Jan. 19, 2021

Capturing the Wonder of a Blue Planet: Hugh Pearson on filming iconic scenes from the oceans of our world

Capturing the Wonder of a Blue Planet: Hugh Pearson on filming iconic scenes from the oceans of our world

In this episode, I speak with Hugh Pearson, the underwater filmmaker behind some of the most iconic ocean sequences ever captured, and director of portions of "Blue Planet," and more recently, both underwater episodes for Netflix's "Our Planet."

When we did our interview Hugh spoke openly about the challenges of the career he had chosen, told a story behind one of the most recognizable ocean film sequences of the past decade, and related a very open-hearted story about his connection to the underwater culture of dolphins.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

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Transcript

Speaker 1:

Hi, and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big, deep as a podcast about people who have connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong, it defined some aspect of their life . Over the course of this series. We'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. In this episode, we speak with an iconic underwater filmmaker who talks of his passion for telling stories and the time he had an insight into the culture of a pod of dolphins. Hello, this is your host, Jason Ellis . Welcome to the big deep podcast. In this episode, I speak with Hugh Pearson and underwater filmmaker behind some of the most iconic ocean sequences ever captured and director of portions of blue planet. And more recently, both underwater episodes for Netflix is our planet. I interviewed you early in the pandemic, and at the time he had a number of shoots canceled, go to postpone, and he had surprisingly had been spending some of his time catching up on the first season of this podcast. So when I reached out to him, he was incredibly generous with his time, his stories and even connections to other filmmakers. Once we finally did our interview and considering the incredible catalog of films he has made, he was remarkably down to earth and humble about his work. And he spoke openly about the challenges of the career. He had chosen told a story behind one of the most recognizable ocean film sequences of the past decade and related a very openhearted story about his connection to the underwater culture of dolphins.

Speaker 2:

My name is Hugh Pearson. I'm a wildlife filmmaker, and I specialize in making films about the wonderful wildlife in our oceans. Over the last 15 years, I've made a number of what we call blue chip shows. The very high-end long form documentaries. I made a film called nature's great events about the Saudi and runoff South Africa. I worked on the original blue planet series. I worked on the Africa series for the BBC. I've worked on the hunt where we filmed a sequence about blue whales. We also got a pretty memorable sequence about frigate , birds , catching, flying fish, and which has gone fairly big on YouTube. And then most recently I worked on our planet, the Netflix series, and I produced and directed the coastal seas and the HI-SEAS episodes.

Speaker 1:

Wow. I knew a lot of your credits, but I didn't realize you'd also done that flying fish sequence. How did you find that?

Speaker 2:

I sort of heard about it from fishermen, but no one had ever seen it is off the coast of Tobago and Caribbean and work Rasta, fishermen, you guys for Durata and the way they catch Toronto is they go out, but the boat in idle and it sits in this trade wind for five and 10

Speaker 3:

Days, they put out all these Palm trees on ropes that draws the flying, who use it to scorn on the flying fish, toward the Dorado in, and then the fishermen use hand lines to catch the Durata . And so we had the first shoot one year to still under water , but the whole event. And then the second day , we went back with a jar of stabilize camera's Cineflex to film top side bedroom. The frigate birds was a tiny boat, was five months on board. It was just rocking and rolling the whole time. No space whatsoever. No where to set the cabin was timing. It was this really hard court , but the result I was just so pleased because now when they filmed it, and it certainly one of the sequences I'm really proud of because it was so hard to get. But also as a piece of drama piece of behavior, the piece of cinema just highlights what dramas go on that. And the apron and how little we know about,

Speaker 1:

I think one of the things you're talking about is how incredibly difficult it is to make these films both technically, but also artistically. What do you think is the most challenging part of ocean filmmaking?

