April 12, 2022

The Wild Place - Underwater cinematographer Doug Anderson on how the ocean has defined his life on films such as "Our Planet", "Frozen Planet", and "Life"

The Wild Place - Underwater cinematographer Doug Anderson on how the ocean has defined his life on films such as "Our Planet", "Frozen Planet", and "Life"

In today's episode, I speak with Doug Anderson, considered to be one of the world's best underwater cameramen.

Doug works on primarily what are called blue chip wildlife films, which try to tell compelling stories focused on a specific animals in magnificent pristine landscapes, and have budgets in the area of $1 million per hour or more.

For Doug, this has meant traveling the world to film in the world's most rugged and remote oceans for such films as BBC's Our Planet, Frozen Planet, and Life. And then more recently, David Attenborough's high profile Netflix series Our Planet.

But for someone who has had such incredible career success, Doug was tremendously down to earth, and fun to talk with. And he shared stories about why it's so hard to shoot in the underwater environment, how he approaches being so close to large wild animals in the ocean, and an incredible moment of filmmaking he had off Antarctica with what is sometimes called the finger of death.

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

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Transcript

Jason Elias: (00:00)
Hey, it's Jason Elias, host of Big Deep. We'll be taking a very brief hiatus for just a few weeks as I work on more episodes, culminating in the season three finale of the Big Deep podcast. Okay, that's it. Thanks. Enjoy the episode, and we'll be back very soon.

Jason Elias: (00:22)
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 this series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with one of the world's best underwater cameramen who discusses, how he connects with the wildness of our world's oceans. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias: (01:05)
In today's episode, I speak with Doug Anderson, considered by some to be one of the world's best underwater cameramen. Doug works on primarily what are called blue chip wildlife films, which try to tell compelling stories focused on a specific animal in magnificent pristine landscapes, and have budgets in the area of $1 million per hour or more.

Jason Elias: (01:25)
For Doug, this has meant traveling the world to film in the world's most rugged and remote oceans for such films as BBCs Our Planet, Frozen Planet, and Life. And then more recently, David Attenborough's high profile Netflix series Our Planet. But for someone who has had such incredible career success, Doug was tremendously down to earth, and fun to talk with. And he shared stories about why it's so hard to shoot in the underwater environment, how he approaches being so close to large wild animals in the ocean, and an incredible moment of filmmaking he had off Antarctica with what is sometimes called the finger of death.

Doug Anderson: (01:58)
My name is Doug Anderson. I'm a underwater wildlife cameraman.

Jason Elias: (02:03)
Can you talk a bit about where your ocean connection comes from and what does that connection mean to you?

Doug Anderson: (02:08)
My dad was a diver, my uncle was a diver. Lots of the men that I grew up with in Scotland were divers. Mum's side of the family is from the island of Aran on the west coast of Scotland. That's where I started in the summers, snorkeling, manning for my dad when he was off having crazy adventures with his dive buddies and stuff. You know? Often, just like an epiphany, a moment in people's lives, where they're just like, "Ooh."

Doug Anderson: (02:36)
And I can remember this very clearly. I guess I must have been about eight years old. My dad made me a wetsuit, and I walked down to the beach [inaudible 00:02:46] lashed on the island of Aran. I had a half-mask and snorkel or some sort, and I put my face underwater, and it just looked wild. Crabs, and there was fish, and there was scallops, and those weeds floating about. And I just remember lifting my head up and looking back across the beach to the village. The postman was doing this rounds and there was people going to the shops and school. And then I put my head underwater again. It was like wild. And I was like, "God" This is a wild place", whereas on land, just seemed to be a place where people were.

Doug Anderson: (03:30)
Yeah. I definitely remember at that moment, just thinking, "This is somewhere I want to spend more time."

Jason Elias: (03:36)
So you knew you had a connection to the wildness, the ocean, and that's a great story, but how did that lead to such a unique and challenging career shooting underwater films? Did you know that was your path from the beginning and if not, how did you discover it?

Doug Anderson: (03:51)
I thought I was going to go to our school. I also had entrance to do marine biology at St. Andrews University. And that just took me on a completely different path. And then of course, after university, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to travel, and I thought I needed a trade. So I became a scallop diver in Scotland. I did that for over five years. I went sailing the winter time, all the way through my 20s and a very nomad kind of existence. And I was in Abu Dhabi on a commercial diving project, and I just was sitting on the towel and I was just hating this job. I remember asking myself the question one evening, looking out the window, "What do you want to do?"

