the Company of Whales” - two years spent chasing whales.
|| In the
midst of the roaring forties, at latitude 44 degrees south, lie the
windswept plateaux of Patagonia’s Peninsula Valdez. This barren
and desolate Argentine landscape is home to Southern Right whales,
who use the shelter of its two shoe-horned bays to mate, give birth
to their calves and tend their young.
There were quite a few romanticised accounts of this evocative and
inhospitable place and the Welsh heritage of its few inhabitants and
it seemed often to be the perfect expanse for sparse prose and travelogue
narratives. But what struck me most, was how each account was imbued
by a profound sense of isolation - the juxtaposition of harshness
and beauty and within that there was a quest, a search, or personal
journey. It was here in the 1970, that Whale expert Dr Roger Payne
came to study the right whales.
The Discovery Channel had recently started up as one of the early
cable channels and wanted to make a flagship film. Narrated to camera,
in the style of David Attenborough, this was to be a personal film
about Roger’s life spent studying whales, exploring how Man
was desecrating the oceans and causing climate change. It was to be
personal, political and epic – the hope that it would reach
congress and might catalyse some form of awareness.
Roger, a bio-acoustic scientist from Harvard, had discovered in the
mid-sixties how whales communicate with rhythmically repeating sounds
- like human songs. It was a huge revelation (that made him a cult
figure) for its implied whales were intelligent and opened the possibility
of non-linguistic communication on earth. He surmised that whales
could probably communicate across whole oceans, later to be corroborated
and now a well-established fact.
With his four children, Roger and wife Katie Payne (a brilliant scientist
in her own right) had spent years in this place studying whales. Due
to their size and the difficult of getting close to them, it was only
through painstaking observation that one could start to interpolate
their behaviour. The Payne’s set up a remote camp, an hour’s
drive from the nearest ‘one horse’ settlement of Puerto
Piramedes, known locally as Campamento 39. Roger built a small research
hut a few meters off the beach - here you could literally live ‘in
the company of whales’.
“This is where I watched
whales grow up, my children grow up and where I grew up… It
is one of the most un-peopled places I had ever been to… and
it is still the place I love the most in the world”.
For a documentary at this time, it was pretty much as big a budget
production as there was. I was not the obvious choice, for I was not
a superstar natural history cinematographer from the famed BBC Natural
History Unit, or an American champion free diver revered for shooting
Typically for such a film, a producer and executive producer, would
get a team of 10 or 12 cinematographers to shoot in parallel, each
one specialised for the particular part of the film they worked on.
But on this project, I would film 85% of all the material, and most
of the whale wildlife footage both on the surface and underwater.
We were to shoot for two years all over the world, starting in Patagonia.
I had worked with the film’s producer (veteran natural history
producer Robin Brown) on a previous project and he had had taken a
risk on me for this film. Roger had called me from his research institute
in Lincoln, Massachusetts, uncertain that I had the right experience
to undertake such a demanding and audacious project that would be
highly visible on the world stage. I don’t blame him –
for I did not have the track record. But I have discovered that there
is usually a reason, if not always a rational reason, why one gets
such breaks. In a way you make your own luck and if you throw enough
mud on the wall in the right way, some of it will eventually stick.
I had recently shot a film about a wild bottlenosed dolphin who had
arrived one day in Dingle, on the outer tip of Southern Ireland, and
who liked to swim with the locals. This was where “Ryan’s
Daughter”, the great David Lean film had once swept into this
small fishing community and transformed the economy overnight. ‘Fungi’
the dolphin was doing the same thing and my film had been a humorous
account of the dolphin’s influence on this small village.
It was intentionally not your typical natural history film but more
of an anthropological exploration of how this strange, other-worldly
creature had become venerated and started a turf war between competing
dolphin bookies who vied for custom to swim with it. I had filmed
it above and below water - face to face with (the undoubtably) clinically
insane dolphin and a variety of bizarre local characters.
My proposal to Robin Brown (the film’s producer) and latterly
to Roger was that we try and attempt to film the whales close but
with the widest lenses - in many ways, the antithesis of how the traditional
natural history films were shot at that time, and to explore visually
the strangeness and prehistoric weirdness of the whale and its culture.
I think in retrospect I was probably making it up on the run.
It was the famous gorilla sequence in David Attenborough’s “Life
on Earth” that was so obviously one of the best moments in any
of his films. In the arms of a gorilla, he talks to us the audience
and there is a raw visceral intimacy. This was likewise shot close
I discussed with Roger how Salvador Dali had created distorted exaggerated
images of surrealistic animals, often with a human reference. Whales
seemed like that, dwarfing man in not only scale but existence. I
had no reverence for whales, they were weird monsters to me, and I
think that convinced Roger. Could we capture something of that essence?
Could we find a way of being intrigued by the peculiarity of these
Roger and I immediately hit it off – we were able to build on
each other’s ideas and it was abundantly clear that he did not
want another natural history film that stood back, that was detached
from the human world, where you were simply awed by its beauty.
By the early sixties, Man had brought whales to the edge of extinction,
using their meat for pet food and oil largely for cosmetics. It was
not until the discovery of whale songs that people started to want
to save them. Hippies played these soulful, outer space sounds and
imagined communication not just across oceans but across ‘far
out’ galaxies. People personified the whales, communicated with
them through mediums, hugged human size whale dolls and started to
sell the concept of ‘saving the whale’. As Roger explained;
“to want to save a species you first have to fall in love with
It was clear that we needed to define and bring to life the passion,
fascination and sense of discovery Roger had felt through his own
After that first phone call with Roger, I felt elated (and panicked).
His humour and brilliant analogies accentuated an incredibly exciting
project in the making - but hugely challenging. As with any film project
- be it documentary or fiction - creating a clear intent for the cinematographic
look is critical. With documentaries, sometimes there was not the
time to do the prep, that typically you would have at least a month
or more to do for any fiction project and discuss it with all the
key creative people. I have always done the same for documentaries
when I could. I have found that there are two approaches – the
scatter gun, ‘grab all images’ and refine from there and
the discussion of core themes first and then a selective search of
relevant images. Both have their validity and largely depend on the
route the director wants to follow.
On this project I was able to do the latter, with a clear sense of
how we wanted to shoot it from the start. I spent the next eight weeks
(initially in London) researching and preparing the film. I started
at the Natural History Museum – you walk in to this immense
19th centaury grand hall and above you is the skeleton of a blue whale.
