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

Jason Elias:

Hi and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the 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 behind some of the most recognizable nature films of our time. And he shares what drives his passion for telling stories of the ocean. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias:

In this episode, I speak with Hugh Pearson, an 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. I interviewed Hugh early in the pandemic, and at the time he had had a number of shoots canceled or postponed, and he had been spending some of his time catching up on the first season of this podcast. When we finally 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 openhearted story about his connection to the underwater culture of dolphins.

Hugh Pearson:

My name's 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 sardine run of South Africa. I had worked on the original Blue Planet series. I worked on the Africa series for the BBC. I worked on The Hunt where we filmed a sequence about blue whales. We also got pretty memorable sequence about frigate birds catching flying fish, and which had 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 High Seas episodes.

Jason Elias:

Wow. I knew a lot of your credits, but I didn't realize you'd also done that sequence where flying fish are jumping out of the water or being chased by dorado, and as they're flying through the air frigates are swooping down to capture them. But in addition to that, anytime David Attenborough narrates something that you've filmed, that's got to be an incredible feeling. So how did you find that?

Hugh Pearson:

I'd sort of heard about it from fishermen, but no one had ever seen it. It is off the coast of Tobago in the Caribbean and worked with this Rasta fisherman who goes for dorado. And the way they catch dorado is they go out, put the boat in idle, and it sits in this trade wind for between five and 10 days. They put out all these palm trees on ropes. That draws the flying fish in who use it to spawn on. The flying fish draw the dorado in, and then the fishermen use hand lines to catch the dorado.

Hugh Pearson:

And so we had the first shoot, one year to film underwater of the whole event. And then the second year, we went back with a gyro-stabilized camera Cineflex to film the topside bit with the frigate birds. It was a tiny boat. There was five of us on board. It was just rocking and rolling the whole time. No space whatsoever. Nowhere to sit. The cabin was tiny. It was just really hardcore. But the result, I was just so pleased because no one had filmed it. It's certainly one of sequences I'm really proud of because it was so hard to get. But also as a piece of drama, piece of behavior, and a piece of cinema, just highlights what dramas go on out in the open ocean and how little we know about it.

Jason Elias:

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?

Hugh Pearson:

The way Hollywood feature films are made, you have a huge crew working for a relative 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's not good enough. A third of the time when you're scrunching around, not really getting much. And a third of the time you can actually operate.

Hugh Pearson:

So for that flying fish, dorado, frigate bird 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. Odd rule of thumb 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 a three-minute sequence, that's a good shoot.

Hugh Pearson:

The interesting things they do are very rare. A 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.

Hugh Pearson:

I think the biggest challenge is finding new stories and ways to film the new stories. Because when it comes down to it, you have one shot at it. 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 that people have seen before. And that pushes us to greater things, hopefully.

Jason Elias:

Yeah. What you're really talking about there is what it means to be a creative artist and have a vision about what you're trying to communicate to the world. I'm curious with all of the shooting you've done all around our planet, is there one story that really encapsulates your experience of underwater filmmaking or one story you return to as having incredible meaning for you?

Hugh Pearson:

One of my favorite places on the planet is off the coast of Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast of the Osa Peninsula. 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. Been on two shoots there. And in some days you can be 40 miles out to sea and it is absolutely mirror calm.

Hugh Pearson:

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. We'd wake up in the morning first light, got these gyro-stabilized binoculars and you can see literally 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 when you get the drone up or you film them in some way. And then at night, you just began to see [inaudible 00:08:50] flow to sea.

Hugh Pearson:

So Roger Horrocks was filming underwater, and I had Howard Bourne and Justin Maguire, two topside cameramen, who were using a drone and a Cineflex, which is a gyro-stabilized camera to film above water. And you get on a small Panga, which is small fiberglass boat, about 25 foot. So what the skip would do is they'd put a line down the side of their boat. Then you hop in with a snorkel and mask on, cling onto this rope, and then you're going on this ride with the dolphins.

Hugh Pearson:

It feels like you're going about 20 miles an hour in the water, but actually you're only going about two or three. It's walking pace. The problem we had for filming is you can't film like that because you're actually being shaken around pretty heavily. So to try and film it, hop back on board, drive the boat ahead of the dolphins where we thought they were going to go, drop the cameramen in, and at times we were doing 100 drops a day because you probably get one shot out of 10. And so sometimes on a good shot, you would get in front of them. And this incredible caravan of life passed you by.

