Sharpshooter: The zen of natural history filmmaking

Mark Payne-Gill, cameraman
Neal Romanek
January 6th 2017 at 1:44PM : By Neal Romanek

Mark Payne-Gill was an avid nature enthusiast as a youth. He began photographing the animals he was studying, and eventually becoming a cameraman for the BBC’s world-renowned Natural History Unit


Age: 50


Hometown: Chew Magna, Somerset, UK


Languages: Just English, but I can order the essentials in a few other countries


How did you become interested in natural history filmmaking?

Ever since I was six years old I was interested in creepy crawlies that I found around the garden. My father was also a passionate photographer and moviemaker. He used to make his own Super 8 movies, in a time before video was established, and I had access to that technology to record what I was seeing.

I became almost obsessive. I wanted to ,eep creatures and I built up a collection of all sorts of butterflies, moths, stick insects. My father built a shed for me to keep them in.

I also had an interest in birds and breeding them captivity. I ended up with and aviary in my father’s garden, and by the time I was fifteen I had over 300 birds of maybe 40 different species.

At the same time I was developing a passion for photography, and my father was encouraging it. He bought me a Super 8 film camera when I was twelve. It was about 10 or 15 pounds for a three and a half minute roll of film. I had all these close hand subjects to photograph and learn the wildlife photography trade.


When did you decide that you would do it as a profession?

There were a lot of David Attenborough shows on then, in the early 80’s - Life on Earth was a landmark series at the time - and I loved what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe there were people making a career out of filming wildlife. And I began to pursue that goal, pretty much from the age of 14.

When I finished my A levels, I didn’t want to pursue a degree in zoology. I was much more a naturalist than a scientist. So I did a three year course in photography, film and television at Harrow College of Art and Design in London. It had a specialist course in scientific filmmaking.


And how did you go professional?

It was a tough, competitive road to getting noticed and getting an opportunity to prove yourself. After I graduated, it was a hard slog of networking.

I was lucky that one of the lecturers where I studied knew someone who worked for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), which was run by ex-BBC staff. They had a small unit that made three films a year.

I got an interview with the producer Jeffrey Boswall, who was there, and he was very good at helping young people get started. He let me borrow some of their 16mm cameras and shoot some material. All the while I was still writing to other cameramen.

Then I got a rare opportunity to work with cameraman Mike Richards and producer/cameraman Hugh Miles on a film about goshawks – a tricky subject to film in the wild. They’re one of those creatures that need absolute fieldcraft and discipline to get close to and see their behaviour.

After that, I approached producers at BBC who said, we’ll happily give you a shot, but you need a camera.

At that time the RSPB were selling off a lot of their old camera kits. So I bought an old 16mm Arriflex BL from them. It was about thirty years old and covered in dust in the back corner, but still worked. I applied for a grant from the Prince’s Youth Business trust and they gave me £4000 pounds to set up my own business. I bought the camera and lenses for £2000 and then had the other £2000 for running costs and living.

Once I had the camera, I was able to go back to producers. I shot some stuff and they really liked it. Once people could see what I could do, it started to snowball from there.

I ended up needing a better camera, so I applied for another grant from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust. I got an Arri SR1, which put me at the same level as the other cameramen at that time. I was about 24 then, and I’ve never looked back.


What would you say to people who want to get into nature documentary now?

It’s such a different landscape now. I often think how lucky I was. The expense of the equipment was very prohibitive when I started. These days it’s the opposite. You’ve got a camera on your phone.

The industry’s grown hugely. It’s a very big business globally now. Everybody loves wildlife, and it’s inspired a lot more people to do what I do. The downside it’s far more competitive. It’s probably harder now to get established and get yourself out there and noticed.

I get so many emails from people asking for advice and wanting to assist. But the industry is bigger, so there are more opportunities. It’s still about who you know. Networking is very important. As long as you’ve got the talent, you’ll always be able to shine above everyone else.


What equipment do you use now?

I currently use an Arri Amira, which I bought two years ago. I love it. I’m very loyal to Arri. That first camera that I used was the Arri BL and then I bought the SR1, and then I got an SR3, which I still have.

I’ve always loved the design and the aesthetics of the Arri cameras. They’re always easy to use. It’s always meant you can stay focused on the job and the creative side. When I first saw the Amira, it was almost like a digital, 21st century version of my SR3 film camera. The ergonomics have a similar feel, but it’s a very sophisticated camera.

Arri Amira

The Arri Amira


You’ve recently been doing some groundbreaking work in lowlight shooting with Canon’s lowlight camera, the Canon ME20F-SH.

Yes. One of my other interests has always been astronomy and when I was 16 I got into astrophotography when I was given a telescope as a birthday present.