It dwarfs you and you understand why people feared these leviathans
for so long.
In Paris (filming for a couple of days on another project), I was
able to go and see an early Jacque Cousteau film, playing in one of
the countless cinemas that populate the capital. Whilst it seemed
so out of date, there was a profound sense of adventure and discovery
– ‘Le Capitaine and his entourage’ going out into
the ocean on a quest…. Was there something of Roger’s
own odyssey of discovery there?
The core rule I came up with for the cinematography of ‘In the
Company of Whales’, was to shoot as close as we could using
the widest lenses. At the expense of beauty, I wanted to create e
visceral proximity between man and whale and exaggerate and underline
the sense of these ‘HG Wellsian aliens’ strangeness, in
an ocean environment that was not our natural habitat.
I was drawn to documentaries by Chris Menges BSC like “The Tribe
that Hides from Man”, where you felt the narrative theme intimately
underscored by the cinematography. The journey and discovery were
part of the story too. I do not think there is one documentary cameramen
who has not been influenced by Chris Menges – his images are
not always the most beautiful – (although mostly they are) but
they are always so relevant.
Getting close to whales is quite a feat. From the start we decided
to shun using helicopters to film the aerial images of the whales
and only use them as a last resort. Stable, safe and manoeuvrable
as they are, they are extremely noisy and have a down wash that is
powerful and always visible. Stabilised gyro heads and drones did
not exist at this time, that would later transform all aerial cinematography.
Instead, I flew to Los Angeles to explore an ultralight aircraft from
a new company called Quicksilver. It had a stall speed of just under
34 knots and a small and quiet 65hp engine mounted above the wing,
avoiding any downwash and minimising sound. We tested the new GT500
in the desert out towards Las Vegas. But would this thing hold out
in one of the most forbidding landscapes in the world? There was only
one way to find out and so we had it packed up into three large crates
and shipped down to Argentina.
It is the desolate westerly wind in Patagonia, that howls across this
barren and dry landscape, that continually reminds you how remote
you are. Weather pours in from Cape Horn a few hundred miles south
and transforms this landscape within minutes. The roaring forties
were named like this for a reason by 18th century sailors who traversed
this treacherous gale ridden area on their way to the Far East.
I had travelled south from Buenos Aires, in an open backed lorry with
30 or so cases of camera gear. My assistant cameraman Steve Standen
and I alternating in the spare seat of the truck’s cab and protecting
our camera gear from imaginary “banditos”, as for most
of the journey we saw no one. Two long days later, we reached the
headland just above Campamento 39 (soon to be renamed the whale ranch)
and I was met by my first view of the sea and bay that stretches like
a half-moon, protecting its shores from the Southern Ocean.
I could not believe it - in front of me was a long beach, flanked
by a sandstone headland, there were 15-20 whales playing in the early
sunset surf. These reclusive giants were literally a few meters off
the beach, seemingly unbothered by us and our loud diesel-belching
On the shoreline was a white rambling beach hut, adapted and added
to with little logic over the years, its roof, patched badly as sheets
had blown off in the westerlies. It was weathered and sculptured,
mirroring the shaped rock cliffs that bordered the camp. With no electricity
or water, this was to be our home for the next 6 weeks. We were the
advance party and were met by Carlos the cook, who usually fed the
‘gaucho’ team who worked on horseback at the local cattle
Estancia ‘La Adela’ that sprawled for 3500 hectares above
and around the camp. He fed us a cowboy breakfast of thick local steaks,
fresh eggs and over boiled coffee. Willy, a wired local kid in his
late teens who acted as boatman, general dogsbody and mechanical genius,
offered to take us out to meet the whales.
We found a couple of sub-adult males, who seemed like they wanted
to play. Encouraged by Willy in very broken English, we gently (and
with serious hesitation), slipped into the water with them. Whales
seem to find compressed air scary and so we snorkelled around them
in the bitingly cold ocean water. The first thing I felt was fear
– beneath and to the side of me was 60 tonnes of monster, despite
the notion of people cuddling whales, actually getting in the freezing
cold southern Atlantic with them was a different matter. These were
not just ‘bigger than a Buick’ but the size of an articulated
The right whales were interested in us – they would glide up
beside you and nonchalantly (but seemingly accidentally) let their
skin touch yours, only to quiver away in some teenage frisson of fearful
pleasure. Then do the same again.
I have never forgotten that first encounter, feeling so totally dwarfed
by their size, in fear, but amazed by their sensitivity and inquisitive
spirit. I gathered my courage and dived down, holding my breath, and
stood on the sandy bottom looking up. Under normal conditions, I could
free dive happily for at least two minutes but this was totally different.
The two males glided over the top of me – obliterating the surface
and then started to descend gently on top of me. To me it looked like
they might smother me with their fat bellies. I needed air immediately
(fear does that to you) and I raced to swim up the twenty or so meters,
gasping for air as I broke the surface.
It took me a few more encounters beyond this one, to acclimatise to
the whale’s benign inquisitive nature, but I soon built up the
courage and trust to dive down underneath them, or hover eye to eye,
my mask reflected in the football size eye of this incongruous species.
Two different worlds staring out at each other’s world.
The stillness required to be a good underwater cameraman was really
down to one’s ability to free dive, for whales do not like bubbles
or compressed air. It gave them what I can only imagine was something
like the ‘heebie geebies’. So, without a tank, one would
use a breath of air and a snorkel to dive down and film the whales.
It demanded superlative balance and control underwater to manage one’s
buoyancy and propel a heavy underwater film camera through the water.
There were some who were far better at this than me.
Throughout the two years of the project, I regularly filmed the whales
underwater – often mid ocean like the large sperm whales off
the Azores, humpbacks in Newfoundland and Hawaii and dolphins in Bermuda,
Bahamas and Ireland. I did not always seek out the clearest water
and dived in some murky brine which felt more authentic and other
In those years, only once was a whale aggressive – off the coast
of New Zealand, when I was attacked by a notoriously rowdy sperm whale.
Seven miles offshore, in the water alone with the underwater housing,
the whale had come straight at me at some speed, echolocating with
bursts of sound from his bulbous head that shook my chest as they
hit me. It was like being right next to the speakers at a stadium
concert. The whale then rammed/mowed me down like a super tanker.