Doug Anderson: (04:29)
I was 25 years old, and I was like, "Well, wildlife cameraman." And in my head, 25-year-old moron brain, "Well, they're not better divers than I am." So got in the car, drove down to Bristol and just try to do it. What I had was a work ethic. I was brought up in west coast of Scotland in the '70s, where Calvinism wasn't long dead. And I knew that you just have to spend time in the ocean. And that's what I did.

Doug Anderson: (04:57)
So I got the experience I needed to get with the gear. Then I got a job as an assistant on The Blue Planet. I truly believe that if you make decisions for the right reasons and try and put yourself in the right place at the right time, then the world just somehow conspires to help you. And when I think about the experiences that I've had underwater in the last 25 years, I just couldn't ever imagine being in these spaces with these animals. It's not a life that I expected. I almost have to look at photographs of myself to believe it. And that's what my career has felt like, like a complete gift.

Jason Elias: (05:29)
Well, I understand that idea of the work ethic, but you also put yourself in some of the wildest and most challenging environments on earth with large wild animals so that you can shoot a couple of moments of film. And I can't help but think there's something else that drives you, something about the wildness, the rawness of that experience, that appeals to you. Would you say that's true?

Doug Anderson: (05:54)
100%. I like it because it's hard. I find it rewarding because the skills that you need to do almost anything in the ocean, you can't fake it. You have to earn it. And I love that. There's nowhere to hide. You can either do this or not. Whether you're a sailor or a surfer, the ocean takes a lot, but it also gives you so much back.

Doug Anderson: (06:34)
There is a feeling associated with being in an area of wildness. I know on top of that, there's a definite feeling associated being really close to something big and alive underwater. I mean, being next to a 60-ton whale, having that level of acceptance, even if it's just for a moment, there's a fundamental human feeling associated with that. And it's exactly the same with being on a coral reef in West Papua. 100% coral coverage and floor to ceiling fish.

Doug Anderson: (07:22)
There's something about us as humans that We need that. And we're rewarded for being in that space with this feeling of wellbeing associated with being In a part of the ocean that's in a natural state. That's the bit I love, and the joy of my life has been that even as the planet has changed so extraordinarily much in the last century, many of the places that I've spent them most time have been as close to a natural state as is possible. And that's been a complete gift. Yeah. I mean, I love it.

Jason Elias: (08:18)
Well, that's a beautiful answer. I wonder though, working in some of the most remote and challenging environments with animals that may have never even seen humans before, have you ever found yourself in situations that frightened you? I mean, even non-aggressive animals can sometimes act in surprising ways. So how do you approach that when you're filming?

Doug Anderson: (08:38)
Yeah. I mean, that's the difference between what we do underwater and what happens with other types of weather filmmaking is that more often than not, we have to inhabit the same physical space as our subject. And usually if it's scary, that subject is much better at being in that space than we are.

Doug Anderson: (08:58)
I don't know what it is, but I've never really found myself in a situation that I want to get out of. And I'm not sure why that is, because I've been in some brain sketchy situations. I worked with Doug Allen a lot who's and underwater and polar specialist. And Doug, he always trusts the subject. He also would go on about how apex predators, they often don't take risks, especially in the water. That's not to say that people don't get hurt by leopard seals or killer whales, but generally they don't take risks. So if you have acceptance to being in the same physical spaces, then usually you're going to be okay.

Doug Anderson: (09:43)
And so, I've used that experience that I had with Doug and the thousands of hours of conversations we had about field craft. I came up with a philosophy, if you're in the same physical space as large animal in the water, as long as it's accepted to you, then you're probably going to be okay.

Doug Anderson: (09:59)
I mean, I have felt threatened underwater, but usually by animals that have the ability to be frightened and hyper-aggressive all at the same time. Like a walrus, they are a genuinely frightening animal to be in the water with, because they can be very, very scared and also want to beat you to death. And that's not a good combination for an underwater cameraman.