I always wondered when the technology would develop far enough that I would be able to film things through a telescope – things at the limit of what your eye can see and beyond. With a still camera it’s quite easy to do that with long exposures, but with video – apart from the moon and some of the bright planets – it’s limited.

Then I saw a couple years ago an announcement that Canon was developing a chip that was super light sensitive. There were a few demo sequences shot under moonlight which blew me away. I’ve done so much infrared night filming over the years and some thermal, but it’s usually funny colours or it’s black and white. It never gives you a realistic view. Or you end up having to light and use some artistic license in how much light you’re putting on the scene, which starts to affect the animals too.

So one of the first productions I did with the Canon ME20F-SH was BBC’s Stargazing Live. I’ve been working on it for five years in a row now. Until recently, most of that was shot with Starlight cameras, which are image intensifiers. They work in very low light, but produce noisy pictures. It was groundbreaking technology, but with very noisy images.


Stargazing Live 2011

Starlight camera footage from Stargazing Live


In 2015, Canon gave us a unit to use on Stargazing live. It was so exciting because we were getting a live colour image as good as the Starlight camera images we’d been getting, but with no noise. It almost looked like the daylight. You have to work to make sure it looks like night. The production team seeing the results couldn’t believe there was no additional light.


(Shooting on film) really focused your mind. You were tuned into everything around you


Where else have you used the Canon ME20F-SH?

Early last year, I got the opportunity to go to Sulawesi with Offspring Films to work on Monkeys: An Amazing Animal Family (the series aired on Sky in the UK over the holidays). One of the challenges was to shoot a tiny primate called a tarsier, which only comes out at night. This camera was perfect for doing this sequence without having to use big lights and generators. We were able to keep filming until you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

We also found we could use the IR filter, and then remove the red cast of the IR in post production, which gave us an extra stop or so of light when we needed it.

I was using fairly fast lenses. I had f2.8 lenses for a lot of it and 1.4 lenses when it was getting particularly dark. But we wanted to get headshots filling the frame – the tarsier’s heads are only about two or three inches wide - and the only way to do that was to use a longer lens. I had a Canon 600mm f5.6, but I thought it was just not going to work. I thought f4 was about the absolute limit. But using it, just before it got really dark, we got some incredible results from it. I couldn’t believe it.

When it was fully dark we used an Arri locaster panel lite on a stand off to one side, on its very lowest setting, with some diffusion, to get a bit of modelling. But that was when it was fully dark.

If you were a tarsier, it probably wouldn’t look that different from the moonlight, so they weren’t bothered by it.


Canon ME20F-SH camera

The Canon ME20F-SH


Does that low light technology allow you to spot animal behaviours that you wouldn’t normally catch or even be aware?

Very much so. It’s like having night vision binoculars. There are situations where you can’t even shine a torch and you need to use your camera as your eye. Obviously your field of view is limited by what lens you’ve got on.


Would you normally use night vision goggles on a night shoot?

No, but it’s something that I’ve mentioned to productions. The more we get into this kind of night filming, it could be a good tool to have, so we’re not in the dark completely blind.


But being a natural history cameraman requires more than just a knowledge of nature and cameras.

You have to be very disciplined in your approach. I learned a lot when I was first being trained on the goshawk film with Mike Richards and Hugh Miles. They were highly disciplined, professional cameraman, at the top of their game in terms of field craft, and that was key - learning and understanding field craft, learning how to get close to a subject without it being affected by your presence.

The camera technique is one thing, but you need the right approach to get close to your animals, to understand animal behaviour as much as possible and anticipate that behaviour.

And often we work with scientists who study these subjects most of their lives. You get a lot of good information from them, and then you can put together a technique that will fulfil the brief.

I also spend a lot of time with editors and watch them cut material. I get to see what’s required and that can dovetail with your field craft techniques, because you come to know what position you need to get the camera in to get a certain kind of shot that they’ll require.


Are you often alone on a shoot? You have a brief, but are sometimes you having to make your own decisions on the fly?

I’m rarely on my own. I’m generally with a producer or director. You work it through together as a team. That’s key to making it work.

It’s very unlike any other filmmaking because you don’t know how much footage you’re going to end up with at the end of the day. You might get nothing. And then on the last day you might film the rest of a four minute sequence in one go.

I know a lot of people that’s happened to – they’re about to give up and then suddenly everything happened in front of them and they shot everything they needed within two hours. It’s a very different approach and you have to have a veryu different mental attitude towards it, otherwise you’ll go mad!


The zen of natural history filmmaking.

Absolutely. People say, “Wow, you must be patient”, but I’m just really passionate about it. I don’t even think about patience. It’s just what you do. You’re just building up that anticipation to something really exciting – and when it happens, all that hard work and waiting becomes so worth it.