I emerged with the underwater camera housing – my only protection
that I intentionally jammed into the whale and was flipped like a
peanut through his giant sperm whale tail. Half drowned and unsure
that I wanted to do this anymore I was rescued by the support boat.
One learnt rapidly that swimming alone was the only way to really
get close to the whales and time spent in the water was what counted.
A few years later re-breathers would emerge for the civilian market
– a diving set that recycled the air and produced no bubbles.
Underwater sledges with small silent electric motors and much smaller
cameras and housings became available and they would all transform
The first few days in Patagonia, the weather turned out to be remarkable
- the longest clear spell in known history – a bad omen for
global warming, but great for our film.
We were waiting for Roger, the film’s producer Robin Brown and
our pilot Bill to arrive from the US. But unsure we would get a chance
as good as this, I hired a Cessna 172 and local crop spraying pilot
Ruben Gonzales to shoot aerials of the whales mating. Our Ultralight
was still docked in customs and we had no idea when it would be released.
Ruben and I, stripped out the right co-pilots seat and removed the
door of the little Cessna, giving me just enough space to get a reasonable
side angle of view. With a couple of bungy straps attached to the
ceiling to brace against, I sat with my legs out of the aircraft and
tried my best to stabilise the images using my body’s natural
gyros. The human muscular-skeletal structure is like a natural Steadicam,
each muscle countered by another and by relaxing you can actually
gyro stabilise using the human body quite successfully.
Taking off from the farmers dirt strip we climbed out and circled
down to about 300ft above the mating whales. We must have disturbed
their ecstasy, as they frequently withdrew and slapped their tails,
the noise of the plane and its shadow distracting their pleasure.
Ruben was a great pilot – cautious, careful and yet he flew
only a few knots above the stall speed with precision. Circling in
a small plane rapidly makes you feel disorientated and you lose perspective
of up and down. To fly orbits, you have to use your attitude indicator
and keep your angle of bank very constant. Not a great set of parameters
when you are only 300ft above the water. Every year Ruben had flown
a survey of these whales, photographing and documenting the largest
single study to date.
I managed to get a few good shots, although they lacked the intimacy
that Roger and I had discussed and would need stabilising later in
post-production. The Cessna wing strut was in the way and in retrospect
the best thing I could have done was incorporate and shoot the architecture
of the wing in the shot, that would have helped stabilise the image
and create a reference. We could easily have adapted the story, but
hindsight is a virtue. It is a trick I have used many times since
and it has always worked.
Running low of fuel, we headed into land towards a rusting windmill,
lazily turning in the evening sunlight. It was the only landmark for
miles and marked the approach to the airstrip. Whilst we were filled
up the plane, Ruben told me of his life as a crop spraying pilot and
how he was now fighting cancer. He was sure he had contracted it from
the insecticides he had spent his life depositing on Estancia owners’
crops. In remission, it struck him as incongruous that his job involved
spraying chemicals (that give people cancer), on food that many of
those same people would later eat. He was worried about his young
son and wife.
It transpired that he had been flying one day south towards Puerto
Deseado in the far south to dust a large property. A storm had swept
in with furious speed. Even a strong crop spraying plane like a Cessna
AG Wagon could be torn apart and break up in such winds.
With dwindling landing choices, he spotted a large Hacienda, and estimated
the driveway up to the house was ‘as good as damit’ what
he needed to land. Wind shear and a 30kt cross wind did not help his
cause as he came in on finals, and the power of the wind kept him
airborne longer than he had hoped for. He pulled up just a few meters
short of the front door of the property, having wrecked the front
flower beds and cavorted through three hedges en route. He was met
by a furious Estancia owner and a beautiful daughter.
He told me how they spent a (formal) week – holed up by the
weather, and the need for a spare part for the aircraft. The Estancia
owner protecting the dignity of his daughter had followed them everywhere.
Only once did they managed to briefly escape and rode out into the
pampas of this large property. It was not until the day of departure
that he risked kissing her goodbye. Did it last longer than it should?
Was there something else to this lingering embrace?
climbed into the plane, started up and it was not until I had taxied
out, forgetting about all my pre-flight checks, forgetting about the
flaps and forgetting about flying that I realised that I was in love.
I couldn’t go back and tell her. So, I had to take off “.
He did his work in Puerto Deseado, crop spraying and “I did
it so badly – I could not concentrate and nearly crashed twice
- fool that I am”.
“I returned without warning,
I had to find out” – landing again on the drive of the
Estancia this time without wrecking the rest of the garden.
“She must have heard me overhead and was there galloping along
the drive – crazy woman - as I landed ”.
A few months later they were married.
Cancer makes you worry most for those you might leave behind –
maybe why he told me - and I have often thought of Ruben and wondered
what happened to him.
Before we took off again to catch some more whales he said laughing:
“Tony, when you learn to fly (and I know you will soon),
• Make every landing a
STOL landing…. the day you need to land short or the engine
cuts out you will be ready.
• Flying may seem
like a romantic pursuit, and you may feel like a romantic pilot but
forget your passengers and fly by the numbers… even if you are
• And if you ruin someone’s garden…as
long as you don’t damage the plane, that is
a good landing – to which he roared with laughter.
I have always tried to adhere to these principals.
In these first weeks, we tried our best to get a sequence at golden
hour – the time after the sun has fallen below the horizon,
where there are a few precious minutes of soft light. It is created
when the sun reflects behind the horizon (once it has set) onto the
darkening sky, giving out a giant super soft bounce light. The quality
of this illuminance with its crimson red colours, is flattering and
The great Cuban cinematographer Nester Almendros ASC, AFC, was the
master of this. He had shot a whole movie – “Days of Heaven”
for Terrence Mallick almost exclusively at the ‘magic hour’
(and won an Oscar for it). Shooting less than a minute of screen time
a day, they would rehearse and set all day, planning the exact angle
of the light and then shoot the scene quickly in the half hour that
remained before dark. But as this was a documentary, we could not
corral wild whales, temper a sea or practise our shots.
Just before sunset, five of us set sail in a small Zodiac inflatable.
