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Q&A with ‘Africa’ Producer Mike Gunton (Part Three)

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Mike Gunton is a British television producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit — the largest team dedicated to wildlife film-making in the world. Gunton first joined the unit back in 1987 to work alongside fellow naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, on Trials of Life. In the decades since, he’s served as executive producer on a number of critically acclaimed series including Life, Hidden Kingdoms, Tiny Giants 3D, Shark, and Africa, which recently aired on BBC America. In November of 2009, Gunton was named the first-ever Creative Director of the Natural History Unit.

BBC America: In Africa, you turn the spotlight on many of the continents’ tiny species. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Mike Gunton: We were keen to show some of the smaller creatures, so we did some really interesting macro-photography. There is a lovely story of a little dung beetle. It was collecting dung and trying to get back to where it wanted to go when unfortunately, it slipped down a sand dune. It kept pushing the dung up this sand dune, but it would get halfway up and then roll all the way back down again. This beetle just wouldn’t give up. It was hilarious, but also kind of heroic at the same time.

BBCA: How many expeditions did you embark on while filming, and how long was the shoot?

Gunton: I think we did 147 different expeditions. The whole project took just over four years to complete, and we were actually filming for about three years out of that.

BBCA: Wow, how many hours of footage did you get?

Gunton: For Africa we probably had about 2,000 hours worth of footage in the end. Of course, lots of what you film is speculative. You’re thinking, “Will something happen and when.” So if a story doesn’t develop, that footage almost always gets discarded.

BBCA: So how do you pare down all that footage?

Gunton: It’s selecting stories out of the footage that is one of the trickiest bits of the whole exercise, because you need to get down to three or four hours of material to work on. You have to decide which stories you want to tell and which way you want to tell them, because sometimes they can be told in slightly different ways depending on the perspective you take.

BBCA: What were some of the key film techniques you used?

Gunton: We threw the whole bag of tricks at it. It was very important for us to reveal the landscapes of Africa, and so we did do a lot of aero-photography using stabilized rigs on helicopters. We also used a lot of high-speed cameras and a lot of tracking.

BBCA: In your experience, which African region proved the toughest to film in?

Gunton: The trickiest place to film in was definitely the Sahara, but that was probably more because of the political challenges we faced. It just so happened that we were filming during the Arab Spring, so one by one those countries became out of bounds. Luckily, we managed to do quite a bit of filming before that happened, but even then we had to sneak in the edges and that was quite difficult.

BBCA: Which climate was the most difficult?

Gunton: West Africa, as a habitat, is a tough, tough place to work. Those forests are really brutal. This is the Congo, and it’s a grisly place with lots of nasty diseases. Your body and the camera gear don’t like the humidity and the heat. I’d rather be cold in Antarctica than in that scenario.

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