#Freeflyers Interview no. 01: Mark MacEwen
We caught up with wildlife cameraman and DP Mark MacEwen over the holidays. Mark is among the many talented people behind BBC’s Planet Earth II, which aired late last year in the UK, and will appear on BBC America starting February 18th, 2017.
In our interview, Mark talks about how he started and came up in his career, family life, the challenges inherent in wildlife camera work, and what it’s like to be charged by a lion.
Freefly: How are you today?
Mark: Yeah, pretty good. Pretty good. It’s been pretty manic, isn’t it? With Christmas, everyone’s running around.
Freefly: Do things ever slow down for you around the holidays?
Mark: Actually, for the first time I’ve taken some time off now. I’ve been away solidly for the last three years pretty much, so I’m taking about six weeks off. And then I’m away pretty much solidly away again until May next year, with the odd day back home here.
Freefly: So you’re just going nonstop all the time?
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah. In January, I go to Senegal for a month to film Chimpanzees, which is actually a shoot with the MōVI, and then I’m home for two days, then I go to the Yukon to film lynx for a month, home for two days, back to Senegal, home for three or four days and then off to India to do tigers.
Freefly: Very nice. How did you get into wildlife and nature camera work?
Mark: I knew I wanted to do this when I was a kid. My father is also a wildlife cameraman.
He and my mother tried their best to persuade me not to go down this avenue, actually because they know it’s incredibly competitive. It’s very hard to get into, and you’re away a lot. It’s hard on relationships. Like, for maybe the last three years, I’ve been away like 280 days a year. I’ve got a wife and two young kids. A six- and a four-year-old. It’s pretty intense.
Mark: I used to write to cameramen. I’d look at credits on TV programs when I was 14 or 15 and said, “let me carry your bags.” Sooner or later, one or two would relent and I’d go off and carry their bags for free. And then I did a biology degree. While that was going on, I was writing to different people at the BBC. I was also writing to an American lady called Carol Foster who’s based in Belize. Her husband, Richard Foster, used to work for National Geographic. They were looking for a couple of young people to give a break to, to film a five part series. So when I was like 21 or so, I flew down there.
They kind of put you on a probation period for a month or so to see if you were any good. They would tell you to go and film something, give you keys and a camera kit, and say, “off you go.” You would come home, and they would go through your roughs and tear them to shreds. You learned pretty quickly what to do; you either sunk or swam. They were amazing. They taught me a lot.
I ended up staying for nearly a year out there. Then when that was coming to an end, I started writing more to the BBC and various other cameramen. I got a job as a researcher and camera assistant. And I needed a biology degree to have an understanding of animal behavior. That’s why I went down that route. I think by then I’d even done an internship at National Geographic in D.C. as a junior researcher for four or six months, something like that.
Freefly: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I imagine there’s no such thing as a typical day? Do you have a ritual or routine that you try to stick to?
Mark: Only in terms of certain bits of kit. I always have a go bag with my tools and things. But not really. Other than early morning coffee, which is basically essential, because the hours for wildlife are ridiculously early until rather late. I have an hour at the end of the day, just to sort your kit out and to try and work out what still works and what’s broken. But I don’t think I get the luxury of having a certain ritual, if I’m honest.
Freefly: I imagine your experience in working with wild animals is the reason you keep coming back to it? You keep getting this kind of work because I assume you’re comfortable with it and you’re familiar with it?
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah, I studied biology when I was younger. I always knew I wanted to be a wildlife cameraman or DP, so I studied biology. I was always interested in it. I was always out in nature or following animals or taking stills of things. And then the more you do it, the more experience you get. You start to learn about animal behavior. My interest for many years has been in movement, really. So I started doing Steadicam, and then obviously the MōVI came out, and that kind of completely transformed what we can do with filming these days, particularly for wildlife. It’s really allowed us to interact with the environment in a different way—a much more effective and efficient way. So it’s been pretty exciting for us.
Freefly: How close to these animals are you getting? How risky a situation do you find yourself in?
Mark: I mean, it depends. Something like a komodo dragon; you’re very, very close. You’re a foot away from them, and I mean, they’re dangerous animals. They can run as fast as I can!
They lull you into a false sense of security because they look as though as they’re doing nothing. They go incredibly slowly and then instantly they’re so explosive. They’ve got teeth like steak knives and their skins are armor-plated. They’re incredibly impressive, actually, and they’re ten feet long! You do get in slightly risky situations, but it’s all calculated risks. There are always guys there to try and help me out and keep an eye on them. To pull me out of the way if I get too focused on it.