I would stand on the prow, supported by my assistant Steve who held
my legs and we would gently try and manoeuvre ourselves close to a
pod of whales. I handheld the camera as there was no other option
and we inched closer to the whales. Between my legs, Roger managed
to give a few pieces to camera, the rest of the crew huddled behind;
Mike the sound man with his distinctive 816-gun microphone, Robin
Brown the film’s producer at the rear and Willy manning the
oars and stern.
I still have images of us all cramped on this tiny craft, the Zodiac
straining under our weight and little over 30 centimetres above the
sea, but we managed to get right next to the whales, almost on the
water line, in that golden hour. Gradually as the light went, I would
pull off a film magazine, (the cassette that held the film) as silently
as possible and click in a new one and push the film a stop (process
it longer in the laboratory) to get more light. Remove the 85 filter
until we had no more options. Steve and I would then somehow take
the lens off and check the gate – a requisite after every important
image, to make sure that the film had not chaffed and left a minuscule
sliver or hair in the films gate.
We only had three calm days like this over a period of 4 weeks but
achieved what was an iconic sequence in the end. The whales were highly
sensitive – even to the low hum of the camera and any adverse
movement we made. I had worked together now with this same film crew
for the past 18 months. That shared experience had given us precision,
teamwork and mutual trust.
The Aaton cameras were the perfect instrument for this – designed
by a semi-tamed lunatic from Grenoble, Jean-Pierre Beuveula who washed
only occasionally, always wore a beret and revolutionised the documentary
camera. He understood how important the ergonomics of a handheld camera
were. Influenced by Goddard and Truffaut (and the rest of the French
New Wave who wanted to shoot small and fast), Jean-Pierre produced
a lightweight balanced camera that fitted your shoulder like a cat.
For your right hand, he chiselled a walnut hand grip that fitted around
your fingers and had a big lapel for your thumb to take the weight
and small on/off button. It allowed one to use that right hand for
pulling focus and freed up your left hand for the zoom and other functions.
Delicate and precise, my two Aaton cameras always travelled with me,
like a string player’s violin, on the many aeroplanes and endless
journeys between gigs. I still have one of the Patagonia cameras sitting
on my desk, now obsolete, as the modern digital cameras have taken
We have lost the importance of ergonomics in our cameras today –
the modern digital replacements are like Volvo estate cars from the
1970’s – concrete bricks with no aerodynamics or whatever
the equivalent is. Arri, Sony and Red have negated the style and beauty
of the film camera for no apparent reason.
The only downside of the Aaton was that it was not infinitely reliable.
Every night in Patagonia, Steve and I would break down and clean our
cameras and lenses. Caked in dust and sea breeze (that would rapidly
rust up and wreck our equipment), we fought a losing battle to keep
the motion picture equipment working. We would check the depth of
the claw regularly – the tiny pin that pulled down and stopped
the film 24 times per second and adjust it if it was too noisy (always
a balancing act between the films stability in the film gate and how
quiet the camera would become). We worked often into the early hours.
At the camp, Roger lived in a shack that had been the outside toilet.
He had requisitioned it and remodelled it with a single foam mattress
where the ‘throne’ had once stood, that allowed a view
through a small window and out to sea. Every morning on my dawn run,
I would find Roger manically cleaning the sand out of his hovel, muttering
to himself. By lunch time it was full of sand again. However much
one reasoned with him that this was illogical, and that the time might
be better spent sealing up the holes, Roger would persist - the actions
of a brilliant and highly reasoned scientific man.
But there was something wonderfully warm and compassionate about Roger.
His good humour and camaraderie were special qualities – eminent
and revered as he was, it was the common man who Roger could so easily
befriend. For the next two years, we would spend more time together
than with our families and he has remained a close friend for the
past thirty years.
At night, usually exhausted after a day outside at sea or in the wind-swept
Patagonian prairie, we would congregate in the main living room of
the whale ranch for evening drinks. Carlos would bring us Chilean
wine, smuggled in from a friend of his and we would eat a diet of
local steak from the Estancia, cooked in big fat chunks and with little
else apart from potatoes to supplement our diet. One evening, Willy
asked me if I would help him catch some fish in his broken English
– “Gallop Tony, we Gallop”. I had no idea what he
meant, and I could not imagine how we might catch enough fish to feed
12 people in an hour.
He had strapped a large outboard engine to his old skiff, and we were
clearly going on a trip. Willy got the outboard going, by sucking
gulps of petrol into his mouth and spitting them into the ancient
carburettor. The engine finally burst into life and we were off across
Without life jackets and only our wet suits, we would not have lasted
long if the boat had broken down or the weather changed. And so, we
picked our way between the young sub adult males cavorting in the
late evening light and followed the coastline around the bay. Guanacos
(a form of llama) were silhouetted against the sky on the cliff ridge,
eating the meagre vegetation in this barren place. Petrels and shearwaters
hovered overhead, gently landing on the whales to pick at the barnacles
and clean their skin.
At the far end of the bay we dropped the anchor and free dived down.
Hidden in the sea grass that adorned the sandy bed, were scallops
(or gallops) in their white porcelain shells. Within 20 minutes we
had filled up two large canvas bags.
That night Carlos cooked them on a barbecue with lemon, garlic and
ginger. We washed it down with many bottles of chardonnay and two
chapters from ‘Moby Dick’, drunkenly embellished with
poetic license by Roger, to scare the hell out of us and induce bad
Our days were filled, alternating filming whale behaviour and Roger.
On days when the wind blew, the sea would transform into a rough squally
and often violent foe. On days like this, we would have to retreat
into the camp or build wind breakers for the camera. But it was wild
days like these, where the whales (seemingly ennobled by the tempest)
would stretch their muscles to perform huge breaches - rising out
of the ocean like a NASA lunar launch and then crash down in an explosion
of surf and spray. The veranda of the whale ranch was the best place
to film from, using a wind shield built from two old camp beds. I
supported a 600mm lens off the camera and built a gun sight from some
large paperclips on the top of the camera, as finding a whale very
quickly (as it started its cycle of usually 3-4 breaches) was the
hard part. Occasionally you were lucky and rolling precious film,
a whale would rise out of the water to nearly the height of Nelsons
Column in Trafalgar Square, before crashing down and displacing thousands
of litres of water. Using the trajectory, you then had to estimate
where next it might surface for the following breach in the cycle.
