Have you ever had a moment in your day job when you pinch yourself and say ‘I can’t believe someone is paying me to do this!’ As a wildlife film-maker, I happened to be shivering uncontrollably when the thought hit me. I was scuba-diving underneath Antarctic sea-ice, directing a film shoot for the BBC Frozen Planet series. The water was so cold the skin on my lips had begun to die and flake away. I was watching a small circle of light—our only portal to safety through the white ceiling of ice—shrink into the distance as my cameraman and I started drifting in a sudden current.
But any fear we felt was soon mixed with wonderment. Antarctic waters are so clear that what I thought were tiny floating particles at arm’s length morphed into metre-long creatures rising up from the inky depths. As they got closer I noticed they were torpedo smooth with a dusting of saffron around their tuxedo collars–emperor penguins!
There we were, floating and filming in dark oceanic space. The surface of what looked like a white planet overhead and a swarm of elegant black and white spaceships orbiting us to check us out. Ok, not so much your average day in the office as a once in a lifetime experience.
But I would argue that almost everyone’s profession has such moments. They’re rare but worth reflecting on because they remind us of why we began our career in the first place. The more I talk to people in other professions the more I realise we have shared experiences. The pain we might go through to achieve a goal, the meticulous planning involved with a large scale project, the perfectionism and desire to do it better than our competitors, the ability to pull together a team and get the best out of them. Just replace your contracts and spreadsheets with our cameras and grizzly bears and you’ll find a lot of our challenges require similar problem solving.
Three years ago my team and I set out to make an epic new wildlife series with Sir David Attenborough, Seven Worlds—One Planet. We wanted to explore each of the seven continents, celebrating their diversity, landscapes and amazing wildlife. It was a daunting task. By very definition we needed to cover every corner of land on the planet. A planet that is home to over a million known species of animal. How would we choose just a handful to feature?
But as we set sail on our project we charted a course that might feel surprisingly similar to many in other industries. Caffeinated brainstorming sessions with flip-charts and white-boards. Budget risk analysis. In the early months, I introduced my team to ‘Blue-Sky Fridays’. They weren’t allowed to work on existing parts of the project, but instead were encouraged to roam freely, hunting down fresh and original ideas.
We continually ran our story lists through a number of filters. Are there too many, or not enough, predation sequences in the film? Courtship, comedy, conservation, cuteness, too many birds vs mammals? Did each episode feel like a satisfying cocktail of colour and animal characters from each continent?
Like many professionals, we look for new technologies that might streamline our workflow or lead to more creativity. Drones had finally become quiet enough to enable us intimate filming of animals in the landscape. We ran our templates by neighbouring teams. Lunch with the Blue Planet 2crew provided some new ideas for weaving conservation into the fabric of the series without turning viewers off.
Of course, like any project, there’s the omnipotent budget considerations. Do we spend more on extra staff-hours or pump it into camera days in the field? If we roll the dice on chasing never-before-filmed behaviour (snow leopards hunting in Pakistan) should we balance the risk with low-hanging fruit (harvest mice in Norfolk)? I tell my teams that if we’re not coming back with some failures, we’re not trying hard enough. It’s a mantra I’ve shared with many in the financial sector.
And then there’s dreaded workplace safety. The sheer mention of risk assessments draws a collective groan across myriad offices and job-sites. Mine might involve plans to have scuba-divers roped to the surface before they disappear under the ice (next time!). A construction firm once taught me how to lighten the tedium by having a bottle of bubbly sat on the office shelf, awarded to the first risk assessment handed in without need of correction. For, yes, even the day-to-day grind of wildlife film-making needs an injection of fun sometimes.
This autumn, once Seven Worlds—One Planet drops onto your tv-viewing radar, I’ll be sharing many of the untold back-stories with my audiences and the secrets behind planning and delivering such a monstrous project. And the more I talk to professionals in all walks of life the more I believe there are lessons to learn from all sectors. I might even find it hard to believe someone is paying me to do it.