The waiting is just a part of it. I’m actually quite impatient in the normal scheme of life. With other people particularly. But when it comes to animals I can sit there all day and not even notice the time passing.


You started shooting on film. What are the differences you’ve experienced in shooting on film versus digitally?

In the past, you had a ten minute rolls of film. And you were limited by how many of those rolls you could take with you – particularly abroad. You had a ceiling for how much you could shoot each day.

But that made you more disciplined when you were shooting. You had that ten minute roll. You didn’t want to have to change mags halfway through shooting something, so you would have to be really easy on the trigger. And that really focused your mind. You were tuned into everything around you.

Then when it went to tape, that started to go out the window. You had 60 minute tapes, and there was a certain pressure to keep the camera rolling so you didn’t miss the animal taking off or leaping into frame. The ratios started going up. We went from 40 to 1 shooting ratios to 200 to 1.

When we went to P2 cards – we used a lot of Panasonic Varicams – it became worse, and you had maybe five hours in the camera. Suddenly, you could shoot anything and everything. You’d get messages back from the office saying, “Please, can you stop shooting so much?”, and you didn’t know how it happened. Whereas on film, you would almost direct it in camera and filter out everything but what you really needed.

It’s unlimited what you can shoot now. You also have pre-roll on a lot of these cameras, which you could never do on film. You had to literally guess whether something was about to happen - if something was going to take off or a wasp was going to come out of its burrow in the sand or a fox out of its den. Now you’d just hit pre-roll.

In the past you had to be absolutely focused 110% and almost in tune with the subject. Now you can get a bit lazy. You don’t have to work so hard mentally, and there’s something lost there a little bit.

I’m starting to hear about the amount of data post production becoming quite prohibitive, with the ratio going up to 400 to one, which is crazy. Storage and archiving becomes a problem. And there might be some great shots that are missed because no one has the time to look at all of that footage.

I think it comes back to the team in the field to get that discipline back and to stop shooting just because they can.


People say, “Wow, you must be patient”. But I’m just really passionate about it


How has natural history programming contributed to public awareness of sustainability and conservation?

I think it’s been hugely influential. If people don’t know what the life of animals is really like in the rainforest – if it’s just words on paper – then they don’t relate to it. For the last 50 years we’ve been educating the public about the natural history of the earth and it has more meaning for them. When there’s an environmental issue they’re more involved.

Even though there are a lot of blue chip shows that don’t pick up on any of these things, they still play a huge roll in terms of educating an audience about whaty’s out there.

And now there’s a lot of conservation films being made as a spin off from that, about species that are endangered or close to extinction, which twenty years ago wouldn’t have been made. It’s become very important in conveying what w’ere all facing. And it isn’t just about saving the planet, it’s about saving our civilization. It’s all connected.

A good thing about natural history documentary is a lot of it’s pretty objective. It’s observed. It’s not political. The animals are just out there. This is the amazing biodiversity of the planet. A lot of it’s thriving, but a lot of it there’ s some serious problems and we as wildlife filmmakers have a role to play.

I just shot a piece for The One Show where we used solar powered batteries for the whole production. The presenter was on a bike with a little motor that was charged by the sun. And he rode to my house where I have a solar observatory and we looked through the telescope at the sun to see where all this power was being generated.


Ironically natural history documentaries have one of the biggest carbon footprints of any kind of production.

Yes. We’re flying so much! We end up flying all over the place and that’s where a lot of the impact comes from.

But there’s so much more awareness of it now in production. Now there’s always something in the production schedule about the production’s carbon footprint and what the aim is to get it down to. People want to get that down as small as possible. But flying is of course the biggest drain on it.


What piece of equipment do you wish someone would make?

A 4K low light camera, like the Canon ME20F-SH but 4K. And one that can shoot through my telescope at 25fps, without having to do long exposures.


Your scariest moment shooting?

Filming on the streets of Rio in one of their shanty towns. I’m more scared around people than I am around animals.

From a wildlife point of view, it was when filming in Greenland recently. I was walking back to camera with the producer and there was a musk ox between us and camp. They’re very dangerous and they’re very bad tempered.

We were on foot, and it could smell us, but it can’t see very well. There was about five minutes of waiting for the animal to decide what it wanted to do. Eventually, it slightly moved off. But there was a moment went it was getting closer and closer to us and we knew we couldn’t outrun this thing.


What project you’d really like to work on?

I’d like to shoot in New Zealand. I’ve never filmed in New Zealand before.

And I’d like to do a project on butterflies. I’ve just done one on UK butterflies for the Natural World, but I want to do one on butterflies globally. Macro filming is one of my big interests and specialities. Using motion control and new technology you could do something amazing. There hasn’t been a comprehensive butterfly series yet.