I always used the Arri SR 2 high speed camera at 150 frames per second
for this. Noise was not an issue here and it gave you a slow-motion
rate equivalent to 2.5 x of normal. Today with digital cameras, we
can easily shoot up to 250 frames per second and the slow-motion effect
is that much more powerful.
The 600mm lens, compressed the background heavily, knocking out the
focus beyond and in front of the whale and mixing the colours of aquamarine,
and late orange sun. These were very beautiful ‘stock’
shots but somehow lacked the awe and impact that we would later capture
close-up, with the Ultralight of the same behaviour. They reminded
me of Turner paintings – vivid, wild seascapes and shipwrecks.
In a way it was no surprise that man had feared whales for so many
years – their awesome power was so self-evident in these images.
Roger’s work on right whales had been gathered through painstaking
observation. De-mystifying and understanding whale behaviour had come
from the hard graft of watching and listening to whales in this place
for twenty years. One afternoon, we went up to a small cliff observatory
- an octagonal hut built on the edge of a sandstone outcrop that allowed
you a bird’s eye view of the whales mating below. Truly weathered
and shaped by the wind, this small ‘Tardis’ was where
Roger had learnt to understand and interpolate whale behaviour. He
gave a running commentary, as I tried to film him and Mike our sound
recordist fought for clean dialogue in the wind.
Becoming more enraptured and vociferous, Roger stared out through
a single binocular, like some latter-day pirate who had just spotted
a haul through his telescope at the whales mating below. “Did
you get that” he would shout out to me – “Tony did
you get that”, oblivious to the reality that I was filming him
and carried away by what he was witnessing.
He called it ‘positive altruistic behaviour’. Three, or
four males would try and make friends with the same female, all trying
to mate with her but only one would finally impregnate her –
and that would be the last one to deposit his sperm. The whales seemed
to know this and so they would seemingly manoeuvre around the female,
offering each other ‘first go’ – ‘after you
please sir’. Evolution has seemingly demanded that they have
the power to literally clean out the last sperm of their competition.
The right whales have enormous testes!
Such seemingly altruistic behaviour clearly had an evolutionary necessity,
but it also implied intelligence. These mass whale mating groups were
to me grotesque and unworldly. We imagine dinosaurs but we cannot
quit visualise them living today in our modern world. And yet whales
seem to inhabit that realm and conjure that image.
At night, we filmed a few sequences of Roger listening to the whales
– we tried to construct an evocative image that had a naturalism
and realism to it. On a documentary in the middle of a Patagonian
beach without a big lighting rig, we pushed the Kodak 7296 a stop
and used natural firelight, augmented with a propane gas torch that
was part of Carlos’s cooking paraphernalia and my single battery
operated Lowell rifa light that I bounced into a silver umbrella.
The difficulty with images like this and very limited lighting resources,
is creating depth. They end up feeling very flat, or they are over
lit and come across as constructed and artificial.
In the last two weeks of our time in Patagonia, the ultralight aircraft
we had prepped in Los Angeles (seemingly months before) was finally
cleared through Argentine customs. They decided it could not carry
bombs or machine guns, lost interest and cast us free without any
‘minders’ or oversight. We went north to Puerta Madrin
where there was a military base and re-assembled the ultralight there.
The licensed aircraft mechanic we had booked to do this, had long
since fled back to the USA, worn out and no doubt riddled, after so
many nights in the local “Three Amigos” bar and ‘special’
nightclub. And so, it was left to us to re-assemble the plane and
make it airworthy.
Bill Steadman had been chosen as our pilot - on the basis that he
was the best friend of our executive producer. Such things are frequently
the norm in the film industry unfortunately. He had flown as a commercial
pilot, some 10,000 hours for DHL and FedEx across the Atlantic, in
large jet airliners. But had no bush flying experience whatsoever,
beyond testing the Quicksilver ultralight out in the Mojave Desert
Bush flying is a skill, only acquired through practise and much experience.
Ruben was the perfect example of this. However good a pilot one is,
without having carefully explored the curve of flying close to the
stall speed (the speed at which the aircraft stops flying) and being
able to land STOL (short take-off and landing), one is not safe. It
is bush experience that counts and knowing one’s airplane intimately.
After assembling the ultralight, ourselves and checking it as best
we could, Bill and I took off from the military base for the whale
ranch. But to my surprise, instead of taxiing out to the mile-long
runway, Bill attempted to take off on the taxiway. It was clearly
what he had done on the test run without difficulty. But this time
with my extra weight, we needed a much longer ground run. Beyond the
point of no return we approached a line of concrete bollards and our
old F150 Ford truck parked behind them.
There would be two scenarios – the first involved hitting the
bollards and then the truck at 60 mph head on. The second involved
a close shave where we just missed them.
At the last possible moment, Bill tried to pull up into the air and
the front of the aircraft fairing (the fibreglass aircraft body) slammed
into the concrete bollards at 60 mph, but it propelled us up luckily.
The front main gear then struck the truck and broke off, but we continued
into the air.
The intercom line had been cut and we had no idea what the damage
was. Bill sensibly climbed up to a few thousand feet and then by shouting
at each other we decided I would try and hang out of the aircraft
and assess the damage. I could see the front main gear leg was broken
off and the faring of the aircraft that protected us was severely
I had no real ability to work out how bad the damage was or how it
might affect us aerodynamically. Surely, we should land immediately
I shouted back to Bill, but he reasoned in his usual laconic way that
we might be better to burn off most of our fuel before we attempted
And so we flew across the pampas, following a road map in the fading
light, winding our way back towards the whale ranch. I spent the next
two hours contemplating my life so far and fearing imminent death.
We crash landed on a salt plain near camp, a couple of hours later.
Bill managed to hold the nose off the ground long enough for our speed
to slow down and create a whale like splash of sand as we came to
an abrupt halt.
With no certified aircraft mechanic, it was down to Roger and I (as
the two most mechanically capable), to try and repair the aircraft.
I grew up repairing and building cars (tutored by my neuroscientist
father) and between us, we managed to work out a way that we could
make the ultralight airworthy again.
Roger braced the front main gear leg with wood that he promised was
the ‘strongest in Argentina, no South America’ and tied
it together with thin nylon cord that he obsessively wound round and
round the injured limb and then coated with epoxy glue. But it worked
and lasted us some 40 hours of flying.
