There were wildlife camera operators before him and many who have followed, but few have had as enduring an impact on the genre or on the crews producing them as Doug Allan. “He is a polar pioneer,” said Alastair Fothergill, series producer on ground-breaking BBC series “Life in the Freezer” and “The Blue Planet.” “A lot of the material he filmed had literally not been filmed before.”
This includes a sequence of killer whales working as a team to make a wave and wash seals off the ice floe for “Frozen Planet.” It had taken Allan 25 years to finally nail this shot, after first hearing about the behavior in 1976 and attempting to film it for BBC/Discovery series “Life.” On that occasion, there was not enough ice or daylight to capture it.
Armed with that knowledge, he returned a year later and recorded what producer/director Kathryn Jeffs has called the “holy grail” of a behavior that no-one had ever recorded scientifically before.
Equally important is the artistry and humanity of the cameraman behind such ground-breaking moments in nature cinematography. “Doug is more than a cameraman. He is a filmmaker who understands the emotion behind the image,” said “Tiger’s Nest” director Brando Quilici.
Born in Scotland, Allan is best known as the principal cinematographer for a number of world-renowned BBC nature documentaries, including “Planet Earth” and “The Blue Planet.” Landmark series such as these set out to comprehensively showcase the beauty and power of the environment and were shot over multiple years all over the world with multimillion dollar budgets funded by the BBC and Discovery. Designed to educate viewers about the natural world and the glory of particular animal behaviors, the cinematography was also a key selling point for the series worldwide.
While these films feature the work of many camera teams — Allan’s being extensively used in the “Frozen Seas” episode of “The Blue Planet” (1981) — by 2006, Allan not only shot sequences for two “Planet Earth” episodes in the poles, but supervised the look of the entire series, winning an Emmy. It’s a body of work that has been recognized with eight Emmys, four BAFTAs, and five Wildscreen Pandas.
More than the accolades though, it is what is also on his CV that lends insight to a unique background that led to such a storied career: scientific research diver, biologist, and former station commander for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). He’s a two-time recipient of the Fuchs Medal and the Polar Medal. No other cameraperson is as experienced filming in polar regions — whether on the ice or diving under it.
Watch how cinematographer Doug Allan captured some of his most unique and iconic footage in the video below.
It was during tours for BAS, beginning in 1976 and extending over five winters and six summers, that a chance meeting altered the course of his career and arguably that of wildlife filmmaking in the polar regions. In 1981, commanding BAS at Signy Island at the northern margin of Antartica’s Weddell Sea, Allan was asked to assist a small film crew, including presenter David Attenborough, shooting for the BBC’s “Living Planet” series.
Allan was immediately drawn to the “glamour” of their endeavor. In turn, producer Ned Kelly was impressed by Allan’s local knowledge. “If I want to go to Africa, I can ask a dozen people about elephants and chimps, but if I want to go to the Antarctic, I’ll have to come to you,” Allan said Kelly told him.
A seed was planted. Kelly spread word at the BBC Natural History Unity about Allan’s specialism within the polar environment, while Allan vowed to break into the TV business.
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Footage of emperor penguins he shot on 16mm on his next expedition for BAS was sold to the BBC for inclusion in “A Bird for All Seasons” (1986). Because he was prepared to spend nine months over winter in the region, he landed job filming seals and whales under the ice for three-part series “Antarctica — The Last Frontier.” It put him on the TV map.
“If I got a break, it was because the Antarctic was a much more inaccessible place then than it is now,” said Allan in an interview with IndieWire. “After , I had a good showreel and it launched me into my niche, which was cold polar filming.”
Shortly afterwards, Fothergill recruited Allan for “Freezer,” a show which reunited the cameraman with Attenborough and led to more than 70 assignments as a freelancer for the BBC, Discovery, National Geographic, and many others.
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Natural history filmmaking requires working weeks on end in a small team searching for unpredictable animal subjects in all weather conditions. There’s no place for egos. All accounts testify to the 70-year-old’s unusual patience with people, animals, and the situation at hand.
“To be a good natural history cinematography, you need all three,” said producer Martha Holmes, who worked with Allan on “Freezer” and an Attenborough-fronted special about polar bears. “Since you are invariably working in a small team, it’s critical in difficult situations to keep calm, not get frustrated, and that you don’t blame anybody. Doug absolutely keeps on an even level.”
Fothergill emphasized Allan’s “positive, get-go” attitude in the field. “When you are on your own in these remote places for long periods, having somebody who is good company is very valuable,” he said.
Allan’s understanding of local people, such as the Inuit, is another attribute, according to Holmes. Allan acts as liaison between the more gung-ho producers concerned with time and budget and the remote communities who the filmmakers had to rely on for knowledge, guidance, and supplies.
Then there is his ability to withstand the rigors and dangers of filming wild animals in some of the most extreme conditions known to man. “He is unbelievably rugged — a really tough guy,” said Fothergill. “Those are very, very difficult conditions to work in. He is very brave, getting close to whales that some [other cameramen] might choose not to do. He has a real understanding of the ice and a lot of experience with polar bears.”
Polar bears are one of the few animals that will actively hunt and eat humans, so understanding how to behave around them in the field is essential. As the adage goes, the polar bear that gets is you is the one you don’t see.
“He does a lot of research, but I’ve seen scientists ask him about polar bears because he just knows more,” said Quilici.