Speaker 3:

The way Hollywood feature films are made, you have a huge crew working for a relatively short period of time. The way we make wildlife shows, we have a very small crew and try and spend as long as we can on location. I generally work in the rule of thirds that a third of the time you're going to be off the water because the weather is not good enough. A third of the time you're scratching around, not really getting much and absurd at the time you can actually operate. So if the bat flying fish, Durata forget that sequence. The first shoot, we had a crew of three people out there for three weeks and the second year three people for three weeks, six weeks filming to get that five minute sequence Aughra look , Sam is 350 days filming for a 50 minute documentary . It's roughly about a shot a day. If you come back from a three week shoot and you've got three minutes , sequence, fiscal shape, the interesting things they do a very rare shark will swim around the ocean for hours and hours and days and days, and do nothing. And you want to film the one ten second hit where it actually gets a seal. So we have to be there for a long period of time to capture those tiny moments. I think the biggest challenge is finding new stories, ways to film the new stories, because when it comes down to it, you have one shelter deck . If you're not pushing the envelope, if you're not taking those risks , if you're not trying to get new things, you're going to film things, but people seem to fall . And that pushes us to greater things.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, obviously it's an incredibly difficult job, but it's also an incredibly unique job, unique way to live your life in this world. Did you know right from the start that this is what you want to do, or how did you find your way to becoming an underwater filmmaker? I would love to think that somewhere way back, I have some barnacled sailor in my family tree, but I haven't found one. I didn't grow up by the sea. I grew up in land, but I've always had a connection with the water. I was quite good swimming when I was a kid, I was always mucking around in ponds and lakes and rivers. And when I came to university, I had a choice between freshwater biology or Marine biology. And I chose Marine biology because the ones that it was a party town. So I thought I'll go to the party tab. The other town that looked a bit boring. So that literally was what changed it. And then once I dipped my head under water being , once you get out at sea and you look at it, hope that's it done forever. So after I left college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I went into pharmaceutical sales and the age 21, most people don't know what they want to do, but I've always watched wildlife programs, always enjoyed them. And I was watching one day and I stopped me for hold on. Some sock has got to make these shows and I knew nothing about it at all. So I started looking into it and everyone was just forget it. You had to have gone to Oxford or Cambridge university, but I'm a fairly persistent belligerent person. So I started hammering away. And I found out about this course in London at Imperial college, which is a master's degree in science communication, where they took scientists and train them in the ways of the media. And part of that had a work placement at the BBC natural history unit, where they make all the wonderful shows like blue planet and planet earth. So ruthlessly targeted that moved down to Bristol, which is where the BBC Netflix unit was based. Got a contract starting off as a runner and then assistant producer. And then finally got a staff job as a producer and still always had the imposter syndrome that someone's going to come along and tap you on the shoulder and say, okay, person you've been found out, you didn't go. And I clear out, but you still haven't been found out. Just don't tell anyone. So it took me a little while to find, but it also shows how the love of a good time can sometimes lead to great things in life. Never turned down a good policy . That's the moral of the story. There's no one who has worked with me. There's going to disagree with that. I have a bit of reputation for doing fairly aggressive gin and tonics, Jenna tonic at sea with the sun going down after a good base fairly well. I mean, it's an amazing career and you obviously love it and you are one of the best in the world at it. But what is the personal passion that drives you to make these films? What is it you're trying to communicate when you make these movies?

Speaker 3:

I think in its simplest term , it's a sense of wonder David Attenborough said , how can you be so passionate about wildlife and least likely to ask any child? And they're always passionate. Why do so many people lose it? When I go out to I shouldn't when I dive, when I see the beauty of things. So that certainly is something that sticks with me. I want a shark dive. When you get a blacktip reef, shark, swimming close to you and its skin is shining and its eyes are bright. This six foot swimming machine of muscles . It's incredibly beautiful. When I share the water with a whale or a dolphin, and you look at in the eye, there is a cultural intelligent being in there , the original blue planet series in The Bahamas. And we were filming bottlenose dolphins. And I

Speaker 2:

Think of all the dolphins, bottlenose dolphins are the most intelligent,

Speaker 3:

Very clever animals. They stole sin x-rayed me. And you can feel this dolphin buzzing you. And then it swung around and looks you in the eye that very clear interaction with another of being sharing the water with an intelligent who was communicating with it affects you deeply. If I could take everyone

Speaker 2:

Out in the boat and swim with dolphins, I would love

Speaker 3:

To, but you can't do that. So the best way is to collect, collect sounds and tell stories with human beings, we're hardwired to react to stories, feels compelled to show people the magic. It's out that one day, the animals, the behavior. And then if people know what's out there, then they might fall in love with that . And then they fall in love with it and want to protect it . Every other breath you take is generated by the ocean. They control the climate and the weather, the whole of the planet and humanity is reliant on the Asians. So it's partly showing people the wonders that are out there. And it's partly that compulsion to share with people why the Asian is so important to everybody,

Speaker 1:

Certainly doing your part, making the films that you do with all the filmmaking you've done around the world. Is there one story that encapsulates your experience with the ocean or one moment underwater that really moved you?

Speaker 3:

One of my favorite places on the planet is off the coast of Costa Rica on the Pacific coast of the OSA and insula . It's a pretty pristine ocean environment, which is rare. And the joyous thing is between February and April. The weather there is amazing. It's an amazing place to spend time with dolphins being on two shoots there. And in some days you can be 40 miles out to sea, and it is absolutely miracle To have those conditions for filming is a miracle. So you can find the dolphins, you can follow them and you can film them. We were out there on a liveaboard boat for three weeks. The wake up in the morning, first light got these gyro-stabilized binoculars. And you can see like three , four or five miles pretty clearly. So we could find the dolphins most mornings before sunrise. Then we can just spend all day with them and wait for them to do something interesting or wait for the conditions to be flat, calm, and you get the drone up or you film them in some way. And then at night you just put down a San point , slow to see . So Roger Horrocks was filmed underwater, and I had Howard born and just McGuire two topside counterman who are using a drone and a cynic Lexus ajar , stabilized camera to film above water. And you're going to a small panga, which is small fiberglass boat, about 25 foot. So what the skipper do is they put a line down the side of the boat. Then you hop it with a snorkel and mask on cling onto this rope. And then you're going on this ride with adult . It feels like you're going about 20 miles an hour in the water, but actually you're only getting about two or three it's walking pace. The problem we have to filming is you can't film because you're actually being shaken around pretty heavily say try and film it help back on board . Drive the boat ahead of the Dalton's , where we thought they were going to go drop the cameraman . In the times we were doing a hundred drops a day because you probably get one shot out of 10. And so sometimes on a good show , you would get in front of them. And this incredible caravan of life passed you by. And the Dulce thins are niche-y within touching distance, hundreds, adults. And that's when you get your head under water and you look down and it's stacked with dolphins. At times, pods can be five or 10,000 strong. This is an enormous amount of life. Yeah . You'll have the center of that, where you have the mom and the cast , and you'll have cuffs looking from mum. They're very round needles . So there's a lot of sex socializing going on, but the sound is what is truly astonishing. These cliques , these whistles, these buzzers, it's this most amazing soundbite . That's when you look down, you think there is without doubt the culture. When you're being dragged from the boat, you can literally be six foot from adults than you're looking at in the eye. It's looking you in the eye, there's a huge brain going on. And I just would love to know what are they thinking? Love to know how they organize their culture, how they organize the society. They spend a lot of time like us playing. You can't be in that situation being amongst the puckers and be tool heartbroken. If anything makes the hot sauce and all that in lovely, clear blue book , I was fortunate enough to get in the water with adults, then not to have that connection.

Speaker 1:

We end every interview. And every episode with a single open-ended question we ask,

Speaker 3:

What does the ocean mean to you in a very simplistic and unromantic way? It's a livelihood where I work, but I think the ocean, it's my escape, where I feel at home. My solace is where I feel the most happy. It's where I feel calm. It's where I feel at home, where I feel I belong.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to the big D podcast. And thanks for listening to the first drop from season two of big deep stay tuned. As we work on a second round of incredible interviews from this season, if you want to be notified, when we start releasing them, head to our website, big, deep.com and sign up for our newsletter. We really appreciate you being on this journey into the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like, and comment because those subscribes likes and comments really make a difference for more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything. You've heard. There's a lot more content at our website, big, deep.com. Plus if you know someone who should think we should talk to let us know it , our big D website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.