Doug Anderson: (10:25)
But on the whole, I have approached working with large animals from the point of view of you lose a little bit of your physical self and you just become a part of the moment. And once you are, there, it's probably a mixture of adrenaline and an existential feeling that this moment in space and time is not going to happen again. And I may as well put my body in a place where we get the most intimacy or the best behavior, because why not?

Jason Elias: (10:59)
Right. Well, I know that has led you to shooting so many underwater scenes that many of us know and recognize, but there's one clip in particular you helped shoot that went viral online from the series Frozen Planet. And it involved an ice tube that shot down to the floor of the ocean.And is I referred to as the finger of death. I know the filming of that sequence meant a lot to you for many reasons. And so, can you tell the story of how you and your assistant on that shoot, Hugh Miller, found and filmed that sequence?

Doug Anderson: (11:32)
We did a shoot bar, a series called Frozen Planet, working down under the sea ice in McMurdo, which is on Ross Island in the Ross Sea, in the Antarctic. We were down there for 10 weeks. It's a pretty special spot. The spring visibility in McMurdo is upwards of 500 meters, 2,000 foot [inaudible 00:12:00]. It's pretty incredible. The water there kind of flows underneath the Ross ice shelf for, I think about a year, before upwells, just really right at McMurdo. So it's incredibly clear water and very, very cold. It's like minus 1.86. Hugh Miller and I did a sequence that was really around the different types of sea ice.

Doug Anderson: (12:31)
In between the surface and 30 feet, you get anchor ice, which is platelet ice that grows in the sea bed. So the sea bed just looks like a field of broken glass. It's amazingly beautiful, but very difficult for any life to exist in there because the ice grows on the animals that live there.

Doug Anderson: (12:58)
If an urchin, for example, has a little bit of dirt on it, then a bit of platelet will grow, and it'll keep growing until it's more buoy than the urchin itself. Then it'll pick up the urchin and float it up to the underneath of the sea ice and then freeze it in. So in less than 30 feet of water, you look up, you'll see urchins and starfish and Nemertean worms.

Doug Anderson: (13:23)
So our plan was to go there and record that story, But we're also really interested in these things called brinicles, which we kind of have heard about. And you see them when the sea ice gets hot in the surface, You're left with a super saline sludge, but it's heavier than more. So it goes down. And as it goes down, it finds a crack And it'll start forming a tube because it's colder than seawater, because it's more saline. The tube with super saline, brine flowing down the middle of it will start growing.

Doug Anderson: (14:04)
And so, we found one really nice one, flowing off this island called Little Razorback, and it was gorgeous. This thing had grown down to the sea bed and formed a river of ice flowing down the slope. And the brine must pickle diatoms in the sea ice and blow it onto the sea bed and attract all these starfish. They'd all got frozen in by this brinicle cool. You know?

Doug Anderson: (14:38)
So, Hugh got all of his time-lapse gear, and he was an assistant really. We set this thing up, and it grew down and formed this river of ice and like this sort of finger of death, and we came home, and Hugh downloaded them and was just the most extraordinary time lapse I ever seen. It's just this incredible finger of ice flowing and growing through frame. And then you could see the starfish moving underneath it, and then it just hit the sea bed and just [inaudible 00:15:24] covered them in ice.

Doug Anderson: (15:27)
I mean, that was just an extraordinary trip. It had that hardship side of things. We had to really push ourselves to get the work done. It was the most incredible environment. I mean, it literally felt like we were on a different planet. You go down the hole and you can see a kilometer of coastline. Photography went very well. And then I saw this young man, Hugh Miller, growing into a space of such competence and confidence through the work. For me, that, it was just amazing.

Jason Elias: (16:20)
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?

Doug Anderson: (16:30)
For the best part of the years, it's been my job. And that has brought an enormous amount of meaning to my life. The successes, the people I've met, experiences I've had, they are the fabric of my life. And I feel like for the rest of my career and my life, the meaning that I get from the ocean and my work will be about giving back.

Jason Elias: (17:01)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep.

Speaker 3: (17:07)
But then the real payoff was when Sylvia Earl asked me if I wanted to become a sub pilot for a project that we had with National Geographic. And it will was a mind-blowing experience.

Jason Elias: (17:18)
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.

Jason Elias: (17:36)
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 we should 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.