Allan’s ability to endure extremes with a smile also impressed Quilici. “When he thinks something can be done, he does it and never backs out. Once we were in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska shooting the Northern lights and its minus 40 plus wind chill and Doug’s wearing a little jacket looking through the viewfinder with his cheek pressed to the metal of the Arriflex,” he recalled.
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His ability to work underwater is equally admirable. “He will stay under longer than anybody and not make a fuss,” says Holmes. “He is just incredibly resilient and never, ever complains. In adversity, you’d want Doug with you.”
She added, “There was a kindness in Doug — he carried novices along with him,” she said. “He never stood you up as a new director because you didn’t understand how to do it or you had the wrong kit. He was always very generous in his support and guidance.”
Allan himself brushes this off, saying you’ve got to put up with discomfort because that’s what you’re being paid for. “If you’re the kind of person who gets bored after an afternoon sitting on a sea cliff waiting for the mist to rise and you’re impatient with that, then you are not cut out to be a wildlife filmmaker.”
More than a dependable crew member, Allan is also praised for his photographic eye. “He can spot something that looks relatively benign or slightly dull and create really beautiful images out of it,” Holmes said.
For “The Journey Home,” a 2012 feature directed by Roger Spottiswood, Allan shot second unit under Quilici’s direction in Svalbard (Norway). “Doug gave us the most beautiful shots of polar bear cubs, but what was amazing is he is always thinking about finding a way to capture the emotion of the moment as well,” Quilici said.
Remarkably, Allan is self-taught. At Oxford Scientific Films between 1985-86, he taught himself film grammar by spooling wildlife footage on a Steenbeck.
“I made a list of shots and how they cut together, looking for cutting points of animals walking out of frame,” he said. “I realized that as a filmmaker, you are shooting for the editor. The cameraperson’s job is to supply the building blocks. With great building blocks come great films, but without those, everyone will struggle.”
Up through the early ’80s, wildlife productions had to contend with all the limitations of shooting on film. A roll would last 10 minutes — less if it was slow motion — meaning that the underwater photographer had that long to shoot the animal before coming back to the surface to reload. “The chances of finding your subject again was pretty remote,” Allan said.
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The small optical viewfinder on the cameras didn’t help either. If you were shooting on the ice pack, there was no way to view rushes locally. Allan didn’t see any film of emperor penguins in 1984 until he was back home nine months later.
Fothergill said, “Since film is very expensive in raw stock and processing, making sure you got just the right amount of coverage was an important decision. It meant camera operators on early series like ‘Freezer’ had to be really confident they’d got the shot. The producer would ask, ‘Have we got it?’ and the cameraperson had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ That was a particular skill.”
The arrival of tape meant the production could afford to be much more generous with what they shot. For Allan, larger and brighter viewfinders and hour-long “magazines” in the first electronic cameras was the big leap forward. “Gathering images on chips had the ability to pierce murky water and bring out much more vibrant shots,” he said. “The technology got progressively better.”
A personal favorite of Allan’s is video of a polar bear swimming underwater for a BBC special. It’s a six-minute sequence voiced-over by Attenborough and filmed using a polecam, as the creature approached the boat they were on to within half a meter.
“I could put the camera between the bear’s legs and get images that have not been bettered. Every time I play that sequence, I think ‘That’s a peach,'” he said.
Allan’s early career as a research diver assisting marine biologists in the Antarctic gave him a foundational understanding of and respect for wildlife. This has translated into an ability to get up close and personal with animals. “His relationship with nature and with wildlife is unique,” Quilici said. “He doesn’t need to keep the camera rolling all of the time. He has an innate feeling for when to shoot the animals.”
Allan is no doubt a human who can form a relationship with a whale, polar bear, or orangutan in the same way other people might with a dog or a cat.
“Mammals are variable from day to day. They have their good days or bad days, but if you have the privilege to be with them every day for a week, you will have got to know each other,” Allan said. “Quite possibly you are getting images of their behavior on the final day which they weren’t exhibiting on the first.”
A basic tenant of wildlife photography is showing respect to the animal — especially on an ice cap where there is nowhere to hide.
“We have the technology to put up remote cameras and collect images when you are invisible but there’s nothing to beat getting face to face with animals,” Allan said. “And in the polar regions there are no trees to hide behind. A polar bear can smell you long before it sees you.”
Visibility is often so poor underwater that you need to get even closer to your target. “You don’t usually film underwater until the animals are maybe 20m (60 feet) from you, because anything beyond that distance just isn’t sharp enough,” Allan said. “Since the animal can see you, it’s all about how you behave, your body language, and patience.”
In recent years, Allan has consciously “weaned” himself of “pure blue chip films” toward those with a stronger environmental message, such as “An Ocean Mystery: The Missing Catch” for Smithsonian. He has also worked on coral reef conservation projects for the Canadian conservation body Living Oceans.
“When I began [filming wildlife], we all wanted to impress people with the beauty of nature,” he said. “But there was a danger that we weren’t bringing out the message of how we should be protecting and preserving the environment.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published in July paints a bleak picture about climate dangers. Allan is keen to see the natural history genre continue to generate exposure to the issues.
“It’s quite a high ask, but I’m optimistic there are lots of ways of approaching the issue. As long as the needle shifts, then there’s still a place for those [blue chip] films.” –Adrian Pennington