Hugh Pearson:

And the dolphins are literally within touching distance. You think there's hundreds of dolphins. And that's when you head underwater and you look down and it's stacked with dolphins. At times, pods can be 5,000 and 10,000 strong. This is an enormous amount of life. You'll have the center of it where you have the mom and the calves and you'll have calves sucking from mom. They're very [inaudible 00:10:44] dolphins, so there's a lot of sex, that have socializing going on. But the sound is what is truly astonishing. These clicks, these whistles, these buzzes. It's this most amazing soundscape.

Hugh Pearson:

That's when you look down, you think there is without doubt a culture. When you've been dragged on the boat, you can literally be six foot from a dolphin. 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 society. They spend a lot of time like us, playing. You can't be in that situation, being amongst a pod of dolphins and be at all heartbroken. If anything, it makes the heart soar and all that in lovely, clear, warm, blue water. And I defy anyone who is fortunate enough to get in the water with a dolphin not to have that connection.

Jason Elias:

Your passion is obvious. And I would argue that is certainly translated to the films you've made. And those have then been a vehicle for an extraordinary life. 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?

Hugh Pearson:

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 someone said it was a party town, so I thought I'll go to the party town. The other town looked a bit boring. So that literally was what changed it. And then once I dipped my head underwater, once you get out at sea and you look at it, hooked. That's it. Done forever.

Hugh Pearson:

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 suddenly thought some [inaudible 00:14:04] got to make these shows. 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.

Hugh Pearson:

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 I ruthlessly targeted that. Moved down to Bristol, which is where the BBC Natural History Unit was based, got a contract, started off as a runner and then assistant producer. And then, finally, got a staff job as a producer. And still always had that imposter syndrome that someone's going to come along and tap you on the shoulder and say, "Okay, Pearson, you've been found out. Now clear out." But I still haven't been found out. Just don't tell anyone.

Jason Elias:

So it took you a while to find it, but it also shows how the love of a good time can sometimes lead to great things in life.

Hugh Pearson:

Never turn down a good party. That's the moral of the story. There's no one who has worked with me who's going to disagree with that. I have a bit of reputation for doing fairly aggressive gin and tonics. Gin and tonic at sea with the sun going down after a good day's filming is pretty well up there.

Jason Elias:

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?

Hugh Pearson:

I think in its simplest terms it's a sense of wonder. David Attenborough said, "How can you be so passionate about wildlife? [inaudible 00:15:49] ask any child and they're always passionate. Why do so many people lose it?" When I go out to ocean, when I dive, when I see the beauty of things, that certainly is something that sticks with me. Go on a shark dive and you get blacktip reef shark swimming close to you. Its skin is shining and its eyes are bright. It's this six-foot swimming machine of muscles. It's incredibly beautiful.

Hugh Pearson:

When I share the water with a whale or a dolphin, there is a cultural intelligent being in there. We were filming for the original Blue Planet series in The Bahamas and we were filming bottlenose dolphins. And I think with all the dolphins, bottlenose dolphins are the most intelligent. They're very clever animals. And this dolphin X-rayed me. And you can feel this dolphin buzzing you. And then it swam around and looks you in the eye. That very clear interaction with another sensitive being, sharing the water with it, almost communicating with it, that affects you deeply.

Hugh Pearson:

If I could take everyone out in the boat and swim with dolphins, I would love to. But you can't do that. And so the best way is to collect images, collect sounds, and tell stories. We're human beings. We're hardwired to react to stories. I feel compelled to show people the magic that's out there, the wonder, the animals, the behavior. And then if people know what's out there, then they might fall in love with it, and if they fall in love with it, want to protect it.

Hugh Pearson:

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 oceans. So it's partly showing people the wonders that are out there, and it's partly that compulsion to share with people why the ocean is so important to everybody.

Jason Elias:

Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to. What does the ocean mean to you?

Hugh Pearson:

In a very simplistic and unromantic way, it's a livelihood. The ocean's where I work. But I think the ocean, it's my escape where I feel at home, my solace. It's where I feel the most happy. It's where I feel calm. It's where I feel at home, almost where I feel I belong.

Jason Elias:

Thanks for listening to the Big Deep 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, bigdeep.com, and sign up for our newsletter.

Jason Elias:

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, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep 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.