The work of British wildlife filmmaker Justine Evans has been featured in many BBC Natural History Unit’s productions, such as Planet Earth, Life, Frozen Planet, and Seven Worlds One Planet. Justine is a canopy specialist and an expert on filming nocturnal animals. She spoke to RED about shooting wildlife from the Arctic to the tropics, her relationship with nature, and managing her gear in extreme environments.
QUESTION: You specialize in night work. Tell us about thermal imaging and how it helps you shoot wildlife at night.
Evans: Imagine seeing a landscape, and instead of recording the light, you're recording the heat temperature of everything in that landscape – it’s deep infrared essentially. It was originally developed for military purposes but has also been used a lot in natural history research. It’s a godsend for my type of work. On Seven Worlds, I was filming wild wolves in a mountainous area in Italy/Europe – they are very illusive animals and spotting them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The thermal imaging camera we were using can see activity even if it is half a kilometer away across a mountainside, enabling us to watch the landscape for any wolf hunting action or behavior. Before thermal imaging, that would have been almost impossible especially on very dark moonless nights. It’s an amazing tool. I’ve captured a lot of things that have never been seen before because of thermal imaging. Before that we were using image intensifier technology, which is a more degraded image quality or infrared, which normally requires infrared lighting.
What about the challenges of shooting in a canopy?
Professionally, I climbed my first tree in Panama; it was my first big break as a camera woman and my first opportunity to climb to the top of a large tropical tree. I never looked back. Since then, I’ve done many different types of canopy filming, even on expeditions with scientists. It is the place to be to film many arboreal species. In the tropics being up high is a much better camera angle than being on the ground, where you stare up with your camera at the sky and at what is quite usually a silhouetted, shadowy image.
How has technology changed since you started your career?
What kind of rigs are you lugging up the trees? Do you try to keep your kit minimal?
It seems like we've got more kit than we used to have! Some things have gotten smaller and lighter and drones have also revolutionized how we do a lot of moving shots. When there is a lot of foliage in the way we use cable-dolly tree rigs, which are fun and work well if you need to get especially close to things and do wipes. For some situations, we still go to the old-fashioned rigs we built years ago with bicycle wheels for gyro stabilization and add a Movi or Ronin gimbal to it for movement control. Remote cameras are improving now as well – camera traps with high-resolution cameras and automatic switches between day and night. That’s another great tool for filming elusive, tricky animals that are very difficult to record if you're present.
What do you prefer to shoot – people or animals?
I have filmed people and especially in relation to wildlife – telling the coexistence and conflict stories. I do enjoy that because I think it's an important subject that is becoming more and more pressing. Filming animal behavior helps us to understand more about their needs and resolve real-life, complex situations between humans and wildlife.
What’s at the heart of natural history documentation?
What came first – the filmmaking or the animals?
I did a traditional film school training and concentrated on drama when I was there, but what came first for me was the animals. I went to film school because I ultimately wanted to film animals and it was a way of getting trained to do that.
So, you always knew you wanted to film wildlife?
Yeah. I had my heart set but it wasn't ideal at film school at the time. Things have changed a lot; now you get targeted wildlife filmmaking courses but back then it was more drama focused. I got lucky in film school when The RSPB, a big UK bird charity, approached my school about making a 10-minute campaign film about lowland heathland. The head of the school asked if I would make the campaign film for them – the answer was yes, of course! I made that film and then the RSPB asked me to do a half-hour film about the illegal trade of wild birds. Another girl and I went undercover in Indonesia trying to film the capture and illegal trade of the Moluccan cockatoo. This was the sort of amazing journey I went on from just doing that 10-minute campaign film.
Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation?
Some animals can come closer than you want them to, and I have been in a few scary situations, especially one particular time when I was chased by an elephant. Having said that, there have been very few times I’ve felt afraid or in danger in the many years I’ve spent amongst wildlife and I think that says a lot about the natural world; it isn’t quite the scary, shocking place that we like to present it to be.
Animals read your body language very quickly. Even something like a cobra. I bumped into one of them on a trail once in Thailand and he rose up on display as if to say “I’m here. Please don’t come any closer!” It’s tough for these animals living in the natural world, that’s why they have many of these sorts of warning signals. I’ve learnt a lot about what those triggers are, and I try to not get myself into bad situations. I also try to be respectful.
Are there any shooting exercises you do to hone your skills so that you are able to get those once-in-a-lifetime shots in the field?
With the long lenses and all the movement and focus it’s very instinctive and it helps to practice. And I have filmed our dog running around, but it’s not just a matter of finding any animal and following it around. The job has quite a lot to do with the actual animal you’re filming – how they move, when they stop, you have to get into their pace. In the field, it takes some time to get into the groove with a particular animal. There really isn’t an easy way to practice filming fast animals – you just have to build a confidence in shooting it and then let yourself be with them long enough to anticipate their moves. You bond with them when you’re filming them!
Advice for Filmmakers
If you are mesmerized by watching wildlife, this could be the career for you because so much time is spent waiting. The most magical moments are when you’ve gotten to the right place, you’re alone and not disturbing anything, and then something unfolds and you capture it! That's the holy grail of wildlife filming.
Justine Evans participated in a live, interactive interview as part of RED’s Behind the Look Virtual Cinematography Series on DATE. The above Q&A is an excerpt from that conversation.