We then removed the smashed-up fairing, that had offered me some shield
from the wind (and physical protection if you crash landed!). Now
we had a broomstick of a plane -literally two rudder pedals, a bucket
seat and an uninterrupted 180-degree angle of view forwards.
With hindsight and the knowledge, I have myself now as a pilot (with
many hours flying bush), I would never have gone up in this death
trap. Key was that in removing the aircrafts faring, we changed the
aerodynamics of how it flew. This increased the stall speed. Bill
seemed unaware of this (or that he was well over 100lbs overweight
on every flight) and looking back at some of his landings that I have
on film (as I write this), he continually stalls the aircraft on finals,
often dropping a wing before touching down. (In essence he approaches
the final stage of the landing with not enough speed and consequent
air across the wings and the aircraft stops flying. Most aircraft
have a loud horn that sounds when you reach that speed, but this one
With no fuel gauge and all the instruments stripped out as a result
of our crash, we flew as a witch might fly, with a spell that somehow
kept us alive. Fate had given us an immense perspective – and
we flew many hours dangerously low, insanely slow and far out to sea.
Some of the most iconic images of the whole film came from this death-trap.
The whales seemed to be unbothered by this dark bird that would swoop
down on them, many times the wingspan of an albatross.
When the sea was still relatively calm, but the wind was roaring in
from the west, the whales would stick their tails out of the water
- like a sail into the wind. Roger presumed that it was a pleasurable
sensation and that hanging upside down with your tail in the air might
be physiologically cathartic for their wellbeing. Whatever the reasons,
these austere Salvador Dali images were surreal. I frequently would
include the architecture of the fragile plane in the shot –
to give us a sense of perspective and I managed to shoot (as I had
hoped to) the images on a relatively wide lens. Like Jacques Cousteau,
(or a sanitised, liability protected version) part of the flying adventure
made it into the film, but it excludes (most) of the crashes that
Roger had felt we needed a specific airstrip, despite Bill the pilot
making it clear we had no need and a mile of natural salt bed runway
in each direction that we had used for the past week. The afternoon
before the last fateful flight, he had very determinedly driven an
old Renault 12 up and down the airstrip, using it as a poor mans (French
made) steam roller until about midnight when he ran out of fuel. It
was as if he was working out some daemon with monastic absurdity.
Rough squally weather was perfect for breaching whales, but not so
good for flying. But we took off anyway from our fine new runway,
emboldened by what we had already shot from this plane (or witch’s
broom) and filmed late into the evening. We filmed some amazing images
of whales rising up from the sea and crashing down into the surf –
its power so strong that we would feel the salty spray in our small
We climbed up to 6000ft to try and get a wide shot that might contextualise
the camp and peninsula. But as we rose, the temperature rose as well
(always an ominous sign) the sun dipping low before sunset and obscuring
our view of an incoming squall. We had all been warned about the Patagonian
storms and witnessed their ferocity a few times already. Within minutes,
the sky turned a cold steel grey and we could see the eye of the tempest
moving towards us. Bill turned towards earth, but there was only so
much altitude you could lose a minute without going too fast and beyond
the capabilities of the airframe. Fear surged through my body - it
was raining hard - the first maturing stage of a thunderstorm. I felt
like Icarus who had flown too high and taken far too many risks.
Storms rip little planes like us apart in seconds and by the time
we reached the runway, we were in deep trouble. Bill could not hold
the aircraft steady at all, and we swung like a pendulum being flipped
from side to side. Strung up on the front of this broomstick, I felt
anger towards Bill for the first time. Yet again, I was awaiting my
fate due to pilot error.
He fought the aircraft all the way to the ground, and finally stalled
about 10 meters above the runway, where he lost all control. Luckily,
most of the impact was on the back wheels where the springy gear arms
cushioned the fall before collapsing. The front main gear broke and
we stuttered to a halt.
Bill was pulled out by Roger. He had damaged his back on impact and
compressed all his vertebrae and would take some months to fully recover.
Sheets of lighting chased all of us the across to our only shelter
– Rogers trusty Renault 12, still out of fuel from the night
before. To this day, I have never seen such a terrifying display of
electrical power, we sat in the car as it thundered around us transforming
our landing strip into a sea of mud, the sky lit up with green fizzing
We had the aircraft rebuilt in Los Angles and crashed it for the last
time into the sea in Alaska, filming whales a few months later. But
not before I had severed a finger and the tendons that attach it.
Bill was not so lucky and tragically was killed flying a similar aircraft
in Africa a year later.
Luckily such death traps have now been replaced by drones –
and gyro stabilised mounts that we use at height from helicopters
or certified aircraft.
It marked the end of the trip and gathering our many rolls of exposed
film stock we packed up our cases of equipment and started back on
the long trip to Buenos Aires. For the next two years, we would travel
the word filming whales - from New Zealand and Australia, to Alaska
to the North of Newfoundland, from the Azores and Bermuda to Southern
Ireland, Florida, the St Laurence and London. It was an unforgettable
The Discovery channel grew and evolved, as we filmed over the two
following years. In the end, they sadly diminished the political ambition
of the film, included a famous narrator and tried to homogenise the
content. As is so often the way, they underestimated the intelligence
of their audience and the film suffered for it.
the Company of Whales”, premiered to members of Congress at
the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC in 1992. The film went
on to win many awards and was nominated for two Primetime Emmy’s.
I learnt a huge amount from this project – about risk taking,
believing in a carefully conceived cinematic plan of action and sticking
to ones guns once in production. Much as I loved being in the wild
for two years of my life, I realised that it was the human encounters,
the complex personalities and the anthropology of whale culture that
intrigued me the most. Filming anthropology on the streets of London
or a tribe in the Amazon seemed more relevant to me personally.
Working with natural light and using the landscape as a character
have always been at the core of good cinematography for me. This project
let me observe and witness and learn from both.
And so, after the success of this film I turned down all the offers
that I had to film wildlife that followed and chose an active path
that would lead me to light fiction.
