Tony Miller BSC  
O-1 US Work Visa + Union, Fluent in French + Dutch


“In 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 whales.

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 and wide.

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 animals?.

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”.

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 life experience.

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 truck.

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 18-wheeler truck.

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 worldly.

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 underwater filming.


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?

“I 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), remember”:

 • 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 in love.
 • 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 beautiful.

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 over.

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 the bay.

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 dreams.

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 with me.

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 damaged.

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 Terra Firma.

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 didn’t).

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 we had.

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 craft.

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 bolts.

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 odyssey.

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.

“In 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 million today).

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

Additional camerawork
Chuck Nicklin
Al Giddings
Mark and Deborah Ferrari

Shot 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 and Hawaii.

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.

Main Camera Equipment
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 reasons.

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 distinct necessity.

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 too long.

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 look slower.

Aerial Equipment
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 whales.

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 demands experience.

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 a stop.

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 easily.

The Look
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 the best.

What makes 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