You know what it’s like when you’re filming. You’re so detached sometimes, looking in that viewfinder or the monitor, that you don’t quite have time to look up and see what’s about to happen.
Freefly: Sure. You’ve got a sort of tunnel vision on the frame, I suppose.
Mark: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean if you do lions, we’ll often have lions coming straight up to the side of the car. In years past, I’ve had lions charge me on foot and thought “that’s it.” That’s enough to get the pulse going quite heavily, to say the least. I’ve had grizzlies charging, and sort of stop within a couple of feet of us. You know, when they put their heads down and start bobbing, and I’m thinking “it’s all over,” I have my hand on a flare and someone else with me, and then it stops and moves on. I’ve been charged by elephants many times and been saved in jungles. I did this amazing job in the Congo a few years ago. I was filming chimpanzees, and you spend a lot of time in this very thick jungle. You don’t see elephants until they’re literally six or seven feet away from you.
The jungles are incredibly thick, they’re incredibly quiet, and forest elephants are incredibly aggressive. You would look up and suddenly have a bull elephant on top of you, and they don’t mess around. They’re going to charge you and try and kill you. We would get charged quite frequently. I’m 6’3″; I get caught on vines, and if I’ve got a camera backpack on, I get slowed up on everything. I would have several Bayaka pygmy guides and experts with me. One of them would grab me and drag me. And all the while, two other guys would run towards the elephant and distract it. It’s just incredible. Sometimes it would work like that and sometimes we would all just run for our lives.
Mark: But, yeah, many, many situations like that, actually. That is part of what I love about the job, really. It keeps you alive.
Freefly: How does your wife handle the whole thing?
Mark: A few years ago, when I got charged by a lion on foot, the adrenaline was high and I was quite excited about it. I made the mistake of telling her what happened via text. It didn’t go down very well, if I’m perfectly honest. She was very angry with me.
Freefly: Probably a good rule for anyone: don’t text when you just almost got eaten by a lion.
Mark: Yes, absolutely. Maybe let it come out over a quiet conversation over dinner. Maybe a year or two later. And don’t tell your wife what you tell your friends, because it’s not as cool to her.
Freefly: She wasn’t as impressed?
Mark: No, absolutely not. But I’m very lucky to have met the lady I did, Ella, because she’s been amazing and she’s never stopped me pursuing this. She’s always supported me, which has been incredible. But I don’t think there are many people who would necessarily cope with this sort of lifestyle. You know, the phone might ring, and I might be going in two days for three weeks, or a month or more. So it’s a hard life for some people to get into.
Freefly: And with kids! Do they have an interest in your work?
Mark: Oh, god, yes. Yeah, I mean, they’re in school at the moment. I actually had to go and do a school talk about two weeks ago to my daughter’s school, all about komodo dragons. Everyone’s obsessed with the dragon if you’re six years old.
Mark: Dragons, dinosaurs, it’s all about that. They’re absolutely obsessed with it. My four-year-old boy goes around telling everybody what I’m filming, one month to the next. And I tend to bring them stills, or if I know I’m going somewhere, and I’m at home for a few days, I show them what I’m going to do. We’ll talk about it, and then we look at some videos of what it is so then they can tell everybody what I’m doing. It gives me that connection.
Freefly: Yeah, that’s cool.
Mark: I’ll try and send them some sort of picture postcards or something of where I am and what I’m doing. You know, just to keep the whole thing connected. Because it’s difficult. You miss a lot of your children growing up. To have that connection is important to me.
Freefly: Yeah, well, that’s probably better than, if you’re, say, an accountant, and you’re trying to connect with your kids over your work.
Mark: Well said! That must be quite hard, yes.
Freefly: Tell me a little bit about your gear and what kinds of unique challenges you face with the specific kind of work.
Mark: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, I think we probably take the cameras and the kit to more harsh terrain than most people would. I might be filming on a coral island for a month, smashing it in the surf, to taking it straight up a mountain or straight into a desert or whatever it might be. And this would go on and on and on all year.
I’ve taken RED Dragons to the Congo, and I’ve had them overheat. I remember one instance where it kept overheating and dying on me again and again, and I couldn’t understand what was going on. But then I worked it out. I stripped the RED Dragon to pieces, and I started taking the fan apart, things like that. I found sweat bees. Have you ever seen a sweat bee?
Freefly: No, I haven’t.
