Sharpshooter: The young man and the sea
Barrie Smith talks with Rob Drewett, the wildlife cameraman who evolved a wild creation of his own, the BuggyCam mobile camera platform
Our interview with Rob Drewett, wildlife cameraman, BuggyCam developer & circumnavigation record holder.
Name: Rob Drewett?
Family: Two children. Evelyn is four going on 18 and Joseph is two. Plus my very understanding wife
Occupation: Wildlife cameraman; CEO/Founder of Motion Impossible.
Where did you grow up?
A small village in Surrey, England, called Dormansland.
Where do you live today?
In England, near Tetbury, in Gloucestershire.
English and un poquito Espanol.
What education have you had? Special training in camera work?
After leaving school I had no idea what I wanted to do. After starting as a greenkeeper, I then became a tree surgeon for five years, which enabled me to get work in Australia. Whilst travelling for work, I enjoyed scuba diving as a hobby, and on a remote island called Koh Tao in Thailand, I first found my love of filmmaking.
I've always been an avid photographer and little realised I could turn my hobby into a career, until I started filming people completing their PADI open water diving certificate. The resident underwater cameraman, Wayne, gave me a crash course on how to film, edit and deliver a DVD to the students, all on the same day. I learnt fast — it was the only way I could afford to stay on this paradise island. Ever since then I've pretty much taught my self. Then, 10 years later, I was awarded an 18 month bursary at the BBC Natural History Unit. This was the golden ticket to work closely with the best in the industry. I watched, helped, asked questions — and now I teach too.
Producer Alex Lanchester and I were stalked by a grizzly bear for about an hour
What was your first ever shooting job?
My first ever shooting job was to film the open water students, but my first ever TV credit was for a series I shot called Spanish Dive Adventures.
You specialise in wildlife shooting. In what way does your mental approach differ from, say, a news video cameraman?
When starting a wildlife sequence I spend a lot of time researching and preparing to film the creatures' behaviour. In the field you have to think like an animal, behave like the animal and sometimes even smell like the animal. Being smarter than your subject is not that easy - and when everything is against you, either the weather is not on your side, the animals are not behaving, or you're just in the wrong location. Whenever I tell anyone about my job they always say I must have a lot of patience. True. In filming wildlife you do need a lot of patience, but you must also trust your instincts.
Current assignments. Where, doing what, shooting for whom?
Lately, my career has taken quite a turn. I've just started up my own company called Motion Impossible. We make remote camera platforms. I was one of the first in our industry to start working with handheld gimbals and ever since then I've been using the technology in many different ways - on jibs, cable dollies and now with our own remote camera platform called BuggyCam, which we sell all around the world.
Our latest one is for filming virtual reality. In the past, moving VR camera arrays has been done mainly by drones, but they've never moved very well nor remained stable from the ground without someone in shot. So my latest assignment was to be a DoP on a VR experience for Universal Music and film five songs for a new album of thrash metal band called Megadeth — a different type of wildlife filmmaking!
How are you affected by weather conditions?
When you want sunshine, it rains and when you want rain, it’s sunny. It’s called Sod's law! We're very weather dependent. I once worked on a BBC series called Wonders of the Monsoon. In the couple of years we filmed it, there was a drought, and we really struggled to get the content of true monsoonal rains.
Do you travel much in Europe?
I recently filmed the mayfly sequences for the new Brian Cox show Forces of Nature. We travelled up and down the Tisza river in Hungary. This was my first European job in a long time. I do take many of my holidays to explore European countries though.
What programmes have you shot for?
Mostly my work is out of the BBC. I've filmed in Africa: Hidden Kingdoms, Planet Earth 2, Life Story, Wonders of the Monsoon, Alaska, Forces of Nature, Springwatch, Autumnwatch, and The Dark.
Do you find some producers lack understanding of your role and special needs?
Mainly inexperienced producers don’t understand and always get you to film more than is needed.
Gearwise, do you travel heavy or light? Do you work with an assistant or alone?
I'm afraid the days of wildlife camera assistants are gone. Budgets just don’t allow it. That's one of the reasons all my gear is lightweight.
Current camera equipment you use?
RED Dragon, Arri Alexa or Sony FS7 for normal filming and Phantom Flex 4K for high speed.
Is the DSLR style of camera workable in your shooting style?
Maybe five years ago, but now there are a lot of other options for that range of work.
What specialist camera gear do you use?
High speed cameras, cable dollies, gimbals, Steadicam, Easyrigs, remote camera platforms, vehicle mounts, long lenses. I use the M?VI stabiliser too.
What can the M?VI system do that others, like Steadicam, can't do?
I've used the M?VI on a jib, hanging from a rope, on a cable dolly and now on remote camera platforms. So it can do a lot more!
What make and range are the lenses you use?
Mostly Canon, Nikon, Fujinon and Zeiss, ranging from the most macro to the longest, like a Canon 50-1000mm.
In the field, is battery life a big issue?
Yes, and sometimes we use solar to recharge the batteries, especially now as the technology is becoming more intelligent.
Is 3D shooting difficult where you have little control of subject distance?
My filmmaking is all about behaviour and filming in 3D really limits that way of filming.
What useful piece of gear do you wish someone might make?
A cheaper alternative to a Cineflex.
Is underwater work still in your repertoire?
It used to be, but I started getting bad ears whilst doing lots of dives.
You have a fear of snakes. Has that affected your 'performance'?
I have filmed the largest snake in Africa and for that sequence I was nominated for a BAFTA.
In 2008, you were part of a four-man crew that beat the world record for a complete circumnavigation of the globe by powerboat, which was done 100% carbon neutral. What was that like?
The most amazing thing I have ever done. But I would never do it again! Check out my website to see more info on Earthrace.
What awards have you won?
RTS award, Jackson Hole Golden Panda, Guild of Television Cameraman award and runner up for two BAFTAs.
Best thing about your job?
I'm very lucky to experience places that most people are not even allowed to go.
Worst thing about your job?
Spending so much time away from my family.
Working on a show called Alaska: Earth's Frozen Kingdom. The producer Alex Lanchester and I were stalked by a grizzly bear for about an hour. We wanted to film some caribou on the snow, which was at the top of a large hillside. The walk to the top was a lot harder than we first thought and took a lot longer than expected, which took us dangerously into predator hour. On the way back down we literally bumped into a large female grizzly. She was grubbing for berries and I'm sure a bit of meat would have gone down nicely. She was about 50 metres away when we saw her and she was right on our direct route down the hillside, so we had to reroute right through a dense gorse forest. Our guide, who was waiting by our trucks, was watching the grizzly through his binoculars and told us that she was zig zagging behind us and getting pretty close. In hindsight, we were a little unprepared for that trip.
What country would you most like to shoot in?
New Zealand. This one has escaped me so far.