In the Company of Whales
90-minute TV documentary for The Discovery Channel (1992)
Budget: Around £1.2 million in 1992 (equivalent of about £3
Presented by Dr Roger Payne
Narrated by Jessica Tandy
Produced by Robin Brown
Executive Produced by Tim Cowling
Director of Photography – Tony Miller BSC
Assistant cameraman - Steve Standen
Sound Recordist - Mike Shoring
Music by – Stanislas Syrewicz
Editor – Mick Kaczorowski
Mark and Deborah Ferrari
on location in:
Australia, New Zealand, New York, Boston, California, Florida, Alaska,
the Bahamas, the Azores, St Laurent, Canada, Newfoundland, the North
Atlantic, Dingle, Southern Ireland, Patagonia, Argentina, Bermuda
Travelling with between 30-40 cases we paid around £8,000 in
excess baggage which is an incredible bargain. The power of the whale!
We lost about 6 cases including all my clothes and personal items
at one hotel where my room was cleaned out and I was left in swimming
trunks. Coming into Rio de Janeiro to change planes, we watched from
the tarmac as our sound recordists precious Nagra recorder was crushed
in its flight case by a plane tug, ¼ tape cascading out and
blowing in the wind.
Aatons XTR Super 16mm camera
Aaton LTR 54 Super 16mm Camera
Arri SR2 High Speed 16mm camera up to 150fps
Zeiss Mark 2 T2, zoom 10-100mm
Canon 8-64mm T2.4 zoom
Canon 300/600mm prime lens T2.8
Canon 150-600 stills zoom
Zeiss Distagon prime lens Mark 2, T1.3
Assorted filters including set of 85 filters, 81 A, B, C and EF, Polariser,
hard graduated filters.
The camera equipment worked perfectly for the duration of the shoot.
We regularly had it cleaned and serviced by Aaton in Grenoble, and
the lenses dismantled and re-greased to remove the sand and dirt.
The Canon 150-600 was such bad quality that we abandoned it after
the Patagonia shoot.
Today, one would use a lightweight Sony Venice, Red camera or much
delayed S35 Arri when it finally comes out. All can shoot high speed
up to twice the slowed down speed of high-speed film cameras and have
a pre-roll feature that captures up to 25 seconds prior to pressing
the ‘on’ button. This is a fantastic feature for wildlife
that has made a huge difference. Pre-roll can be used with all cameras
and even the phantom highspeed camera that runs up to 1000 frames
per second. Digital cameras allow one to shoot unlimited footage and
have revolutionised wildlife filmmaking as a result.
The ability to immediately look back on what you have shot with the
advent of digital cameras is of course a huge advantage. But it is
easy to lose the discipline that film instilled for the following
With film, through experience and discipline, one reliably knew what
you had shot and watching the rushes, usually many weeks later, was
mostly a positive surprise. Because the film stock was such an expensive
part of the filming process, one used it with care, and that instilled
discipline. It meant that one would search out the carefully conceived
best position to film from and try and pick the decisive moments to
roll on. On digital one has infinite options seemingly and sometimes
that homogenises things. It demands a personal appraisal of how your
self-discipline yourself and those who work with you. Some directors
and producers want to shoot and shoot – a scatter gun approach,
but it is exhausting and to me, undermines intent and careful conception.
Grip Equipment and camera support
Ronford F4 tripod and legs
Today I would use an O’Connor tripod head and light weight,
but immensely strong, carbon fibre legs. We shot much of ‘In
the Company of Whales’ handheld, in order to be able to shoot
close and wide. The nature of filming so consistently off small boats
meant that the ability to react quickly was frequently best achieved
handheld. It is a low-tech solution but uses the body’s natural
gyros/muscles to absorb and stabilise the camera. It lets you react
instantly. Frequently I would be attached to the prow of the boat
with a rope, allowing me to get more spring from my bent legs and
cushion the shots as we went up and down on the water.
Today there are an array of mechanically and computer driven gyro
stabilised heads. Using one of these on the end of a short jib arm
or crane arm like a GF16 or even a Jimmy Jib, allows the cameraman
to sit with a set of controls (wheels usually) and follow the whales
with perfectly stabilised images. Most of the large natural history
projects use these now, but they demand an extra person and do not
replace the vicarial rawness and immediacy of a handheld image.
Another solution is to stabilise the images after you have shot them.
There is a limit to how much you can do, and it means that you have
to crop into the image a bit. But any computer program from an Avid
to basic Mac software will do this in seconds.
Bespoke Super 16mm domed/flat glass underwater housing.
35mm underwater housing by Panavision
Spare Air cannister and regulator - a device that wold give one a
few breaths of compressed air, a life saver when one had free dived
too deep and could not reach the surface.
I mainly shot with the 16mm underwater housing as it was significantly
smaller and the 35mm version and much cheaper (a third of the price).
But for a few sequences including one in Florida, I rented in a 35mm
housing from Panavision in Miami. It was far superior in image quality.
Filming on digital has revolutionised underwater filming. One does
not have to change the film roll every ten minutes on Super 16mm or
every 4 minutes on 35mm, demanding a laborious surface run, dry off
and 15 minutes swap over. To be able to shoot for over an hour uninterrupted
has been revolutionary. Coupled to that, re-breathers, that started
appearing in the mid 1990’s on the civilian market, have allowed
the filming of whales without bubbles appearing close to them. By
re-generating the air with the use of nasty chemicals, re-breathers
are able to be a sealed system.
Doug Anderson and Doug Allen are probably the most well-known underwater
natural history cameramen. Doug Allen’s book “Freeze Frame”
is a great guide to the work and craft of the wildlife underwater
cameraperson. There are many qualities that make a good underwater
cameraperson, being able to free dive and being a very competent diver
are at the basis of this. I would add for filming whales, that a lack
of fear and ability to happily hover mid ocean amongst whales is a
All of us (including Dough Allen) have at some time been bashed by
a whale or gone too deep on a single breath of air and struggled to
hit the surface again. Dogged single-minded persistence is at the
core of this and all wildlife filming.
Filming wildlife High speed/slow motion
The Phantom high-speed camera now allows for frame rates up to 1000
frames per second. But filming whales I usually did not go much higher
than 100 fps or the action and consequently the shot would become
Filming animals such as big cats who naturally move faster, one might
have a base frame rate of about 30-35 fps to give a stronger imprint.
Frame rates can easily be adjusted in post-production – it is
much easier to retime slow motion shots than to make normal motion
Tyler middle mount for some helicopter work.
Quicksilver GT500 ultralight with Rotax 582 engine.
Eurocopter AS350 “Squirrel” helicopters
Drones and gyrostabilized heads have revolutionised aerial filming.