Mark: They’re one of the more unpleasant creatures. They’re these benign, stingless bees that you get in the Congo and lots of other jungles. But when they find you, they find you in the thousands. I’ve had moments where I can’t see the skin on my arms from just being covered with thousands and thousands of these tiny bees. They love your eyes, your ears, and your nose, and they get in them! So you get these moments when you’re working in a small team, where one of you will just stand up and bolt through the jungle, just because you can’t take anymore of this incessant buzzing. You’re just running for your life. Then you come back in a few minutes, just having sorted yourself out. But the RED Dragons obviously have the fan—they need to cool down—and this camera stopped working. I eventually worked out it was because it had sucked in probably about a thousand sweat bees. They had blocked the entire ventilation system. Trying to pour that lot out and trying not to give it back to the BBC in that condition was hideous.
We had another camera go down on Planet Earth for similar reasons. We were filming the Holi Festival in India, the one with the paint throwing. By that time we’d worked it out—and fortunately I was slightly familiar with that problem—you blow the duster through the camera and suddenly all the colors of the rainbow explode out the back end.
It’s just epic, but other than that, I mean, we have big overheating problems quite frequently. In 40 degrees (104 °F) and in bright sunshine, it’s pretty unforgiving. A lot of salt water and sea spray issues. I mean, I’ve sadly had my MōVI die several times, being caught in rainstorms in tropical jungles in Madagascar and places, so I’ve always traveled with two. I’ve got an M15 and an M10, and I always take the M10 as a backup. I’ve always traveled with two for that reason.
Freefly: Have you been in situations where something catastrophic happens to the gear and you have to cut your losses? How often does something like that happen?
Mark: We’ve never had to cut our losses. In the early days, when I only had the one MōVI with me, I’ve had one of those go down on the first day of the shoot, when you know something is going to look amazing. On Planet Earth II, for instance, one of the opening shots of the whole series is this Indri lemur, which is a large black and white lemur; it looks slightly like a nice teddy bear. It’s leaping through the jungle. We turned up, and you could tell instantly it was perfect. I could move with it, and it was going to be a stunning shot. Well, we got caught in a rainstorm in the very first hour on the first day. It took one drop off a leaf landing in the wrong part of the MōVI, and it blew the entire system. All because I hadn’t rain protected it enough.
I thought it was all finished. That put us back by four or five days, but because of the nature of what we do, we tend to generally carry two Reds with us. We’ve often got long-lens and MōVI setups, so there’s not much that can stop us. You can’t afford not to have backups in our sort of business.
Freefly: Are there any insights that might come only from your kind of work but that could maybe apply to any other types of camera work?
Mark: I bet a lot of the basics are very similar, like preparation and planning and all of that kind of stuff. It’s not something I’ve really thought about massively. The fundamentals of filming are all the same to a certain extent, except we’re much more solitary doing it than most people.
Mark: Our teams are much smaller, so you have to be much more prepared to deal with the elements, and the animals, and what the environment throws at you. You tend to have to be quite aware of where you are and the people you’re with because not all of the countries we go to and not all of the environments we go to are as safe as you’d like them to be. You get very good at reading situations quite quickly and adapting to them.
Freefly: Yeah, that flexibility I’m sure is a huge skill that could be used by anyone.
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah, reading situations and sort of reacting to them in the best way you can. Knowing the subtleties of human behavior as much as animal behavior is often quite useful. You might be filming in Sierra Leone one minute, or you might be filming in a jungle somewhere else. I’ve had friends who’ve been taken hostage over the years or had to flee countries quite quickly because bandits have found out they’re there and they’re coming for them. Those are fairly frequent events. You hear about those stories a lot. We’re going to quite extreme, remote places. There are often bandits there. I mean we’ve had bandits trying to stop us in various parts of the world.
Freefly: You often get word that they’re coming so you have to plan exit strategies. Sometimes it’s not worth staying to take the risk for an extra shot or something. You have to cut your losses in that situation.
What’s the most grueling shoot or experience you’ve had?
Mark: One of the ones I’m doing at the moment actually is probably one of the toughest. I’m filming a feature on chimpanzees for UK Telly. It’s a sort of big-budget series on several animals, and one of the programs is on chimpanzees. They are tough. I mean they are really tough because they can take you anywhere from 10 to 15 miles a day. You’re in 40 degrees (104 °F). The terrain is harsh, and it’s pretty physical. So there’s me, and there’s the local guide called Michel, who is an amazing guy. He carries my tripods, and I’m carrying a fully built RED Dragon, a 50-1000 lens, all my water, and that’s it for the day. You’ve got 30 to 35 kilos (65-75 lbs) for the day, and you are just pounding after these chimps all day long. And the days are super long. You’re up at 3:30 and you’re home at 8:00. It’s like that for a month to six weeks.
