation, but was unsuccessful.
“At the same time I was turned down, I was offered a diving job in the Red Sea. While there, I was contacted again by BAS and told an unexpected vacancy had cropped up. One of their diving officers had pulled out a year-and-a-half into a two-and-a-half-year posting on Signy Island. Was I interested in taking over from him? I didn’t need asking twice!”
Doug was blown away by the frozen continent – the landscapes, the wildlife, and the photographic opportunities. A succession of other BAS contracts saw Doug spending more and more time in the Antarctic. It was while working there in 1981 that he first met legendary TV wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.
“I saw very clearly for the first time that wildlife filming involved so many things that turned me on. It seemed to be worthwhile, it involved travelling, there was a glamorous, adventurous aspect to it, and wildlife filmmakers were a great bunch of people.”
Doug has a thing about big animals, especially big mammals. “They are charismatic, easier to film than small creatures, and generate good footage,” he says. “What’s more, you can develop a relationship with a big mammal. Don’t ask me to explain what I mean – it’s just an understanding, mutual respect, an affinity of some sort. It’s an indefinable something that passes from the mammal to the cameraman and vice-versa. “In polar regions there is nowhere to hide, either above or below the ice, so you have to move slowly and carefully, always keeping a respectful distance from the mammal you are filming so it doesn’t feel threatened. This ‘camaraderie’ doesn’t always work, however, for all creatures are individuals. Like us, they have both good and bad days. The skill is in recognising their moods and knowing when is a good time and when is a bad time to take things to another level.”
One close encounter of a mammalian kind that still brings Doug out in a cold sweat was when a walrus, sporting half-metre-long tusks, held him in a vice-like grip with its flippers. Instinctively, Doug thumped the juvenile with both fists and “kicked like hell. I certainly didn’t hang around to see what it would do next! If the walrus had reacted to my blows by tightening its grip and dragging me under the water, I would have been history.”
Another assignment involved securing underwater footage of a swimming polar bear. “Initially we didn’t have much success. Finally, we got a day when everything fell into place. We came across a swimming bear that we were able to approach very closely.
“Most bears veer away from you when you head towards them, but this one was different. I filmed the bear using a remotely controlled camera attached to the tip of an eight-foot pole. The reflection of the bear in the water was just lovely. We knew we had something special.”
Down the decades, Doug has been chased by only a couple of polar bears – luckily not far from the safety of his cabin. “They are formidable predators and can touch 30kph when they need to, albeit for a very short period. Polar bears commonly investigate research base cabins because they can smell cooking and suchlike. We always alarm the area around cabins – not so much for our personal safety but to keep bears away from our skidoos. Given the chance, they may chew handlebars and eat the seats. The last thing you want to find in the morning is a knackered skidoo!” One of Doug’s ambitions is to make a series of films showing how top wildlife cameramen obtain the footage that enthrals audiences all over the world. “The programmes would profile different types of filmmakers, including an underwater specialist, a time-lapse expert, and someone who uses big lenses in Africa. Each would be given a filming task – something they had always wanted to do but with a little bit of jeopardy involved. And as they tackled that task, they would have a camera crew looking over their shoulder.”
This year promises to be a memorable and busy one for Doug. “I’ve been to Antarctica again, I’ve received my second Polar Medal at Buckingham Palace from HRH The Prince of Wales, Freeze Frame has been published, and I am undertaking a Life Behind The Lens lecture tour in support of my book. Life really couldn’t be much better at present.”
Ones to watch
Doug Allan’s first book – Freeze Frame: A Wildlife Cameraman’s Adventures On Ice – was self-published in February 2012 at £25 (US$40) in hardback. It’s a portfolio of 70 long and short illustrated stories. “Every picture tells a story,” says Doug. “I’ve just given the ones in my book a chance to tell theirs.”
Doug has filmed sequences for some of TV’s biggest and best-known wildlife documentaries, including the BBC’s critically acclaimed series Frozen Planet, Ocean Giants, Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Life. He has won four Emmy and four BAFTA awards, as well as several Wildscreen Pandas.