Previously one had to use a helicopter – very expensive to hire
by the hour, often without a film friendly pilot who understood that
he needed to fly the machine as if it was a limousine, to get the
smoothest shots. Helicopters were frequently not available or accessible
in so many remote locations.
Drones can be carried by the camera team and utilise an array of up
to 8 small helicopter rotors with a small gyrostabilized head and
stills camera or larger broken-down digital film camera. There imprint
filming something like whales is much diminished from the rotary wash
and noise of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and the loss of a
drone is a few thousand pounds. One can operate them off a Zodiac
boat or similar and thereby have great flexibility to get out to the
We still use helicopters and they have their distinctive place as
solid, very reliable and manoeuvrable craft. They are very safe. Often
there are air traffic flight restrictions on where drones can fly,
and consequently twin-engine helicopters are still widely used. With
the advent of stabilised heads one can operate helicopters from much
greater heights. The degree of stability is tempered very much by
the tracking of the rotary blades which have a large tolerance range
and the ability of the pilot. I have been caught out by both of these
factors. Film helicopter piloting is a skill, that like bush flying
As I write this, I remain in shock that I even survived our foolhardy
ultralight flying. On this film, we had four crashes, Roger Payne
was onboard in the final crash in Alaska that features in the film
and a few days before that my hand was crushed as we came in to moor
off the ultralight on floats, against a yacht. It pretty much severed
a finger and left me needing three operations to reattach it and unsuccessfully
repair the tendons.
Bill Steadman was tragically killed in a similar aircraft a short
time after we finished filming, as were the two other pilots I worked
on following projects using similar ultralights. In all three of these
fatal cases there was a profound question of whether these aircraft
were suitable for the environments they were being operated in?
Film Stock – Kodak
7245 and 7296
There is something mercurial and alchemist about working with film
stock that comes in 400ft (and 1000ft) rolls, tightly wound, is exposed
so carefully and then sent off to a laboratory around the world, often
weeks or months later to be processed. Then as negative film, it has
to be transferred on a telecine or scanned for us to view it. But
within that, wonderful things happen.
Kodak 7245 was a 50 ASA daylight balanced film stock, used massively
by the wildlife film industry for its inherent contrast, more saturated
colours and fine grain. It coped (and in my opinion still copes better)
with the highlight part of the images curve, where the light is so
bright that it rolls off into a solid white and no detail can be seen.
Shooting exterior, one is so frequently dealing with this and the
subtle ‘roll off’ is less harsh than its digital counterpart.
Painters and the human eye both compensate, but the photographic process
usually cannot and so what area of the image that one expose for,
be it the dark area or the bright area is critical.
As I write this in 2020, there has been a resurgence of film throughout
the world – not for wildlife filming but for feature films and
some TV projects.
The Kodak 7296 stock, rated at 500 ASA, tungsten balanced was my late
evening stock and the one I used for interiors and night sequences.
I rated it at 400 ASA to try and limit the grain structure being overtly
visible and make it match the other fine grained 7245 films stock
with greater ease.
Frequently I would push process this stock, a system by which the
films sensitivity would be increased by one stop to 800 ASA or two
stops to 1600 ASA. This would mean that I would need less illumination
and could shoot with darker light – usually later into the post
sunset ‘magic hour’. Often, I would pull the 85 filter
that daylight balanced the tungsten film to gain a further 2/3 of
Each roll that was push processed was carefully marked up and then
when processed would be given additional time in the negative film
bath. The effect of gaining valuable sensitivity, came at a cost.
The grain would increase, and the saturation of the image’s
colours would be reduced, creating a more pastel effect. Some of this
could be countered when the film was finally graded and balanced in
the telecine or digital scan at the end of the project in post-production.
Laboratories – Technicolour
London, Rome, New York and Los Angeles
We used all of Technicolour’s labs including Rome briefly and
labbed the countless rolls of exposed negative wherever we could most
As discussed in the first chapter, the core basic look was to shoot
close and wide and try and get under the skin of the diametrically
opposite environment we inhabit and other worldly strangeness of whales.
As with all projects – drama and documentary, one starts with
intent and then the realities of achieving the project and shooting
it on a daily basis takes over. Somehow one hopes that part of that
original intent is carried over. Documentaries at this time, where
very much conceived as films, and the integration of ‘a look’
was far more conceived than it appears to be now. A film like this
would most probably inhabit the feature documentary, cinema environment
or streaming platform as a flagship project.
Much was driven by what was possible and not being too precious about
the quality or stability of the acquisition. This paid off in my opinion
for it is some of the raw and grabbed images and sequences that are
at the core of this film and underscore its thematic content and narrative
a good wildlife Cinematographer?
Wildlife cinematographers are a rare breed – distinct form other
cinematographers although the use many of the same tools, and creative
methods to make images.
They work predominantly alone. Consequently, one has to be able to
operate and focus pull at the same time, and also grip and gaffer.
Being technically competent is a prerequisite and being organised
to be able to rapidly respond to shots that cannot be repeated.
Strength is not a pre-requisite and men and woman are equally suited
as long as you have the passion, are self-sufficient and drive for
this niche pursuit. Working alone without a director is the norm and
so understanding what makes a sequence is essential. Understanding
how the sequence will cut and be workable is at the core of filming
action when it is underway.
Field craft and a passion for the natural world are basic necessities
and a profound understanding of species, environment and local knowledge
is part of the research for any project.
Temperament is critical as are optimism, patience and a healthy dose
of tenacity. One can be away from home for months, in deeply uncomfortable
circumstances and it demands even- keeled, team players. All are physically
fit – days are very long – running often from before dawn
to well after dusk once the gear has been sorted out. Wildlife camera
people will often work 20-30 days in a row without a day off.
Off-road driving experience is taken for granted as is the ability
to cope with harsh terrain, camp for long periods and live with very
few home comforts.
It is useful to have a drone license (a requirement to legally fly
drones for aerial filming) knowledge of stabilised heads and gimbals
and to be a specialist in at least one area – macro, underwater,
time-lapse, extreme long lens, infrared night etc.
Reputation and the ability to deliver are pre-requisites. Female wildlife
camerawoman are on the increase and two of the very best wildlife
cinematographers worldwide are Sophie Darlington and Justin Evans,
both in their 50’s now and veterans in this field.
by Tony Miller