I actually did a shoot for this last year where we just did MōVI every day. We could only do half-days because using the MōVI is pretty physical. Trying to follow chimps and then respond to them MōVIng, having things are ready to go, we ended up picking half-days. It went very well, actually. We got some pretty incredible shots. I’ve never seen chimps filmed like that before, so everyone’s pretty excited about it. When I go back there this January, I’ll do another MōVI shoot with them. I’m looking forward to it and also slightly dreading it. After Christmas, that’s going to be harsh.
Freefly: Can you give me any specific examples of how the MōVI changed the game for you over previous methods or with previous gear?
Mark: Well, I guess a classic would be for Planet Earth II, which I think goes out to you guys on the 18th of February on BBC America. In the first program, Islands, one of the sequences I filmed was of Komodo Dragons Fighting. Wildlife has always been quite traditionally long-lens and quite observational. What the MōVIs allowed us to do is to actually take the viewer on a journey with the animal. We can follow them, and we can be in that environment, and we can immerse people by being over its shoulder or following alongside or tracking. We’re building up these characters with these small rotates underneath them, and you suddenly feel the power of the animal much more closely.
Mark: It completely transforms the way I feel I can show people these creatures. You go to a jungle for instance. Suddenly, you’re MōVIng through a jungle. It’s now a much more immersive experience. Even when you’re looking at small details, just revolving around things. Shallow depth of field, little rotates, you know, just bringing these tiny details to life in a way that we weren’t able to do before.
Freefly: I was watching one of your clips that you have up on your site, the one with the New Zealand Snares penguins.
Mark: Oh, yeah.
Freefly: Is that shot on the MōVI?
Mark: It is, yeah!
Freefly: I was just fascinated with that. You’ve got multiple cuts, and you’re going from close-ups and over-the-shoulder. It’s almost like the penguins are all actors, like you’re saying, “okay, let’s get that shot of you coming up over this little crest on the hill.” How much planning goes into a shoot like that? What’s the creative process working with the other people on the program?
Mark: The producers, researchers, everyone has a huge amount of input going into it. All the research ahead of time is huge. We’re there at the right time of year. We’re there with the best scientists in the world. We’ve got all this advice and this help. There will be a shotlist of sorts, but the problem with wildlife is that 90% of the time, you get there and it’s never quite the same as you expect it to be.
All the animals are doing something very different. You build your story while you’re there from scratch, with the basic framework that you had in the background in your mind. I mean, take the Snares Island penguins. I’d never been there before. When we got there, me and the producer observed it for a day or so. We worked together to find the best way of using the MōVI technology to tell the story, just building shots and building the sequence and exploring the possibilities.
Most people I show this kit to get it instantly. It’s something people understand as soon as they see it. And then it inspires them, and then you’re just firing ideas off to each other about how to tell this story. It’s magic! And that’s kind of what we did with Snares: it works best when we are both bouncing ideas off each other.
Mark: Telling stories and such, some of it you can plan very well, depending on the type of sequence you’re going to film. A lot of it you’re building as a DP in the field, just directing yourself, because no one can see through a wildlife viewfinder except you.
If you’re using a long lens, no one’s really sure what you’re doing. They might see the rushes at the end and say, “could you get a bit more of this? That might be useful, or this might.” But when the action is happening, you’re just covering the story in your mind and building it yourself.
Freefly: Very cool.
Mark: But I mean it’s a big team effort, the whole game.
Freefly: Can you go into that ‘team effort’ aspect a bit more?
Mark: So I mean the way it tends to work, you have a producer in charge of the program, and they then have researchers. The producer and researchers will find the range of stories, and then the producer will choose which ones he wants in his program. Sometimes the cameraman will come and suggest sequences and program ideas too, which I’ve done in the past. And they will contact all of the individuals involved. You often get called up and brought in. You’ll have multiple meetings where you discuss the style that you think you want to do, the equipment that you’d use to tell various parts of the story and why. And it goes from there, really. But then it’s quite an organic process once you get out there because animals never behave the way you expect them to. The best plans are often completely destroyed the moment you touch down.
Mark: We do have a lot of meetings and we talk about the project a lot, about the idea of the sequence. And the producer might have five other cameramen going out to film other sequences at the same time, especially on some of these big series like Planet Earth II. So I’ll go away with a researcher generally, and yeah, it’s a big team effort from that point on.
Freefly: How often are you working with other cameramen, or is it pretty much just you and a producer?
Mark: Once in a while. Maybe twice this year have I worked with another cameraman alongside me. Not necessarily shooting the same sequence, but being in the same location together. It’s usually quite solitary, actually. Me and a producer or me and a researcher. Largely because we go away for long periods of time. Covering animal behavior takes such long, intense periods, and it’s just not cost-effective for our sorts of productions.
It’s all about the behavior. If you cover the behavior then you can then build the story around a certain moment. With that amount of time you hopefully nail it properly.
Freefly: You said that your dad is a cameraman?
Freefly: I imagine from when you were a kid and your dad was doing this until now, you have seen a lot of changes in technology?
Mark: Yeah. Obviously the invention of all the cameras now; the digital age has transformed things. I started in film, on aero-flexes primarily. You have these amazing, heavy cameras that would not stop, and you could drive over them, you could get them wet. They were never going to break. But you were restricted in terms of your frame rates, your 10-minute rolls, and you couldn’t take risks on certain shots. You didn’t have things like pre-roll and these amazing advantages we have now. Now we’ve got things like REDs or ARRIs, which have these amazing frame rates. I can do time-lapse, or I can do high-speed, or I can do sync, all in the flick of a button, really. I’ve got things like Phantom 4K Flexes, which are just mind blowing cameras to use. One thousand frames a second. That was a pipe dream when I started out. You couldn’t go past 500 and have any sort of real control or ability to film it. You required so much light, and everything’s so much more sensitive now, and that’s just the camera world.
The moving technology world, with Cineflex and MōVI, and time-lapse has just transformed. There’s been so much. I mean, part of the problem is trying to keep on top of it because so much comes out all the time. It’s hard to keep up to date with everything. You look at the world of drones and things now. Everything changes every year. It’s tough.
Freefly: Yeah. How do you keep up with all the changes in technology and gear to the level that you do?
Mark: It’s always been something I’ve been interested in, so if I have any time to myself, I’m either researching, seeing what’s out there. That or getting training. I’ve been trained on the Cineflex this year, and then I’ve also sort of qualified to do drone stuff, so I’m always doing something to keep on the edge. I suppose you just have to immerse yourself in this stuff. It helps that I’m interested in it anyway. I love technology and the new tools used to tell new stories. The beauty of it is that lots of this stuff’s been filmed in conventional ways, many, many times. What gets me now is the ability to try and take your audience on a journey with the animals rather than it being an observational program, and that’s really only in the last year or two, since things like the MōVI have come out. It suddenly feels like a different style and a different program, and like you said, it feels much more like a drama all of the sudden.
Freefly: What’s your favorite aspect of your work?
Mark: I think one of the things about the job for me is probably that I don’t have to grow up, really. I kind of live the boy’s adventure, you know, that you dreamt of as a kid. I get to go to places and see things that other people never have the chance to. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got. Because one of my main employers is the BBC, with shooting things like Planet Earth, scientists end up interested in working with you often. We get access to go and film amazing things and see amazing wildlife and amazing places, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a dream come true. There’s no way I could afford to do this stuff. There’s no way I’d get access to do this stuff even if I could afford to, so that’s probably the biggest privilege of the whole thing.
Freefly: What advice would you have for young cameramen that are coming up?
Mark: For anyone trying to get into this sort of industry, the world has changed a bit. You now have access to and the ability to make small films of your own. A lot of people are doing that. Having a background in stills; with digital you have the ability to learn very quickly from your mistakes and what’s good and what’s not. But also persistence. I mean, you have to be so persistent. There are a lot of people who want to do this for a living, and there’s not a huge amount of work in the world for it, so it has to be your drive, your passion. It’s going to take a long time to get there, and you have to really just push and push and push. All without being pushy, which is the other problem.
Mark: Yeah, you know, persistence and get out there. Show people what you can do. You have that chance now. I think that’s one of the beauties, isn’t it? We can all film something now. There’s an iPhone or stills camera or anything. If you can show that passion then people will take you seriously.
Freefly: Okay, well, this is my last question for you: how do you take your coffee?
Mark: Just as strong as I can get it. Like an adrenaline shot to the heart.
Freefly: Ha! Well, alright! That does it for me!
Mark: Well, that’s great. Thanks for your time, mate.
Freefly: No, no, thank you! This has been fascinating, and I really appreciate it!